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By Michael McCormick

The Pattern Paradox

Photos below from Issue 03: Hawaii

As I admired the Hawaiian sunset from a fourth-floor balcony, I let out a deep sigh. I watched warm waves of golden rays reflecting off the shimmering sea and the furthest thing from my mind was the fact that only a simple slat railing stood between me and the ground below. When it did strike me, the realization was jarring enough that I turned my attention away from the sunset and to the thin metal bars against which I’d been leaning.

The fact that I hadn’t noticed the railing before leaning on it wasn’t surprising. Many guards, nets, bumpers, and barriers go virtually unnoticed by our conscious minds every single day. Our brains are constantly filtering the things we must know, like when we see something new or unexpected, from those things we recognize and can brush off as patterns, habits, routine, and commonplace. Balcony railings — as important as they are — generally fall into the latter category, and are rarely acknowledged unless it’s because they’re missing.

Therein lies the rub for quilters.

Because the part of our brains that takes a physical barrier for granted while watching a sunset is the same part that overlooks the mental walls and crutches we lean upon to make our daily creative decisions. And for anyone who creates — be it making art, writing novels, developing products, or sewing a quilt — ignoring your walls can lead to ruts. Blocks. Boredom. Or worse, burnout.

For quilters whose lifelong journey includes pushing past personal limits, such ruts can be troubling. We work hard to develop our technical abilities, our creativity, and our capacity to love and give with each quilt. Yet our potential to advance is often hindered by the unacknowledged patterns of our own thinking. Our belief in our abilities and our limitations stems largely from how things have been and not from what they could be. While our tendency to trust and adhere to patterns may often simplify life, it can also be an effective recipe for ruts — one our subconscious whips up daily.

Writer Samuel Johnson put it this way: “The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken” —a rather fatalistic view of our difficulty to recognize ingrained thoughts and behavior. Author Agatha Christie added: “Curious things, habits. People themselves never knew they had them.”

But does it have to be that way?

My antidote to the inevitable creative doldrums is to double down and focus on discovery. By definition, to discover something means to “make it known or visible.” To acknowledge it. To see it for the first time. Like my noticing the railing on the balcony, discovery does not require that things be new, only that they be new to us. Finally seen. Finally considered.

The ability to do this regularly is why we call our most creative minds “visionaries” — not because they see things we cannot, but because they see the things we have not. At least not yet. By becoming habitually wary of walls, these visionaries are able to recognize where our collective proclivity toward patterns has created opportunities to do something new and counter to the status quo.

The French novelist Marcel Proust said: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” This is perhaps the most perfect explanation for why Quiltfolk is such a powerful tool of discovery for me, as it is for our readers: Spurred on by our quilt-fueled adventure across America, we discover the unexplored and expansive world which exists within ourselves.

As quilters, we face an opportunity every time we sit down to sew. We can make the quilt our subconscious mind has already planned for us, based on all those we’ve made before. Or we can discover the quilt we could make and the kind of quilter we could become by exploring, by branching out, by pushing past our barriers.

Not every personal discovery will rock our world or change the way we create. But by simply asking more questions more often, we pave the way for an ongoing awareness of our walls. And that is the first step toward breaking them down.

Until next time, 

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