I have always looked back longingly at the slow and methodical pace of life before the 20th century; when letters took months to reach their destinations and riding a train at 40 mph was the fastest one could travel. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am ever so grateful for e-mail, the internet, and my mini-van. I love that I can connect with people around the world in real time, the wealth of information available to me at my fingertips is invaluable, and the way I complain about the uncomfortable seats in my mini-van makes me think I would be poor company on a wagon train. Still, the rapid pace at which life moves from day leaves me with a rather blurred perspective. I have to check my cell phone to remember the day… and sometimes the year. I still haven’t memorized my daughters phone number (thanks to speed dial), and my handwriting is a direct reflection of the condition of my mind at any given moment…. who needs a machine to measure brain wave activity?
It is astounding what people were able to accomplish before the 20th century with so many obstacles and so few resources. We can hardly imagine making all our own clothes by hand let alone building “The Great Wall of China” one basketful of dirt at a time! The endurance, tenacity, and focus one needed to accomplish anything both inspires and embarrasses me. There seemed to be a deeper, more intimate knowledge of those things which were most important to daily life. Though books were hard to come by… or perhaps because books were hard to come by… there seemed to be a greater ability to read and understand complex subjects. Memorization was an important part of education, and it was not uncommon for people to memorize complete books of the Bible or other long passages of literature. Not having access to smartphones to look up information, they had to take the time to store important information in their brains. Today, I think we are prone to forget how much that fantastic God-given computer can do. Whether it was sewing, weaving, farming, or building, just about every job was done slowly and methodically by hand. I can’t help but think that the slower pace of life and the fewer distractions helped to develop a keener sense of concentration, and a higher quality of work… something we are sorely missing these days.
Sewing has been one of my favorite pastimes since I was very young. I used to enjoy watching my mom and grandmother at their sewing machines, magically turning those odd shaped pieces of fabric into shirts, dresses, and an occasional doll. As much as I longed to get my hands on one of those machines, however, I was told that it was important I learn how to sew by hand first. Personally, I think they were just trying to keep me from messing with their machines, but, between the two of them I was taught how to do all the basic stitches and found a great deal of pleasure piecing together small wardrobes for my dolls. It wasn’t until I was 13 that I finally got my hands on that coveted machine, and being able to whip out my creations at lightning speed was heaven itself. I truly believed that the days of hand sewing were behind me.
As the pace of my life picked up however, I would often find my mind reeling out of control as I tried to organize and accomplish all of my tasks, ideas, and plans throughout the day. I often refer to this maddening predicament as “sensory overload”, and I suspect that my ancestors would look at my troubles with a sense of wonder. “Shouldn’t all those time saving tools be making her life easier?” When I read descriptions of women bent over their needlework in historical literature, I know I am supposed to feel the heaviness of their burden… instead, I find myself longing to be in their place as I fondly remember those quiet hours I spent sewing all those doll clothes by hand. So, now that I have enjoyed all the bliss of my beloved sewing machine, I have found that one of my favorite ways to relax is to turn it off, find a quiet comfy chair, and sew some hems by hand. Who would have thought that this simple act that was probably such a burden to our ancestors could actually be what we need most to learn concentration, relaxation, and satisfaction.
Given the choice, I don’t know if I would ever want to travel back to those slower days before the 20th century. As fast paced as this world is, I have grown accustomed to my comforts and conveniences and I don’t think I would feel quite at home anywhere else. Still, it is nice to know that when I need a respite from the busyness of life, all I need to do is find myself a needle and thread and I can transport myself back… if only for a moment.