Improvisational Session at Emory University


Creativity and Arts Series, directed by Rosemary Magee, Vice President and Secretary of the University

Friday, January 23, 2009.  10:30-3:30

13 partipicants: faculty and administration of Emory University.

Topics suggested: glasses, threads, laundry, pocket change, errors and creativity, ball etc. Chosen: threads.

           Duration of writing: 1 h. 10 m. Duration of session: 5 hours





Kevin Corrigan (ILA)


Hal Jacobs (College)


Anna Leo (Dance)


Julie Seaman (Law)


Bobbi Patterson (College)


Vicky Hertzberg (SPH)


Randy Fullerton


Olivia Smith


Rosemary Magee(University)


Leslie Taylor


Sam Engle


Mary Loftus (Emory Magazine)


Mikhail Epstein (REALC)



























Texts (in the order of readings)


1. Mary Loftus. Associate Editor, Emory Magazine


The Linen Closet  

In the linen closet of my childhood home—a Florida ranch my father bought for $34,000 cash after he quit work in upstate New York to move someplace warm—my mother stored all of her mother’s and aunts’ quilts: the wedding ring, the Dutch boy and girl, the bicentennial red, white, and blue with all fifty states, the ones in which I recognized swatches of my outgrown clothes–brown corduroy, red stretchy polyester with white polka dots, faded denim.

My grandmother, the fourth of five girls, quilted, darned, and wove her way through snowy West Virginia winters, sewing by hand then by Singer.  She made rugs from twisted Wonder bread wrappers and footstools from empty jumbo-sized juice cans. Bags of fabric filled the upstairs closet, samples from the Diamond department store where her younger sister sold fancy drapes. Mounds of quilts covered every bed in the farmhouse, layered in twos and threes, threadbare well-worn favorites on the bottom, not for company to see but all the more cozy against my pale skinny legs.

My grandmother never sat idle, but sewed even as she watched her stories on the three-channel, rabbit-eared TV, Days of Our Lives offering delightful diversion from the plain art of handiwork. My seventeen-year-old now argues the merits of multitasking, with physics labs and IM and cell and flat screen all humming at once, the high-tension wires of modernity zapping through the electrified air, but I know the quietude of solitary seams and the comfort of making conversation around a patchwork table and it feels like memory made whole.

My mother didn’t sew much, she ironed on, she doted, she made me her special project—the “book smart” one she put forth into the world. But she saved those quilts, placed them in plastic bags labeled with permanent markers, an index card in her upper drawer listing an inventory of the linen closet: Freda, five quilts; Belva, three quilts and two throws; Mabel, two pillowcases and an afghan; Elta, two quilts and a tablecloth. Mabel’s kitchen on Straight Street always had pink mints in a candy jar, my grandmother, molasses cookies in a ceramic bear, Belva made deviled eggs with just enough pickle juice. They all run through me like sweet syrup, the call of the familiar.

My grandmother was the last to pass; she said it was hard to watch everyone go before her.  Especially when the farm, her worn chair, and beds heavy with her hands’ winter labor all had to stay behind at the end. She kept insisting that she wanted to hold a yard sale at the nursing home, not knowing why anyone would have kept that scratchy old blanket and the dull painting of flowers on the wall. How could this be her home?

I didn’t think to bring her a quilt: do we ever, until years later, think of the perfect words, the graceful gesture, the exact right thing?  I brought my infant daughter instead, pushing her forward, my own project; see what you have made, through your daughter, through her daughter, through me? Later, at the farmhouse, I string peapods on the porch with my other child, and show him that there are tiny peas inside, but you have to pull the waxy threads to get past the tough green hide to the fresh round newness.

We visit the farmhouse only in the summers now. My father lives in the Florida house alone, and we are the ones who have come to understand the shocking sting of being left behind, my mother having passed first. But I have slowly, just a few pieces at a time, been raiding the linen closet.

And last night, truly, just last night, my daughter said to me as I was putting a glass of water on her nightstand, “I want a quilt that was made by hand on my bed.” Sweetie, I replied, patting the worn cotton, the knotted threads, this was made by hand. By Grandma Freda, or Aunt Belva…and then I had to quell a small panic because, of course, I have lost the index card and will never be able to remember the important details. But it’s all right, we have an abundance of quilts, and they are filling our closets and spreading across our beds and covering my children with their warm, solid weight. 

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2. Randy Fullerton. Theater Studies


My Own Tapestry of Life!


The topic is THREADS!  Where do I begin?  Do I take the literal approach? Is it threads of life, threads that you buy at the store, spools of thread… What is it?

I immediately think of my friend Annie who has been surrounded by threads all of her life.  She is a knitter, I guess a weaver, a crafter.  She uses threads and yarn and spools of thread to develop her craft.  She used knitting to get herself through her bout with cancer.  She is now faced with divorce and is using her knitting to get through this obstacle, this problem, this new form of cancer that has been plaguing her life over the past few years?  She was just in a car wreck and turned to me for help.  Help in picking out a car, help in thinking through this latest trauma, help by just talking to someone else.  Have I become her new thread, one of many threads that she must now weave together and form some type of new tapestry of life for herself?  She lost that thread that she called her husband and now must determine which new threads of her life with help her get through these latest strings of traumas.

We each work on our own tapestry of life!

This brings to mind my other dear friend, Rose from long ago whose words of wisdom I carry with me everyday of my life, “Everything I do is for partial entertainment!” I am reminded that when she first made that comment that she said that she is constantly working on her own tapestry of life.   As I work on my own tapestry of life, adding new threads everyday, and seeing some old threads unravel I realize that new threads attempt to become a part of my own rich, robust tapestry.  Sometimes I let those threads become part of my tapestry and let them become a part of me. Sometime those threads suddenly appear, and I have no idea where they came from. But I am realizing as I am getting older that I do not so easily welcome those new threads.  I have become leery of inviting some of those new threads that challenge me to go in different directions. 

I cannot help but think of yet another friend, Judy who I have known for over 30 years.  She is a thread of my life that I allowed to become detached from my tapestry, to unravel from my tapestry and to go off on her own.  She has chosen not to work on her own tapestry.  But then again, who am I to say that she is not working on her own tapestry? We each work on own tapestry of life!  Judy has chosen a different fabric, her own choice of threads, her own way to weave her tapestry. 


I look to each of these three women as I determine my own threads.  I look at how they have chosen their own threads, their own colors, their own way to weave their pathways through life.  What threads do I have in my own life?  My children, my partner, (dare I call him) my husband.  All of these threads are ones that I have chosen.  I have taken each of these threads and woven them into my own fabric of life.  I realize that I must continue to enjoy these threads, but it is not enough to say that these three threads make up my own fabric.  As I get older, I realize that I have to continue to work on my own tapestry.  Don’t stop!  Don’t become complacent with the tapestry that I have created so far.  There are still miles to go and plenty of threads to weave into my own tapestry.   There are many colors to choose from out there, but get on the ball!  Start looking at those other colors, pick some new threads, some new directions!

We each work on own tapestry of life!  I need to look to others for their experiences and enjoy those tapestries that they have woven through the years.  I look back at some of the colors, some of the patterns that have developed in my tapestry, my own personal blanket of life that has kept me safe and secure as I go about that thing called life, and realize I need to add some of those “entertainment” threads back into my life.  Where do you find those “entertainment” threads?  Annie has begun looking to others as a thread to go on with her life.  She has ripped off part of the old tapestry and declared it’s time for a new blanket, a new approach to life.  Rose, I’m sure, continues to make sure that everything she does is for entertainment, even through her body is riddled with MS, she continues on. And Judy, what about Judy?  I have to learn from her and tell myself that she creates her own tapestry.  To me it looks like a gray, dark, all encompassing painful blanket that envelopes her life, but who knows?  Maybe she finds solace in her own way.  Maybe her threads are her family, those threads that look warm, and soft and red and rosy, and maybe that is exactly what she needs.

We each work on own tapestry of life!  We each learn from each other. Each of us has their own personal tapestry of life made up of tiny, itty-bitty threads, and each of use creates own tapestry, WHETHER WE LIKE IT OR NOT!


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3. Hal Jacobs, Senior Editor, Emory College


It was only a thread of a cellphone conversation I heard as I walked past Cox Hall on Emory campus last week. “I love you so much,” he said. I slowed down to listen as he, too, listened to the voice on the other end.

“I really really love you.”

I glanced at his face as I passed by. He was well-dressed in a dark suit and tie. Late thirties perhaps. African-American. Clean shaven. Athletic gait. No regional or international accent. He was watching the ground in front of him as he walked, but his attention was on the person that only he could see.

Was he talking to his lover or child? How far away was he or she? Were they okay?

I settled on a young child, about three or four, who was at home, missing him, but feeling well-loved at this moment because of this electronic thread that united them.

And this moment of love had caught me in its web, perhaps the shock of encountering here on the sidewalk in front of Cox Hall, carrying me in a different direction than the thread I was following moments before – a thread I had written down on a yellow stick-em note before leaving the house today.

At our computers, we are subject to the vagaries of so many competing threads—the web is just that, delicate strands that shimmer and often entrap. Ant-like we pursue these trails of information to obtain what we need for our queen, whoever or whatever that queen might be. (In the words of Bob Dylan, “you’ve got to serve somebody.”) This morning I watched a short video on the web made by a young man in Berlin about a squatter’s loft—the camera slowly taking in the foul, creative disorder to the melancholy strains of Sinatra’s “I did it my way.” The thread was sugary and pleasing.

Away from my desk, I choose my threads more deliberately. I follow well-worn sidewalks across the landscape, choosing buildings, halls and rooms with a sense of purpose.

Threads of electronic communication – the fragmented user groups of the internet, the broad nets of mass media – give us the feeling of spontaneity while delivering complete control over the message. My teenage son text-messages me at midnight to tell me of his plans for the rest of the evening. I email my 79-year-old mother to tell of my plans to visit. We watch the Daily Show to ease our pain over the bitter betrayals of the Bush-Cheney regime.

Was the well-dressed stranger delivering a message of love, or avoiding a loving connection?

I’m confident it was the former because I could see it in his eyes, his gait. I needed the animal proximity to see this. Which makes me wonder of the clues, or threads, that our children are using to know what’s true or honest in their social networking. When my son and I text-message, he uses a different language that seems to be truer than what I have relied on. His “K” is more direct and honest than my “Okay.” Yet when I reply to his message about sleeping over at a friend’s house, my single letter “K” seems weak and imitative.

Perhaps the way our language follows different threads reflects the different fabric of our lives, and perhaps this has always been the case, with technology merely speeding up the changes. In my youth, I communicated with eight-tracks and cassettes, while my mother communicated with heavy vinyl. Now my sons download digital recordings, while I prefer plastic and, lo and behold, heavy vinyl.

But will they be able to follow the threads in their animal lives to the extent that I did? Or will traveling with a cellphone alter their experience of the world. What does saying “I love you” into a cellphone mean to them, or to the person listening?

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4. Rosemary M. Magee, Vice President and Secretary of the University


 “Don’t pull the thread,” she instructed me.

The pale blue thread was tickling my wrist in a tender yet irritating way. I placed it between my teeth and tugged. Her words did not mean anything to me. A tight knot at the end of the thread forced me to keep pulling until there was give.

She knows more about threads than I do. Her colorful bobbins cluster in a basket in the back room of our parents’ house. I keep my discarded books and files in a heap there, too, overflowing and disorderly.

I admire her knack with threads: the way she can fix a hem or sew a Girl Scout badge on a sash. She once designed and created a dress without a pattern. It was a green sleeveless A-line, perfect in every way—except that it was slightly too big for her. It fit me to a T. I was the younger yet larger sister, the one who couldn’t sew and only passed home ec by the grace of pure, clumsy luck.

I wore that dress to the movies on a date the year we lived at Daytona Beach. I had a surfboard that summer, one that looked smartest in the back of a convertible. We were allowed to drive on the beach. I was 16, too awkward to surf but sassy enough to coast up and down the seashore singing in time to the Beach Boys. I don’t remember the movie we saw on the date, but I do remember the boy. His name was Dale—and I spilled buttered popcorn on the dress, the one my sister made for herself. The grease stain was not improved by the soap and water I used to scrub it.

The dress was ruined.

I should have listened to my sister about the blue thread: “get a pair of scissors,” she cautioned, “and snip it.” She knew the way to do things. I just tugged harder. The seam began to open up, a painful wound, revealing the rest of my arm, no longer brown as a berry from the summer I body surfed because the board was much too much for me to manage. It gleamed, shiny and waxed, in the back of that ’67 red mustang convertible, the one my father bought secondhand on a whim with some loose pocket change; my bright and salty hair streamed behind me in the wind.

Naturally, the blue shirtsleeve unraveled when I tugged the thread. My sister tried her hand at mending, but it never looked the same. And I once again accepted my fate as the awkward child, the daughter who cared only about books and sunbeams. My sister could cook, too, and play the piano—the true brains in the family. I was the spoiled bookworm, the surfer girl who couldn’t surf.

It’s hard to figure how we’ve moved beyond those mistakes, the laundry list of errors. She wore glasses. I did not. Neither of us really played ball—although she won the jacks championship at our school in Okinawa, and I the tetherball. The childhood disturbances between us could be deep, not easily healed by anything more than the never-ending stitches of time.

And so, now, it’s one of those great smiling miracles of generosity that our emails and occasional text messages thread back and forth between the different places we inhabit. It turns out that all of those distances make us today more the same than different. The fabric of her life is very closely woven into the daily patterns of our parents, quite ancient—nearly as old as a good century. The threads of their lives are vibrant, wrinkled, encircling, fading. My sister has a way of steady presence; mine, of necessity and perhaps disposition, is more remote.

Our mother, too, sewed a bit, but she was encumbered by a right hand and arm that never worked properly, a birth injury that led to numerous surgeries here in Atlanta, where she as a young child and her mother traveled by a train that threaded itself across the midlands of Georgia from Savannah. The clothes she sewed for us never fit quit right, but my sister’s seamstress results were lovely. She even made costumes for the school play, her hands sure and certain though she herself was quiet and contained. In time, she turned into a reference librarian—and I into whatever I’ve become. It’s hard to know. But I’m still the kind of person who is inclined to pull on the thread, even though I know better—too lazy and impulsive to find the scissors, usually misplaced.

We can feel, the two of us, I think we can desperately feel the stitches as they unravel in this far-flung yet close-knit family, the one where our parents were always front and center and we were the motley tribe of thieves who surrounded them, stealing their sun. They were like the lovely first lady and her husband—the tall, dark, and handsome prince dancing the night away, she in her spun threads of ivory, he escorting her into a new land and a new time, the whole world watching.

But, wait! That’s my parents up there—he unbound by a wheelchair, she unfazed by the frayed threads of time. And who is leading? Is it her: holding him fast to this world, this moment, this family? Or is it him: refusing to settle for a fate he has not chosen, resisting rational efforts to restrain him, pushing hard, like a fighter pilot, the one who dropped food and coal for the starving citizens of Berlin, the people who were our enemies before they became our friends back when my parents moved to Germany, and my sister was born, the one who now cares for them in the daily ways that seem so distant to me. There are actually three of us, the daughters, but that’s a story for another time and place.

Perhaps what my sister and I have both had to learn is that the way of the thread is neither to snip it or to pull it. Instead, we must find a way to weave it back into the interlocking pieces and scraps of our lives, knowing at one and the same moment that in the very unraveling we are becoming closer together.


                                                      *   *   *   *   *

5. Anna Leo, Dance Program

SIX STORIES ABOUT THREAD                       

1.  How many words in the word THREAD? (Names and titles permitted)


Read   Red   Ad   Tread   Dear   Ear   DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution)

Ear   Ed   Rad (isn’t that a word?)  Head  The   Tar  Hear  Heat  Hate  Tea

Date  Ted  Tad  Rat  Era  He


I never play computer games, but several years ago my daughter, Vita, turned me on to a computer game in which the computer gives you a word and then times you…how many words can you find and type before your allotted time ends.  If I remember correctly, if you typed a non-existent word or misspelled a word you would hear an obnoxious “ding.”  Vita and I would sit at the kitchen table, on the edge of our chairs, yelling out words that she would type in.  I would say, “I’m only playing for 10 minutes and then I need to go do some work.”  But really, we would sit sometimes for an hour.  I became addicted, though the game was as annoying to me as it was pleasurable. It was so satisfying finding all those words.  But then, at the end of the game, when the computer would spew out all the words you neglected, and we would discover all the simple little three letter words that we missed…well, we just felt stupid.

2.  Threading for My Grandmother

My grandmother told me that when she lived in Italy she was the seamstress of the family.  She made by hand all of her brother’s shirts and all of her dresses and nightgowns.  Here, in America, I would often sit beside her and watch her stitch.  I was her number one needle-threader.  She always asked me to thread the needle for her, telling me I had really good eyes, the best in the family.  I thought it odd that she was such a good sewer but could not thread a needle.  I prided myself in that I could get the thread in the eye of the needle on the first try almost every time.  My time has come.  I get it now.  Even with my reading glasses on, I can never get the thread through the eye on the first try.

3.  Vita’s stitches

Vita had open-heart surgery when she was not yet two years old.  In case you don’t know, when one has open heart surgery, the chest is cut down the center of the breast bone, the chest cavity spread open, and then after the heart repair, the bone is put back together with staples.  Or at least that’s how it was done twenty years ago.  In addition, sutures, stitches are sewn in the under layer of chest skin.  The doctor’s explained to my husband and I that these stitches might dissolve, or, we might see them work their way to the surface.  I remember seeing a thick, black thread exit Vita’s body, and there was something so incongruous yet so satisfying at seeing and touching this piece of thread that had held her delicate chest together.

4.  Rug Threads

When I was a young dancer living in New York City, I had a job as a studio assistant for visual artist, Robert Kushner.  In addition, to being a great painter, he also collected antique rugs, which often required repair – worn areas that needed to be rewoven.  Being skilled in repair work, Bob taught me the technique of rug repair weaving. The most important part of the rug restoration process is choosing the threads – they had to match as closely as possible the threads in the area of repair, faded though they might be. The ultimate sign of good repair work is when the repair cannot be spotted.  The threads match perfectly.  I must say I was quite good at this.

5.  Sewing Box

I keep my sewing box very organized.  My favorite part of the three-layer box is the second layer, which is where the spools of thread live.  I line them up according to color with the greens all together, the blues, into the reds, yellows, and oranges.  It’s so satisfying to see the colors resting beside each other like this. 

6.  Red Thread

I think I read somewhere that in Chinese culture it is believed that when a child is born, there is an invisible red thread that accompanies him or her into the world.  This thread will connect this person to all of the many people who will enter her life for as long as she lives.  I love this image.


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6. Sam Marie Engle, '90C. Senior Associate Director. Office of University Community Partnerships


It was May of second grade. My sister, Tracy, just had returned from her first grade class trip to Philadelphia. She was full of stories and couldn’t wait to tell my mom all about it. My mom was intent on getting out all of our summer clothes and putting away our winter clothes (it was a ritual repeated all over New Jersey: pack away the clothes from the ending season and pull out the clothes for the next season and see what fit who. There were three of us girls and my dad was an industrial equipment  salesman so clothes recycling was an economic necessity).  Mom shooed us away, told us to go play and she’d hear the stories later.

Tracy was disappointed. As we walked away, I said, “Let’s go to Tricia’s house and you guys can tell me all about the trip.” You might think I was being very kind and protective of my sister, but I wasn’t being all that altruistic. My class had taken the same trip last year, so I wanted to see if her class had done anything better or more fun than mine.

We went to Tricia’s house two doors down to see if she could play. I was painfully shy and afraid of most people’s parents – looking back, I cannot recall why, except to suppose that I felt so unsure about myself and my place in the world that anyone with any kind of authority – real or perceived or misrepresented – threatened my shaky foundation.

When we approached Tricia’s house, I begged Tracy to knock on the door. Quite a sibling birth order reversal. I was older, but Tracy perceived herself to be my protector: as she still says, I am the smart one and she is the strong one. It’s a complete distortion of who we really are. I am smart, but so is she. Her intelligence is less appreciated in the classroom. She thinks differently, accepts nothing at face value. If the teacher says 2+2 = 4, Tracy will want to know what other possible answer there might be, like 2+2=3+1. She’s not wrong, of course, but in school where there is an absolute right for everything, she is wrong and so she comes to believe that she is not smart.

I, on the other hand, was the star student. It wasn’t really that I was so gifted, I don’t think, although that’s what they called it. It really was a case of fear. If I was wrong, not only might I be scolded or laughed at (humiliating), they might not like me or let me stay in class. So afraid of having approval or even love revoked, I accepted what those in charge told me and dutifully spit it back out on test after test, which, of course made me look smart.

But back to Tracy. She rolled her eyes – yes, even at the age of 6 Tracy had mastered the fine art of eye-rolling. She climbed the steps and hit the doorbell, then made a face at me as I stood at the bottom of the steps, out of sightline of whoever would come to the door. Tricia had a big standard poodle, one of those loud, happy gangly dogs who doesn’t seem to understand his own size. He delighted in greeting every visitor with his loudest, most cheerful barking, and, if he really liked you, he would jump on you. Today was no different. At the sound of the doorbell the barking started, deep in the house, and grew louder as he raced to see who was there. He jumped to put his big furry black paws on the door – the metal-frame storm door with screen on top and glass on the bottom.

I didn’t see – or else I can’t remember the exact sequence of events. Somehow the force of lunging large barking door proved too much for the glass; it shattered, sending glass shards flying everywhere and making way for the dog to sail through the glass storm and knock my sister backwards off the steps and down onto the walkway. I screamed. Screamed again and ran to Tracy, whose face was a bloody, glassy mess. Her hand still clutched the baggie full of marshmallow circus peanuts she had brought for our snack, now spattered with blood. Tricia’s mother came running, took one look and swore words I hadn’t heard before. She ran down the stairs to Tracy, who was crying, the tears mixing with the blood to create streams, ribbons, and threads of red down her face and across her yellow shirt.

The rest is a blur. My mother appeared, and soon she and Tracy were whisked away by an ambulance. I was told to stay at Tricia’s. It was agony. I was laced with guilt, tied in knots with worry and fear. If I had been the strong older sister I was supposed to be, Tracy wouldn’t have been in an ambulance, with a face full of glass and tears. I was supposed to protect her and I didn’t. I wasn’t smart. I was stupid. And a big fat failure of a big sister.

Tracy came home in the evening, with black threads stitched across her chin. I asked if it hurt, hoping she would say no. My mom said Tracy had been brave while they stitched her cuts closed. She said she told Tracy to hold her hand and to squeeze it as hard as she could whenever she felt pain. The novelty of being allowed to hurt mom, who was not afraid of whacking us with a hairbrush or her hand when we didn’t do what she thought we should to, proved too strong to resist. Tracy later told me she tried to squeeze as hard as she could as often as she could, no matter what. She said this with a little devious laugh.

I said her threads looked funny, but because we were eating clean circus peanuts it came out like this: “Your freds look funny. Do they hurt now?” She said they didn’t but she didn’t like that she looked sewn up like a doll. So I said, “That’s not sewing, that’s Freds holding hands so they make the cuts close up.” That made her laugh, which made me feel good, so I took to calling them Freds to help cheer her up.

“How are the Freds today?” I would ask.  “Hey Fred! What’s hanging!” That one we thought was hysterically funny and would say it over and over, making ourselves laugh more until Tracy had to say “Stop! Don’t bust my Freds!”

On the day Tracy had to go to the doctor to get the stitches removed, we held a going away party for the Freds. We poured “tea” in doll teacups and nibbled elephant shaped cookies spackled with pink icing. “Goodbye Freds!” we said as we raised our teacups. “Thanks, Freds, for holding things together,” Tracy added. And then she had to go.

Later, when Tracy came home, we both looked in the mirror, examining the little scar that had formed – and remains to this day. “The Freds did a good job,” I said, and she agreed.

Not long after that, I scraped my knee doing I don’t remember what. We were pretty active kids, so cuts and bruises and scrapes and splinters were commonplace. Tracy asked if I needed Freds.  My mom said, “What?” Tracy said, “Freds, like my face.”

Mom looked at us, bewildered. Tracy persisted, “The Freds that held my face closed when Jigs jumped through the door and the glass cut me.”

“Oh, stitches?”

“Yes! Freds!” Tracy said, exasperated.

My mom laughed. “You two! Always making up words for other words. No, honey, she doesn’t need freds. Just a Band-aid. She plucked one from the box and handed it to me. “Do you want to open it?”

I looked at the little wrapped package. On the side of it was a red thread with the tip of it poking out. I pulled it and it sliced open the wrapper. Mom took out the band-aid and Tracy grabbed the red thread.

“Look! It’s a Fred!” she exclaimed. We were delighted. She put it on my knee and said, “Here’s your Fred to make you better.”

From that day on, whenever one of us scraped or cut something, we’d say, “Time for Freds!” We’d go in for a band-aid. We’d always pull out the red thread and would keep it for as long as the injury lingered because, for us, the healing power was not in the Band-aid or the Neosporin, it was in sharing Freds.

Epilogue: The topic I offered this session was pain. I had surgery last week, and now have a mouthful of Freds. It’s been a lot more painful that I thought it would be and so I’ve had to call upon my creative pain management techniques when the narcotics didn’t do the job. I had not thought about Freds and Tracy and this story, until we were discussing our reasons for voting for the chosen topic – threads.  Someone said something about threads of a story or thematic threads and I suddenly thought, “Freds!” I even wrote Freds on my notepad.

As I think about this story, I see the thread – the line connecting how I cope with things now and what I did as a child. When we were little kids on endlessly long, boring car rides, we made up silly words for silly things that had serious names – like horses. We called them elmeechinches because that was funnier to yell when you spotted one while riding in the car and wanted to let everyone know. Then we started substituting comforting words or images for scary ones – like Freds for stitches, the greedy magician for pediatrician, sugary for surgery. The weird guy who would stand in his driveway every day watching who came and left the neighborhood we called the gatekeeper and the guy who kept dumping his lawn clippings over the fence into our yard Ranger Rick. I still do this as an adult, but never really thought about why, until now, when story writing became creative improvisation. 

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7. Kevin Corrigan, Institute of Liberal Arts

 Threading Incomplete Texts: Portrait of a Mother

         I watch the hands of my now long-dead mother wetting the thread from her lips and threading the needle to darn the seemingly endless chain of potato-socks. Time seems frozen, except for the agility of her fingers. I have no understanding she is anything other than my mother. How could she be separate from my consciousness of her? How could she be a daughter? She couldn’t really be the daughter of my grandmother, could she? Even less, a grand-daughter!

         The incompleteness of my childish apprehension is somehow linked by a thread – or bundle of threads – to the family-line of daughters reaching from England into Ireland, subdued by the British, and back further still to the Celts whom Aristotle said were so wild that if a stormy sea made voyage impossible they would stab it angrily with their swords. Could my mother be related to such violent people?

         The sheer impossibility sends my imagination to the birth of textiles and texts in the ancient world, a female preoccupation that, together with cooking, was surely the forerunner of modern science and chemistry. My mother was a hidden person just like that entire submerged tradition: luminous and bright, yes, but forced to leave school at 14 like millions of other boys and girls in long hidden chains folded in upon each other and utterly silent in papyri, annals, registers, books. Threads and folds are the tensions of unrecorded histories that have become canonized in the implicate and explicate orders of modern physics, folded in or folded out of each other; but the folders and the threaders always disappear. When my mother died, I could not understand why the BBC newscast that day said not one single word about her.

         In my imagination – in my search for her now, I go back to Pythagoras and the discovery of the harmonic scale: exercise for the body, but music for the soul, and such a music of the strings or threads of the lyre as to make the cosmos habitable, human and gentle, like a beloved dog or cherished camelia. But it’s not Pythagoras I am looking for, even if he were reborn as Euphorbus, a fish, a bird, a girl. I am looking for his wife, Theano, who was apparently just as clever-if not more so, but about whom we know precisely nothing. She too has disappeared – and Hypatia in Alexandria much later – and all the chains and sequences with them that became so important in Egypt for the discovery of nerves, arteries and veins in medicine and for the development of cognitive psychology in the strange men and women who flocked into the desert in the 3rd and 4th centuries: they were forced, before they disappeared, to observe the threads of their own lives with dispassionate precision to avoid unraveling madness. The first recorded life of a woman saint in the Christian tradition comes with an obviously made up name –

Syncletica: “church” or “called together” – and is ascribed to the portfolio of Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria, but it’s actually a collection of the sayings of a real woman, or women, jotted down by people who thought it a good thing to ask questions of a woman who, according to the male framer of her “Life” had lived in a tomb outside Alexandria for 48 years. The strangest thread of all when one reads this text is that she is not pompous, fanatical or saintly, just intelligent and infinitely compassionate. I can certainly find my mother here, but I can only follow the thread so far.

         Then two memories burst upon me.  The first was my only visit to Ireland when I took my mother and father to the tiny village in which my father’s parents had been born – Ballycroy in County Mayo. It was the first time my father had ever been there and he was astonished to see his own mother’s now abandoned cottage out on the estuary separated by row upon row of undulating sand dunes from his father’s still inhabited cottage in the village. My grandfather in extreme old age had often wept for his dead wife and, in his laments, the dunes had invariably figured. Until this moment, my father had never realized the truth: his father and mother had met secretly in the dunes to do all the things that lovers do and, especially to avoid their own fathers and mothers. Suddenly, he was looking no longer at his parents, but at lovers who did not belong to him.

         Then, five years later, new people moved into the house next door to my brother in Raynes Park, London, and it turned out they were related to our family, but from a thread that had become separated out for perhaps close to a hundred years. Their view of the family was entirely different from our own. For us, my father’s parents were icons of moral rectitude and religious observance. But this branch of the family knew something we had never guessed. For them, my grandparents were the black sheep of the family, because that young boy and girl did not emigrate to England in search of work; they eloped because their parents disapproved of their love. Our family icons all of a sudden took on flesh and blood, love, lust and hope, just hanging by the thread of a chance encounter that momentarily closed a strange loop in time.

         For less than a split second, I am in touch with the youth of my grandparents and parents, especially my mother; but like Eurydice, led by Orpheus up the threading path from the underworld into light, the moment I turn to see that precious face come to life again, she turns away, and has always already turned away, before I can weave any picture of who she might have been.

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8. Mikhail Epstein

Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Cultural Theory and Russian Literature

Dept. of Russian and East Asian Languages and Cultures




1. "Thread" in Myths.

         Thread is a one-dimensional structure, infinitely long and infinitely thin, according to its idealization.  Through ages, this simple structure inspired human imagination, first in the form of myths where fates were presented as weavers. This is a common motif for the mythology of Southern and Northern Europe. Why life is a thread? Why does one-dimensional pattern archetypically accounts for our existence in the three–dimensional space?

         We know that, in distinction from space, time is one–dimensional. Is not a thread, then, a most visible and palpable representation of time by means of space? The spatialization of time is inevitable in our metaphoric imagination that operates with units of our visual experience derived from space. We have no exact terms and images properly for time, as Henri Bergson has shown. Our measurements of time, our watches and clocks, and our schedules and calendars are all spatial, two–dimensional or three-dimensional objects, surfaces or volumes.  Pure duration, temporality as such is a totally interior experience that cannot be visualized.

         But if we still attempt to visualize that which cannot be visualized, what would it be? A thread. A thread is as narrow, as time is because it has no extension in space; it is one moment after another, not aside with another. And a thread is as long and in fact endless, as time is in our experience (because the end of time would imply the end of experience itself, and we have no such an experience of no–experience).

         In the mythological imagery of life, the thread introduces the temporal dimension, pure duration and continuity.  The thread of events. The thread of actions. One after another. A sequence. A narrative. The story of life. Life as a story. Both speech and thought are threads.  Typical utterances: "I’ve lost the thread of my thought." "I’ve lost the thread of what you’re saying." Thread is an archetype of time within space; it is the best possible approximation to time through space.

         After this primary unit of one-dimensional time is established, myth will modify it further to accommodate the 3D of space. Such is the image of weaving when several threads intersect, cross each other and produce the texture, the fabric of life that has already three dimensions, like a cloth, a dress, or a carpet. Time gradually grows into space, morphs from one into three dimensions.

         But what happens when the time comes for the end of time and human beings approach their death?  The goddess of fate cuts the thread. We find the image of thread in the beginning  and in the end of the life story, whereas in the middle we find fabric, material, knitting the rich texture of life. Life is a complicated art of weaving threads, bringing them together in space, but its primary unit is a thread, a mystery of pure temporality.

         Thus the thread is an ancient image of naive, spatial representation of time. Strange as it may seem, contemporary science in its most advanced theories also points to the same one-dimensional pattern underlying our physical universe. Now it is called string, or more precisely, Superstring, because it is foundational for the entire world of matter and energy.


2. "Strings" in Sciences.

         The superstring theory first frightened me as an indication of the hellish condition in which our material bodies are doomed to exist on the foundational level, since one of the distinctive definitions of the hell is its one-dimensionality.  If time is one-dimensional and therefore the string-like foundation, or the "bottom" of the world may be pure time and transitoriness, the theory of superstring may have indeed some infernal implications. According to the great Russian 20 c. poet and visionary Daniil Andreev, the author of  the treatise "The Rose of the World" (1950-58, written in prison), some of the inferior worlds (in the "descending row" of worlds) are devoid of space and contain only one time dimension, that is, are string-like. String, or thread is the longest and the thinnest thing in the world: the combination of the two qualities (duration and narrowness), which a human being  usually finds least bearable. This physical theory of one-dimensional string as the foundation of everything led me to experience once more the blessed nature of the 3-dimensional space which, contrary to time, grants us a choice of direction, freedom of movement and the possibility of (self)contradiction.

         Then, thinking over again the metaphysical implications of this theory, I suddenly got an impulse for its further metaphorical elaboration: the string invokes the concept of vibration. Therefore, the allusion to music and harmony is still implied in this superstring hypothesis. Indeed, the theory states that, although the string itself is one-dimensional, its vibration generates 3 large (spatial) and 6 minor (hidden) dimensions. Perhaps, it is precisely this one-dimensional string that, when artfully played on, creates what is traditionally called "the music of spheres" (the Pythagorean concept). Indeed,  Wikipedia says: "Superstring theory is an attempt to explain all of the particles and fundamental forces of nature in one theory by modelling them as vibrations of tiny supersymmetric strings." Thus the newest physical concept ("string") still resonates with the old and consoling metaphysical idea ("the music of the spheres").


3. "Borders" in the Humanities.

Borders are one-dimensional, as threads and strings are. According to the founder of Soviet semiotics Yuri Lotman, the basic unit of signification in the semiosphere ("the sphere of signs") is the "border." It does not share the dimensions with the spaces it divides, i.e., it is strictly one-dimensional (like borders on a geographic map). A two-dimensional border, abstractly speaking, would be a part of some territory stretched beyond the border. Thus, all borders can be presented as threads, or at least can be approached through this type of imagery. The borders between left and right, high and low, solid and liquid, light and dark are foundational for the universe of meanings, though borders themselves are not left or right, dark or light. The same can be said about the "trace" in the Derridean sense: it disappears as soon as we try to present it in substantial terms, as "something" positive. Thus  the "thread imagery" in myths and the"string theory" in physics finds a striking parallel in the humanistic concepts of the "border" and "trace."