When I learned that Helen Tartar, editor of Fordham University Press, had died in a tragic car accident, the first thing I thought of was the fact that my school’s (Drew University) annual Transdisciplinary Theological Colloquium was only a matter of weeks away. I go to this conference every year, and I found it impossible for me to imagine the TTC without Helen in the audience, patiently knitting and listening while she sat through the extremely long and intense weekend conversation. I still remember the first time that I attended the TTC, as a new PhD student, in 2009. I saw this elegant woman in the crowd, quite obviously attuned to the intellectual discourse, yet simultaneously knitting this incredible and intricate lace garment. I found it oddly empowering. I was unsurprised to learn, over the course of time, what a subtle, elegant, and intricate critical imagination Helen had—as a thinker, and an editor. In a certain sense—though she was extremely kind, deeply unpretentious, and totally unassuming—you might say that she almost wore this on her sleeve. As an editor, she did so much to broadcast the kind of intellectual work that was being done at Drew. She started a series, to publish the annual proceedings of the TTC, and the kind of feminism that’s emerged from the ecosystem that is Drew University (deeply informed by thinkers like my advisor Catherine Keller, by Virginia Burrus, by Laurel Kearns, as well as former administrators like Maxine Beach and Anne Yardley) came through so well in powerfully simple things like the covers of these books. But over the past couple of days, I’ve been trying to articulate what it was that I found so oddly empowering when I saw Helen knitting in the midst of an academic conference.
On some levels, it’s obvious. I grew up in a family of women who sew. My great grandmother was skilled at making lace crochet. By the time I knew her, she had lost much of her hearing and much of her eyesight. But the home of my grandparents, and my own home, were graced with curtains she’d made decades earlier. The lace was thick, but the patterns she wove were large enough to filter the sun into speckled streams. My mother and I were both a little heartbroken when our crazy beagle, Teddy, chewed off the corner of one of these curtains so that he would have a small porthole to stick his head through, to stare out the window. I think either my mother or I might have cried. But who can really blame a dog for wanting a better view? My grandmother used to make these fantastic dresses for herself, and for her grandaughters. Living in an immigrant family (with seven children), who’d come to the U.S. after living in a displaced persons camp, my grandmother never had much money. But she worked as a seamstress and had enough to buy, periodically, some beautiful silky fabric for an elegant dress. And enough to keep a little bottle of Chanel No.5 on her vanity, for special occasions. She was glamorous, and I was in awe of her. One year, for Christmas, she made my cousins and I these velvety dresses in different shades of red. I felt like we were royalty. My mother went through a period in her hippy youth where she made all of her own clothes. And we still own some of the intricate and embroidered little garments that she made for me as a small child. I used her old sewing machine until I was in college, and I cried when it broke down. I did. I had to call her, thinking that I should ask for permission before I got a new one. She laughed, because it’s just a machine. But for me, there were histories bound up in the machine: ties to my past, to the women of my family who’d passed away and left me with their skills and sensibilities.
It’s weird, I know, for me to write about this at a place like AUFS. Even though I’ve written about things like Barbie before, I kind of feel like this is one of those places where I go to be a little bit more of a dude. But I’ve seen this blog billed as an “anomalous” space. So I’m just going to go ahead and anomalize a bit. Say what I want.
This past weekend, at the TTC, we ended up making a quilt for Helen. We were brainstorming ways to dedicate our thought and attention to her in this space, where she was going to be deeply missed. I thought it would be a good way to evoke her presence, when she wasn’t there. What better way to carry her in our memory than to sit and sew, in the space where she did the same thing? Knitting would have been more difficult. It’s a skill that’s not particularly easy to learn. It takes time and requires patience. But in recent years, I’ve been making these Alabama Chanin style hand sewn cotton garments. Cotton seemed like an easy fabric to work with, and the hand sewn stitches are simple repetitions. Last weekend my mother happened to be visiting, so I dragged her to Mood Fabric, in midtown Manhattan (for those of you who’ve watched “Project Runway”). We picked out some cotton, made some stencils, and painted the fabric in gold. There were about 20 squares to sew, at the conference, and people made them beautiful. Men were sewing. Clayton Crocket actually learned how to sew for the first time, because he’d known Helen, and wanted to contribute.
I’ve written about fabric on academic platforms before. But it’s not an object that I’ve been driven to theorize about. In the late 1980s weaving became, for a time, a metaphor deployed in feminist circles (Judith Plaskow and Carol Christ, for instance, published Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality.) It was meant to be a metaphor to describe a feminized mode of religious or theological engagement and made reference back to ancient myths, like the myth of Penelope. Unsurprisingly, the metaphor began to face critique as a kind of cultural feminist essentialization of women’s experience. In a 1990s debate in the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Miriam Peskowitz acknowledged that weaving was intended to be a feminist disruption of male intellectual culture, but critiqued the extent to which it roped women back into a cultural framework in which they’re asked to spiritualize aspects of their constrained, domesticated labor.
Yes, I sew. And I do think that it’s actually liberated me from a certain set of capital constraints. I feel a bit less bound by some of the superficial pressures on professional women (at least financially), because I can transform a garment that’s destined for the landfill into something wearable and current. I remember when I taught a friend to sew by altering a dress she’d bought. I told her to just go ahead and cut into it (from the hem to the neck) and she said, “that feels kind of liberating.” It’s a certain kind of creative destruction. But I also acknowledge the history of constraint this skill can be traced back to. I’m inclined to agree with Peskowitz that weaving isn’t a particularly liberatory metaphor. In fact, I don’t think metaphor is what I’m looking for, here.
I think what always inspired me about Helen’s knitting was that it was a performance, after a fashion. She was engaged in a physical activity, transforming some otherwise brute material into a work of art. It was sensual, in the sense that it was tactile. But it wasn’t particularly sexy, and so not subject to a certain kind of capture and neutralization. It was surprising because it disturbed the gendered norms of academic conferences—skewed toward the button-up, blazered professionalism that still pilfers off of an exclusively male academic moment. And what I appreciated was precisely that surprise, the performance of something that subtly created dissonance. What I discovered this year, while sewing, was how soothing it felt. Delightful as it may be to spend days on end with colleagues, talking intensely about ideas, no one can deny that (like the act of writing) it’s physically punishing. Sitting stiffly in chairs for hours on end gets really old. This is one reason why so many people can’t wait for the [wine/open bar] reception at the end of a conference. There was something really meditative about creating these stitches, while I listened. I felt like I was moving, and paying attention to my body in space in a way that I don’t typically, at a conference. I’m grateful that the TTC is a conference that was so ripe to be influenced and transformed by Helen’s art and craft.