Today is All Souls Day, a time for commemorating the faithful departed. The death of my mother influenced my creative trajectory for years after wards. The Prayer Banners are one such project. The post below was originally written for Crafting the Sacred, and was published there earlier this month. I drew this picture of my mother, Linda Susan Wood, only a few hours before she died on Christmas Eve day, 2003. Notice the journal entry to the left. The last line reads...
I was thinking of rage and grief... and my desire to be a prophet, to sew banners bearing the names of the dead arranged to declare REPENT!
Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer the previous July my mom lived six more months. During that time I moved in with my parents and helped my father with her care. It was an abundant and sacred time, filled with sorrow and joy.
During her last days the war in Iraq was in the news every night. Not yet a year old, the war had claimed the lives of about 230 Americans, and countless Iraqis. I was angry about the war and I was angry about my mother's death. I kept thinking of the families, like mine, who were experiencing the holiday season in mourning.
Reminded of the Kentucky Graveyard quilt made in the 1943 by Elizabeth Roseberry Mitchell and her two daughters to mourn the death of her sons, the idea of stitching the names of the dead soldiers onto cloth coffins came to me as a way to convert my rage into compassion, to connect my suffering with the suffering of other families facing the loss of loved ones.
I began Prayer Banner: REPENT in January 2004. I consider the act of stitching a name on the coffin as an act of prayer and petition. The posture of embroidery, head bent towards the hands with the heart in between, is an internal, meditative posture.
Akin to the Buddhist practice of Tonglen, I experience the stitching as a mediation on letting go. As I sew I breathe in the anger and suffering of the family of the person who's name I am stitching, and breathe out compassion and love for myself and others suffering loss along with me.
At first I stitched alone but soon I took the Prayer Banners to the streets, churches, schools, museums, galleries, and homes. The purpose of holding public sewing circles, is not so much to memorialize the dead but to provide opportunities for communal bereavement.
Stitching the name of the dead is a simple activity that allows people to connect to their sense of communal loss and to do this with people in their community that they might not otherwise interact with. Close to 1000 people have stitched on the Prayer Banners.
The banners stand as a witness for the dead. The hand stitched coffins are arranged to spell words that speak to the degradation of war and call for change. The first Prayer Banner spells the word REPENT. The second in the series spells the word MERCY. The third will spell the word GLORY.
Someone once told me that while looking at the Prayer Banners they thought about all of the time it took to stitch the names and of all of the lives lost - the wasted time and wasted lives, lives that should never have been wasted.