Image for The Gathering Pod A Martha Beck Podcast Episode #142 How to Make a Sanity Quilt
About this episode

Do you ever feel like your life is a crazy quilt? Martha says that creating your life is the ultimate creative project, and that’s what she’s talking about in this episode of The Gathering Room. Each of us is given all the material to make a life—a human body, a set of circumstances, and a set of abilities—and the life we make from that material is ours to determine in this day and age.

How to Make a Sanity Quilt

Martha Beck:

Today I want to talk to you about how it’s designing your life day. They call me a life coach, but when I started, I didn’t know what I was doing. And I called it life design because it’s really more like an artistic project. You have the stuff to make a life. You’ve been given this human body and a set of circumstances and a set of abilities, and the life you make from that is yours to determine in this day and age. Now, there are things wrong with this day and age like climate change and artificial crap in the ocean and stuff like that, artificial crap in our bodies. But we also live at a time when I think it might be unprecedented for such a large proportion of the people to have such a large degree of agency in choosing how we live.

However, we kind of evolved living the way previous generations live, and we tend not to sort of break the mold very much. And so if we’re born with a certain set of circumstances, or personality traits, or characteristics that seems problematic to the culture, we’re like, “Oh crap, I’m going to have a horrible life.” Or if we just go along and do what our parents did or do what everyone in our community does and we go work at the same mill or whatever it is, and we don’t ever say, “I could make this up. I could design an entirely different life.” Then we miss that chance to use the agency that we’ve been given as a kind of unique gift in history. So I’m writing about this. Y’all are always going to hear what I’m writing about, and I was thinking about how your life is kind of like making a crazy quilt. Now, I’m not a quilter. I grew up amongst the quilting sorts in Mormon, Utah. I remember being underneath quilting frames with rows of women’s knees and feet around me, and everybody was working on part of the quilt that was stretched out on a big frame, like a huge table.

And they’d be stitching away and I’d be underneath listening. And so I’m familiar with quilting. And a crazy quilt is a specific type of quilt that you get when you have a lot of scraps and rags and old clothes that have holes in them. You cut them all up into pieces and you just stitch them together to make a quilt. And they call it a crazy quilt because it doesn’t have any design. So there are many beautiful classic and brand new quilting designs. It’s really an art with diamonds, and stars, and the patterns have different names and people block them out and cut special fabrics and get everything matchy-matchy and it’s perfect and it’s beautiful and it’s an art. Crazy quilts are just throw it together, stitch it up. That’s what you got. And I thought in this day and age, the rigid rules we have about how to make a life aren’t even working anymore.

The supposed minimum wage, you can’t live on the minimum wage. Oh, we got pause due to poor connection back again. So you can’t make a living on that. Working parents and most of this falls to women, to mothers are trying to work in systems that were designed by White upper class men 200 years ago, a bunch of people who had a lot of money, a lot of property, a lot of power, and a free domestic support staff consisting of women and/or enslaved individuals. That is the kind of person a job was designed to engage. And we try to do that while at the same time doing the work of the free domestic support staff. And these two things are not just hard to balance, they are mutually antagonistic. They were designed that way. So that pattern doesn’t work. All the jobs that we were told we would have coming out of college disappeared. New ones are popping up everywhere. Going to college used to be absolute guarantee that you would be a big success and have a job immediately. Now it’s nothing of the kind. You could go to a top college and come out and be unemployed.

And then there’s also the phenomenon of the working poor. We have a large group of people in the United States and growing, that are homeless, living in cars or whatever, and working jobs. So college doesn’t get you a job. A job doesn’t get you a living. The system is broken. And trying to create a life that fits into that system I think is madness. So what do we do? I thought, “We should make a crazy quilt.” And then I thought, “No, a crazy quilt is what the culture is telling us to do. A crazy quilt is trying to take a job doing as a nurse for example, doing incredibly important work, being overworked, go home, try to raise your kids, then try to deal with older parents that we have 16,000 unsupported caregivers in our culture right now. That’s crazy to try to do that. That’s crazy, especially trying to do it in a hetero cis normative marriage.”

All the things that the culture used to say when I was growing up was saying, “That’s how life should be.” It doesn’t work. Sorry, my piece of hair is particularly annoying today. You all know my piece of hair just does what it wants. Okay, so I was thinking what the culture is telling us to do mutually incompatible things. That is insanity. So when we design a life ourselves out of what we’ve been given, make something beautiful out of what you’ve been given, even though it doesn’t match any pattern anyone’s ever told you about. That’s what I call a sanity quilt. So whatever you’ve been told about yourself by the culture that you are abnormal or aberrant because of any kind of reason, you’re too much of a nonconformist. You don’t fit into your gender correctly. You don’t fall in love with the right kind of person that you’re allowed to fall in love with. You don’t want a job. You do want a job, but not one that destroys your soul.

All these things that are the materials we’ve been given, we try madly to fit them into the patterns cultures give us and there’s no fit. And we just end up with these little mismatched quilts that don’t keep us warm. So a sanity quilt, you start, I went and watched a video about how to make crazy quilts today, and I call it a sanity quilt. You get all your materials in a bunch. So I’ve been doing that. I was like, “What have I been born with? What have I been given?” So I was born, for example, being very bookish. Okay, I can use that in certain parts of the culture. That’s why I write books.

What else? Okay, I am older middle age to say the least. And that in the youth focused culture is like, “Ooh, you’re not going anywhere good.” But what if I can use the wisdom and familiarity with systems that I’ve gotten living on this planet for as long as I have? What if I use that as a knowledge base that’s part of my sanity quilt? And I know a lot about a whole bunch of things just because I’ve been sitting around here for a long time and I use that bookish. Oh, and there are other things, new things like audiobooks I read obsessively. But now that audiobooks are so readily available, that’s part of my sanity quilt is that if I need to know something about a book, I can get it on Audible and put it on triple speed and inhale a bunch of information that would’ve taken me a whole year in college to accumulate.

And that’s like, the day before yesterday I wrote like 2,000 words, but I also read two books to justify what I wrote in those 2,000 words. So I’m looking at my sanity quilt constituents. Now, if I look at my son Adam, he’s got a very, very different set of gifts. He has down syndrome. He’s not bookish, he is, I think probably it is also a little bit on the autism spectrum. But what he is methodical, incredibly orderly, very even tempered. He sort of distills a kind of energy that people who’ve worked with him, his teachers and so on have often said, “Brings calm into the room.” He is very perceptive. He’s quite psychic. And every now and then he says something completely blow your mind, spiritual. Something’s going on in that individual.

So how does he design his crazy quilt of a life? Well, he’s done it. He has his bedroom set up exactly the way he wants it. He’s chosen to live with me instead of going to live in a group home. He is very, very involved with his games. And in those games he roams the world and makes a lot of decisions. And he’s very, very good at downloading. He has an incredible collection of music that he’s downloaded that he sings to. And some of them, I never gave this kid any instructions about spirituality, but the Gathering Room is about spirituality. So he has songs that are about the light that came to him when he was 13 that also came to me when I was 29, that is so often described in near death experiences. He finds songs that express deep emotional and spiritual things, and then he sings them. Or at least he stopped singing as much. He used to have whole singing days anyways, and yet he works out and he’s been working out throughout the pandemic in our basement on a Zoom call with his trainer.

And he designs his days. I’ll be like, “Hey, Adam, you want to go to the store with me?” He’s like, “No, I have a workout. Are you crazy?” He’s in charge of his own life and he’s using the brilliant gifts that have come with him. And I don’t know if they’re because of Down syndrome, in spite of Down syndrome or unrelated to Down syndrome, but that child has a way with him and he has made a sanity quilt that has kept me warm.

So just to go to your pile of things, what do you have? What have been given? What are your likes and dislikes? What are things that are different about you that may even have been called disabilities or dysfunction, but they’re wonderful?

I was just reading something that said that it diagnosed one of my characteristics, which is I have very, very high sensitivity to light. I can’t stand the light that other people think is normal and it actually hurts my eyes. And I can’t be photographed outside because my eyes are like this. And as I’m reading about this, I’m thinking they called it a sensory disorder, but I thought, “That’s why I see more saturated colors, probably.” And that’s why I paint. I see these intense saturated colors everywhere I look. And when I take a picture, I always have to bring the brightness way down because there’s a lot of my eyes can’t handle too much brightness because they’re handling a lot of saturation and color. This is just what I think. I learned from Adam’s diagnosis. Not to take something different about me and make it a pathology, but to take it and say, “What is this beautiful piece of fabric? What can I sew it to, to make something else that will cover me?”

So in my life, I remember coming out of high school, I wanted to work with my two best friends, Carrie and Phil. We really had fun together and we tried to find jobs as wait staff in a hotel or maid, I guess Phil wouldn’t have been a maid, I don’t know what they call them, a bellman in a hotel. Nobody wanted to hire three teenagers who were leaving for college in three months. So instead we sat down and we said, “What do we got? We really like each other. We have fun together.” Carrie was very, very musical, brilliant, violist. Phil was brilliant in so many ways, played the guitar. He is an incredible poet and writer. He was an artist. So we’re like, “We’re very artsy. What do we do with that? As 17 year olds getting ready to who want a summer job?” And then Carrie said, “Well, what about kids? I love kids.” And we were like, “Okay.”

So we made up a summer arts camp for children and we went door to door and we sold it to harried mothers who needed something to do with their kids. And we were all kind of into running. So we could do things with the kids, like this exercise where you’ve, we were very able to play with them physically, but we also played with them in many other ways. We composed plays, they acted them out. We had them dance to orchestral music. We had a really good time and we made a lot of money for two seasons. And then we quit after our second year in college over the protests of the mothers who were like, “Where’s the summer camp?”

We didn’t have to have jobs. We had a sanity quilt. And I’ve been making sanity quilts ever since. So I hope you get the picture. Everything you have is potentially beautiful. Everything you are is potentially beautiful. If there’s something different about you that people have told you is bad, see that it is beautiful and start to just connect it on the tutorial I watched, she said, “Just start putting the pieces of fabric that you like together and just stitch them together any old way.” And then you can start to say, “Oh, okay, this one maybe I’ll shape a little differently.” So it starts with clumps of things that you enjoy doing, and then you focus on the clumps and bringing them in row. My partner was calling them constellating. She said, “Things constellate in her interest field, like a certain circle of authors will become a constellation of fascination for her.” And over on the other side, she’s got different constellations with different things. And if you patch together things that you love, then you create these clumps and the clumps end up becoming things that can fit together. And ultimately, you have your sanity quilt, and it can make you money, and it can keep you warm, and it can keep you interested and it can be beautiful and it will not be like anyone else’s quilt ever.

So with that, I see that we are getting some questions and I want to do our meditation before I go into the questions, because I would like you to dedicate this meditation to allowing the constellation of beauty, and interest, and qualities, and people, and things in your life. I’d love you to think of the things you want to make your sanity quilt out of. Because the more you start focusing on your sanity quilt, the more you can move away from what the culture is trying to force us all to be. Okay?

So I’m just going to ask you to allow ideas to come to you. They may not come to you during the meditation, but the meditation is devoted to opening ourselves to the inspiration to make a sanity quilt out of our lives. So that let’s do the triggering request, which is, can I imagine the distance between my eyes? So everybody ask yourself that question.

Can I imagine the distance between my eyes? Can I imagine the distance between my third eye and the back of my head? Can I imagine the distance between the top of my head and the bottom of my spine? Can I imagine the distance between the bottoms of my feet and the tops of my shoulders? Can I hear the silence underneath the sounds of my whole life? Can I feel the space? Can I imagine the space inside my atoms, which is absolutely permeated by all of space, it’s indistinguishable from space itself. Can I imagine the stillness under everything that moves, the stillness that holds my life, the stillness that will hold my activities and everything I do to make a beautiful quilt of the things this life has given me? Can I imagine that stillness, space, and silence are full of inspiration and beauty and ideas that no human has ever had before? Can I imagine those ideas being invited to come and occupy my mind and find expression in my behavior? Can I imagine the universe playing with the stuff that is this body, the great quilter of the universe, is going to help you as you make your sanity quilts.

Let’s look at these questions. All right. Johnna Box says, “80% of my quilt is the ocean or rain.” I love that she’s a water person, just the thought of a quilt made of 80% ocean and rain. All of a sudden, I’m living on a beach in Central America and seeing the rain and the cloud forest and the rainforest and the ocean. And that is a hint about the kind of quilt that Johnna might want to create at some point with her life.

PC Longson says, “Do you recommend writing all these pieces of your sanity quilt down, wondering how to get started and then put it together?” Definitely sit with a notebook and write down whatever comes to mind, or carry a notebook or some post-it notes. And notice when you are drawn to something, when you’re, I call it the three N’s, notice, narrow, and name. So notice the things that grab your interest, narrow it down to the things that are most interesting within those things, and then name them last of all. So yeah, you can start noticing and writing down or get pictures. Download them, cut them out, put them in a box. I have just boxes, pretty boxes you can get at the craft store or just a cardboard box you find on the street. Fill boxes with images and totems that can show you what your passions are. Here, for example, I have this little piece of quartz, I forget what it’s called. Some of you will remember.

That has a lot to do with my fascination with nature and the mysteries of nature and with peoples, ancient peoples, traditional peoples, because I’ve been in groups of First Nation Americans who have worked with crystals in a very powerful way. So it’s kind of a symbol to me of a whole bunch of my interests. So it’s part of my sanity quilt. All right, so yeah, keep anything you can to remind you of the things that are part of your quilt.

Dr. Donna says, “How do you gain the clarity and courage to design your own life rather than allow others to design it for you?”

I just take mine from pain and misery. I dislike pain and misery. I’m strange that way, and because of that, when I’m in pain and misery and I’m acting normal, I eventually say, “I’m going to stop acting normal so I won’t be in pain and misery. Roe calls it “Looking weird and feeling good.” So yeah, it does take clarity and it does take courage. According to Dick Schwartz of the creator of IFS, all of us have clarity, confidence, courage and calm, and four other C values inside us all of that time. So you can access that if you get some practice in it. But the important thing to remember is it’s always there already. And the springboard that most of us require to actually change our lives is suffering. It’s not like you get a big dose of courage, you get a big dose of suffering, and then you’re going, “Okay. This is so bad. I’d rather do something unorthodox.” And that’s where the courage comes from. Then you do it, then you feel really brave because you did it, and you’re less afraid of the world and it’s awesome.

Constellations In Her Bones says, “How do you suppose we teach highly sensitive people that they’re beautiful and strong, and how can being artists or makers bring healing?” Holy smokes. There is so much evidence of the healing power of the arts and creativity. If you doodle for 20 minutes a day, all kinds of health measures will get much, much better for you according to the research that I’ve read recently. There’s a book called Your Brain on Art that kind of collapses all the research in and gives you tons and tons of actual physiological advantages you get from being artistic. It’s a literally healing thing. If you’re highly sensitive, you’re going to have to buck the tide of the culture a little bit, but get together with your highly sensitive friends and do a manifesto. We are not broken. We are highly sensitive. There’s nothing wrong with it.

It’s like me, I have ADD. They said to me, “Your problem is you have an interest-based nervous system.” My oldest child was telling me about this the other day too. It’s a disability. And I was like, “Okay, what is it?” “Well, you only really pay attention to things that interest you, but we can help you with that.” I was told at one point, and I was like, “Why would I want to pay attention to things that don’t interest me?” “Well, trust us. It’s a pathology and a disability.” “I choose not to see it that way.” And if you’re a highly sensitive person, I choose to see you as magical, spiritual. Like your ability to create things that are gorgeous and valuable can only go up when you’re highly sensitive. From my point of view, because that is just the way I look at it from my sanity quilt perspective. So yes, if you’re highly sensitive, three cheers, you can make incredible things that are very healing in the world and just making them will heal you. Yeah.

Ruth Lynn says, “We should all share what we have here to get each other thinking.” I have no idea how that would work online, but I bet somebody out there could create a thread, a forum, I don’t know, help. Somebody tell me what you’d use to gather together the sanity quilt, ingredients for this whole group of Gathering Room fans. I think it’s wonderful and I hope you do it. I have no idea how to do that. Not really knowing how to do a lot of tech things is one of my sanity quilt ingredients, and I find people who do it better and they are part of my sanity quilt.

Somete says, “If you choose to create a sanity quilt with others like you did pre-college, how do you know that it isn’t too dependent on others?” Because it won’t feel icky when you’re getting together with people that are all pulling at the same way, at the same strength and in the same direction. There’s a sense of adventurous comradery. So I remember being under that table with all the quilters around and they were all stitching away. Everything was hand stitched, and it took a lot of women a lot… Not that much time to stitch a quilt. So once you got your sanity quilt pieces together, it’s really fun to get together with other people and everybody gives each other feedback on what they could do with their sanity quilt.

That’s what my friends and I did. We sat down together and said, “Here’s my sanity quilt. Here’s your sanity quilt. Here’s yours. What should we make Of all of them? Oh, Carrie loves children. I mean, Phil and I had no problem with children, but Carrie loves children. Oh, okay, that’s going to work. And Phil is strong as an ox and he can write beautiful poetry.” We figured it all out together, and I certainly felt like we were just having an adventure.

So if it feels icky, I’ve been in writing groups where everybody just sat there and stared at me and didn’t really write anything and I felt icky. You’ll feel icky right away if you’re trying to partner with people who aren’t partners, they’re just, they’re at a different level. One way or another. You don’t need that. Get out of it. Go find some real quilting me people and enjoy the time with them. And then nobody will be too dependent on anyone.

Cheryl says, “What about the things in our past we feel shame or guilt about?” Oh my God, that is gold. I was watching or listening to David Sedari’s book, and he was talking about seeing a teenage girl with her very verbally abusive grandmother, and the grandmothers is horrible to this teenage girl. And he says, very unexpectedly, he said, “I’ve looked at her and I thought I was jealous of that girl. I did not feel bad. I felt jealous.” Because her grandmother was so evil that she was amazing material. And the woman was dressed in all this western gear, and he said, “She was like a gold mine dressed as a gold miner.” And he said, “Yeah, if you’ve got something dark in your past…” And he writes about his past as an addict as being in poverty, and if you decide to make that into art, you’re going to make it into your sanity quilt.

You’re going to make it into something beautiful. It becomes powerful the way Glennon Doyle’s discussion of her alcoholism or her anorexia becomes powerful. The way so many great memoirs are beautifully written about people’s previous shame and guilt. Once you decide you’re going to create something with it, as Garrison Keeler said, “Nothing bad ever happens to a writer. It’s all material.” Nothing bad ever happens to a sanity quilter. It’s all material.

All right, Mae Elizabeth says, “How do you quiet the voices of self-doubt that prevent you from believing that you’re able to create this sanity quilt well and successfully?” Well, you don’t always quiet them. They will be there, but you quiet them sometimes. You quiet them enough to move forward. Every time I get… Every day I wake up and I’m writing and writing and writing, and every day I’m afraid that I won’t be able to do it.

My friend Steven Mitchell is one of the most beautiful wordsmiths and writers in the English language as far as I’m concerned. He told me he’s still afraid he can’t do it. When he sits down to write a book, that voice is going to come up. That’s okay. All you need to do is say, “All right, I’ll be back to you in a minute. I’m going to put you over here and now I’m going to actually begin putting things together.” The left side of the brain is where most of the harsh, negative doubtful voices live. Putting things together happens on the right side. So you can’t listen to the voices of the Furies, at least not in their harsh manifestation. When you are actively quilting, when you are actively putting ideas together, words together, objects or sounds or anything together, the synthesizing or putting things together, you can’t do that and still be stuck in the left hemisphere’s peanut gallery of screaming, yelling, and criticizing.

So you’ll have time to make a sanity quilt in there, and then they can scream some more. But ultimately, your sanity quilt will grow and grow, and grow, and it will keep you warmer and warmer and it will be more and more beautiful. And then people will look at you and go, “Oh, how did you get in such a good life? You’re so lucky. How did that happen?” And you’ll be like, “Welcome to my sanity quilt. Pull up a corner. It will keep you warm too, and I’ll teach you to make your own.”

So thank you for being here. You are all part of my sanity quilt, and I love you. Thanks for being here, meditating with me, listening to me, asking me questions, and making our sanity quilts together. Bye.

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