Betsy Bridwell is a member of the Sunbow Community in Auburn, Washington, originators of the Sunbow Quilt Project (see IN CONTEXT Autumn 1983). For more information on the project, contact Betsy at 14812 S.E. 368th Place, Auburn, WA 98002 or 206/939-8824.
A part of being a citizen diplomat is sharing oneself, and one vehicle that has proven to be a real "barrier breaker" is the giving of handmade quilts as peace/friendship gifts to Soviet citizens. The Sunbow Quilt Project, facilitated by the Sunbow Community of Auburn, Washington, has allowed individuals who often are not politically involved in the peace movement to express themselves in a very gentle yet concrete way. To those who see and receive the quilts, it sends a powerful message about our concerns and our commitment to peace as well as about our culture and individual lives. It also opens us up to learning more about the society of those fellow humans to whom we give these gifts.
My experience of the Soviet people is that they are very giving and sharing with their guests; hospitality flows and gifts are exchanged often. The response to a handmade gift like a quilt, one requiring such time and effort to make, is overwhelming and a joy to be part of.
Last summer I was nearing the end of a seven-week study tour to the Soviet Union, and I still had not found the "right" place to leave the quilt I was carrying. I began to worry whether I ever would! Each quilt is special and carries within it the energy of so many people; this particular one was especially meaningful for me because of its theme (favorite stories of American children) and because I had made two of the squares and spent many hours quilting it. As I sat in my hotel room in Krasnodar, a small town in the south of Russia near the Black Sea, preparing for our visit to a collective farm the next day, I had a feeling I should take the quilt along. I immediately began negating the urge, because I had an expectation that it should go to an individual and was assuming that there would not be an opportunity to connect with anyone on a farm tour. But I convinced myself that there was nothing to be lost by throwing the quilt on the bus; it could always stay there if no opportunity arose to present it.
We spent a delightful day with Anatoli, director of the farm, and Vasili, district party leader. We were treated with great hospitality; not only did we have a tour of the actual farm facilities and a session in which our questions were answered very openly (including questions about problems they were dealing with), but we were also given an outstanding performance of music and dance by the kolhozniks (Russian term for those living on a kolhoz, or collective farm) whose hobbies were traditional and contemporary music and dance. By mid- afternoon we had completed our visit with a wonderful lunch. Anatoli stood up to thank us for coming, for building on that tried-and-true method of fostering peace: learning about each others’ lives and making personal connections. He presented us with a large ceramic decanter "as a symbol of the peace and friendship we all want to share, and as a memory of our time together." Although these "peace speeches" are often belittled as mere propoganda–and some of those I’ve heard are definitely stiff and formal–the energy of this man and the intent behind his words felt sincere, deeper than rhetoric. At that moment, I knew why I had brought the quilt, and I ran to the bus to get it. When I pulled it out and explained its intent and about all the people who had worked to make it, he couldn’t stop hugging and kissing me as he stared at the quilt. It was a very special moment of connection beyond words and rhetoric, truly a connection of the heart.
On my second trip to the Soviet Union in January, two men came to our hotel in Moscow to visit with us. Igor is a physical therapist who pioneered underwater birthing and is well-known throughout the Soviet Union. Arthur came along as his translator. Both are involved with the "Health Family Club" of Moscow, a group of people who are spiritually oriented and are exploring various aspects of holistic health, including naturopathy, yoga, meditation, etc. We decided to give a quilt to each of these very warm and delightful men. As we presented the quilt to Igor, Arthur translated our explanations and shared Igor’s delighted responses, although the smiles and hugs needed no translation! When we then pulled out a second quilt for Arthur, he was totally overwhelmed and could not believe that he was receiving one, too. He said that it was even more special because this one was made by children. On the night of our departure from Moscow, he came to the hotel at dinner and gave me a packet of thirty postcards and pins, one for each child, each with a personal message on it. He had shared the quilt and letters with the children he works with and had written down their responses.
On a recent visit to Moscow, our tour organizer visited Arthur’s home and reported that the quilt is hanging on his wall where he can share it with all who visit, because he is so proud of it. He also has two young children, and it will most likely eventually be used on their beds.
These are just two of many stories that describe connections made through giving quilts, some of which have continued through correspondence. Both children and adults have found friends in a country that we have so often labeled an "enemy" and in many cases have been able to break through old stereotypes to a new level of understanding. Thousands of small steps are being taken all over the country and the world to begin building bridges instead of walls, and each step is important. Sharing quilts is one of them.