Making Something Out Of “Nothing”: Patchwork Quilts, Ricotta and Traumatic Growth

When I complained that other kids got money for doing chores or even getting good grades, I remember our dad used to say, “I want you to be good for nothing!” He thought it was funny. I didn’t think so and soon started going out and finding babysitting jobs. In those days the going rate was 50 cents an hour. I think a lot about “nothing” when I ponder and write about neglect.

The early world of neglect is a desert: an empty, cavernous and howling loneliness where nothing seems to happen. When I was anorexic and eating nothing, I would take note of the passing of each “meal time that wasn’t, as a way of knowing that the vacuous time had elapsed. The more I think about it, the more meaning “nothing” seems to have. And as I often say, one of the greatest myths surrounding neglect is that “nothing happened to me, so I have no business feeling so bad.”

 

Making Something Out of Nothing

I recently heard an interview with a successful young South African textile artist named Billie Zangewa, a Black woman who grew up in Apartheid. As I began to pay attention, I heard that her medium is patchwork, making collages out of bits of silk. She was presently working on a commission, a portrait of the fashion icon Christian Dior. She was pleased to point out the irony, or the synchrony of creating a “painting out of silk, of a man famous for his work in silk.” Looking up her work, brought back a flood of memories for me, about sewing and patchwork.

 I have few happy memories of my mom, my favorite one is from when I was nine, and my mother taught me to sew. I loved to sew, it became a godsend, a way of regulating myself: focusing my attention on very fine and precise movements, and creating beauty. I was of the belief that “ugly people need to compensate by making beautiful things.” So, I made a project of that, and I was making clothes for everyone before long, with my mother’s vintage 1950 Singer “Featherweight.” My other happy memory, was my 15th birthday when my mom gave me the best gift ever: my own little sewing machine, a tiny little portable thing called a “Lotus.” I still have both my mom’s Featherweight and the Lotus. Thanks Mom!

I accumulated so much leftover fabric that I too discovered patchwork. Having little money, it was a way of creating something new and beautiful without having to buy anything, in effect it felt like “making something out of nothing.” I made my parents a large patchwork bedspread with an elaborate design that I made up, which they had on their bed for many years. I now have it in my home office, and you can see it below. 

I did notice since I have been a trauma therapist, that I have had many clients who work in patchwork, as if trying to organize all the fragmented parts of themselves into a coherent, even beautiful and colorful whole. I have received several as gifts over the years, and I love them. Sometimes I think my mind is like a patchwork quilt, a random smattering of different shaped and colored thoughts, stitching themselves together into designs that may be interesting to me. Being a lonely child of neglect, most of my life it was a solitary bunting. I could hardly imagine that anyone would want to see it.

It was a way of creating something new and beautiful without having to buy anything, in effect it felt like “making something out of nothing.”

 

Ricotta

I have always loved ricotta, its simple fresh and light flavor and cool, both smooth and course texture that can lend itself to both sweet and savory. I was fascinated when I learned how to make it. Most people know that the biproduct of cheesemaking is the whey. The curd or milk solids that set and become cheese, separate, and the liquid that remains is the whey. It is amazing to me that when I make an 8-gallon batch of cheese, and end up with an approximately 8 pound wheel, I still somehow wind up with a good six gallons of whey. Many people, and probably most manufacturers just toss it, although there are many things you can do with it. Certainly, body builders know this. Well one thing you can make with whey is ricotta.

I learned that slowly heating up the whey, causes a cap of residual milk solids to rise to the top of the pot, becoming gradually thicker. It is an adventure to watch it form, the pressure of the rising heat, driving the thickening mass up. Smooth and bulgy, it takes its time, rising, rising. You don’t add anything to it, it is the simple whey. Watching the energy build, to my sex therapist mind, is reminiscent of the building energy of an orgasm. It begins rolling and roiling, and the finale is when the bubbling, mass breaks through into a boil. Then you quickly turn off the heat, cover it and leave it overnight. In the morning, I uncover it and skim off a thick layer of ricotta, drain the remaining liquid through cheesecloth and there is another layer in the cloth lined colander. Nothing added, just the simple whey that many discard: a good pound or so of ricotta. Again, like something out of nothing. I now have a treasure trove of recipes of delicious things to make with ricotta: cookies, muffins, scones, as well as all the most known uses like lasagna.

Taking it even further, I sometimes use the second generation of whey, after draining the ricotta, for bread baking, or even for boiling bagels. And I am told that tomato plants and lemon trees love it. So, there is great value in what seems like “nothing.”

I learned that slowly heating up the whey, causes a cap of residual milk solids to rise to the top of the pot, becoming gradually thicker. It is an adventure to watch it form, the pressure of the rising heat, driving the thickening mass up. Smooth and bulgy, it takes its time, rising, rising. You don’t add anything to it, it is the simple whey. Watching the energy build, to my sex therapist mind, is reminiscent of the building energy of an orgasm. It begins rolling and roiling, and the finale is when the bubbling, mass breaks through into a boil.

 

Traumatic Growth

Clients often lament about all the “wasted” time. There is no denying the loss, and there is tremendous grief involved. The loneliness and vacuousness are no joke, nor are the many years lost to addiction, suicidality, depression, and the like. During the seeming eternity, required to heal, others appear to be getting on with career and family. There is no justice in it. However, I cannot deny that everything I have ever been through serves me, the supply of ricotta seems endless. Something valuable and beautiful can emerge from “nothing.” Zangzewa added in her interview, that the caterpillar works long and hard to create the cocoon in which it sleeps. The grand transformation is when the butterfly emerges. The cocoon is then cast off, tossed away like trash. The cocoon. however, she reminds us when spun apart, provides the thread from which silk is made. My ricotta chocolate birthday cakes are the best that its recipients have ever had! And I now know not to waste time, because I have a choice.

The song I have choosen to accompany this blog is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wTP2RUD_cL0

My book “Working with the Developmental Trauma of Childhood Neglect: Using Psychotherapy and Attachment Theory Techniques in Clinical Practice” was published on August 31st. It provides psychotherapists with a multidimensional view of childhood neglect and a practical roadmap for facilitating survivors’ healing.

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