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As an only child with few cousins my age to play with, visiting relatives meant hours sitting politely on the couch while my parents and elders discussed the weather. My mother, tired of listening to my complaints and likely bored herself with discussing how many inches of rain the recent summer afternoon thunderstorm had brought and able to empathize, taught me how to cross-stitch – a  quiet, self-contained activity perfect for the type of young lady I was being raised to be. Cross-stitching led to crocheting, to quilting, and to needlepoint.

My mother bought me my first needlepoint canvas as a Christmas present in my early twenties. We went shopping for it together. I chose a picture of a gray bird sitting on the back of a yellow cat. The cat had cream whiskers and cream outlining his ears. Because needlepoint stitches are made at an angle, straight lines that aren’t exactly 45 or 90 degrees present a challenge. The hand-painted canvas instructed whiskers, most of which were not at perfect angles. Starting with cream – light colors are always stitched first – I quickly encountered the dilemma of the whiskers. Trying but failing to stitch perfectly along the painted whiskers on the canvas, I stitched, took out, and re-stitched through all of the cream yarn. Frustrated, I set the canvas aside. I had ruined it. Surely the store would no longer have the cream thread to match. I clearly had failed at needlepoint.

Recently, when I was home sick and trying to entertain myself with a quiet, self-contained activity, I found my how-to needlepoint book and set out to teach myself again, ten years later. I studied the cream lines and came up with an approach to place the lines at perfect angles close to where the designer had laid them, but not exactly as they were painted. I bought more cream yarn – it wasn’t a perfect match, but I decided  no one would notice the difference. After stitching twelve good-enough whiskers, I reflected on my previous lack of flexibility. I was amused at what a difference my change in attitude had made. I was successful because I had let myself deviate from the prescribed pattern to create my own. I’d cast off my only one way to do it attitude and begun to view the whole picture with a wider lens, an approach I think I learned from not much of anything working out like societal prescriptions had promised.

Stitch outside the pattern and lay down your lines wherever you think they best go. Without the flexibility to create your own solutions, you’ll get stuck as soon as prescribed rules don’t yield the expected results.