Monk in the World Guest Post: CJ Shelton

I am delighted to share another beautiful submission to the Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for CJ Shelton’s reflection “Stitches in Time.”

As a working artist and monk-in-the-world, solitude and quiet are essential and over the past year, multiple pandemic lockdowns have provided plenty of both. Such an unexpected gift of time has allowed me to wrap myself in a self-made cocoon of reflection, to paint more and embark on art projects that might not otherwise have had room to grow.

Along with tending my creative “seeds”, another activity that has provided considerable presence during the pandemic’s downtime is the rather old-fashioned craft of counted cross-stitch. Its rhythmic process of pulling threads in and out, and over and under, is something I have found very meditative and comforting.

Like any project, cross-stitch follows a process: multiple threads need to be sorted, separated and aligned with their corresponding symbols, then correctly stitched into their proper places according to a pre-determined pattern. Each individual thread eventually weaves its part in a greater overall picture, one that is not immediately visible, but rather slowly revealed, stitch by stitch.

Along the way tangles need to be straightened out, mistakes un-picked and redone, and sometimes one simply gets disoriented by counting and recounting all those tiny little squares. Progress can seem very slow until at some point, when the fabric is spread out, you finally see just how much has been accomplished and recognize how each tangle represents a challenge worked through and each mistake something learned. The finished piece becomes all the richer for these lessons in patience and persistence.

During the pandemic I have completed numerous small cross-stitches but one large piece is still ongoing. When my mother passed away eleven years ago, among her craft things I discovered a kit she had started but never completed. The image is of a mother wolf and three pups which I suspect she chose because it reminded her of herself and her own three children.

Whether it was intuition or the gift of extended evenings, as the pandemic began, I decided it was time I finally completed it for her. To pick the project up where my mother left off felt like a sacred act, so I found myself asking for her blessing and her guidance, because oddly, there was no photo of what the finished piece should look like.

The piece is quite large and challenging so needless to say it requires patience. And I am still working on it – both the piece and the patience.

When the going gets tough, I put it aside and tackle something smaller. Or sometimes a pause is necessary to solve a problem, such as when I realized I was running out of embroidery floss. Perhaps my mother had mistakenly used three strands of thread instead of two, since along with no photo, there were no instructions either. Regardless, several trips to the craft store – lessons in patience themselves – have been required to find matching colours.

Over time I have also noticed how different my stitching is from my mother’s. On the front of the piece, this is barely noticeable; my work seamlessly merges with hers. The reverse, however, is a different story. The stitching done by my highly organized mother is distinctly unique from my own and, surprisingly, a lot “messier”. Which makes me think how much cross-stitch is like our lives.

The front represents what we show to the world, the side of us that bravely goes about our day-to-day, appearing for all intents and purposes “well put together”. The backside reflects our inner world, with all its uncertainties, its loose ends and second-guessing. It is bound to look a bit messy. Because life is messy. Our thoughts are messy. Self-doubts, anxieties, frailties, and other human foibles are always present, although sometimes not always apparent to others.

Times of challenge, especially, require that we put on a brave front. My mother survived World War II in London, England during the Blitz, so as I have stitched, I have felt her gently reminding me of what she lived through and of the resilience of the human spirit. Her experience helps put our pandemic challenges in perspective and in the wolf cross-stitch she has left a map of how to navigate such long and perilous periods in time.

We have many such maps available to us, made by both the living and those now in Spirit, but it is up to us to figure out how to complete the section of the journey assigned to us. Completions and new beginnings are rarely abrupt. Any transformative passage is usually preceded by a period of “stitching” and while the destination may be unclear at times, it is in our nature to eventually find our way.

So, I continue to patiently persevere through the wolf cross-stitch as well as other creative endeavours, because whether it is a global health threat, a seed beneath the ground, a painting or a cross-stitch, everything has its rhythm and its season.

Like those who have gone before, we too will eventually look back on the pandemic and our current challenges and see them as stitches in time, threads woven into the fabric of a much bigger picture. However big, or small, or messy, those stitches won’t be nearly as important as the maps and messages we too will leave behind, hidden within the threads of our lives, to one day be picked up and woven by others into theirs.


CJ Shelton is an Artist and Educator who inspires and guides others on their creative and spiritual journeys. Through her art, teaching and shamanic practices, CJ helps reveal the meaning, magic and mystery of the Great Wheel of Life. To learn more about CJ and view her work visit DancingMoonDesigns.ca.

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