The story I’m about to tell has little to do with qigong, but somehow I’m in a mood to tell it anyway—and I’ll probably get a bit blubbery as I type because telling it always chokes me up.
My great-grandfather, Samuel C. McDowell, fought in the Civil War as an officer in the 8th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment, a regiment which participated in numerous battles, losing almost a fourth of its members to battle wounds or disease, according to Wikipedia.
He was honorably discharged in January of 1865, and as he made his way home, he came upon a family so destitute that it didn’t even have blankets to guard against the winter cold. He was so moved by the family’s plight that he gave them the warm woolen blankets he carried with him.
They insisted upon giving him something in return—a bundle of cotton pieces cut in better times to form the pattern on a fancy quilt. He took the bundle home, and his wife, Margaret, stitched the quilt you see here.
I love the quilt, and I love the story, although of course I don’t know if it’s entirely true. Family stories tend to change with time, and this one was never written down because my great-grandfather was a farmer, not a writer. Mostly he left artifacts—an inkwell and a leather powder flask that he carried during the war and two Currier and Ives prints of the Siege of Vicksburg, which he apparently tore from a large-format magazine. The pictures are full of flames and death, and in the margins of both he wrote where in the action he was.The quilt was on my parents’ bed for many years. My sister has it now, tucked away in a dresser drawer because she doesn’t know what to do with something so old that embodies family history. Recently she took it to an expert in antique quilts who told her that the lime green, bright pink and orange which had always seemed to us unlikely colors for a Civil War quilt were indeed used back then.
The quilt and its story are on my mind because my sister and I talked about them when I was with her in California over Christmas. I don’t know why the story touches me so, but there’s something about an act of kindness in a sea of suffering that always gets to me.
The quilt and its story remind me of how fortunate I am, how easy my life has been and is. I never lacked blankets to keep my children warm on a cold night, like the woman who’d owned the quilt-top pieces before a war tore her life apart. I never witnessed the death and destruction wrought by battle, like my great-grandfather did. My Yi Ren Qigong teacher Dr. Guan-Cheng Sun has many times pointed out how fortunate we students are to have the resources and leisure to pursue the cultivation of our qi, and indeed that is so.
But there’s something else, too, that’s a little harder to pin down.
While I was in California, I was reading Thomas Cleary’s translation of “The Secret of the Golden Flower: The Classic Chinese Book of Life.” I read all the words, and I underlined copiously—but I’m afraid the secret is still pretty much safe from me. Reading the book was just hard, hard, hard and somehow a bit lonely and grim.
According to Cleary, “the golden flower symbolizes the quintessence of the paths of Buddhism and Taoism. Gold stands for light, the light of the mind itself; the flower represents the blossoming, or opening up, of the light of the mind.”
When you awaken the golden flower, you are no longer jerked around by your emotional reactions to the vicissitudes of life and you become aware of a greater reality—or something like that. Stories about old wars and old quilts might no longer make you cry.
But am I willing to give up my tears in favor of greater equanimity?
Tears and emotions, even negative ones, do make you feel alive and human and part of the fabric of life.
I suspect this is a question that others have asked.
It is probably also a question that will answer itself in time….