Annie Mae Young (born 1928) Work-clothes quilt with center medallion of strips. 1976. Denim, corduroy, synthetic blend (britches legs with pockets). 108x77 inches.


1ef·fec·tive adj \i-ˈfek-tiv, e-, ē-, ə-\  1  a : producing a decided, decisive, or desired effect <an effective policy> b : impressive, striking <a gold lamé fabric studded with effective…precious stones — Stanley Marcus>   2  : ready for service or action <effective manpower> 3  : actual <the need to increase effective demand for goods> 4  : being in effect : operative <the tax becomes effective next year> 5  of a rate of interest : equal to the rate of simple interest that yields the same amount when the interest is paid once at the end of the interest period as a quoted rate of interest does when calculated at compound interest over the same period — compare nominal 4

ef·fec·tive·ness noun

ef·fec·tiv·i·ty \ˌe-ˌfek-ˈti-və-tē, i-, ē-, ə-\ noun

2ef·fec·tive noun \i-ˈfek-tiv, e-, ē-, ə-\  : one that is effective (see 1effective); especially : a soldier equipped for duty

Origin of EFFECTIVE (see 1effect)  First Known Use: 1722


Lately, when I’ve considered the word effective, I have thought of the idea of being of use. Alice Water’s short story “Everyday Use,” considers both the dynamics of a family and the way in which we use things, which ones are meant to be preserved and which are best suited for everyday use. In the story, one character criticizes another who she considers foolish. “Maggie can’t appreciate these quilts!” Dee said. “She’d probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use.”

Years ago, in San Francisco, I saw an exhibit featuring the famous Gee’s Bend Quilts. These quilts, now honored and esteemed in the art world and hung on pristine white walls, were made out of scraps of clothing—jeans with knees worn out, workshirts that were torn by work in the fields. They were made to be beautiful but their primary purpose was to be effective in keeping out the cold. The items we employ every day are not effective to us if they don’t work in the way we need them to. All inventions come out of a need, however great or small. We constantly think of ways to complete the tasks we do in our day-to-day lives in a more effective way.

In this way, effectiveness is not so much about the magnitude of the task to be completed, but how that process is maneuvered through for an ideal end result.

Jessie T. Pettway (born 1929). Bars and string-pieced columns. 1950's. Cotton. 95x76 inches.

I’ve been thinking about this in relation to myself lately. Because out of all of the things I desire for myself and my life, at the top of the list is to be of use. What individual gifts or ideas or qualities do I possess and how can I be most useful to the world around me in employing them? I am of the opinion that each of us are put on this planet to fill very individual and important roles, and I think most of our soul searching, wondering and questioning, and confusion and chaos is derived from our attempts to either figure out what these roles are or, once we do, to resist them.

It can be overwhelming to consider what we want to do with our lives and how we can be most effective as a friend, partner, parent, daughter or son, member of our community. And yet somehow, I also believe that the way we listen, respond and initiate small actions in our day-to-day life gives us insight into what we are meant to do in the bigger scheme of things. We learn in these smaller moments what we can do easily. We also learn where we have resistance and we learn to differentiate where the resistance lies: do we resist because what we set out to do is something we genuinely do not want to do or do we resist because we are afraid that we cannot do it (or, sometimes even more threatening, that we can)?

In Naomi Shihab Nye’s lovely poem, “Famous,” she says: “I want to be famous to shuffling men/ who smile while crossing streets/ sticky children in grocery lines/ famous as the one who smiled back. //I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous/ or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular/ but because it never forgot what it could do.”

Gee's Bend Quilters sing at the de Young in San Francisco, September 2006. Credit: Lisa O'Neill

Lately, I have been reminded that this is what I most deeply long for: to never forget what I can do. And it is what I most long for for others. Because in the face of tragedy and suffering and despair, it is important to realize that our individual decisions and actions and creations, the small pieces we each contribute, add up. There is power in recognizing how effectively these pieces combine to a beautiful whole, not something that is manufactured in one seamless movement by one person. But, rather, a whole made of pieces, like a quilt, that when sewn together winds up being not only useful but striking in beauty—a testament to time and patience, hard work and vision, faith and action.

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