A Challenge and an Opportunity

“Think of it as a challenge and an opportunity.” A wise, gentle boss would suggest this, when I balked at tasks I didn’t relish. It’s taken me more than thirty years to fully appreciate these words, and I still don’t do them justice.

As a noun, “challenge” has multiple meanings. A challenge is a stimulating task or problem, an invitation to compete in a contest, or a command to prove identity, among other things. As a verb, it can mean to confront or resist, or to dispute something as being unjust or invalid, or to create a contest or difficulty.

It can be easy to identify challenges. Anything that creates a barrier is a challenge, whether it is difficult dealings with other people, a job interview or art show jury, or a fear of flying when you need to cross the country quickly.

This is where opportunity comes in. The root of “opportunity” is “port.” Some etymologists use the notion of “ob portus” or heading toward port in a storm, sailing away from danger. Other words derived from port are portal and porch, perhaps giving welcome refuge from our challenges. More current usage of “opportunity” refers to a chance, or a favorable time or condition for achieving success or attaining a goal.

If we recognize a circumstance as a challenge and an opportunity, we recognize there is both a barrier and a way through it.

To practice this concept, I’ve chosen CHALLENGE and OPPORTUNITY as my words of the year for 2017.


As I look into 2017, I foresee many challenges. Some are personal and others are societal. For societal ones, I intend to offer the challenge of resistance and questioning. These give me the opportunity for expression and the potential to affect change. I’ll need to think creatively, exercise my patience and tact muscles, and work for equality and justice.

Personal challenges can come from anywhere, anytime. Disagreements, slow check-out lines, misplaced paperwork, and much more extreme difficulties, can cause stress and irritation. Again, patience and tact go a long way toward moving through them gracefully. These are skills I continue to practice.

My quilting challenges are of a different nature. Here I’m usually on the receiving end of challenges, mostly self-imposed. I challenge myself to try new things, or to do more or better at familiar things. On reviewing my last few years with their sources of satisfactions and frustrations, I found that most are related to teaching or learning. Here are a few.

Challenge: Teaching in person is a prime source of gratification, and I want to do more. My favorite local quilt shop, which had great classroom space, closed its doors last week.
Opportunities: Another nearby quilt shop just moved into new space, and they do have a classroom now. I’ll check to see if my classes suit their needs. I’ll refresh my list of quilt guilds to contact for presentation and workshop possibilities, and follow through with contacting them. I’ll consider options for teaching about quilt history in non-quilting venues, such as historical societies.

Challenge: It is hard to obtain high-quality feedback on my projects as I develop them.
Opportunities: My medallion class, at its best, provides good feedback for me and the students. Re-establishing a schedule of classes would help me as I help others. Beyond this, I’m not sure how to get regular feedback and would welcome ideas. 

Challenge: While I want to continue making medallion quilts, it’s important to me that each is unique, not simply a rehash of things I’ve previously done.
Opportunities: This week I’m beginning a new class at the community college on linoleum block printing. In February I’ll take a second class on printing on fabrics. I’ll look for more workshops and classes through the year to refresh my work. Any other thoughts on this?

Challenge: A specific intention is to create story quilts. I have a number of ideas to present this way but am unsure of how to go forward. I’d really like someone to help pull me through the process, at least for the first one.
Opportunities: Honestly I don’t know where to go on this one. If you have ideas, please share.

Other challenges come to mind, and more will arise through the year. However, these currently are my highest priorities. Any ideas and advice you have of how to create or expand opportunities is welcome!

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34 thoughts on “A Challenge and an Opportunity

  1. Nann

    Your words-of-the-year are great. I agree about “high quality feedback.” The tendency for friendly bloggers is to say, “Oooh, that’s beautiful” because, well, it’s nice to be admiring rather than critical. [When I read comments on public-affairs, newspaper, or other blogs I am taken aback by the vitriol (and often the idiocy).]

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      The vitriol and idiocy, while in disagreement, is mostly just disagreeable! And yes, it’s lovely to have people agree and compliment, but I don’t learn as much from that as from thoughtful critique. Thanks.

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  2. katlorien

    Happy New year Melanie! I immediately thought of “Anna’s” story quilt in “How to make an American quilt”. I look forward eagerly to seeing how you develop this concept.

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  3. TextileRanger

    I am very intrigued with how you will approach story quilts. Thinking of your style, I visualize medallion quilts where each border from left to right leads into the main point of the story, the center block, and then each border from right to left is part of the denouement. Do you know what I mean? Like if it was for The Three Bears, the borders would show woods, bears, porridge bowls; then the center would be the broken chair; then the further borders would be pillows, bears, fleeing little shoes. (Now I am thinking of Jan Brett books.) Only, I would think that with your style, none of the fabric pattern choices would be so obvious, they would be more subtle. The story might help you make design choices, but you might be the only one seeing the association of pattern with story element.
    I hope you get me!

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I don’t completely get you, Gwen, but I have an idea. There is a quilt by Ruth McDowell called The Twelve Dancing Princesses that sort of does what I think you’re saying. (I googled and don’t see a high quality image of it.) Mostly I’m thinking of using the center to tell the story. For example, I wrote a short story about a quilt featuring Pecos Bill lassoing the tornado, and I’d love to actually make the quilt depicted in the story. Or a photo I have of my in-laws in their garden, exaggerated to make a point… Things like that, where the main “story” is simply the depiction in the center of the quilt, though it may spill over or be supplemented in the borders. Mary Lou Weidman is famous for her story quilts, and other people like Mary Mashuta, Roberta Horton, and Meg Prange also are notable.

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  4. katechiconi

    High quality feedback is perhaps the hardest thing on your want list, I feel. Quilters are an amiable and encouraging bunch, and will tend always to be positive about whatever they can. Specific requests for more detailed and technical feedback would hopefully bring results; if we know you want our thoughts, whether positive or negative, we’ll be more likely to voice our less favourable ideas.
    For quilts that tell a story, I can only suggest that you decide at the outset whether the quilt will tell this story in a progressive, linear fashion, border by border, or create an impression which gradually expands as more detail is noticed.
    Your words for the year are good, strong ones, and perfectly suited to you! I’m sticking with Steady, an early choice, to encourage me to make good progress on ALL my projects rather than flitting about or concentrating on the flavour of the moment.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I do get helpful responses from blog readers when I ask for it. The difference of course, is that in person, someone can make suggestions or offer input that is far beyond that. Another aspect is the post-finish assessment, in which I could chew over the whole project and what I think is successful or not, and get another trusted view on it too. When I try to do that type of self-assessment here, I’ll typically get comments that I’m being too hard on myself. But that’s how I learn.

      For the story quilts, I do have a pretty strong concept of how I want the idea framed or structured. But yeah, that is key, I agree.

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  5. norma

    Interesting post. I think the block printing is a good idea. I find taking an unrelated craft workshop can really help. More variety seems to create sparks.
    Hope 2017 works out well for you.

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  6. KerryCan

    I recently met two women who were taking a week-long intensive quilt workshop and really, really being pushed by it. Could you take such a workshop, to give you a jumpstart on the story quilts? I’m a big believer in these intense experiences. I also think the courses you’re taking will lead you in many interesting directions–as Norma said above, you’ll be seeing new connections and possibilities (opportunities!) that will excite you, i bet.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Yes, a long workshop would be great! I’ve looked for options within “driving distance,” or maybe 200+ miles, so it would be easy to transport my machine and supplies. So far I haven’t seen anything. But I’ll keep looking. Thanks.

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  7. snarkyquilter

    It’s exciting you’re using the opportunity to take classes in other creative areas besides quilting. Maybe you could create a series of linoleum plates that tell a story or show the motifs from a story? The quilt exhibit “And Still We Rise” has lots of story quilts that illustrate key events in African-American history. I wrote a post about the book from that exhibit in 2016. As to thoughtful critiques, through your classes you may make contact with artists in other fields who could offer insights. After all, you don’t have to quilt to be able to assess the design of a quilt.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      THIS is good advice: “artists in other fields who could offer insights. After all, you don’t have to quilt to be able to assess the design of a quilt.” Yes, need to tap this thought more completely. Thanks as always for looking at things from a slightly different view.

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  8. allisonreidnem

    Challenge and opportunity – lots of scope in those words as your word pictures show. They are very dynamic too so fit very well with your goals, all about progressing in your creativity. So glad you have the urge to share through teaching classes as well as bringing your experience with fabrics to different media. Hope those opportunities open up and provide stimulating and fruitful challenges.

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  9. Sue

    The valuable feedback is an interesting notion that I’ve also been thinking about lately. In my group, we had a session at our November meeting where one of our members guided us in providing feedback/critique to three members on art quilts in progress. She provided us with written materials that included guidelines for doing such critiques. It is a way of speaking to one another that clearly does not come naturally to most people, and it was challenging (!) and intriguing enough that I think we’ve decided to do these sessions quarterly for awhile, to get some practice. But this is in person critique, with real communication, complete with eye contact, tone of voice and facial expressions. It would be very difficult to interact in this way online, I think. It takes great skill to express oneself in writing exactly as one would wish to be understood! And, it requires a foundation of trust, like that exercise where you fall backwards, trusting that person behind you, who you can’t see, to catch you before you fall.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Thanks, Sue. I’d love to see more information about your training on this. I’ve been in writing groups where the work is “workshopped.” Other members have guidelines for their comments, and the writer is to stay silent, not defending or explaining. This is one type of critique I think could be helpful. But full dialogue between two (or more) trusting people is another way to go. Perhaps you could blog about it? With her permission, of course, if you use her guidelines. And yes, online critique can be helpful but it has it’s difficulties, too. Thanks again.

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  10. zippyquilts

    Goodness, I don’t even know what a story Quilt is! Maybe you’ll blog about it as you do it, and I’ll learn 😃 My suggestion on critique would be to invite 4 or 5 other quilters to meet once a month for mutual critique and encouragement. A predetermined format for critique is helpful in keeping things on track and civil, and several have been developed. Hope you have a great year!

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Thanks, Mary. I do have a small group I meet with monthly. However it is primarily a social group. A critique group would be a different animal, one I might have to culture from scratch. But I agree that would be one of the best ways to address the issue.

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  11. Paula Hedges

    Being able to appreciate after 30 years something told to you and see how it has meaning to your life at this point in your journey is inspirational! You have indeed given yourself a challenge just in choosing the words “challenge and opportunity”, but I love the combination and all it implies. You will do well and may surprise yourself on what else you develop along the way. The class you are taking is a challenge and you have given yourself an opportunity not only to take the class, but to learn something interesting and potentially useful in your quilting talent. Sounds like you are off to a wonderful start. My 2017 “word” is learn. In thinking about “learn”, challenge and opportunity go hand in had with learning! So may we both have a wonderful 2017 using our “chosen theme” to lead the way, Melanie.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Thank you, Paula. I love the word “learn” for a year. To be faithful to it, you’ll really need to keep your eyes and ears open, won’t you! I’ve tried to use words that fit well across my life, and C&O do that, as “learn” will do for you. Thanks for reading.

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