Muriel’s bags

Robin and I were wandering around the Prince George (British Columbia) farmers’ market when I met Muriel. We didn’t talk more than ten or fifteen minutes, but I will remember the meeting for a very long time.

The Prince George farmers’ market had just moved inside for the winter. It’s the first year farmers and crafters have had a year-round outlet their wares. The friends we were staying with knew we’d want to see it. [Wendy is on the market’s board. She’s picking out a cabbage in the photo. Theresa and I worked together on the HEAL project (Healthy Eating and Active Living in Northern BC). All four of us appreciate good food.]

Inside the market, three talented young musicians were playing lively tunes. We watched them for a while. Then Tess, Robin, and I wandered off separately to check out the stands. Wendy tended the booth where she sells her beautiful dichroic-glass jewelry.

Toward the back of the market, I came across a bright-eyed farmer in baseball cap and denim jacket. I stopped to talk potatoes and biodiversity with him. His potatoes were every shade of red, brown, yellow, and blue. He had varieties for baking, boiling, mashing, and frying.

Just beyond him Jovanka Djordevich was displaying organic Okanagan grapes. Her family grows the succulent white and red grapes on acreage not far from my home in Kelowna. It was some of Jovanka’s grapes that ended up in the breakfast treat Wendy made for us. (See the last photo in Wendy Young, Life Artist.)

Near Jovanka a splash of bright red caught my eye. Spiraling around a metal rack was a parade of bags. Some were brightly patterned with designs and characters that would draw the eye of a child or someone with a child’s sense of wonder. Others were solid colours or bore flowers or musical instruments or delicate gardens.

They were made of corduroy and cotton and canvas. No two were cut from the same fabric. What they all had in common was a triangle flap on each side, hiding a deep pocket. In the center of each were two smaller pockets to catch the keys, coins, pens and tiny notebooks that slip out of sight.

Muriel Cook must have recognized the mixture of longing and reluctance in my face as I stood looking at the finely crafted bags.

“Would you like one?” Muriel asked.

“I’m just admiring them,” I said. “I have so many bags. I really shouldn’t buy one more.” I rather suspect I sighed before saying, “They’re so beautiful and well made.”

Muriel told me about the scrap box every seamstress has, about the bits and pieces of fabric people give her, about all the places she finds the swatches of colour she combines into her bags, about the pieces she saves until just the right contrasting or matching piece comes her way.

“They’re so cleverly made,” I said, exploring the flaps and hidden pockets and drawstring tops.

I could see Muriel was an artist with cloth. Every seam was perfect, every combination of colours just right. There was pride hanging on that metal rack, along with a complete lack of pretension.

We talked for a few more minutes, and then I turned to go. Muriel stopped me. “I’d like you to have one,” she said.

I made polite noises of appreciation for her work but said again I really couldn’t justify buying another bag.

“No,” she said, “I want you to pick one out. I want you to have one of my bags.”

This woman whose work I so admired was offering me a gift. For a moment, I hesitated, thinking of all the time and love that had gone into the bags.

And then I remembered what people a lot wiser than I am have taught me about gifts. When we question or refuse them, we reject something precious—the open-hearted joy and generosity that come of being able to offer something we know will give pleasure, something we know is worthy, something that expresses a small piece of our souls.

So with deep pleasure and gratitude, I picked out a bag. It’s the one nearest Muriel in this photo. The fabric reminds me of the beautiful old carpet bags people used to carry. It perfectly matches my winter coat.

But most of all, when I carry this bag with me now, I carry the generosity of a talented woman who offered me a piece of her soul.


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