I Am Because We Are

Who am I ?  And why am I here?  Two big questions. Hard to find anything bigger. You may know them in different forms: Why was I born? What’s the purpose of my life? How should I live?  Essentially the same thing.  I think about these questions from time to time.  Life changes.  I change.  It’s good to assess.  When I run out of answer pathways, I ask other people.  But they usually have nothing for me. That is to say, you can’t get any closer to your answers by asking other people how you should live your life.  How would they know?  I mean, really.

These questions came up again for me just recently at the annual Holiday Folk Fair International in Milwaukee.  This festival of ethnic heritage is a spectacular celebration in song, dance, food, ritual, history, and of course, craft.  Although not as big as in recent years, it’s still an amazing collection of people sharing their culture.  And these people have culture in droves.  They are living it right before your eyes as they play music, cook, speak, sing, dance.  It’s one of the best places to see needlework, too, because unlike a museum where you can observe a costume behind glass, people are wearing their ethnic costumes.  It’s craft in action.  Alive.

Czech Women at "Home"
Czech Women at “Home”

The festival describes it this way: “folklife . . . is the living expression of culture woven into everyday life – anyone’s culture – learned and passed on informally from person to person. It must be alive and current to be folklife, even though it may have existed over long stretches of time.”

To give you some example of this living expression at the festival:

Below is an example of Uzbek suzani, a traditional embroidery done entirely by hand using silk thread on a cotton/silk cloth.  Traditionally, a woman began embroidering her daughter’s bridal bedspread as soon as she was born.  The demand for these handmade pieces has gone up since the fall of the Soviet Union brought more travelers to Uzbekistan.  From what I have read, new pieces are just as well made as vintage ones.  An excellent example of a craft revival.

Uzbek Suzani
Uzbek Suzani

You can see it is handmade by examining the back.  Machine work never looks like this.  These pieces are made in long strips so that more than one woman can work on a bedspread.  When they are finished, women sew them together and then embroider along the seam to hide it.

Uzbek Suzani Reverse Side
Uzbek Suzani Reverse Side

The pieces above were for sale in the bazaar.  Many other people simply set up shop to show others their craft.   Here is a woman in Pomeranian dress demonstrating weaving on a table loom.

Pomeranian Weaver
Pomeranian Weaver

And Darinka Kohl demonstrating the intricate techniques of bobbin lace.

Darinka Kohl Making Bobbin Lace
Darinka Kohl Making Bobbin Lace

When you see so many people celebrating their culture together, you realize something important about the Big Questions.  Correction:  I learned something.  I learned that I’d been asking the wrong questions.  Instead of asking “Who am I?”  I should be asking “Who are we?”  It’s the community that provides identity, direction, vision.  It’s the community that sustains.  If you want to know who you are, you simply look to your community; they will tell you where you came from and where you are going.  You once ate this food.  You once sang this song.  You once survived this war.  If you want to know who you are, learn how we do things: take up this needle and thread, carve this spoon, speak this language, repeat after me.

And after you learn these things, look around and see that all cultures have their versions.  The egg roll is the burrito is the crepe.

Who am I?  And why am I here?  I am because we are.

To learn more about heritage crafts still practiced in Wisconsin, click here.

The Urge to Make

20131111-011728.jpgMy last post was a lament over lost arts, over how much of our craft / art heritage we lose over time. Reasons are myriad: failure to document, failure to generate interest, bad teaching. There are reasons related to cost, dearth of materials, lack of time. We can also talk about need. We simply don’t need many traditional craft products like we once did. Tastes change, new technologies replace old ones. Once, we relied on horse travel and we had a need for blacksmiths. Horses were replaced by cars and now we have a need for mechanics. Once you could find a blacksmith in nearly every town. Today, how many do you know?

What fascinates me is that we still have blacksmiths at all. We still have people who make bobbin lace, who paint china, who weave seats with slices of cane. Why do people do these things when they could simply go to the store and get a length of lace or a teacup or a chair? In my post, I said there was value simply in the doing. I still think this is true, but it can’t be the entire answer. If it was just about experiencing satisfaction in the doing, then we could stop at taking out the garbage, making the bed, and dusting the lampshades–all those mundane tasks that need to be done: we could do them and feel satisfied and we wouldn’t have to take up rare craft at all.

DSCN1360I’ve been pondering this for two reasons. A friend of mine recently asked me why I knit. The way he put it suggested to me that he thought knitting was simply about the amassment of sweaters, gloves, socks, and scarves. At the end of my life, I could look at this pile of garments and feel good–or maybe superior?–over the sheer size of the wool mountain I’d built. Clearly, this guy doesn’t knit, but he was sincere and his question struck me. It had never occurred to me that someone could not see the value of knitting. He thought it was about accumulation, like collecting records or paperweights.

Yarn stashes aside, knitting has very little to do with collecting. It’s visual, it’s tactile, it’s practical. Beyond this, simply ask any knitter: you’ll hear about self discovery, meditation, self-expression, the challenge of learning, and the joy of creation. It’s this last idea–the joy of creation–that struck me as I was engaged in conversation with another friend about the ornamental clothing of the Masai. Why do we embellish clothing? Or more broadly: why decorate? A thing can just be a thing. It doesn’t need rhinestones to make it purposeful. The rhinestones do not add to a thing’s utility. Rhinestones are extra. So why add them?


If we want to look at this from an economic standpoint, the answer is clear: decoration adds value. We pay more for decorated things. Part of that value is reflected in the artist’s time and materials. Talent also adds value. We pay premiums for well decorated things and even more for well decorated things that are scarce.

But what if you remove the market? It turns out that people still decorate. Even with no economic incentive, people will still make things beautiful. It’s like we can’t help ourselves. I’m thinking here of the thousands of people who–right now–are tinkering away at their craft without any hope of selling what they make. In fact, selling their work may never even enter their minds.

One might say that we decorate as a form of self-expression. Okay. But this cannot be–or shouldn’t be–the only reason. As proof, I submit my poetry students. Years ago, I used to teach creative writing to college students. In writing workshops, students share their work with each other and offer critique. Every semester I had students who would say, “It doesn’t matter that you don’t understand my poem because I understand my poem and I wrote it for me.” To which I would ask, “If you only write for yourself, why are you in this class?” If we write a poem that’s only meant for our eyes, then the poem can stay in the diary forever. Once we go public, even classroom-style public, we are writing for a reason beyond ourselves. We have pushed beyond our solipsism. We share what we decorate because we long for communion.

It is only in communion that we know who we are. It is only in communion that I see myself reflected in something bigger. Craft takes us out of ourselves. This is why I’m worried about the loss of our craft /art heritage. If I have to go to a museum to understand what a craft had to say about its people, that means it is no longer a living source of communal understanding. It speaks, but from out of the past. Or–my even bigger fear– it could be quite relevant today–but somehow we lost our connection to it. We failed at passing it down because we didn’t write about it enough, we didn’t expose enough people to it, we didn’t teach it well, or we just plain forgot. Maybe we even thought it was someone else’s responsibility.

Urban Girl Looks Longingly at the Horizon

Sheep Herd

Ever visit a place for the first time and find you’ve already been there?

I don’t mean literally, like you remembered you’d been there once before.  I mean something more visceral: you find your true self has been waiting for you there, waiting for you to discover that you belong there.  In fact, you have belonged there all your life–if only you had known enough to look.

This happened to a friend of mine when she visited California.  She got off the plane, took one look and said, whoa: this is where I’m supposed to be.  It hit her that hard, and she’s never really come back.

This is what happens to me every time I attend the Wisconsin Sheep and Wool Festival (it’s this weekend: Sept 7, 8, and 9).  As soon as I get there,  I feel so me, it hurts.  It’s the land.  It’s the sheep.  It’s the spinning.  I know I’m exactly where I’m meant to be.  There’s only one problem: the Sheep and Wool Fest isn’t a place, it’s an event.  It’s over in a flash.  Then it’s back to work.  Back to urban life.  Back.  Back.  Back.

Blackface SheepDon’t’ get me wrong: I enjoy my life.  It’s just impossible to live it outside a major urban area.  My husband and I could give up a lot to live in a rural small town.  We could say good bye to shopping malls and the Art Institute.  We could do without 4G and Lake Michigan water.  We could happily trade the Cubs for a lawn tractor.  What we can’t give up is our jobs.  Our jobs keep us tied to the city.  By living one dream, you say good bye to another.  Sometimes, you don’t even realize you’ve made a trade.

Nobody told us when we were young that pursuing our careers would tether us to city life.  Frankly, this was the last thing on our minds anyway.  The young think everything is possible.  It would never have occurred to me that my choice of profession meant I couldn’t live in the country.  If I wanted to live in a small town, why, I’d just move there.  Simple as that.  But it’s never that simple.

long view of a barnFor decades the movement has been out of small towns into the cities.  Who would have thought people would want to go back?  Whenever my husband and I drive in the country, we are sure to pass by the remnants of old towns.  My mother-in-law can pick out the crossroads of Wisconsin towns she once knew as a girl, now marked with just a few collapsed houses and a vine-wrapped chimney or two.  It always makes me sad.  Who lived there?  What dream fell apart?  I’d love to live out in the country, but where are the jobs?  Even in thriving small towns, it’s hard to find a doctor or a clinic.  What if you need a good lawyer?  What if you need a gasket to stop your faucet from leaking?

With small town life out of reach, we thought of moving farther out. We scoured the map of Chicagoland: if you want to get out of town, I mean really out of town, you’re looking at an hour commute–at least!   And we’re not big fans of long commutes.  What a waste of time, resources, and spirit.  So, we’re stuck, at least for now.  I’m grateful to the city for the life it gives us; but, in a few days, I’ll be walking through the dusty barns, searching for the perfect fleece, feeling very much myself and as close to the horizon as I can get.