Going to Market

The only direction that remained open was behind me. I wriggled through gaps in the crowd until I found myself against the railing at the back of the stage. I was safe.

When my heart rate slowed down to normal and my surroundings took on detail, I noticed that the railing marked the boundary between me and a ramp to the stage. A photographer was setting up right next to me, aiming her camera towards the entrance to the ramp. I overheard an official say that the artists will walk up the ramp.

And there I was, in a prime spot to watch the parade of nations for the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market. I was within an arm’s length of artisans from Italy, France, Laos, India, Ghana, and Vietnam. I was close enough to see details of their traditional costumes, translucent pina cloth from the Philippines, indigo dyed jackets from Nigeria and Thailand, and colorful bhandani shawls from India.

The next morning, at the market, I wandered around, entering textile booths to examine the wares more closely. I kept performing the “weaver’s handshake,”  fingering hand woven cotton robes, fondling flowing silk scarves, running my hand over knotted-pile rugs. I breathed in the scent of indigo dyed cotton and caught whiffs of sericin emanating from handwoven silk.

I bought samples of textiles I wanted to write about, a chikan embroidered napkin, a handwoven table runner from Mynamar, and an adire cloth tote. And I splurged on two items—an oh-so-soft indigo dyed jacket from Laos with classic H’mong embroidery on the sleeves, and a gorgeous machine embroidered white blouse from Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec.

I also bought a suzani embroidered wall hanging and an origami cap from Uzbekistan. Oh, also a felted cap from one of the other ‘Stans. And yes, a piece a of kantha embroidery. And a… I know there was something else.

But there was so much I could have bought and didn’t. Beautiful Mexican rugs, indigo dyed vests, hand embroidered huipiles and handwoven jackets. And I didn’t stay all afternoon—it was far too hot, and crowded. I entered the folk art museum to cool down, and yes, I did go into the bookstore, where I bought two books on textiles. Or was it three? Though I managed to resist so many more.

So yes, I came away with a much lighter wallet. But I had such a fabulous time indulging in two of my favorite vices—textiles and books.

Of course, I paid a heavy price for the exertion, the long hours in the Santa Fe oven and the exposure to crowded conditions—a crippling headache that lasted three days.

Was the experience worth it? Yes, yes, yes!

Weaving Life and Death

As I weave, I breathe life into a textile, and when I free it from the loom a textile is born to take its place in the world. The Berber of the Middle Atlas of Morocco also see weaving as a metaphor for creating an entity with an essence of its own. But to the Berber weavers, at its completion the textile dies.

I didn't understand—how could anyone possibly regard textiles as dead objects, let alone their creators. Each handmade textile I own comes alive with its own stories, the making of it, its previous life, and its place in the world, its ethniticity.  

My Mongolian rug evokes an image of it laying on the floor of a yurt. When I trace the pattern on my Laotian silk scarf, I remember the lovely lady from Laos who told me the mythological stories behind the patterns. And as I look at the wall hanging in my living room, one of the first textiles I wove, I think of my friendship with my weaving teacher, Nancy.

I couldn't accept the Berber belief. Dead was too final, too flat. There had to be more to the story. And indeed, after a good amount of research, I found that there was more to the picture. Much more.

Apparently, to the Berber weavers, weaving represents the life-cycle of a son growing up in a male dominated society. The preparations for the actual weaving embody the male child's years under his mother's supervision. The transition from boyhood to adulthood, marked by circumcision among the Muslim Berber, is represented by the final step in setting up the loom, when the top and bottom beams are affixed to the loom, the warp stretched between them.

A boy is male in gender only until he comes of age, which is when he also acquires a soul, a male identity. Once the weft first crosses the warp, the textile too acquires a soul.

As the weaver starts passing the shuttle to and fro, the young adult sets on his way through life away from his mother's sphere of influence,. No longer subjected to his mother's guidance, his life may go well, or not, as a weaving may or may not go smoothly. A broken warp thread or a delay in the weaving signify difficulties that cross his path.

I like the analogy between the progress in the weaving and the journey through life, the notion that the weaving itself is a story. And I love the idea of breathing life into it, giving it a soul, an essence. Though to me, breathing life into a textile I weave is not a sharp transition, but a process that starts with the first row of weaving and culminates when I cut it off the loom.

I also learned that in Islam, death is not an end, period. Death is merely the end of the beginning, or the beginning of the end, depending on the viewpoint—it is just another transition into another phase in the human existence, into the afterlife.

 Turkish Weaver

Turkish Weaver

As long as I can remember, I've seen textiles as live entities with a story to tell. But I never thought of the act of weaving as a story in itself. When a warp thread snapped, I sighed and fixed it, and when I was unable to progress as quickly as I had hoped, I huffed in frustration.

My weaving enriches my life, but as a contemporary weaver, I have no rich traditions of my own to draw from. Instead I live vicariously through others' traditions. I delight in stories about indigenous weavers, of Bedouin weavers in the Sinai Desert, of backstrap weavers by Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, and of silk weavers in Gujarat, India.

When I sit at the loom, immersed in a rhythm of throwing the shuttle back and forth, I daydream of weavers across time and space, sitting at their own looms, advancing row by row, creating beauty. Now, I'll also daydream of Berber mothers telling their sons' stories through weaving.

Missing Me

 Weaving and spinning...

Weaving and spinning...

A brain injury survivor posted on Facebook, “I miss the old me.”

With little thought I responded, “I don't think I do anymore, not really.”

Have I really let go of the old me? I don't believe so. At the very least it provides a reference point for the new me. In fact, the old me is very much a part of me, it is the foundation upon which the new me stands. But now, I am more, much much more than the old me. The old me was a washed out version of who I am now.

During the first few months after the surgeries, I wove a piece of silk yardage. I planned to submit it for exhibit at an international weaving conference. I had trouble remembering many of the steps along the way and kept making mistakes. All too often, I retreated to my bed to soak my pillow with tears of grief and frustration. But I always went back to fix my mistakes and move on to the next step.

 Playing at farming

Playing at farming

I had no choice but to learn patience. I paid a heavy price whenever I overdid things, with crippling fatigue, debilitating headaches, and terrible balance. It was a slow process, compared to how long it would have taken me in the past. But I finished it.

I couldn't have woven such a piece in my previous life. The interplay between the colors, the different textures, and the sheen and flow of the silk, was far beyond my pre-bleeds ability.

For several years, I was very much torn between the old me and the new me. I had trouble accepting who I became in the wake of the surgeries and kept trying fit the old me into this new world. I tried to understand the new path I was on through the eyes of the old me, the eyes of a neuro-typical. I had to learn to stop using out of date benchmarks to measure successes and failures.

I do occasionally miss the ease at which I used to live my life. But I believe that that ease was also partly responsible for stunting my growth. I believe that having to slow down and work harder to stay afloat has helped me grow.

 About to have a snowball fight with students.

About to have a snowball fight with students.

I like the new me so much more than I do the old me. I've become more whole as a person, as if there were pieces of me missing that I have now found. I have become stronger, more authentic, truer to myself.

No, I don't miss the old me, a mere shadow of who I am now.

But I have not completely let go of the old me—it's not possible for me to bury her completely. Nor do I wish to. She's very much a part of me as I am now and continues to play an important role in my growth.

Tremors

I remembered a scene from eight years ago, a couple of months before the brain surgeries. I was sitting on the bed surrounded by the tools I needed to make chain mail jewelry, cutters, pliers, and of course the rings, silver jump rings.

I was working on a chain mail bracelet for a friend, Sara. Before the brain bleeds it would have taken me no more than three evenings. But because of issues with tremors, I'd been working on this one for over a week now. My hands shook so badly that I was having difficulties holding those tiny rings. When I wasn't dropping them, I was having trouble closing them seamlessly as I used to, before the tremors, before the brain bleeds.

I kept going. I'm stubborn that way. And the bracelet came out nicely.

I'd forgotten about those tremors from long ago, probably because the brain surgeries took care of them. Or so I believed. Until today.

I first noticed it in my ankles. I tried to brush it off as a first sign of my balance issues acting up—I'm used to bouts of lousy balance. But this felt a bit different, more jerky. Puzzled, I assessed my overall well being and became aware that everything felt jittery, my breath, the beating of my heart, my bones. I wondered whether this was some sort of panic attack. But the inner jitter quickly receded from my consciousness when I noticed the tremors in my hands.

A wisp of a memory tried to waft up to the surface. I shoved it out of the way—I didn't want to know, not yet. I decided that a nap would take care of it—when I woke up, all would be well.

Except that it wasn't—when I woke up, the tremors were worse, and they were accompanied by a bad headache. I lay in bed, trapping my hands under me in an attempt to quiet the tremors and the memories streamed in, memories of difficulties writing with a pen shaking in my hand, memories of making jewelry, sometimes frustrated, but mostly laughing at myself for having the “dropsies.” And I remembered being fed up, lying in bed, trapping my hands under me to stop them from shaking.

Even now, as I type, I keep making typos, reppeaating lettters, predding, NO—pressing the wrong keys, too many spaces. I'm not laughing at myself, nor am I frustrated. I'm more resigned—I'll be keeping an eye out for additional or worsening symptoms over the next couple of days, as I have in the past whenever the bloody brain reared its head in an unusual way.

It's a bloody nuisance, somewhat disturbing, and a tad scary.

At least the headache is on the wane.

Roller Coaster

“What was the worst thing that happened in your recovery?'

What was the worst? That was tough. My thoughts wandered over the first couple of years, and it popped out. “The absolute worst was having to tell my kids that I might die under the knife.”

But then I realized that I hadn't really answered Amanda's question. Was the depression the worst? The times when I was trapped in the abyss, having suicidal thoughts? But she was probably thinking in terms of frustration. There were so many times when I was frustrated. When I hit those first plateaus in my recovery, when I was afraid I'd be stuck there, forever, still fully dependent, still thinking so slowly, unable to help my daughter with her high school algebra homework, incapable of turning my head without the world reeling about me.

I had no idea where to start, how to prioritize those incidents. Which was the worst? I stuck with what I said. “That was the worst. They were thirteen and fifteen at the time.”

I'd been invited to speak in a class for pre-med students. The course was named “The Neurology of Disease.” The idea was to expose the students to a patient's viewpoint. This was the second time I'd been a guest speaker in the class. I'd really enjoyed it the first time, last year. The students had asked good questions, perceptive questions, important questions. I'd felt I was really making a difference.

Now, here I was again with a new set of students, asking new questions.

Amanda asked. “What about the best?”

That was easier. “The first time I won a Simon game.” I saw some blank looks. “The game where you have to follow a sequence of colored lights and sounds?” I mimed holding the Simon game. “It's round with four lights, blue read , green, and yellow. You press one and it makes a beep, another makes a boop.” They all nodded.

But then I realized— “Actually, that wasn't the best. The best was a piece I wove.” I scanned their faces. “I'm a weaver, and after the surgeries, I had to relearn how to set up the loom. I made so many mistakes. It was very frustrating. I often had to take a break and cry into my pillow. Sometimes I had to rest for several days. It took me about six times as long as it used to take me. And when I was done, I wasn't happy with it. So I started all over again and I knew how to do it all. Then, when I finished weaving it, it was amazing. I would never have been able to produce such a piece before the surgeries. I submitted it for a weaving exhibit.” As I reminisced, I could feel the goofy grin on my face. “When I got the letter that it got in, I jumped up and down. I think I even squealed.”

Perhaps there were better points in my recovery, but that was the one that stood out at the time. As I write this, more of those good times come to mind—my first time back in the dragon boat, when it looked like I'd probably be able to get back to teaching, realizing I'd written a poem, that I could write poetry.

So many triumphs. So many ups and downs.

And now? They're still there, the ups and the downs, good brain days and bad brain days. But now, the good far outweigh the bad.

Even right this moment—I've got a bad headache that is getting worse and I'm writing, writing, writing, trying to capture as much as I can before the headache cripples me, hoping it won't reach that point.

The writing is one of the best things that has happened to me. I wouldn't undo the bloody brain for the world.

Clean Break

I'm still haunted by Danny's words: “You're obsessing. It's time to move on.”

I told myself that when I finished the first complete draft of the book, I'd move on. When the draft was finished, I thought that when I'd done all my edits, I'd be able to focus on other topics. But I continued to write about the bloody brain. Perhaps Danny was right. Perhaps I was obsessing. Why could I not seem to move on? Would the bloody brain always be at the epicenter of my thoughts?

I've been writing about the bloody brain for almost seven years now. Until a couple of years ago, all but a few pieces have been about the bloody brain and its effect on my life.

The memoir is finished. And still, I write about the bloody brain.

I wondered whether I needed to to make a clean break, but the stories kept pouring into my consciousness and out onto the paper. I thought that perhaps I needed to break myself of it gradually. Perhaps I needed to make a conscious effort to shift the focus over to other topics.

Baby Ella.JPG

I look back at what I have written recently.

Just over the last two months, I've been writing about my grand-dog. I'm also working on an essay about a textile-related meeting I attended recently, and all those pieces about textiles that I am reworking...

My blog pieces have been all over the place, family related, memories from before the bloody brain, activism, poetry. Though in some of those posts the brain injury did play a role, and several were completely focused on the injury and its aftermath. I've been working on an essay about being at high risk for early onset dementia, and another about recovering from sensory overload, both directly associated with the bloody brain.

What about this morning? I wrote about a block printing fabric, about some ruins I visited in Guatemala six years ago, and this piece. This morning, I was just writing, about whatever came to mind, whether it involved the bloody brain or not.

I go wherever my brain needs me to go. I just write, whatever I need to explore, and for the longest time, I needed to explore the bloody brain. Now, that need is evolving. Now, I need to write about life. I write about my escapades with Gus, my grand-dog, about my interaction with indigenous textile artisans, and my reactions to current events.

Is it an obsession, or a way of running it through my systems, a way of making sense of my world, of what has happened, of who I am?

I can't really divorce myself myself from the bloody brain. When I write about life, about my life, I am writing about myself. I am a brain injury survivor. The bloody brain is a part of who I am. The bloody brain has affected me on many levels. When I write about life, I am writing through the eyes of a brain injury survivor.

Prior to the brain bleeds, would I have reveled in the warmth of the water in the puddle I shared with Gus? When I referred to Arab Israeli conflict in the past, though I felt deeply about it, my emotions didn't used to run as highly as they do now. I doubt if I would have have given those artisans more than a passing smile before the injury. Now, I connect with people as I didn't before.

The bloody brain has changed my life. It has changed me. And it permeates my writing. Whether I write about the bloody brain directly or not, it is always present, always a part of me. The bloody brain is here to stay. There are no breaks from it. There are no breaks from writing about it.

So no, my obsession is not with the bloody brain. My obsession is with life. I am obsessed with writing about life, my life.

The How of Weaving

I am a weaver.

My loom is a support mechanism that holds everything together until the entire piece is woven. When I finish weaving, the fabric becomes an entity unto itself, no longer requiring support. I then free it from its temporary support, the loom.

The warp, the lengthwise threads that stretch along the loom, front to back, forms the foundation of the fabric. Warping the loom includes all the preparation to create a strong foundation. An effectively warped loom ensures that the weaving will proceed smoothly, resulting in a woven cloth that not only holds together, but is also beautiful.

Many weavers feel that preparing the foundation is tedious, but I’ve always enjoyed it. Yes, warping the loom requires several steps, some of which can be frustrating, and the potential for mistakes is always high, but I always reveled in the challenge of the trickier steps and found peaceful meditation in the more tedious ones. I might make a mistake or more along the way, but the mistakes are usually easily remedied.

When I warp my loom, I attach one end of the warp threads across the width of the back of the loom and tie the other end of the threads to the front of the loom, while creating an even tension across the warp. Between the back and the front of the loom, the warp threads follow a journey that determines the pattern in the weaving. I guide the warp threads through this journey by threading each thread along its individual path. Each warp thread is a part of a whole; all the warp threads together, following the entire set of pathways, form the overall pattern.

The weft is the thread that is used to bind the warp together. The weaver passes it across the width of the warp, over and under, back and forth, weaving, interlacing. As the weaver advances row by row, the pattern emerges, giving birth to the fabric.

The journey to reweave myself into being is ongoing. The beauty in the patterns emerges as I continue to pass my shuttle to and fro. I make mistakes along the way. Some are easy to remedy, others become design elements. My days are filled with surprises, some good, some bad. But overall, I am happy with the fabric of my life, my new life.

Más

I hold up the bag. “How much?”

Saturnino holds up four fingers. “Fifty.”

Shocked by his answer, I shake my head. “That's not enough. Fifty is too low.”

“Forty?”

I look to Hedy who is sharing a table with the Oncebays. Unlike me, she speaks Spanish. “No. Más.”

Saturnino looks at me askance. I nod. “Más.”

He turns to Vilma, his younger sister. After a brief whispered exchange. He turns back to me. “Eighty.”

I make eye contact with Vilma, who speaks no English whatsoever. “Okay, eighty.”

Saturnino points at her. “He... she make embroidery. I weave.”

I was attending a WARP annual meeting. WARP, an acronym for Weave A Real Peace, is an organization that fosters a global market network of enthusiasts who value the importance of textiles to grassroots economies.

I'd been meandering around the vendor hall, when the Oncebays' table caught my eye—Vilma's three dimensional embroidery on Saturnino's hand-woven fabric. Ants marching across bags, crocodiles engaged in... Combat? Conversation? I had to have one.

But the price Saturnino had quoted was far too low. If that had been my work, I would have been insulted. It didn't even begin to do the work justice.

I strongly believe in fair trade. I'll happily pay a couple extra dollars for fair trade coffee and twenty or more dollars for a beautiful ceramic bowl in a fair trade shop. But I have a particular weakness for ethnic textiles.

As a textile artist myself, I am very much aware of the difficulties in pricing handmade items, let alone works of art. How do you put a price on years of study, hours of hand-weaving and needlework? How do you measure skill? How do you place a value on invaluable work?

But I saw much more than skill, time, and effort in that lovely embroidered bag.

The Oncebays are indigenous textile artisans from Peru, who replicate textile techniques of ancient Inca and pre-Inca civilizations. The entire Oncebay family was involved in the making of the bag, in spinning the yarn, natural dyeing, weaving, and needlework. Every step in its creation was steeped in tradition and history.

Textiles are an important component of the human experience. Their history gives us a frame of reference—how can we know who we are without referring back to our past, who we were? We can't afford to lose our textile traditions.

Like many indigenous artisans, their work is their sole source of income. I want to encourage people like the Oncebays to continue their important work and enable them to earn a living through it.

When I handed Vilma the eighty dollars, I was sending a clear message that I value her work and all it represented. Perhaps I should have offered her ninety or a hundred.

After I left their table, the Oncebays raised their prices, and despite the price increases, their gorgeous textiles sold well—I was among like-minded people, members of WARP.

Irrelevant

According to Brigitte Gabriel, a Middle East expert and a very smart woman, there are 1.2 billion Muslims in the world, 15% to 25% of them are radicals. That makes 180 to 300 million radical Muslims. The rest are peaceful. In terms all of the deaths the radicals have caused, the peaceful majority are irrelevant. She spoke of the sixty million deaths at the hands of the Nazis in World War II. In counting those deaths, though most of the Germans were peaceful, they were irrelevant. Similarly, the peaceful majority in Russia and China are irrelevant.

As I listened to her speak, in light of the war in Israel, I couldn't help but wonder. I am a peaceful Jew. Am I irrelevant? I feel helpless, and hopeless. I can't actively do anything to put a stop to the hatred, the killings, the war. Does that make me irrelevant?

Brigitte Gabriel was speaking of racial profiling and was measuring relevancy based on numbers of deaths. But I am speaking of us, the peaceful ones, the irrelevant ones, and I have to measure relevancy somewhat differently.

I refuse to be irrelevant. I will speak.

I have to believe that my voice will be heard, no matter why I raise it.

I am a member of Weave A Real Peace (WARP), a networking organization that creates “a connected textile community.” One of our stated purposes is to “raise awareness of the importance of textile traditions to grassroots economies.” Many of our members work with textile artisans worldwide to promote positive social change.

I want to raise awareness of important issues, such as the struggles of poverty stricken textile communities worldwide and the difficulties faced by children living in war zones. I want to be heard when I speak of the plight of the abused, whether they are animals kept under deplorable conditions, or victims of sexual assault.

I want to promote social change. I want to make the world a better place.

I want to raise my voice against social stigmas. I want to introduce the world to the human face of people with bipolar disorder and autism. I want to raise awareness about the daily battles braved by those of us who suffer from depression and by survivors of brain injury. I want peace, an end to the killings.

I am a storyteller. I have to tell my stories. I have to believe that there is an audience for my stories. I have to believe that those of us peaceful citizens of the world are not totally irrelevant, that our stories will be heard. That our audience will keep growing, one person at a time. I have to believe that we will bring social change, one step at a time. I am aware that it won't happen tomorrow, nor next year. But sometime in the not too distant future.

I will not be irrelevant. We can't afford to be irrelevant. Otherwise we will be lost.

POV

I started reading the member profile: “We are all the sum of our experiences in life, which is never a simple story for any of us, but the reach and depth of experience in Deb Brandon's life has been breathtaking.”

Who was that woman the Candy Meacham wrote about? The woman in the profile and I had a lot in common—she was versed in several textile arts, well educated, well traveled, and had gone through interesting, at times alarming life experiences. Yet unlike me, that woman seemed extraordinary.

I reread the piece Candy wrote. Yes, she got the facts right, but the woman she described didn't feel like me. Was that how other people saw me?

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