Hand Over Hand
A few weeks ago Circle Creative Collective offered a workshop at the African Roots Library in Kingston. A mere week before I didn’t even know this library existed, and I knew as little about weaving or making bracelets. Curiosity, kids, and arriving someplace with an open heart-- these things I know plenty about though, so I was happy when Mary Jane (also known as MJ) and Melissa, my cohorts in Circle, had proposed this endeavor. Those two, along with our dear friend Poliana and our young children who go to a Waldorf school seeped in a curriculum of “handwork,” have lots of experience creating and weaving, so they were also there to help. Unfortunately I was not as lucky to possess such gifts, at least not yet.
My born-and-raised-in-NYC-of-immigrant-descent-lineage seems to have denied me of the link to my family’s history, the pride and beauty of creating, knowledge of weaving, and other craft making and artisan skills. Like too many others, somewhere along the line I picked up the idea that handmade was something ‘simple’ or more provincial grandmas and grandpas did, that such work wasn’t something considered sophisticated, valuable, healing, or to take it one step further: sacred. Beyond my mother’s sewing skills, her brief foray with beaded jewelry and macrame in 1970 or so, and the delicious meals, art, or music many members of my creative family made, store bought still seemed “better” than most things we could make with our hands, an insidious misconception that children and everyone else have been made to believe the world over. This has been fed to us, along with the idea that cosmopolitan centers everywhere, (those overpopulated places dependent on an economy thriving on the commerce of things created for convenience and efficiency,) were/are somehow of greater importance than places, understanding, and making that are connected to the pulse of the land and seasons. Overtly or subtly, too many have overvalued the time we “saved” living with conveniences and making convenient purchases, without considering the detriment to culture, earth and communities. We have been coaxed into justifying the “luxuries” of us more “modern” ones, the good fortune we have perceived we had, in order to do all the other things that were also deemed more important, successful, or valuable than those who created with their hands and gently in community. Things that undoubtedly cost money and are only available to those who are a part of a market economy, items mostly made in factories, and that keep a capitalist society thriving on more commerce and mass production. Until recently, anyway, and increasingly with the rising of/return to the concept of the sacred feminine.
Perhaps it is out of the latter that a maker’s
movement was birthed, and the growing
awareness of our collective responsibility
to live with and not in spite of Mother Nature.
These essential and newfound insights taking momentum since the 1960’s famed Summer of Love, but especially in the last decade (and newfound, at least for those not part of an indigenous lineage,) have also revived an inherent reverence for tradition, along with the urgent message of our earth’s well being, and not just that of humans.
Personally, though I was raised in Manhattan, I was fortunate enough to also be nourished with mostly organic food by a family that loved nature and animals, and hiked when we could. Before helping to grow Circle Creative Collective, I have had a shop since 2005 showcasing organic, Fair Trade and sustainably made gifts and reclaimed furniture, very much celebrating artisans and their handmade wares. Etsy too was apparently founded in 2005 and one can see there in an obvious way the increased demand for handmade, as that and other companies like it have grown. Still, in my experience it was only in the last 10 years, and less, that I saw customers really seeking out those products because of their more gentle impact, to the earth, or the way they keep crafts and healthy communities alive, rather than stumbling upon or being enlightened by them. And since then, too, there has also been an explosion of new maker sites and even shows, resources and how to’s on how to make things on your own. So something has shifted, but slowly, and far too recently considering the endless benefits. Within myself, my increasing awareness of the magnitude of our human impact has caused me to change my life entirely: move away from retail, try to source and shop locally almost exclusively, and for the first time in my life, not just admire the crafts and handmade work of others but begin (oh so tentatively) to create some as well. As I do, I deepen my inquiry into the source of that trepidation, and what also might prevent others from picking up yarn, clay, and more
Yes, my maternal grandmother and paternal great grandmother both knitted and crocheted, but beyond laying under their blanketed creations, neither woman ever tried to teach us kids, and us young ones never expressed an interest in learning. Was it that our elder women also belittled what they knew how to do? Did they think we wouldn’t find such processes exciting or fun or entertaining enough? Did they consider their skills unsophisticated remnants of the “old country? That they weren’t important enough to pass on?” In any case, there it is, some understanding of and compassion for my own lack of confidence, knowledge and abilities. Only now at 49, am I finally realizing how this lack has created a faultline in me, as well as an appreciation for what I do not yet know how to do, and deep gratitude for those among us who have not forgotten these beautiful and important art forms. Beyond being a decent cook and the gardening skills I have gleaned after emigrating to the Hudson Valley some 18 years ago, I cannot offer more than my mere longing to create, and excitement to try something new.
When I arrived to the African Roots Library that Sunday, I carried a gift of my own though: the ability and eagerness to hold space for something I truly believe in, strangers and friends, young and old, coming together in circle to create and share. And once the workshop began, I quickly realized that in an odd way, my lack of experience with the tasks at hand (pun intended) rendered me deeply humble and childlike, a perfect combination to be in a room full of children and others at every life’s stage, in whose eyes I could also see trepidation when they first arrived, through body language in which volumes were spoken about entering into a space full of strangers. That is the way almost all humans are when we step into an experience and a group with which we are unfamiliar. Before we began our class at the library, I also had to personally acknowledge my quiet apprehension about my lack of skills, and about what would emerge in that particular verging group dynamic. But more importantly than any insecurity, I fully trusted the huge hearts of these giving and talented friends of mine, our good intentions and mission (“To connect, enrich and inspire diverse individuals and communities by sharing and preserving traditional crafts, arts, and skills.”) I believed in the capacity of my team and even our children, who quickly revealed themselves to be capable teachers as well.
I am jumping ahead though, and would like to take you back in time to just before the event started when the four of us white women and our brood of fair skinned kids arrived to what appeared to be an old deli at the correct address of a library that celebrates and offers the literary works of African and African American writers. Secretly I was harboring concern about women of European descent teaching African traditions to a room full of African American children and their families. How will they receive us? There is finally so much well justified conversation about appropriation, social justice and repatriation. I wondered, Can we actually succeed in helping to return an appreciation for traditional skills to people from whom such knowledge has been stolen and devalued by a colonial culture from which we are progeny?
Yet there was Odell, the library’s Founder and Director welcoming us with a broad smile, warm hugs, and obvious gratitude for our willingness to offer this workshop. He was even relaxed about us moving his tables and reorganizing the room, and as we did so, my eyes scanned the unfamiliar place. African masks sit proudly in one corner calling in the ancient ones and honoring the birthplace of a rich and multifarious heritage. Books lined shelves with many names of authors that have affected me deeply too- Maya Angelou, Malcom X, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and there were many other writers that were unfamiliar to me, that I hoped to return to one day soon to explore. I noticed other shelves crammed with picture books for younger children, and the toys in that corner for littlest ones to simply be children, while caregivers visit and immerse themselves in all the books Odell was deeply familiar with and eager to converse about. And I couldn’t help but quickly lament that this small gem of a place is not better funded or more known, not given a proper storefront that celebrates all the importance that it is in its own right, and not hidden behind what appears to be a defunct commercial venue, confusing passers by, and even those of us who arrived specifically to visit therein.
I had finished my task of setting up a table full of beverages and snacks, then I helped MJ and our kids to untangle piles of string, arrange it all by color, and set out other materials. Finally MJ announced, “Ok, Jenny, are you ready to learn?” I was admittedly a little nervous, a grown woman concerned that I wouldn’t “do it right,” a task the other women had selected specifically because it was simple enough for us to share with children, as well as adults. “How interesting,” I marveled silently as some of my shadow revealed itself to me. But my friend MJ was just smiling her beautiful smile, this mother and teacher and woman of soft edges and deep heart. And so I pushed past insecurities and listened to her instruction.
Here is the action as if it is happening right now.
Sssh, put your judge high up on that shelf.
Just listen... now you will take the string in our hands…
“You hold one side of the string taught,” my friend tells me. “I will hold the other. Now twist to the right and keep twisting... I will do the same from my side until it buckles a little.” We twist for a while, she and I, an easy, repetitive movement of the right wrist as the left hand holds the string steady. “See that,” MJ says, “the way it bends there just a little. That’s when you know it’s ready.” Here we are, a woman with more knowledge and experience, a quote-unquote teacher, guiding a novice with the simple instructions to twist incessantly on a piece of cotton cord. Yet suddenly -poof- we are partners in this task, co-creating something together, conjoining both our twisted halves of string into one form.
I gasp audibly. I watch in awe as this inanimate thing searches for itself, spinning and weaving spontaneously as we move our fingers along the cord to release the ends further and further up the shaft of newly, miraculously woven cord.
I am openly amazed by this simple act that has become truly magical, this limp string rendered animate as it draws into itself, two disparate ends suddenly woven together without effort at all. I am infected with the miracle of this new skill and can’t wait to share it with each adult and child who soon come in the door. Can you feel my giddiness? “That’s called, walking the dog,” Mary Jane, says, and then Melissa chimes in as she’s running past, “And that process is at the foundation of all rope,” she chirps, both of them beaming kindness and patience.
So there I was, excitedly inviting each person to explore what their hands can do, black, white, brown, tiny or long fingered and wide palmed, but hands like mine that are unfamiliar with their own capacity to transform ordinary materials into the extraordinary through movement and the exploration of simple skills. I watched one cautious face after the other also light up with surprise, then soften with laughter, trust ignited by gentle, repetitive gestures of twisting cord between fingers, of a shared experience, and cooperation. Little girls were teaching men. Boys were teaching women. Women were learning from each other. Sharlene, a black woman was there with her three adopted white daughters, and two other children she was lovingly fostering. Across the table, Poliana’s daughters, Sophie and Thea, spoke to their mom in Romanian, their native tongue. Each seat was filled around the table, we were all working hard, and little conversations were flitting here and there, and “Pass the [color] thread please” or “I need a needle; does anyone know where they went?” could often be heard.
Sophie suddenly asked one of Sharlene’s twins, “Is that your mom?” after the little blond girl said “Mom,” to summon the dark skinned woman’s attention. Sophie was openly confused but without judgement. Her daughter said very matter-of-factly, “Yes, she is, and I call her Mom, but sometimes I also call her Nana.” I could tell Sophie, 8, was hoping for more information.
“These girls are adopted,” I finally offered. “Sharlene has SO much love, and these girls needed a family and a home, and so she brought them into hers and is now their mom even though she was already a mom and a grandma.” I watched understanding wash across Sophie’s face, as if this was something she could grasp. The kids all got back to work. After a while Thea and Sophie exchanged words softly in Romanian.
One of Sharlene’s daughters then asked them, “Is that a real language or one you made up?” I listened and waited. Sophie thought this was funny, but then sweetly answered, “Yes, it’s a real language. It’s Romanian. From Europe.”
During the event I often found myself swooning with the goodness of humanity, at the heartfelt and funny little exchanges, and my gratitude for the opportunity to co-create in a safe container where cultural, racial and inter-generational divides had so quickly fallen away. But in those moments in particular observing the girls, I was struck by a few profound thoughts at once:
1) How we are being divided all the time by perceived differences yet I am constantly amazed in my own life at how kids can dissolve those barriers and without much effort at all, unless they are taught otherwise. 2) How quickly and beautifully we all worked together, sharing stories, helping one another. 3) That although these traditions seem to be “lost” to those of us who were not taught or exposed to such processes, or because those skills were denied or deemed “common” or “worthless,” in spite of the rich lineages they do carry, they are also accessible, and we can easily make them our own. But in doing so, it is important to look back with reverence and gratitude for those who came before and those who have kept those traditions and that wisdom alive.
We may feel deeply intimidated by what we imagine to be complexities about creating something that we imagine we cannot hurdle. But I invite you to remember this: circles are round, full of nourishment, womb-like, and of the feminine. Circles are forgiving, lush with wisdom, humor, and stories, ripe with fumbling, healing, and discovery. It is in the being that we sit together, the experience of creating, not right or wrong, but on a continuum of learning and sharing, it is about the doing and not the end result, whether you end up with something you want to parade around on your wrist, or use as a springboard to try again.
Hand over hand over hand, things are woven
and created as we also learn that
maybe we’re not so different after all…
…and just where we are, there’s something to better understand and be enriched by, to have compassion for. Like Odell and his beautiful little library, we were proudly weaving together a new heritage that rises up out of the old, a tapestry of quiet and forgotten voices, and bright and loud ones, important knowledge and divinely worthy identities, each of our authentic and wounded selves coming through in myriad unique ways. Together we learned that it is in the sharing of process, history, her-story, and struggle, that by creating, we transform and heal.
Something magical happened on a Sunday in a little class in a little library in the little city of Kingston NY in May, 2019. A group of strangers remembered that there is power that lives in our fingers. Some of us may have even taken note of our ability to move between teacher and student, regardless of age or origin. We made things that suddenly became much more: potent, with the memory of its making and with whom, rich with subtle or overt imperfections and creative imprints that make it even more our own. Our creations were a unique expression of where we were when we made it, grounded and focused, experimental and confident, careful or needlessly confined by what we thought was “right” or “good,” or maybe what we made was unbridled messiness, but perfectly expressive of our fully alive, playful process. Indeed, I witnessed all this happening in mere bracelets and necklaces, out of cotton, shells, and beads, a much more nuanced story than anything we could buy in any store. Thankfully, this was not our first gathering, and it is far from being our last.
So welcome... you too are invited to join our next circle whenever and wherever we gather.
Please bring your wisdom or your hesitant hands, we would love to create with you.
The African Roots Library “promotes literacy through teaching and learning about the African roots experience,
including history and culture, through a dynamic exchange of information, ideas, and creativity.”