Archive for September, 2013

The Tools of our Trades

September 23, 2013

I make it to the New Mexico State Fair just about every year, including this one. Some events, like the Fine Art show, and the Hispanic, Native American and African American art and cultural shows are housed in permanent buildings not too far from the entrance to the fairground. To get to them – and to all the other “housed” activities – one must walk past a midway full of rides and also past clusters of food booths selling barbecued turkey legs, ribbon potatoes, lemonade and – this year at least – such exotica as frog’s legs and fried ravioli on a stick.

Next one must negotiate the plethora of booths filling both sides of the main “streets” of the grounds. These are all commercial. They offer multiple opportunities to acquire surprisingly similar items, from painted faces to sports memorabilia and cell phone accessories, purses, dresses, make up, the latest fads in hair adornment, and cheaply made but not cheaply priced glitz jewelry.

Farther into the grounds are a Spanish village and a Native American village where culturally traditional items and foods are sold, and groups perform appropriate music and dances. Also near the middle of the grounds is a large building housing the many types of items we older folk associate with the shop and home economics classes that used to be mandatory in all junior high and high schools, but which now seem only to be found in the context of career programs at community colleges. Wood workers, quilters and seamstresses, experts in home canning and baking submit their finest products in hopes of winning a coveted blue ribbon.

Nearby there is also a space for flower arrangements. Other hobbies are represented as well. I acquired a book mark with my name in exquisite calligraphy, and watched two ladies carefully making lace, twisting bobbins around the pins which mark out a pattern. I remember seeing the famous lace makers of Bruge, in Belgium, sitting in the sun and chatting as their bobbins flew in complex designs they knew by heart from a lifetime apprenticeship in an ancient craft.

One has to complete a long walk across the full length of the fair’s main street in order to get to the true core of a state fair – the animals.

4-Hers and adults spend years breeding to obtain a perfect specimen to enter into their county competition before advancing to the state fair. Horses are trained to perform complicated maneuvers, mule and draft horse teams pull wagons or increasingly heavy loads on sledges, demonstrating their ability to perform the classic work of a ranch. Judging the quality of livestock is a learned skill, often passed down within families. As I walk along stalls with handsome palomino heads protruding to be admired, I overhear a discussion of which judge will be in charge – competitors clearly have their own favorites.

There is much less foot traffic at the livestock end of the fair grounds. Kids tug their parents to the petting zoo and pre-teen girls congregate in the open space between the rows of stalls where their horses wait with them to be called into the ring for their classes (the level of competition each has achieved, showing off the gait and conformation of their rides). Older teen boys lead cattle of various breeds and sizes to and from their show ring, talking about weight and sale price. Many of the animals, like much of the handwork in the crafts building, will be sold or auctioned before the fair ends.

Sitting on a bench near the horse stalls, enjoying a treat of ribbon fries, I try to imagine what the fair would be like without all the commercial booths – or at least only with ones related to farming and ranching. There are no representatives of John Deere on the main street. Instead, lines of old cars are displayed, most from the 1920s, including an early fire engine whose siren sounds whenever an ambitious child cranks its handle. What was marketed at the fair when the attendees arrived in those early Fords? Back where I relax in the livestock area, it is not hard to imagine myself in that earlier time.

I suspect there would have been many more teams competing in the draft horse heavy sledge pulls. And many of the contestants would have arrived by horse power, not automobile. Canned goods, instead of being one row of the crafts building, might well have taken up a tent all on their own. The same with sewing and quilting.

I can’t help but feel dismay that our modern preoccupations, if assessed by the balance of items offered up to view at this year’s Fair, have become so faddish. And so mass produced. And so poorly made.

OK, we’re living in a wired age and we are hooked on our technology. So, where are the hand-beaded cell phone covers? Why don’t I see tooled leather cases for laptops? What has become of pride in beautiful, well made, durable crafts to embellish the tools of our modern everyday trades? Why are hand painted Easter eggs, braided rugs and crocheted blankets considered only to be examples of “saving the skills of the past?” How did these arts become locked into traditional forms, instead of adapted to the items most commonly in use today?

In the Vicinity of Acoma

In the Vicinity of Acoma

English: Original lithograph for report of J.W...

English: Original lithograph for report of J.W. Abert of “His Examination of New Mexico in the Years 1846-47” to the Secretary of War (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The day following my visit to the State Fair, I was escorted by a friend to one of the last places in New Mexico that I wanted – but had not yet made it – to see, Acoma Pueblo. The majority of current tribal members live in two communities in the valley, near Interstate 40 in the western half of my state. According to our guide, only about 30 people (of about 6000 tribe members) still live atop the mesa that is historical (from the 1100s) Acoma. Most of those who do live on the mesa appear to be the potters and practitioners of other traditional arts who market their wares to the groups of visitors escorted on tours coordinated by the tribe.

Our tour guide provided a lively account of the history of Acoma, in an interesting language style which notably did not use standard past tense. “The people were living atop the mesa and were welcoming the first Spaniards to come to their area. Because the straw in the mud coating of their sandstone homes reflected golden in the sun, the Spanish were thinking they had found the mythical Seven Cities of Cibola, so they were demanding that Acoma turn over its gold and, not believing there was none, they began subjugating the people with torture and killings.”

The effect of our guide’s narration was to make his listeners aware of how differently the Acoma people (and most other Pueblo tribal groups I’ve interacted with) perceive time – how intimately their distant history informs their present day lives. The mixture of tradition and history with modern innovation and adaptation is also evident in the Acoma art – mostly finely painted and incised pottery – which was on offer. Some of the artists appeared dedicated to repeating ancient family patterns; others clearly added personal perspectives and made use of new colors and forms, while still reflecting traditional cultural styles. I was delighted with the demonstrated Acoma talent for maintaining art forms yet adapting them to modern needs!

WLA brooklynmuseum Pueblo Acoma Water Jar

WLA brooklynmuseum Pueblo Acoma Water Jar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I hope some of my online friends whose work lies in the decorative arts will take up the challenge implicit in my two days of contrasting experience. Can someone run a contest to see how many different “traditional arts” can be adapted to making modern day accessories for our ubiquitous cell phones, laptops and pads? How about a quilted dash cover? A pretty lace wrist strap for the new wearable smart phones? It would be such fun to visit the State Fair again in a few years and, instead of what I overheard one visitor describe as “so much schlock”, see rows of booths offering well-made, hand crafted items of practical use to the modern, hip visitor!

Creativity in a Second Language

September 15, 2013

I’ve started a new class through Coursera – a MOOC – that apparently has close to 125,000 people signed up for it worldwide. Mind boggling to think of that many students going to class together. The topic is Creativity – and in keeping with the course’s intent to promote more creative lives among the students, I’ve joined a subgroup of French speakers enrolled in the class. A challenging way to resurrect my skills with a language which I once spoke and wrote fluently, but which I’ve had little occasion to use in the last thirty years. Since the class is on-line, that means I’m writing French – the most difficult way to use a language skill. Should be an interesting eight weeks!

The first assignment included an option to make a sort of life map – identifying a core value at the center of everything one does, and then listing 3-5 priorities in each area of life, such as family, career, community, etc. I found the exercise relatively easy to do, given that my spiritual path (MasterPath) calls for a consistent effort to examine and process one’s life experiences. But I also attribute some of the ease to age – one doesn’t get to 70 and still engaged with employment, learning and community service, without having examined one’s priorities, and kept tabs on how they evolve over time.

What didn’t get addressed by the Life Ring activity was what I’d call a question of style – how do you, I, we approach daily life? I’m scheduled to facilitate an Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshop with a competent co-leader who is very organized, detail oriented, and most comfortable when every aspect of the workshop is clearly spelled out in advance, including how each activity links to a small number of specific topics. I on the other hand, like to ‘wing it’ for at least part of the weekend. I’ve put together an agenda that includes exercises which can be related to a number of different topics. Part of the challenge – and the learning – that I value in AVP is how it reveals interrelationships that participants have not previously considered. I trust my own skill at helping tie those relationships together, and therefore like to leave room for the unexpected to emerge as the activities are processed.

There’s a lot to be learned co-facilitating with someone whose style differs from mine. Birds of a feather may indeed flock together – but do they learn how to get along with those of a different plumage? We draw reassurance from associating with others like ourselves. We learn and grow when challenged by those with whom we have differences. Which makes the concept of thousands of students from a hundred or more different cultures all joining together to explore creativity a highly innovative concept.

The Francophone subgroup is on LinkedIn, enabling me to check the careers and interests of other members, as they can review mine. Most of those I’ve looked up so far are younger, in business, engineering, industry, very few list teaching, none that I’ve found so far work in social service or health-related careers as I have done. The instructors for the course want the students to find ways to apply the concepts we study to our fields of endeavor, and to work together in teams to develop those projects. I seem to have set myself up to stretch my creativity to the max, finding ways to apply my skills, in a second language, to areas of life with which I have little if any experience! Should be fun…Meanwhile, the course does stress that we all have the capacity to be creative – and that our styles do indeed differ. We have all been asked to take a survey that classifies us along a continuum from adaptively creative to innovatively creative. I come up moderately innovative. I suspect my AVP co-facilitator would land somewhere on the adaptive end of the dimension. I’m realizing, as I write, that by putting on the workshop with her later this month, I will have completed the major assignment of the course – which is to apply the principles of creativity, in conjunction with others, to an aspect of my professional life. Thankfully I don’t have to put on the workshop in French!

Memory Lane

September 8, 2013

Told that you will be spending two days with a former partner – lover, ex, intimate friend – from whom you parted on amicable terms but have not seen in 45 years, what would you expect to experience? Assuming, of course, that you are old enough to have so much time elapse between encounters. If you’re younger, compress the time appropriately, and include an awareness that you and the former partner knew you had different goals and would be traveling different paths. You parted amicably.

So here you are at the other end of a long separation, having pursued your divergent aims. You are going to meet not just your ex-partner, but that person’s current mate about whom you know absolutely nothing. Would you, like me, wonder if you’d find anything familiar in your former partner? Would you ask yourself questions about “the road not taken” and be curious to learn if you’d been correct to leave it? Would you – unlike me – obsess about your looks and how you’d aged and whether you’d still be found attractive?

Turns out, I had the interesting and enlightening experience of both appreciating the qualities that originally drew me to this particular former partner (FP), and recognizing how our differences had deepened into a rift which would inevitably have pulled us asunder. We were indeed lucky – or perceptive – enough to have realized that we should separate “before any harm was done.”

What I didn’t anticipate was the extent to which the visit brought back other memories from my earlier life – memories not necessarily connected to the relationship, including memories of events from my early childhood. It was as though, once broached, the closet where I’d shoved recollection of much of my early life behaved as any physical closet stuffed to overflowing – it spewed out random items when the door cracked open.

Going for a Walk

Going for a Walk

Visits to the zoo with my grandfather, during which he talked about life, and values, and the challenge of finding just the right word for his latest poem. He queried my week and my interests and what I was reading. I was vividly reminded of those Sunday conversations when FP gently probed how I live and who I am now, in much the same way as my grandfather had sought to know me.

Memories of intensely difficult times with my mother, who had serious psychiatric problems. It took me quite a few years to overcome the effects of her paranoia, explosive anger, and abuse. FP perceptively commented on his recollection that my mother also had an abusive mother, in the context of mentioning that he and his present wife were lucky to have grown up amid very positive family lives. I know now what it’s like to feel supported and encouraged by a set of caring supporters. And I also appreciate to what extent my adventurousness and my inability to fit neatly into the socially defined role FP offered, arise from the instability and emotionally volatile nature of my childhood. I’ve not had an easy life, but I’ve certainly had a varied, challenging and infinitely rewarding one.

Also tumbling out of the closet were memories of other relationships, rather a lot of them, mostly all pleasant. Such a range of different types of people I’ve come to know and value as friends! People who are very far removed from the European immigrant, advanced-degree-educated, middle class traditionalist pattern of my parents and of FP. Motor cycle riders, cowboys, ex-cons, and prisoners still serving time who participate in the Alternatives to Violence Program workshops I facilitate in the New Mexico prison system. Sixth generation descendants of Spanish families who migrated into the New Mexico territories from Mexico, and who still speak English only as a second language. Some of them are conversos (crypto-Jews) rediscovering their family origins. FP and his wife, conservative Jews, were deeply interested to learn about this link to an area they now plan to revisit.

I’ve known mechanics whose crossword puzzle skills rival my own. Believers and practitioners of a host of religions, and of no religion at all. Providing home health care throughout a large rural section of the state, I’ve been welcomed into ancient adobe homes with sod roofs, ranch headquarters in the midst of thousands of acres of range land, luxury second homes for people who spend half their year in Texas, and the truly mobile homes of a couple living permanently in their Winnebago.

Amidst the tumble of memories spilling forth, I find and grab onto a gem of an idea. I ended the relationship with FP because I knew I did not fit within what felt to me like a confining, prescribed role. I was not at home within a “family” structure. It turns out I’m not at home within any other established structure I’ve encountered in my life journey. I’ve fit myself into them (work, a variety of different cultural norms) to get along, but none have felt like ‘home’. I belong nowhere. Ergo, I belong everywhere!

Perhaps that’s why I’m planning to start a new career within weeks of turning seventy, and then, four or five years from now, I’d like to take off to live once more in a different country. Somewhere with a comfortable climate for older bones, where I can teach, and learn, and continue my life adventure. I’ve been dipping into memories from the past. I’ve defined a possible future to hold in intent. Meanwhile, it’s time to resume the most important aspect of Being – living in, and appreciating, each moment of the present.


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