On Weaving And Lessons Learned

March 8, 2011 in Guatemala, North America, Travelogue

The rain poured hard on the roof all night. It’s a funny sound to hear solid rain for several hours after months of absolute dry. We’ve had sprinkles some afternoons in the last three weeks and spectacular lightning shows over the mountaintops at dusk, but this was our first real soaker of a rain since October. The rainy season is coming.

I didn’t sleep much again last night. Tony flopped like a fish and I lay awake thinking over many things:

This morning my parents climb aboard the collectivo at nine and begin their long trek north to their log home, blanketed with snow, on an island in Canada. It will take them three days to get there, via Antigua, Guatemala City, Atlanta and Toronto before they finally drive the remaining three hours and take a ferry.

It’s no small thing for them to have come. The money they spend to come find us in far flung places aside, the time and the effort they expend are the true gifts. Their commitment to relationships with our kids, to sowing the important things in life one generation deeper and to not missing an opportunity to do something fabulous is inspiring to me. I hope I’m that kind of grandparent someday.

They’ve hiked, kayaked, swam, marketed, played card games, listened to music, picnicked, painted, and told stories for all their worth for three straight weeks. Dad has taken each kid for coffee a couple of times each. Mom has frequented the veggie stalls with one kid at a time. They’ve both enjoyed getting to go out in the evenings and hear music, especially when it’s their granddaughter playing.

One of the things I love about my parents is that they step right into life and make it richer.

They quickly become part of the routine, schooling, cooking, washing dishes and the kid rodeo that weaves in and out and around all of that. They roll with the punches of our revolving door of guests and strangers, my Dad sitting on the porch discussing business potential with the ever-present Derek, or swapping travel stories with the three cyclists, or the Australians that came for dinner two nights ago. I couldn’t help but smile when they came back from Solola to announce that they’d met a french boy on the boat and invited him for dinner, “Hope you don’t mind….” Of course not! That’s exactly how I learned to share life with strangers.

Mom and I have been taking weaving lessons from a tiny Mayan woman named Imelda. She’s 43, just seven years older than me, and not as tall as Elisha. She turns up every day, or two, as it suits her, to help us with the next stage of the process.

“Poco a poco,” little by little, we’re learning to use our back strap looms. It took five hours simply to wind the threads and set up each loom, before the weaving could ever begin. Now that we’re weaving, Imelda sits quietly by and watches us, waiting for us to snarl the threads or mess up something so that she can have the joy of patiently picking through the tiny coloured lines and sorting us out. Her patience is amazing.

Mom and I are weaving wraps, or table runners, or something else long and narrow. Hannah is working on a guitar strap for herself. Every day our decision to “start small” seems wiser.

Yesterday afternoon I sat for a full hour with my loom, working to figure out where I’d gone wrong and how I’d gotten two threads on top instead of one on top, one on bottom in one of my brown stripes. I plugged in my ipod and listened to my new Bombay Dub Orchestra playlist, as nice quiet music seemed to help me keep my weaving zen. I looked up when Imelda touched my shoulder. She was laughing. She fixed in five minutes what I’d been thinking about for a full hour and then she sat down with the Coke Tony’d poured her so that we could work together and talk.

I’m learning a lot from these weaving lessons.

Very little of it has to do with how to produce a tablecloth or blanket for my bed. I think, at this point, that with enough time and desperation I could restring this loom and create something I needed, but that’s the lesser of the lessons.

Women descend on you from all sides in towns, in the markets, on the streets, covered, bodily in stacks of weavings, trying to sell them to you. They’ll start out asking three or four hundred quetzals (45-50USD) and as you assure them you’re not interested, because you have no house in which to store these lovely weavings, the prices drop until you feel badly for not buying them as their level of desperation to sell something becomes apparent.

Many of the women here are desperate. Imelda is among them. During the long hours of winding my strings, chosen to reflect the colors of Atitlan: orange for the sun and the flowers growing in my garden, blue for the lago, brown for the volcanos and green for the jungle growing on them, I’ve gotten to know her story a little bit. She’s married, but her husband drinks much of the money he makes. They have six children and she doesn’t have the money she needs to keep them well fed or in shoes, never mind purchase the supplies they need for school, and she’s dedicated to keeping them in school.

Imelda is actually pretty lucky, as Mayan women go. At least she has her husband and some kids to help her work. Without a husband, or some sons, many women are without any provision whatsoever and are left to beg on the streets, or hope to sell their weavings. Can you imagine spending five hours preparing to weave something that then takes at least fifteen more hours to complete, for a total of twenty hours and then coming down to where you’d sell it for about twenty dollars, if you’re lucky, often less? The materials alone cost four dollars, so that’s $16 for twenty hours of work, not counting the time you invest actually selling it.

And weaving with a back strap loom is hard work. There’s constant tension on your lower back, my hands are blistering slightly in a couple of places from only the three or so hours I’ve worked at my piece. My arms ache from holding them out in front of me constantly while I fiddle with threads or move the wooden pieces around (dropping them often enough to make Imelda giggle) and I’m doing this only for the experience of learning something new. My ability to put tortillas in my kids’ belly next week doesn’t depend on how many strips of cloth I can crank out quickly.

Bartering is part of the culture here. If you don’t barter in the mercados, there’s almost a level of insult taken. Prices are always quoted about half again higher than what the seller actually hopes to get and then it’s a game to see who is better at making a deal. It’s fun, once you understand the rules of the game, and we’ve always made a practice of working a vendor down to the very bottom of his barrel and then paying half again more than we agree on. Everyone departs happy. Generosity is important.

Never again, where weavings are concerned. Of course I’ll still barter, it’s expected, but at the end, I’ll pay full price and I’ll add on a hefty chunk to let the little lady know how much I appreciate the work that went into her craft. No matter what they’re charging for a handwoven piece, I promise you, it’s not even close to enough. If you doubt me, come spend a week sitting on your knees taking lessons from Imelda and then we can talk.

I’m learning patience.

Any of you who know me in person know that this is going to be a lifetime quest for me. I suffer from my western roots, always moving too fast, wanting things done quickly and efficiently, the third world is excellent therapy for these tendencies and I try to be mindful of the lessons it’s teaching me.

Weaving requires patience. Patience in the proper preparations. Patience with the learning process. Patience with the slow movement of the shuttle back and forth through the lines. Patience with the learning curve and the constant fowl ups. Patience with the untangling of strings and “unweaving” that I do at least as much as I weave with forward motion.

Imelda has fashioned me a tiny piece of bamboo that we’ve pinned to the back of my weaving just below the point at which I’m working. It reminds me of the sticks my Dad used to cut for us when we were tiny and planting seeds in the garden, or when we were laying the sub-floor of the log house we build when I was five and Josh was three. He’d tell us to put a seed (or a nail) at either end of the stick. It kept us working and kept things even. My piece of bamboo does the same, it helps to keep me moving forward and it helps me keep my piece of cloth even, the same width and not wavy, as I work.

Maria, Imelda’s daughter, who is eleven and comes to play in the garden with the kids or to help her mother with our weaving lessons, depending on the day, is amused by me. She was sitting, working on organizing Hannah’s loom earlier this week while I struggled to “unweave” back to my stick and sort out the latest problem.

“Can you weave, Maria?” I asked, knowing full well the answer, as she was working to assemble Hannah’s project.

“Si, un poco… Yes, a little,” she answered shyly.

I laughed.  “A little… but more than me, right?” I queried again.

She broke into a huge smile and laughed right out loud, “Yes, better than you!” Her mom laughed, my mom laughed, we all laughed. I’ve nicknamed my piece of bamboo my “pre-school stick” because, clearly, such sticks were designed to help the tiniest of children get with the program and that’s the category into which I fall.

Imelda was sad when she arrived yesterday.

She sipped her drink and I tried to cheer her up. She’d been crying for three nights she said because her husband had been drunk since Friday and he still was when she left the house to come work with me. She lamented the epidemic of drunkenness among the men, “and many of the women too…” in her culture and she asked (quietly, because he was working behind us on the deck and she’s not sure how much Spanish he speaks) if my husband was a drinker. I assured her he was not and she patted my leg, raised her hands to the sky and thanked God for me that he was dry.

Her mood lightened as we worked and I thought about what I could do (besides weaving as slowly as possible to draw out her employment with me) to help her out. On a whim, I posted a note to my Facebook pages announcing that Imelda had many weavings for sale and asking my friends if they’d like to buy one, at full price, of course, because they’re VERY worth it. I didn’t tell her I’d done it, because I really didn’t expect anyone to respond.

Imagine my delight when within half an hour both weavings I’d photographed that she’d brought with her had SOLD! When I knew it was working, I told her what I was doing and a broad smile cracked her face. She sat beside me and looked at Facebook for the first time in her life. My friend Dianne introduced her to the wonder of chat, writing to her in Spanish, some of which I read aloud to her as she reads Spanish only “un poco.”

Today she’s returning, hopefully with every weaving she has for sale. I’ll be photographing them all and posting them to our pages. I have already three more people who have committed to purchasing something from her and several more who are waiting to shop across continents when they see what she’s got. I’m hoping with all my heart to sell enough of her weavings that I have to ship them home because I can’t carry them myself.

Imelda is very excited. She wants to see a picture of each of the ladies buying something and she wants to see pictures of their children and their lives as well. I’m blessing Facebook this morning for the opportunity it provides to communicate quickly, share pictures and, in this case, support the hard work of a good woman across continents. I often lament the state of the world, the plight of struggling families and frequently there is so little that one person can do to make a difference, but today, I’m as excited as Imelda because there IS something concrete that I can do, that you can do, that we can do together, to really bless one family and support the creative effort of a Mama who loves her kids and is doing her best to raise them well.

If you’re interested in seeing what Imelda has to offer, please check our Facebook page, The Edventure Project, or send me an e-mail directly!