Monday, January 25, 2016

Weaving Reflects the Soul

Batak weavers know, at some fundamental level, that their craft is sophisticated -- despite the poor returns they get on their work and their low social position. They have an awareness of the intricacy and level of difficulty of their work.

I shudder when I recall the tall tales told to aspiring young weavers by those former Batak weavers who have been deeply disappointed by the reception of their work, things like "Don't learn to weave or you will go blind," and the well-meant advice, "Weaving will condemn you to poverty; it is best to not begin." Of course these are reflections of, and reactions to, the drop in prices and lack of appreciation that weavers have been experiencing.

Lasma's first bulang ready for the complex technique
called warp exchange
In Lasma's village the women had all stopped weaving and none was willing to teach her the craft. Slowly Lasma has been making a difference. Some can't stop themselves from giving a word or two of instruction as they pass by her window and see her at work at her loom. Lasma's enthusiasm is unflagging and appears to be infectious. She is convinced there is a future for these textiles -- especially now that weaving has become a rarity. Some are willing to take up the sword and shuttle again because they are convinced that there may be a market. Weaving may have stopped but suffering from poverty has not.

Lasma has reached that stage in her learning curve when she wants to seriously work on a textile for ritual purposes. She has selected the bulang, as consistent with the tradition in her village. I was touched deeply when she told me her neighbours' reactions. Their story has changed. They are acknowledging the nobility of the work once again and they are encouraging her in wise ways.

"Weaving is a highly complex craft," they confide to Lasma. "We can see and sense the spirit and characteristics of a weaver through her finished textile. Weaving is not just about practising complicated techniques, it is about learning patience."

I am writing this blog in Thailand. For a brief two weeks I have joined a team in Bangkok that is studying the collection of batiks collected by King Rama V in 1871, 1896 and 1901 in Java. Some of the works are truly extraordinary but there is next to no information available about the makers; they have been left out of the annals of written history. They are present only in the cloths they decorated. This presence is reminding me of the words of Lasma's neighbours. I detect from these cloths that the makers were patient to an almost incredible degree. Applying the wax on those detailed, precise cloths can only have been an endless, meditative, spiritual exercise.

Everyday I emerge from the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles where I have undergone an intensive encounter with those batiks and I return to my hotel and an intensive encounter with the buzzing Khao San district of Bangkok, famous for its confection sales and entertainment scene. I reel from the dissonance between the two worlds. I wonder how Lasma will fare in her self-imposed challenge to enter the cognitive space of the master weaver.  We will talk about that when I see her in a few weeks. 

Friday, January 01, 2016

Saving Lasma Sitanggang

I have never seen the harrowing war film, 'Saving Private Ryan' but the title has always intrigued me. It points to the story, the complications, of following one's heart to do good for another.

When I met Lasma, she was in a state of desperation. The purchase of medicine for her chronically ill mother used up all of the family's resources and Lasma had not been able to qualify for a grant to go to university. The spectre of perpetuating the poverty into which she had been born stared her in the face. She would have to kiss goodbye to her youth. Her friends had gone off to school and she was left behind to work in the fields. With tears in her eyes she defiantly claimed that she had honest hands that could do an honest day's work, that she would follow in the footsteps of her ancestors and there was no reason to feel shame.
Thoughtful Lasma

I couldn't bear to see the unhappiness in this young woman who was so articulate and clearly so intelligent and deserving. I took her under my wing. It was a gradual process that took a few years, but now she is firmly lodged there, under my wing. I have committed to walk with her on her path and to confront the devil of poverty with her. Lasma and I are on a journey together. Where it will end we do not know. Where we want it to go is clear to both of us.

Lasma is a kind-hearted soul. She is bright and capable. Perhaps her only fault is her boundless sense of her own capacities. But this is also her greatest strength. It is the source of her positive 'can do' approach to everything. She shoulders every challenge thoughtfully and enthusiastically with both feet solidly on the ground. I know that this kind of drive in an individual can change the course of history. I don't try to correct her. I try to facilitate her dreams. I approve of them. Time will tell how far she will be able to run with the ball.
Thoughtful and critical

I try to put myself in her shoes. What would/could I do in her position? I dialogue with her, challenge her, think with her. What kind of course is strategic and effective? What is wise? I ask myself and her, what can I do as an outsider to clear away obstacles and facilitate her marching to her own drum? What are the needed interventions? I want to save her from that breaking point that I have seen far too often in the lives of young poverty-stricken Batak adults: that moment when they concede to poverty, when they know that they are defeated and are fated to never get ahead or achieve their dreams or realize their capacities and ambitions. This is the spectre that terrifies Lasma. It is what brought us together and continues to bind us: this need to present some opposition to the needless, senseless waste of talent and life!

The question that Lasma and I share is huge. Where is the path that will give her a good, fulfilling existence? What does it mean to have a 'good' life? What does it mean to be fulfilled? These are existential, political, social, historical, cultural and environmental questions; the soul-searching is not just psychological and individual. The answer does not lie in tearing her away from her family and village and turning her into a relatively wealthy Westerner. The answer is so much more complex. It lies in negotiating a path that is appropriate for her within her culture, situation and environment. It would break her heart to become alienated from her home in any sense. She would not be able to live with herself. She cannot rest until her parents are secure in their old age and her neighbours are no longer suffering. She is not the kind of person who coûte que coûte will run off to seek gain for herself leaving the rest to face hardship. The path to her goal is not lying there waiting to be trod; it will have to be constructed while walking on it.

'Saving Lasma Sitanggang' means saving the whole village. It means struggling to answer the challenge of how to make a good life despite all the forces that slap down the little farmer in Indonesia. This past year alone, four people in her village have committed suicide for reasons related to poverty. Lasma wants to honour her cultural heritage as well as find her way through this world that champions only the value of money. For me, traveling with Lasma Sitanggang means being willing to share the burden on her shoulders, to help construct strategies that fit with her local circumstances, to construct ways that will give everyone a chance to win and climb out of the hole together. What we undertake, the interventions that we construct, must meet the criterion of serving the well being of the whole village.

This must be possible because the alternative is not bearable to consider.

Lasma is not the same as all the other people in her situation because I am there beside her making sure that she does not drown. That lightens her load a little, but it does not render her challenge easier. And I also must not flag.

Life in the city is not what Lasma wants
We ask ourselves, "What is well being?" Lasma is not interested in an urban existence. She disparages of the dirt and buzz of a city. She loves to work with the soil and enjoys the beauty of a farmer's field, the breathability of the air in the countryside. That makes it easier for us to work on a program of well being that takes into account the health of the air, soil and water. We do not seek monetary wealth. We seek cultural, physical, environmental and community health. We focus consciously on the lasting, important values and the needs of this poor, beleaguered earth. Money is but one of the resources that we can deploy to make this happen. I often refer to the beauty of a tree and suggest that we should be like a tree. It gives abundantly. It gives and gives. It makes the soil richer and the air cleaner; it provides a home for every kind of creature; blossoms infinitely and so much more plentifully than what is needed just to reproduce itself. It offers shade and anchors the water and soil. It does not ask what it will get in return; it does not count beans and has no ledgers. It is simply generous. Even when it is old and falls over it continues to provide a home for species and the opportunity for new life. "Lasma, our job in this world is to be like trees. How can we do that?"

In future blogs I will write about our choices and selections. Saving Lasma Sitanggang is about a different kind of war, the everyday kind that we really have no choice but to fight.