Thursday, March 4, 2010

I must apologize to Guatemala.

Since 2004, I have imported and sold handwoven Guatemalan goods on eBay--primarily tablecloths, place mats, table runners, napkins. Every time I unpack a new shipment, I am astonished once again by the skilled craftsmanship. The threads, the colors, the precision of the weaving process, the flat smoothness of the finished piece--all exceed my expectations of that which is handmade. It just doesn't seem humanly possible to create these weavings, let alone to create them under impoverished conditions, using primitive supplies, against a backdrop of political uncertainty and natural disasters.

Hurricane Stan was one of those natural disasters. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as the United States tried to recover from the overwhelming destruction left in her wake, there were other hurricanes in other countries. Hurricane Stan was one of them. Few focused on this latter storm, yet it swept through middle America in October 2005 and annihilated entire villages, including the villages where "my" weavers lived.

Some of the weavers barely escaped with the clothes on their backs. Others were not that fortunate. Hurricane Stan brought horrific mudslides that entombed villagers within their very homes, leading government officials to declare some of these areas graveyards.

I cried when I heard this. In my Chicago suburb so far from that disaster, I held in my hands spectacular linens of a quality that I will never match, stunned by the intricate designs I will never master. I realized these linens were created in a backdrop of severe poverty, at a level I will never experience. And I read the tags that many of these linens bore: "Handmade by ____." In many cases, the weaver signed his or her first name on the tag.

The weaver's work reaches me through Fair Trade, an organization that ensures that its member artisans receive fair wages for their work. Without Fair Trade, wholesalers can gather up these goods for pennies and make enormous profits in resale. But weavers allied with Fair Trade make more income than they would make selling their cloth in local markets. I whole-heartedly support Fair Trade and feel this is the least I can do to help make up for the fact that I get to buy and resell these goods.

This week, I am acutely aware of these weavers, their wares, their lives, their deaths. That's because I took about 20 hand woven dinner napkins and painted designs on them. I wanted to move this merchandise off of eBay (where the seller's fees are very high) and list them on Zibbet. I am not allowed to do this unless I either (1) categorize them as craft supplies or (2) impart my handmade touch. I chose the latter. Using fabric paint and permanent ink, I sketched some cave paintings, primitive designs and trees. But I know my paint and ink, although heat set, will fade sooner than the vibrant color of the cloth. Even worse, my artistry pales (an unwanted pun) to that of the Maya.

I listed the napkins but thought at length about the original weavers. I thank them for what they contribute to our world. I honor my sisters and brothers who continue to weave for the comparatively rich Americans who will never know the depth of their sacrifices. I apologize for daring to doodle on their cloth, because I fear I may have diminished, rather than enhanced, its beauty. And I pray that the money I pay through Fair Trade is enriching their lives enough to justify what I do.

One of my designs is a tree. It's a dj runnels kind of tree. I have drawn similar trees for years, countless times, in notebooks and paintings. I've drawn these trees on driveways with sidewalk chalk, surrounded by my children. I've drawn trees without leaves so that my children could fill in the leaves. I've drawn trees with blank leaves that my children could decorate or color in. The dj runnels trees have a long history. These trees now grace some of these Guatemalan napkins and my thoughts ran in two directions as I drew them. One thought was, "Gee, I hope I'm not ruining this perfectly good napkin." And the other recurring thought was the phrase "tree of life."

By tree of life, I mean the sense of connection I have to the weavers of these napkins. We are connected, the weavers and I. But also you and I. And you and they. We are all connected along the branches of humanity. Our ancestors form the roots of our current existence. We live and die, nurture and decay, interconnected in lives that network across the globe. Woven blessings pass through my hands and into yours. Or in some cases, woven blessings pass from them to me and I scribble on them and THEN they go to you. I feel I owe Guatemala an apology for this. But on the other hand, I like that I am sharing their precious work with you, even if the middleman or middlewoman just had to put her two cents' worth in there.

Did I participate in the creative endeavor? Or did I desecrate it?

Or maybe, as my 8th grade algebra teacher so often urged me to do, I can reduce it to even simpler terms: Maybe it was wrong, but I enjoyed doing it, anyway.

UPDATE: The Guatemalan linens I sold on eBay are no longer available, but I have incorporated Mayan work into my own handicrafts for Life's an Expedition on Etsy.

dj runnels
Life's an Expedition
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