Each basket is unique

broom maker

When work moved from farm to city, from land to concrete, from hands to machine—in short, when the industrial revolution redefined the meaning of work for us—much was lost. Perhaps the greatest loss was the sense of cosmic wonder of interrelationship with the universe, with nature, with the stars and breezes and plants and animals that was integral to workers on the land. No paycheck can make up for that loss. – Matthew Fox’s The Reinvention of Work

If You Had to

If you had to make the quill
pen in the old way, stripping
the feathers, cutting the well,
splitting & shearing the tip

off clean; if you had to grind
the ink, holding the cake
straight against the stone,
circling until your wrist ached

to get the proper tone of black;
would you wonder, as you sat before the paper
what sort of poem was worthy of your labor?

– Samuel Green, The Grace of Necessity

the basket makerAh that immense joy when you just create magic with your hands, when you create a unique piece of art. Have you read about Campesino from Mexico. He was a basket maker and he made and sold beautiful Canastitas. “Each basket is unique, Senora. You must take a look at the colors and weaving”, he would say. They would turn him down, push him away ask him to reduce the price for the small basket and bargain till their throats turned hoarse. But it did not really matter to Campesino, did it, these daily trials. For him each of his little basket was his new little song the colors of which were inspired from a new butterfly that came visiting him in the evenings… the song would suffice.

… And once just like Campesino, people did make things, beautiful as they were, out of their own hands. Yes, a basket would take days, a wooden pigeon would come live and hoot after weeks of labor and a shawl would be ready only after the artisan had spent not less than 15 months working on it, closely embroidering on it the edges of the leaves that had fallen off the tree in autumn, each leaf special and different just like us. That’s how were the days spent and lives lived, amidst the joy of creation. In childhood I had read a beautiful story by Ruskin Bond – the Kite Maker – story of an old man who made some of the most beautiful kites, people in that city had ever seen.

The Kite Maker – Ruskin Bond

There was but one tree in the street known as Gali Ram Nathan ancient banyan that had grown through the cracks of an abandoned mosque—and little Ali’s kite had caught in its branches. The boy, barefoot and clad only in a torn shirt, ran along the cobbled stones of the narrow street to where his grandfather sat nodding dreamily in the sunshine of their back courtyard.

‘Grandfather shouted the boy. ‘My kite has gone!

The old man woke from his daydream with a start and, raising his head, displayed a beard that would have been white had it not been dyed red with mehendi leaves. ‘Did the twine break?’ he asked. to know that kite twine is not what it used to be. ‘No, Grandfather, the kite is stuck in the banyan tree.

The old man chuckled. ‘You have yet to learn how to fly a kite properly, my child. And I am too old to teach you, that’s the pity of it. But you shall have another.

He had just finished making a new kite from bamboo paper and thin silk, and it lay in the sun, firming up. It was a pale pink kite, with a small green tail. The old man handed it to Ali, and the boy raised himself on his toes and kissed his grandfather’s hollowed-out cheek.

I will not lose this one he said. ‘This kite will fly like a bird. And he turned on his heels and skipped out of the courtyard.

The old man remained dreaming in the sun. His kite shop was gone, the premises long since sold to a junk dealer; but he still made kites, for his own amusement and for the benefit of his grandson, Ali. Not many people bought kites these days. Adults disdained them, and children preferred to spend their money at the cinema. Moreover, there were not many open spaces left for the flying of kites. The city had swallowed up the open grassland that had stretched from the old fort’s walls to the river bank. But the old man remembered a time when grown men flew kites, and great battles were fought, the kites swerving and swooping in the sky, tangling with each other until the string of one was severed. Then the defeated but liberated kite would float away into the blue unknown. There was a good deal of betting, and money frequently changed hands. Kite-flying was then the sport of kings, and the old man remembered how the Nawab himself would come down to the riverside with his retinue to participate in this noble pastime. There was time, then, to spend an idle hour with a gay, dancing strip of paper. Now everyone hurried, in a heat of hope, and delicate things like kites and daydreams were trampled underfoot.

He, Mehmood the kitemaker, had in the prime of his life been well known throughout the city. Some of his more elaborate kites once sold for as much as three or four rupees each.

At the request of the Nawab he had once made a very special kind of kite, unlike any that had been seen in the district. It consisted of a series of small, very light paper disks trailing on a thin bamboo frame. To the end of each disk he fixed a sprig of grass, forming a balance on both sides. The surface of the foremost disk was slightly convex, and a fantastic face was painted on it, having two eyes made of small mirrors. The disks, decreasing in size from head to tail, assumed an undulatory form and gave the kite the appearance of a crawling serpent. It required great skill to raise this cumbersome device from the ground, and only Mehmood could manage it. 

Everyone had heard of the ‘Dragon Kite’ that Mehmood had built, and word went round that it possessed supernatural powers. A large crowd assembled in the open to watch its first public launching in the presence of the Nawab. At the first attempt it refused to leave the ground. The disks made a plaintive, protesting sound, and the sun was trapped in the little mirrors, making of the kite a living, complaining creature. Then the wind came from the right direction, and the Dragon Kite soared into the sky, wriggling its way higher and higher, the sun still glinting in its devil-eyes. And when it went very high, it pulled fiercely on the twine, and Mehmood’s young sons had to help him with the reel. Still the kite pulled, determined to be free, to break loose, to live a life of its own. And eventually it did so. The twine snapped, the kite leaped away toward the sun, sailing on heavenward until it was lost to view. It was never found again, and Mehmood wondered afterwards if he made too vivid, too living a thing of the great kite. He did not make another like it. Instead he presented to the Nawab a musical kite, one that made a sound like a violin when it rose in the air.

Those were more leisurely, more spacious days. But the Nawab had died years ago, and his descendants were almost as poor as Mehmood himself. Kitemakers, like poets, once had their patrons; but no one knew Mehmood, simply because there were too many people in the Gali, and they could not be bothered with their neighbours.

When Mehmood was younger and had fallen sick, everyone in the neighbourhood had come to ask after his health; but now, when his days were drawing to a close, no one visited him. Most of his old friends were dead and his sons had grown up: one was working in a local garage and the other, who was in Pakistan at the time of the Partition, had not been able to rejoin his relatives.

The children who had bought kites from him ten years ago were now grown men, struggling for a living; they did not have time for the old man and his memories. They had grown up in a swiftly changing and competitive world, and they looked at the old kitemaker and the banyan tree with the same indifference.

Both were taken for granted—permanent fixtures that were of no concern to the raucous, sweating mass of humanity that surrounded them. No longer did people gather under the banyan tree to discuss their problems and their plans; only in the summer months did a few seek shelter from the fierce sun.

But there was the boy, his grandson. It was good that Mehmood’s son worked dose by, for it gladdened the old man’s heart to watch the small boy at play in the winter sunshine, growing under his eyes like a young and well-nourished sapling putting forth new leaves each day. There is a great affinity between trees and men. We grow at much the same pace, if we are not hurt or starved or cut down. In our youth we are resplendent creatures, and in our declining years we stoop a little, we remember, we stretch our brittle limbs in the sun, and then, with a sigh, we shed our last leaves.

Mehmood was like the banyan, his hands gnarled and twisted like the roots of the ancient tree. Ali was like the young mimosa planted at the end of the courtyard. In two years both he and the tree would acquire the strength and confidence of their early youth. The voices in the street grew fainter, and Mehmood wondered if he was going to fall asleep and dream, as he so often did, of a kite so beautiful and powerful that it would resemble the great white bird of the Hindus—Garuda, God Vishnu’s famous steed. He would like to make a wonderful new kite for little Ali. He had nothing else to leave the boy.

He heard Ali’s voice in the distance, but did not realize that the boy was calling him. The voice seemed to come from very far away. Ali was at the courtyard door, asking if his mother had as yet returned from the bazaar. When Mehmood did not answer, the boy came forward repeating his question. The sunlight was slanting across the old man’s head, and a small white butterfly rested on his flowing beard. Mehmood was silent; and when Ali put his small brown hand on the old man’s shoulder, he met with no response. The boy heard a faint sound, like the rubbing of marbles in his pocket.

Suddenly afraid, Ali turned and moved to the door, and then ran down the street shouting for his mother. The butterfly left the old man’s beard and flew to the mimosa tree, and a sudden gust of wind caught the torn kite and lifted it in the air, carrying it far above the struggling city into the blind blue sky. 

……………………………………………………………..

Just like Ruskin Bond, Naomi Shihab Nye takes us with her to the Middle East to observe a man in his “stony corner” that makes brooms. His trade is unfamiliar to Americans who buy brooms made in factories. In her poem “The Man Who Makes Brooms”, she describes the maker of brooms –

Thumb over thumb, straw over straw,
he will not look at us.
In his stony corner there is barely room
for baskets and thread,
much less the weight of our faces
staring at him from the street.
What he has lost or not lost is his secret.

broom maker

What is the secret that Samuel Green’s quill maker, Ruskin’s kite maker and Nye’s broom maker shared? John Stone says its the same secret that the little birds across many cultures sing: mindfulness, compassion, and understanding the word “enough.”

Oh yes, before I forget, in case you are interested to know more about Campesino and his beautiful baskets and what he did to a big business offer, you should read the play Campesino and his wife features in – The Basket Maker by Tom Pruiksma. A lovely play.

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Tanika and the Muavo tree

by Grace Llewellyn, How to quit school and get a real life and education

picking applesON A SOFT green planet, a smiling baby was born in an orchard resplendent with every kind of fruit in the universe. The baby’s parents called her Tanika, and Tanika spent her days roaming the warm wet ground on hands and knees. Spotting a clump of gulberries off in the distance, she’d crawl after it and crush the sweet fruit in her mouth, red juice staining her brown chin and neck. A muavo would fall fatly from the high crown of the muavo tree, and she’d savor its golden tang. Each day revealed new wonders—bushapples, creamy labanas, the nutty crunch of the brown shrombart. The orchard’s fruit sparkled in the dew and sun like thousands of living moist jewels against the green fragrance of cushioning leaves.

As her eyes grew stronger Tanika lifted her gaze. The opulent branches above her hung heavy with fruits she’d never dreamed of, globular and glistening. Tanika’s mother and father wandered the orchard too, sometimes, and she watched them reach out easily and take a shining cluster here, a single green satinplum there. She’d watch them eat and imagine being tall enough to roam and reach so freely as they. Sometimes one of them would bend down and give Tanika one of those fruits from up there in the moving leaves. Fresh from the branches, it intoxicated her, and her desire to know and taste all the fruits of the orchard so consumed her that she began to long for the day she could reach that far.

Her longing strengthened her appetite, and the fruit strengthened her legs, and one day Tanika crawled to the base of a mysterious bush at the edge of the stream that watered the orchard. She leaned carefully forward and braced her arms as she positioned her feet. Unsteadily she rose and groped for the shrub’s pale fruit. Tugging knocked her off balance and she sat down hard in an overripe muavo, but she barely noticed the fruit squishing under her thighs: in her hands she grasped a fruit thin-skinned and silver, fresh and new. She pressed it to her nose and face before she let her teeth puncture it.

No sooner had she tossed the smooth pit into the stream, than she heard a rustling behind her. A jolly bespectacled face grinned down at her.

“Well, well, well! You’re a mighty lucky little girl! I’ve come to teach you to get the fruit down from the tall trees!”

Tanika’s happiness unfurled like a sail. She could hardly believe her good luck. Not only had she just picked and eaten her first bush fruit, but here was a man she didn’t even know offering to show her how to reach the prism of treats high above her head. Tanika was so overcome with joy that she immediately rose to her feet again, and plucked another of the small moonish fruits.

The jolly stranger slapped the fruit from Tanika’s wrist. Stunned, she fell again and watched her prize roll into the stream. “Oh dear,” said the man, “You’ve already picked up some bad habits. That may make things difficult.” The slapping hand now took Tanika’s and pulled her up. Holding on this way, Tanika stumbled along behind the stranger.

She wanted to ask questions, like, “Why didn’t you just show me how to pick those berries hanging above the bush where I was?” But she kept her mouth shut. If she was going off to pick the high fruit, she guessed it didn’t matter where, or that she’d sacrificed her one beautiful moonfruit. Maybe they were going to a special tree melting with juicing fruits, branches bent almost to the ground, low enough for her outstretched fingers. Yes! That must be it. Excitement renewed, she moved her legs faster. The stranger grinned and squeezed her hand.

Soon Tanika saw the biggest, greyest thing she’d ever laid eyes on. In quiet fascination she tripped along as they stepped off the spongy humus of the orchard floor onto a smooth sidewalk. “Here we are!” beamed the guide. They entered the building, full of odd smells and noises. They passed through a pair of heavy black doors, and the man pushed Tanika into a loud, complicated room full of talking children and several adults. She looked at the children, some sitting on the floor, some crawling about or walking. All of them had trays or plates in front of them heaping with odd mushy lumps of various colors. Also, some of the children were busy coloring simple pictures of fruits, and some wore pins and tags on their shirts displaying little plastic pears and mistbulbs. Baffled, Tanika tried to figure out what the children were doing in such a dark, fruitless place, what the lumpy stuff was, and above all, why her guide had stopped here on their way to the bountiful tree.

But before she had time to think, two things happened. First, one of the kids took something metal and used it to scoop a lump of dull pinkish stuff into his mouth. Tanika opened her mouth in panic to warn the kid. Maybe there was something wrong with him; he was much bigger than she was, old enough to know better. But just as she began to yell, a new hand, slick, pulled her up again. “OK, Tanika,” said the cheery woman that went with the hand, “This is the cafeteria. We’re looking forward to helping you grow, and we’re certain we can help you learn to pick tree fruit, as long as you do your part.”

Tanika felt confused. She didn’t see what this place could have to do with picking gulberries, and at the moment she was particularly hungry for more of that shining moonfruit. But she had no time to think. The slick-hand woman put Tanika on a cold chair at a table. “Here,” she said, and nudged a box of crayons and a black outline of a plum at her. “Today you will color this, and it will help you get ready for eating tomorrow.” Tanika started to feel foolish. She’d never guessed that learning to pick fruit would be so complicated. She colored the plum with all the colors in the box, trying in vain to make it round and enticing like the fruits of the orchard.

The rest of the day passed in a daze. Tanika was made to color more of the pictures, and to her disgust most of the children ate the formless mush on the plates in front of them. Some of the fat and greasy children asked for more and stuffed themselves. Whenever this happened, the adults ran in and put gold stars all over the kid’s arms and face. Many things happened—children fought, napped, sat quietly fidgeting with the stuff. Finally, the jolly man took Tanika’s hand and led her out of the dark building. As her bare feet met the orchard grass, she caught the scent of ripe labana. She asked the stranger if he would get one for her, but he merely laughed.

Tanika was far too confused to put any of her questions into words. By the time they arrived at the tree where Tanika slept with her parents, the evening light had turned the leaves to bronze, and she was exhausted. Too tired to look for fruit, she fell asleep and dreamed fitfully.

In the morning her mind was clear. She still wanted to reach the high fruit, but she did not want to go back to the noisy smelly dark cafeteria. She could already reach the bushfruit; maybe in time she’d grasp the high fruit too.

But when the spectacled person arrived, he told her that she’d never reach the trees without many years in the cafeteria. He explained it—”You can’t reach them now, can you?” and “Your parents can reach them. That’s because they went to the cafeteria. I can reach them, because I went to the cafeteria.” Tanika had no time to think this through, because he’d pulled her to her feet again and they were off. She hadn’t had time to find breakfast, and her stomach rumbled painfully.

Tanika went in the room and sat down politely. “Please,” she asked one of the adults, “Can you help me pick tree fruits today? That’s why I’m here, and also today I didn’t have time for breakfast.”

The tall lady laughed. “Well, well, well! Aren’t we cute! Tree fruit! Before you’re ready for tree fruit, you have to prepare!” She disappeared behind a curtain and returned carrying a tray with a scoop of greenish stuff. Tanika jerked back. She looked around wildly for an escape route. Out of the corner of her eye she saw a boy watching with soft dark quiet eyes. The lady grabbed her hand.

“Don’t be afraid, Tanika,” she laughed. “How will you ever work up to eating tree fruit if you can’t handle plate fruit?” She put the tray on the table, and took the metal thing, spooning up a piece of the stuff and holding it in front of the small girl. Tanika pushed the spoon away violently. Then she put her head down on the table and cried.

The lady’s voice changed. “So you’re going to be a tough one, Tanika? Just remember, you’re only hurting yourself when you refuse to eat. If you want to succeed, you’d better do as we ask.” She walked away.

When Tanika stopped crying, her stomach was desperately empty. She sat up and looked at the tray. She was afraid of the stuff. She bent down to smell it and caught a faint, stale whiff of limbergreen berry. The smell, even distorted, was a familiar friend. She picked up the spoon and ate her first bite of cafeteria food. Tanika was relieved. Although the goop was slimy, far too sweet, and mostly tasteless, it wasn’t as bad as it looked. And it did seem to be made from limbergreen berries. She ate it all, and felt a little better. The lady came back. “Very good,” she smiled. She stuck a green star on the back of Tanika’s hand. “We’ll do some more exercises and then later on you can try something new to eat.”

Hours later, Tanika had been the apple in “Velcro the Stem on the Apple,” and had drawn a muavo tree and listened to an older student explain what fruits contained vitamins P, Q, and Z. Apparently she had done all these things right, because the lady came back and put more green and gold stars on her hands and cheeks. Some of the children looked at her angrily, though, so perhaps she’d done something wrong.

At this point a man rang a little bell. Immediately all the children sat down at the tables and folded their hands neatly. A girl grabbed Tanika’s hand and shoved her onto a chair. Then six children walked into the room carrying stacks of trays. They put one in front of each child, and Tanika saw that each tray contained five purple and blue wafers. “Yum!” said the girl next to Tanika, “Violetberry cakes!” Tanika jumped. She’d seen her parents eat violetberries, and also seen the accompanying ecstasy on their faces. She easily pictured the graceful coniferous trees on which they grew.

She picked up a wafer. It was warm, but not with the gentle warmth of the sun. She put it in her mouth. Dry, sandy… she chewed obediently but sadly. This was it? Disappointment sank her stomach and she put the cake down, mentally crossing violetberries off her wishlist forever.

In the end Tanika was made to eat the violetberry cake—all five hunks of it— before the spectacled man would lead her out the door. Her stomach throbbed all the way home. That night she crawled into her mother’s arms and sobbed. Her mother rocked her, then whispered something to Tanika’s father. He disappeared, and returned a minute later with an armload of tiny, glowing violetberries.

“It’s time,” said her mother sweetly, “For your first fresh violetberries.”

Her father dangled them teasingly above her lips, but Tanika only cried harder. The berries’ fragrance, though delicate and sweet, clashed with her distended heavy stomach. She was far too full, and it was violetberries’ fault. Both parents teased and offered, but they finally gave up. Her mother laid Tanika down to rest alone, and the two adults stood whispering while the moon rose, worry in their voices.

At the cafeteria the next day the adults met Tanika with an unpleasant stare. “You’re making things difficult for yourself,” scolded the woman with slick hands, “Your parents have reported that your attitude at home is not meeting standards for girls your age. You need to eat much more thoroughly.” A girl brought a plate crowded with dried out, wrinkly little fruits. Tanika ate them, tough and tasteless. Her stomach hurt again. After they dissected a preserved bushapple, she ate another tray full of canned gulberry. Then she went back home and slept.

Days passed, and months. Tanika ate obediently and earned lots of stars. There was a picture of a bright green tree painted on one of the walls, and when the whole roomful of children ate their food quickly, the adults had them play a game. They taped three or four cut-out paper fruits to the tree, and then the kids were made to take turns jumping or reaching to try to take them. Whoever reached a fruit got to keep it, and also was called a winner and plastered with dozens of gold stars.

One day when the spectacled man walked her home he told her the cafeteria would be closed for two days for cleaning. He handed her a little white carton and said, “Be sure to eat all of this while I’m gone, and I’ll pick you up in two days.”

As he waddled away, a strange inspiration seized Tanika’s brain. She touched her swollen belly and flung the carton away. Out of it tumbled cakes, red mush, hard little biscuits smelling flatly of labanas.

When she woke the next morning her stomach rumbled and she got up to look for breakfast. Leaving the clearing, she accidentally kicked a biscuit. Out of habit, she picked it up and almost put it in her mouth, then caught herself and aimed instead for a bush full of gulberries. Furtively she snatched a handful and crushed them to her lips. Sweet and wild, they made her want to sing.

Tanika’s father saw her then, and called excitedly to her mother. Both of them ran to their child and squeezed her. “Look what you’ve learned at the cafeteria!” cried her mother. “My baby is growing up!”

“Be sure to eat all your homefood,” said her father, “So you won’t be behind when you go back.” Then his tone of voice changed. “What’s that?” he said. He sprinted off and grabbed up the white carton. Tanika watched in horror as he searched the orchard floor. A few minutes later he returned with everything— biscuits, cake, mush.

Tanika ate it all.

The cafeteria opened again and Tanika went back. Every day she ate faster, and gradually stopped resisting, even in her own mind. One day she reached the highest paper fruit on the painted tree. All the adults patted her head and she could barely see her brown skin under all the gold stars. She started walking to the cafeteria every day by herself. The adults started giving her food for the evenings, and usually she’d eat it like they said. One day, walking home, she flung her hands to the sky and they touched, accidentally, a muavo hanging down from its branch. Tanika jumped back. “I can pick it,” she said slowly, “It worked.” She thought for a minute. The cooks had said it would happen, someday, if she ate what they gave her and jumped as high as she could during the tree game.

Tanika gracefully severed the muavo from its stem, examined it, and tossed it neatly into a shadow.

She wasn’t hungry.

A young girl on who inspires her

Had written this in September 2011, when I was volunteering with a small Tibetan school.

This is about two little children studying in the same school. The boy has become a close friend of mine. We generally go around together talking about various things. I did not what was it that had attracted me to him, until yesterday when I read something written about him. The Tibetan teacher had asked all children to answer a few questions one of them being – Who is the person that inspires you? Who do you want to be like? Yesterday night when we had gone out for tea, he read out an answer to me, written by the little girl. Now before I go to the answer let me tell you something about both these children –

Boy (A) – A little fat, stout fellow. He is always dressed shabbily, with at least 2 button of his shirt always broken. His boots are always broken. Also he does not do well in the “regular classroom” studies. Barely passes and had also failed in a subject in previous class.

Girl (B) – A very sweet girl. When I asked her what was it that she wanted to become, she replied fashion designer. A lover of style, she is always wearing latest designs (to the best she can afford). She adores film stars and other celebrities.

Now coming to the answer (translated from tibetan) she wrote for the question – Who is the person that inspires you? Who do you want to be like?

I really admire this boy (A). He is so simple and down to earth. After class whenever I see him, he is always busy reading some or the other book. I have never seen him fight, abuse other kids. He always manages to find a little corner for himself and busies himself with reading or writing about something. He never talks bad about anyone and is always smiling and cheering others. Now, I very well know that he is always dressed shabbily unlike other boys who come to class all hip and  hop. He also does not do well in the exams and is considered by almost all the teachers as dull and lazy. But surprisingly that does not deter him from reading so many extra books after class. I see in him a person that I so respect. He never tries to gain attention. After seeing him I have realized that it is not the outer appearance that we should seek in a person but his or her inner beauty. I want to become like him – beautiful from inside.

After listening to her answer I was so overwhelmed, now realizing why I liked that boy so much. I had made a certain impression of the girl (based on outer appearance), which later I realized was so wrong.

I remember a little conversation I had with this boy once –

“What is it that you want to do when you grow up? Whats your passion?”
“I want to live a simple life”
“Yes but what is it that you want to do? Something special for the world?”
“World I do not know. But I do want to take care of my parents. They have done a lot for me. I want to keep them happy. Every single moment”.

I had never thought that this could be also a possible answer.