Chaos—the primordial material of God’s Creation. Chaos—the disastrous state of our children’s room. Chaos—the erratic anarchy threatens governments and officials. Chaos—the breeder of social dysfunction. Chaos—the disordered state of many minds. Chaos—the emotional plasma of adolescence. Chaos—one half of a cosmic dynamic duo. Chaos—the womb of creativity. Chaos—the antidote for boredom. We need chaos as spice to add meaning to our lives. Without chaos there is only stasis. Without chaos, no one possesses the power of inspiration. Without chaos, we have nothing to strive against, for we are driven toward order. We crave order until we have too much of it. We welcome order until it stifles us. We use order to protect ourselves from others unlike ourselves. Too much order makes us prisoners of fear. It feeds on us to maintain its existence. We become bored prisoners of stasis until a random event, an unseen conceptual meteorite, an unexpected political candidate, an unheralded economic collapse breaks up the carapace of order, sets chaos loose, and frees us once more to pursue a creative path toward a new order. Chaos. Life is impossible without it.
What does abandoned mean? Immediately I think of desert islands, marooned sailors and objects of no further use left behind. The word ‘abandoned’ cries out as forsaken. The words for abandoned pile up: Deserted. Desolate. Derelict. Ditched. Dumped. Scratched. Chucked. Discarded. Thrown-away. Forsaken. Jilted. Rejected. Severed. Separated. Cut-off. Disconnected. Vacated. Emptied. Unwanted. Left behind.
Empty barns and farmhouses dotted the Minnesota countryside around our farm in the 1940s. Gray, unpainted houses with square, boxy lines and broken windows, stood vacant, like homely brides jilted by owners who went under, sold out, or moved to town. Deserted, vacated, and left behind—abandoned.
My college sweetheart and I married but disconnected gradually over a dozen years. We separated at Christmas when everyone else was tightly coupled to spouses and children. A sad time when I felt jilted, forsaken and rejected—abandoned.
The Casa Loma, a rural dancehall and bar near our farm, closed in the 1950s. A man bought it and opened a junk yard. Soon he filled the lot with the worn-out carcasses of farm pick-ups, mangled sedans, dead combines and invalided tractors. He ran a hospice for derelict hulks of iron and steel, unwanted, disowned, thrown-away—abandoned.
Years ago, on a hiking trip across Wyoming’s high, open range, I came upon a cluster of rotting log cabins. Once a gold camp, its population consisted of half-wild range cattle that loitered in the saloon under its sagging roofline. The cadavers of autos made in the 1920s lay on their sides long ago amputated of useful parts. Rotted wooden ladders descended into pitch dark shafts bereft of ore. A ghost town, vacated, empty, deserted—abandoned.
In my files resides a book manuscript I can’t sell. Well-written, articulate, and informative that no editor wants to publish it in these times. I can’t bear to throw it away but I can do nothing with it. Thus it is buried in file case, unread, useless, unwanted—abandoned.
One night while canoeing Montana’s upper Missouri River, my father and I camped near homesteads built in the early 1900s. In the morning, we wandered among the small cabins of cedar logs and sod roofs, rusting hay mowers and breaking plows. Homesteaders tried to sink roots in the early 1900s, then ripped them up and walked away during the dusty 1920s. As one-time farmers, we understood. Disconnected and isolated from markets in this beautifully desolate place, they chucked farming and ditched their dreams. Their hard work thrown away, discarded, left behind—abandoned.
A good friend lost his wife to another woman. For a long time, he lost his good spirits and went about as a vacant soul, a desolate and disconsolate temple of the spirit. Morose and distraught, he told me about feeling cut off, jilted, unwanted—abandoned.
For eight years I worked to earn a PhD and become a college professor. After the courses, the lectures, the seminars and exams, I knew this wasn’t the life for me. I severed connections with the academic world and gave up serious scholarship for a public life. A false dream rejected, set aside, left behind—abandoned.
Writing, careers, spouses, cars, homesteads, houses, mines—we abandon them, leave them behind, and cast off each one like a husk to assume something else. Those who abandon do so for a lack of hope, or out of hope for something better. And those who are abandoned are forlorn, diminished, forsaken. Whatever and whomever we leave behind, reject, throw-away, cut off, separate, forsake, ditch, dump or discard—all are a part of who we are and were and what we dreamed. Abandoned houses and cars, junk yards and careers, give mute testimony to fate, folly, and the human inability to foresee the future. Those whom we have abandoned write our moral epitaphs with their pain and fear. Abandoning something or someone may open new possibilities for us but there is always a moral price we must pay.
My daughter is an actor on stage, my father was a legislator, and I am a writer. Each of us wears a ‘mask.’ Not a physical mask but a figurative one, a persona. On stage, my daughter creates a person that isn’t her own but draws on her inner life. It’s for her art. As a leader, my father’s partisan expressions reflected his values but not his nature. He did it to influence followers. As a writer, I choose my words to show you—the reader—what I want you to see. Actor, politician, and writer, we wear our masks for effect.
But if we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t show everything to everyone because we can’t. It’s humanly impossible because we aren’t omniscient. Our mortality limits what we can know and reveal about ourselves at any one time. As mortals, we are restricted to revealing what is useful in living our lives.
I think masks reveal more of us than they hide. When I visit anthropological museums in Mexico, I study the indigenous masks from Zapotec, Aztec, Mayan and Olmec civilizations. Made of clay, stone, metal and wood, they present a bewildering array of heads. The faces aren’t realistic and some are hideous, nightmare visages with long, forked tongues protruding from their mouths. These are bizarre to someone formed in the representational artistic traditions of western Europe. We expect the realistic figures from which we might infer their character. To the indigenous cultures, the funeral masks represented who the individuals were to the people of that time and place. In those largely preliterate cultures, the masks expressed symbolically the qualities, character, and personality of the deceased. They were three dimensional eulogies for nobles, warriors and priests.
The masks beg timeless questions. Who are we? What are the secrets to our identities? Questions that philosophers, theologians, psychologists and writers have asked these questions for ages. Some clues still come from masks.
In Masks of the Spirit, Image and Metaphor in Mesoamerica, Peter and Roberta Markman describe Mesoamerican masks as metaphorical expressions of “a particular relationship between matter and spirit, the natural and the supernatural, the visible and the invisible.” Central to basic Mesoamerican religion is a belief in the natural world as merely a skin or mask of the supernatural. “The mask and its wearer exist in a series of relationships” that visually express the inner, spiritual identity of the wearers. They conceal and yet reveal the inner spiritual force of life itself, and create a “metaphorical relationship between man and the numinous.” As symbols of transformation, the masks provide the means by which humans transcend material existence to unite the realms of matter and spirit.
Does the mask or persona I wear daily to work, to school, or at home fulfill a similar function, even if on a mundane level? How much of my mask is designed to hide who I am and how much of it is intended to reveal my identity? Does the mask truly represent me in all times and places? Is it authentic?
Like Mesoamerican masks, I think mine mask—and yours—is fashioned by family and society to help me live and work harmoniously if not happily. For the most part, you and I accept our personas as a ‘given;’ like the sky or the air. We take it for granted and seldom examine our identity unless we are in crisis. Society accepts my mask and yours because they are consonant with our respective communities and cultures, their histories and traditions.
My mask presents an imperturbable face of understatement over a buttoned-down persona that rarely makes overt expressions of emotion. This mask fit well over the introverted side of my personality, especially during adolescence, when I thought (erroneously) my reticence added an element of mystery to my imagined ‘coolness when, in fact, it simply hid my social awkwardness. It worked well in an emotionally guarded family living in the fervently indirect social environment of rural Minnesota.
As I entered upon a career, I updated the mask without changing the underlying design as I adapted my persona to new settings and new colleagues. It represented who I thought I ought to be, wanted to be, and was. The mask felt comfortable in Minnesota in a profession where its qualities furthered my aims and ambitions.
I spent time in Mexico as an adult learning the language and culture, and arrived wearing my usual Minnesota mask. But the peoples and cultures of Mexico are different from those in Minnesota. And so are the masks people wear. As I worked at learning the Mexican culture, some of my Minnesota persona felt out of place and I had to assume another one to ‘fit in.’ As actors know, masks possess transformative power. In Mexico, my assumed role, drew upon aspects of my personality and character little used in Minnesota. Before long, a more extroverted and emotional facet of my persona emerged and struggled for a place alongside my buttoned-down imperturbability.
I liked the Mexican ‘mask’ and experiencing myself in a new way. At the same time, I faced the question of which persona, which mask, reflected my authentic identity? Was the more open, extroverted Mexican persona more authentic than the buttoned-down professional mask everyone knew in Minnesota? Which was real and which a pretension?
After several years of struggle, I now regard each mask as authentic. Masks are transformative and the sum of my being is greater than I can express in the attributes of a single mask. Each persona reflects an authentic part of me consonant with where I am and who I’m with. Like the Mesoamericans, I believe we have relationships with our masks as we have with ourselves. My mask—and yours—is a channel for expressing our life force in a manner accessible to others.
In these days of digital communication, it is a rare and joyous occasion when I receive a hand-written letter. It is far more personal than a typed letter of cold, perfectly-formed characters lying inert on stark white paper with a signature scrawled at the end. But even these have more intimacy than an e-mail or—worse—a text message of ‘LOL’ or ‘OMG.’ No. Except for face-to-face, person-to-person conversation, handwriting is the only form of communicating that conveys the innate character of the other person as an integral part of the message.
I treat a hand-written letter, with its pen and ink, as a huge gift of someone’s time and affection. Such letters begin with someone’s desire to tell me something. Their heart’s desire becomes a thought, leading to an impulse to pick up a pen and sheet of paper. And then their fingers grasp the pen, their hand moves in obedience to the commands of their head and heart. Ink flows across the sheet of paper, across the watermarks, across time and space in distinctive cursive lines, a weaver’s tapestry embracing me in thoughts and emotions.
When the postman leaves the envelope in my box, I open it with feelings of expectation, of joy, a feeling of being chosen, special, because someone made the effort to write a message to me instead of banging it out hastily on a computer. Their fingerprints, their DNA, is on the paper, in the words as much as the ink. Handwriting is to the essence of personal communication what scent is to the identity of a flower.
Even without a signature, I know who wrote the letters in the family collection I curate for eventual donation to the historical society. My grandfather’s letters—hastily typed on cheap paper with two fingers of each hand—link skipped letters together with inked lines. His typed-over errors are interlaced with written corrections and annotations. Grandpa’s handwriting was as hasty as his typing because all must be done yesterday. He could never get to the mail box fast enough.
My Dad wrote the way he walked, worked, and swam in strong, graceful pen strokes slanted forward along even lines. His autography has a rhythm as visually distinctive as his walk. He wrote factually, reporting, narrating and describing the look of things, the course of the action. His extroversion shone through with nary a trace of personal reflection. It’s a writing style he learned from his father, a newspaper editor, and then honed as a sports stringer in high school and college.
Mom’s writing slanted back on itself in open loops. Her hand moved across the page in short bursts, pausing now and then to think, ponder, then back up and rephrase. She wasn’t given to reportage; she wrote repartee, playing with the ideas and words as if in direct conversation. That’s how her mind worked, that’s how she talked, that’s why people loved her. She often sprinkled French words and phrases here and there in letters to her brother and aunt. That’s the mark of an educated woman from an upper class family, ‘n’est pas?’
My uncle—Mom’s brother—seldom penned a letter but when he did, he drew his words more than wrote them. He was an artist who held his pen between his thumb and fingers as if it were a brush and then dabbed the words on the page with a idiosyncratic calligraphy in keeping with his other eccentricities. Like my mother’s letters, he wrote informally, as if living in the moment, writing for emotional effect rather than merely relay information.
Schools stopped teaching cursive penmanship several decades ago and contemporary college students don’t write cursive and many can’t read it. This is a problem for those who need to read handwritten documents. I learned to write cursive in grade school but my daughters didn’t. My eldest writes by printing in a distinctive style and so does my younger brother. My own writing has assumed a distinctive form and style over the years. Though distinctive it is legible—at least when I’m not in a hurry. Like my father’s hand, my writing slants forward, it’s patterns rhythmic but the letters are sharper and as much drawn as written.
In my work as a historian, I have read thousands of letters written by hundreds of people. No two scribblers have the same style. Each one has penmanship that reflects their personality—at least I associate the personality with the autography—which is how I know the deceased. And that brings me to what we are losing in the age of digital communication. (And you may say—oh, there he goes, talking about ‘the good old days.’) Communication written by hand conveys something that writing by a machine can never convey. When my Dad was a legislator, he often dictated personal letters out of convenience. The ‘personality; that came through dictation wasn’t the one I knew from handwritten letters.
When I want to express what is deepest inside, I must write in longhand. The kinetic connection of fingers, hand, arm, brain and heart releases whatever truth lies waiting to be told. Typing or writing on my laptop throws a veil over my feelings and my expression is weaker, more qualified, less true. Only in writing longhand can I write what is most true.
You may disagree but, before you do, try writing longhand and notice the difference in what you feel, and the power of the words you use to say it.
It’s now late March, the Girls Basketball tournament just finished in Minneapolis while a major snowstorm has begun crawling across southern Minnesota where I grew up. These blizzards often come in just after a prolonged thaw, when most of the snow is gone. The storms often begin warm and wet, with lightning and thunder before they dump heavy snow with lightning. Snow comes down on a driving wind that piles up drifts four-five-six feet high. March snowstorms aren’t rare—they’re normal—yet there is something especially wonderful about them. They’re massive and unpredictable.
During my childhood, the weather reports were general—at best. An accurate forecast in the 1950s came out in phrases like: “Scattered showers are possible across southern Minnesota,” or “There’s a chance of snow tonight with strong northwest winds.” That was about as close as a forecast came to what actually happened. Weather satellites, Doppler radar, and climate models added more detail but uncertainty remains.
Farmers I knew didn’t rely on the Farmer’s Almanac—only town people mentioned it. When it came to the weather, everyone was his own forecaster, and pretty much took his bearings from things we all understood—the temperature, the smell of the wind (did it smell damp), the kinds of clouds, the wind direction, whether the velocity was rising or dying, and whether the clouds moved with, against, or across the wind.
For a ten-year-old like me, the weather was a great mystery, a powerful force living just over the horizon. In the spring of my tenth year, we had a string of blizzards that began in February and ended near the end of March. Snow blocked our county road and driveway for several days each week before the county plow got through.
By the time the road opened, the forecasters were hinting at more snow in a few days. We hurried to town in the pick-up to buy groceries and anything else we needed—just in case. The next morning, I waited at the top of our driveway for the school bus. The temperature hovered at freezing and the damp air and south wind foretold approaching weather. School let out right after lunch the next day as heavy snow fell. Our bus slipped and skidded slowly along the roads, dropping off students who almost immediately vanished from sight in the swirling flakes.
All night, the wind howled in the treetops, the thermometer held steady at 32° F, and wind-driven snowflakes hissed against the window panes. I woke up in the morning confident ‘they’ wouldn’t cancel school. Mom turned on the radio at breakfast. In those days, we listened to WCCO, the CBS A.M. radio out of Minneapolis-St. Paul. Over Rice Krispies and toast, I listened eagerly to hear the announcer mention ‘Janesville’ on the list of closed schools. Another day to read pulp western novels.
Weekly blizzards continued until late March and each one kept us snowed in for several days at a time. I missed about half of the school days that month, not that I cared. Drifts piled up, and one across our driveway stood at least six feet high. By mid-March, the snow was too deep for Dad to clear the driveway with the Ford tractor and scoop. He called a man with a bulldozer and the ‘Cat’ worked hard to push back the dense drifts—until the next blizzard closed the road and driveway five days later.
Like Paul Bunyan, these spring blizzards have gained legendary status among Minnesotans. They roar in from the Great Plains about the time high school teams assemble in Minneapolis-St. Paul for the state basketball tournament. Sometimes the teams had to stay a day or two extra before the roads opened. It didn’t take long for Minnesotans to connect basketball tournaments and spring blizzards.
While snow falls in Minnesota, I write this from southern Mexico, and feel the excitement of my ten-year-old self once more. For a day, at least, I wish myself back at the farm, feeling secure inside the old house, and watching the thick veil of blowing snow obscure my view of the woods along the river. In a day or two, the sun will eat up the drifts, and then spring will come, and March madness will end.
Some people know the price of everything and the value of nothing. We’ve all met them—crabbed creatures with small hearts whose concept of reality is limited to accounts expressed as debits and margins of profit. Lamentably, we are all infected to a degree and fail to distinguish value from price.
Here, in Oaxaca, artisan goods are plentiful and, except for high end shops in the city center, they lack price tags. A buyer must ask how much, “¿Cuanto cuesto?” Asking is a good thing for a curious buyer because it may lead to a conversation, possibly an education, if not a form of fleeting friendship.
“Pasale,” the weaver says, inviting me to enter his tienda or shop to look at his rugs or tapetes. Most artisans sell directly from their tallers or workshops with a stall at the weekly tianguis or market, and occasionally at the periodic ferias or fairs held at public celebrations, such as during Holy Week.
He is an engaging man in his forties with an open expression and easy way of speaking. Although I’m not in the market for a tapete, I pause and admire his work out of respect for his craft. This tienda is ablaze with rugs in brilliant colors—crimson, cinnamon, chocolate, gold, black, blue—woven into the Zapotec motifs of the indigenous people resident for millennia in this part of Mexico.
“Me encanta los colores, modelos ydiseños. Muy hermosos.” I tell him I love the beautiful colors and designs of his work. He smiles. I’m not in the market to buy one, I tell him, because I already have many in my house. But I admire your work. There are no other customers at the moment and he is happy to talk.
“Esta es nuestra herencia, de generación a generación.” He tells me weaving is his family’s heritage. He learned from his parents and grandparents and now teaches his children to weave. Like most weaving families, they memorize their designs and motifs; there are no patterns in books. This is innate knowledge they pass on to succeeding generations much like families pass down to daughters and new brides the treasured recipes of the grandmothers. Recipes explain how to make a cake, but a family recipe is about a cake that transmits traditions as part of the family identity. And so it is with weaving. It’s more than a skill, it’s an identity.
As a family, he and the children card, spin and dye the wool, and then work the telar or loom to produce tapetes, table runners, bedcovers, shoulder bags, and coasters. Weaving has a small margin of profit, he says, and the tourist market is always uncertain. Sometimes he sells only one or two tapetes a month, at other times more.
Why do this if the margin is so small, I ask.
“Me encanta telar.” I love to weave, he says with a smile that comes from deep satisfaction. Despite narrow, uncertain profits, and hard, meticulous work, it is a labor of love, an essential part of his identity as a man, a resident of Teotitlán, and as a Zapotec with a language and culture extending back several thousand years. Even through the veil of Spanish, his and my second language, I hear his pride, authenticity, and love of creative work. In these intangibles of heart and soul, family and tradition lie the fuller value of the tapete, the rug some discerning tourist may buy as cheaply as possible to hang on her wall. It’s the love and dedication represents the full value of his work.
I ask if his price includes compensation for the time spent making the tapete. It doesn’t, he says, shaking his head, his expression wistful. This is true for all the artisans of tapetes, camisas or shirts, and faldas bordadas or embroidered dresses, rebozos, carvings, and other items. It is true of painters as well. The rug spring from a love of the labor more than mere financial gain.
The full cost of the tapete isn’t reflected in its price because the cost doesn’t account for the time spent making them, nor the accumulation of skill from years of practice and application. The cost includes the tangible materials, transportation, and other measurable items plus a margin above out-of-pocket costs in order to sustain the enterprise.
How to put the true price on several thousand years of cultural life, the accumulated skill and wisdom in creating art like no other in the world? Any astute observer will quickly see the disconnect between the hidden cost of producing a tapete, its intrinsic value and its market price. A five-by-seven foot tapete may take two months to produce and sell for $1,800 pesos or just over $100 dollars. To this yanqui, that’s inexpensive and a good buy—if I think only of the price.
But, after conversations with many artisans, it’s clear the value of what I want to buy is at odds with the price offered. This isn’t because the weaver is a poor businessman, it’s because art isn’t a commodity, each item is an individual work incompatible with ideas of piece-work and mass-production.
We who are buyers or “consumers” (how I hate that word!) of art, miss much of what we purchase when we concentrate on getting it for a lower cost. To some degree, we are all infected with a commercial perspective of wanting a bargain—of getting more for less if we can. We call this ‘thrift’ and tell ourselves it’s a virtue. However, most of us aren’t thrifty (look at our credit card debt) and our ‘thrift’ looks more like the cardinal sin of greed.
If the price is all we see, and the bargain is our ‘object,’ then we miss the intrinsic value of the object and—more importantly—we fail to see the human and cultural richness invested into the tapete. In that failure, we missing seeing something of ourselves in the lives, the hearts, the souls that produced the rug. As affluent buyers, generosity rather than ‘thrift’ becomes us. Paying full price, giving artisans a complement, a word of conversation, adds to their lives and enriches ours as well.