My relationship with my mother was in need of some work—"work" being the term that is used these days to mean improvement or repair. Our mother-daughter relationship is not openly hostile, but a residue of past hurts clings to the sides of our interactions and clouds our ability to see each other for the people we are now. Long removed from childhood, at 52 years old, I long for a vital, loving connection with my mother. A retired math teacher (a subject at which she excels and I can barely comprehend) at 80, my mother is active and on the go, while balancing on her shoulders the wisdom and suffering that visit the life of everyone.
My decision to learn to weave has had its own period of gestation. Wanting to sit at a loom and weave has grown from an intermingling of memory traces, a fascination with a process inviting endless possibilities for creativity, and a longing to find common ground with my mother.
I hear my mother make some of the same statements today that she has been repeating ever since I was a child. She voices a familiar refrain to accompany her activities, saying, "I like to stay busy. I need to make and to do." My mother bakes and gardens. She sews, and she very quickly graduated from the basic knotting of macramé to the more labor-intensive craft of weaving. Now, after 25 years of weaving, she has become a master weaver—a comment she would never make about herself. My mother is self-effacing to a point of self-deprecation, which irks me.
She says she loves to use her hands, and insists to her grandchildren that she appreciates most of all the gift made by hand—a value that my siblings and I were raised with. So it is no surprise when my mother begins to weave perfectly designed and executed scarves, pillows, and linens. But what I am puzzled by is how this woman who describes herself as "antsy," who gets nervous and lies awake at night worrying, can sit at her loom with such focus and apparent calm. She refers to weaving as "her therapy."
Weaving is a work of the mind. To prepare to make placemats or fabric to be sewn into clothing, the weaver has to determine the amount of yardage of yarn or cotton thread required. There's thinking to be done: about the finished length, plus room for shrinkage, plus tying all the threads onto the loom.
Then, it is necessary to calculate the exact number of threads that will create the foundation of the piece (the warp), that will be woven (the weft). Laying out threads on the warping board is a repetitive, rhythmic process. Over, under, around and back. Over, under, around and back.
Weaving teaches forethought. I wonder how often I think ahead in life to consider the consequences of my actions or of my words. How often do I give the time deserved to experiences or relationships?
My mother frequently invites me into her work room to see what she has on her loom. I am drawn to the loom that fills the tiny space. The loom has a presence and holds endless possibilities that I begin to want to unlock. The loom is beautiful. My mother's loom is made of cherry wood, a wood of a deep reddish brown tone that is smooth and soft to touch.
She sits at a weaver's bench, also of cherry wood, that my brother, an acclaimed, professional woodworker, made for her. (My brother also heard the often-repeated incantation of the value of making things by hand.) Sitting at her loom, my mother is transformed from the "antsy," self-deprecating person whom I can become annoyed by into a woman who looks at peace and seems to find contentment in what she has learned to do. I see that my mother is happy when she weaves, and I am happy for the satisfaction that her creativity brings her. I realize that if I learn to weave, we will be two weavers, my mother and I, and we can be together, person to person and soul to soul.
I recall a story I heard Baba Ram Das tell many years ago on WBAI, a N.Y. radio station. He was recounting the story of a visit he made to see his aging father. Ram Das had recently returned from India, dressed in Eastern robes and with long hair and beard, and stood in his father's kitchen. Ram Das and his father were ill at ease. They didn't know what to say or do with each other.
His father happened to be making jelly, and Ram Das, the master of "Be Here Now," realized that he could join his father in the activity of jelly-making. Never having made jelly before, Ram Das had to pay attention to what his father was doing and had to turn to his father for direction and guidance.
I have a clear recollection of Ram Das saying, "And there we were; just two guys making jelly together in the kitchen."
So, I asked my mother to teach me how to weave.
Weaving is a work of mindfulness, of taking time to give attention to the details that will contribute to the woven piece's unity. Careful, patient attention is summoned in order to place each single thread through the many heddles (analogous to the eye of a needle), in a specific sequence. There can be hundreds of threads that go into creating the design.
There is no rushing in weaving. Weaving settles the weaver into the moment, and slows the weaver down. In "dressing" or preparing the loom for the actual act of weaving, it seems as if a transformation is taking place. The weaver must be obedient to the steps of preparation and the intricacies of the mechanisms of the loom. Through the weaver's careful attention and obedience, the loom begins to work the weaver, rather than the weaver working the loom.
As the loom is "dressed," a harmony is established between what the weaver expects to create and what the loom, itself, is capable of. As I come to appreciate the beauty of the instrument, the more I am able to appreciate the dynamic energy that is born from the relationship between the loom and the weaver.
After my mother's initial attempts to guide me in learning this craft, our lessons came to an abrupt end. I would become irritated by her way of teaching, and she would become frustrated by my way of learning. I had to go to another weaving teacher for instruction, my mother's weaving teacher, a master weaver for over 50 years. For the past three years, my mother and I have been going to weaving classes together.
My relationship with my mother continues to have its ups and downs; maybe it always will. But now, we also have something that brings us together. I appreciate the precision of my mother's weaving—she is a mathematician—and her weaving is always even and without mistake. And my mother always exclaims over my playful use of bright colors. Even though I'm middle-aged, her appreciation makes me feel good.
Maybe it isn't always possible to work through differences in relationships. Some relationships may contain enduring points of tension and conflict. But for me, in learning to weave, besides discovering a craft that I love, I have learned that it is possible to unfold layers of relationship that have remained untouched and untapped, waiting to be discovered.
Passing the shuttle (the long wooden tool that carries the weft threads) across the warp threads is a pleasurable movement. In - glide - out. In - glide - out. A repetitious steady climb of one thread laid on the top of another in a cadence that centers the soul. Not all mantras have words. The mantra of the weaver is a nameless, wordless synchrony of mind, body, and spirit that is discovered, but not sought.
Recently, my daughter Sarah, 23 years old, stood watching me work at my loom. She asked me to explain to her how to weave. Lifting the harness, passing the shuttles through to demonstrate, in a few brief sentences, I outlined the process to her. For a few minutes, Sarah was taken into the weaver's space. She commented, "Maybe someday I'll learn how to weave, too. I guess it's sort of a family thing."
Maybe. Who knows?
This article was originally published in Seeds of Unfolding, Vol. XX, Number 3, 2003.