Noam Chomsky says languages are lost if the grandparents and grandchildren cannot speak it together. The same is true of skills, hand crafts. I know carpentry because my foster father taught me before I was eight, 'handing' down to me his skills. I handed them in turn to my sons, through building their toys when they were small. My grandson, my first son's son, wants, too, to be a carpenter. My first grandson, my second son's son, is a computer genius. Carmo in Lisbon reminds me I am a grandmother and that grandchildren and grandparents can find each other on the Web.
Life in us is like the salmon leaping up the waters, of Scotland, of Norway, of British Columbia , of Alaska. We can overcome all obstacles, swim upstream. We can learn from nature's defiance, nature's courage. Lydia McCauley reminds us that the Irish speak of the 'salmon of wisdom'. Barbara Stanton sent us this painted box, salmon in it, from the Native Americans in the Northwest.
Northwest Box with Salmon
There are in this design no straight lines, no right angles, it is all in Fibonacci curves from observation of nature. In it now I keep my library keys, keys to unlock languages through dictionaries and grammars, Italian, French, Portuguese, Swedish, Latin, Greek and Hebrew, keys to unlock cultures, especially indigenous cultures, through sharing in their wisdom, keys to the meaning of life, keys to unlock the wisdom of God. And these books are on library shelves of wood I built this August, their wrought iron fleur de lys hand-forged by a Settignano blacksmith copying those in the Bodleian, but more beautifully, repeating nature's curves, not man's angles. St Benedict , civilizing Europe, told us to balance work, study, prayer, the body, mind and soul, giving us Christ's Gospel, while also preserving pagan texts.
On the inlaid soundbox of a harp, dated 2500 B.C.,
from ancient Sumeria, in the scene third from the top, is a
donkey playing a harp; in the scene second from the top,
animals bearing platters of food; at the bottom, wyverns, and
other mythical and feriomorphic figures. Do you remember
Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are ? Or the
Afro-American 'Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox'? Or the 'Musicians of
Bremen'? Or the Roman de Renart? Beast fables are
stories combining wisdom in playfulness. They displace
dangerous discourse onto the animal world, rather than the
human one, in the face of political censorship. Joking about
the truth. And so celebrating wedding feasts in harmony,
laying down bestial violence.
Sumerian Harp, 2500 B.C., University of Philadelphia Museum, Philadelphia
I once wrote on this donkey playing this harp, echoed down the millennia, in Boethius, in Chaucer [ Tales within Tales: Apuleius through Time, ed. Wright and Holloway], in church and cloister sculptures. Then, on pilgrimage to Clare and Francis , examining the painting by the priest Ilario da Viterbo in the Porziuncola, I saw plainly-clad St Francis preaching from a pulpit adorned with rich embroideries and brocades, among them these animals bearing platters of food we also see in the second panel from the top in the ancient Sumerian harp.
Porziuncola, Santi Maria degli Angeli
Ghirlandaio showed the table cloth of the Last Supper with such hand-woven detail, with wyverns and hyppogriffs.
Ghirlandaio, Last Supper, Ognissanti, Florence
Such cloth is still hand-loomed today in Farfa Sabina, such drawn-thread work still made today in Borgo San Lorenzo [Maria Margheri Manetti, Il Punto Antico (Libreria Editrice Fiorentina, 1999)], such embroidery still done in Assisi [Alida Becchetti, Silvana Toppetti, Punto Assisi ( Assisi: Editrice Minera, 1999)] .
The Bible, Homer, Aeschylus, Hebraic and Hellenic cultures, all praise women's embroidering. And once again I marvel at this continuity across time, this cultural knowledge handed down from generation to generation, across thousands of years, bridging continents. But unless we act quickly these skills, this knowledge, will all be lost. The grandmothers and grandfathers and granddaughters and grandsons need to share in it.
In the past women embroidered, men sculpted such scenes, sharing in their jokes, their riddles, together. Animals symbolized the body and its sensuality, its desire for food, for pleasure, for power. Instant gratification. To depict such animals, patiently, with art, with skill, hand and eye and mind co-ordinating and collaborating in this work, in cloth, on cloth, on wood, on stone, meant that we became civilized rather than brutalized, having control over our bodies, with our minds, with our souls. The cave paintings were such. So are these embroideries and these hand-loomed brocaded fabrics, celebrating birthing, nuptial, funerary banquets. So are the sculpted stone capitals of Romanesque churches and cloisters, which so similarly cluster wyverns, harp-playing asses, panpipes-playing goats.
We can see here in St Clare 's and St Francis' Cathedral in Assisi, this same motif of two peacocks and one vase, taken to symbolize the Eternity the Eucharist brings, the Shekinah, but in stone.
Cattedrale San Rufino, Assisi
I copied them from a mosaic floor in Murano, painting them on a desklid in greens and reds, and in embroidery, returning to the earth colours of the original mosaic. Because of the symbolism that came about of this particular design, of peacocks about a vase as of Eternity and Eucharist, of the Shekinah, this cloth is on my prayer table.
These artful designs, using animal forms, were our therapy, our healing, from trauma, from terror. Even in pagan Athens the civilizing calmness of Apollo and Athena on the Parthenon undoes the violence of the wedding feast invaded by lusting, sodomizing centaurs questing their instant gratification. Eventually from these tales can come a St Francis converting the wolf of Gubbio. In Hebrew yod is the smallest letter, and means hand, and begins the name of God. St Francis addressed God in praise, proclaiming 'You are Humility'. We most become like God in humility, on foot, in sandals; we least approach God through fallen Lucifer's pride, through Pharoah's horses and chariots, through Golden Calves, through infernal combustion engines, through becoming 'instant gratification' centaurs. Anthropologists tell us the human brain and hand developed in tandem with each other.
The co-ordination of hand, eye and mind similarly would have been used by women in times long past, in hunting/gathering cultures, to sort seeds and begin agriculture, the basis of our civilization. Women were the nurturers, they were the clothiers; spices and embroidery were their way of making their acts more beloved and praised. Back in 1960, I remember shepherdesses in Italy, mothers and daughters together, with their few goats and sheep, spinning the wool from off the backs of their animals, as they walked together with them, and knitting that same wool into thick socks for their menfolk and themselves. I remember they had smocked their clothes with delicate embroidery. I washed my baby's clothes with these women at the village well, copied their smocking designs on my child's clothes, and I remember their pride, their dignity, their beauty, and the whiteness of their cloth washed only in stone cold water, then all soap rinsed from it. Their long thick black, then white, hair, was then braided into regal crowns as had been done for centuries before them, from mother to daughter to mother to daughter. They reaped their own wheat together with hand sickles, taking it to the mill, harvested their own grapes, their own olives, climbed trees to pick cherries, carried their babies lovingly in their arms. And the children, with no toys, sang and danced marvellous games by memory in sheer joy. Their mothers garbed the village priest in gorgeous raiment, the Madonna and Child they crowned with precious pearls.
Today these women watch television, drive metallic cars, buy ready-made clothes, use carcinogenic disposable diapers that cost $thousands for just one baby for two years, destroying the environment, where cloth nappies would only cost $100 for those two years (http://www.teamlollipop.co.uk who show this image noting the paper nappies from one baby would fill this barn and are not bio-degradable), dye their now-short hair blonde and henna-red and it has gone brittle and sparse from the chemicals they use, they become obese, unbeautiful, unhappy. They are tense. They are depressed. Their identity is lost. They seek to be universally, uniformly, what they see on screen in Dallas, in Dynasty. They buy mechanical metal/plastic treadmills in which to exercise off unwanted fat. Terrified of honest sweat from true work, they douse themselves with chemical carcinogenic deodorants. They buy pet food, fished and shipped from the four corners of the earth, destroying the future world food supply for humans. Their pets are similarly expensively groomed as are they. They bury them in special pet graveyards in the hopes their 'loved ones' will join them in heaven. Their pets come to symbolize their own bodies, be displaced selves.
Cloth used to be woven, embroidered, printed with animals and flowers, and their gorgeous colours, with nature's forms and curves and all their infinite variety; now it is like metal machinery, now we become like lifeless machines, Frankenstein monsters, in solid colours, blacks, monotones, with metal zippers and buttons, in universalizing, militarizing uniforms. Before, babies were fed only mother's milk and what was locally available. Now having children is averted. If they do come they are fed cow's milk in plastic. They are held as little as possible, instead are belted into infant seats, separated from their parents' arms. No one any longer embroiders. Their hands have fallen idle. Likewise their minds. 'Use it or lose it'. They sit in front of television in square boxes. Bored, their bodies and minds are waiting simply to die. Of mad cow disease, of AIDS, of Alzheimers, of cancers. They have become robbed of meaning. It is time for Viktor Frankl Logotherapy, the embroidering of Bayeux Tapestries, the writing of Aurora Leighs . For we can write, typeset, print, sew and bind our books; spin, dye, weave, embroider our tapestries; nurse and hold and play with our babies.
Their libraries have thrown out wooden shelves and chairs, replacing these with metal and plastic, the human/natural handcrafting lost. Likewise paintings and sculptures have gone from open churches, filled with candlelight and prayer, into sterile, commercial museums. Meaning is lost, all becomes 'value-free' - of no value. Their priests wear ugly machine-stitched raiment made in the Third World. The animals of the embroidery now inhabit the violent cartoons on the television screen, have seemingly, mechanically become 'animate', to maim and murder, become Centaurs violating Lapiths, instead of being symmetrically controlled through our own art, handed down generation upon generation. Freud told us in Civilization and Its Discontents to throw away our civilization, to allow pornography free play. So our civilization becomes brutalization and mechanization, especially of our youngest, of babies, in the name of global consumerism.
We are told this 'brutalization' and 'machinization' is done for the individual, for the 'birth' of the self. But this 'self' seems only a clone from off the silver screen, lacks any identity, any sense of worth, is uniform to millions of other such clones, contributes nothing to this globe, only takes, lacks the true self in only being the false self, imposed, enslaved, by others. Such a shadow 'self' consumes the globe, does not produce; it wastes, it does not create; it harms, especially itself, it does not heal. The Japanese tourists to Florence now have chemically-dyed 'blonde' hair, men as well as women. 'I shop, therefore I am', has become universal. Likewise, the slave bondage of ' English Only '. 'Airport culture', lacking all identity, even culture itself. Except for the unseen dark-haired men, women and children who make our garments, our televisions, our computers, our cars, our seemingly machine-made raiment, our seemingly machine-made machines, locked in poverty, in infinite languages, in infinite skills, always becoming cheaper and cheaper, junk quickly to be thrown away, as we mechanize, cheapening humanity and life itself.
Paradoxically the master is inextricably enslaved by his dependence upon his slave. He feels the resentment of enslavement as anger suppressed into depression. He becomes the mirror of the slave. Where the slave is unseen the master, too, becomes without a face, is distanced, without any true self, lacking any true identity. The anorexic in a family mirrors back its failure, its starvation. Gandhi did so to the British Raj, freeing his people. Using women's weapons, such as the spinning wheel. Our young, angrily writing graffiti on walls, are questing meaning, the Word, God. Instead we provide false anodynes, machines, drugs, pornography, maiming bodies, minds, souls. Paolo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed showed how the afflicted in the Third World could become literate, teaching each other, and so liberate themselves and their oppressors through the Gospels. I have seen embroideries done by Guatemalan women, showing their study of literacy, of the Bible. Perhaps we need a First World movement where we, already having literacy, already having English and other European languages, could now learn the languages of the Bible and the Gospel, of the past for the future, where we could teach each other the Hebrew and the Greek of our sacred Book, where we could learn together, priests and laity, literacy and liberation in the Word of God. St Thérèse of Lisieux, Doctor of the Church, commended this to us. This is done in Judaism, in Islam. Why not in Christendom? For we are all the Peoples of the Book.
I live in a cemetery, an island in the midst of arterial traffic in this city, and young students come and restore the tombstones, memorials of the past, then weep on returning to find the chemicals from cars have destroyed their many days' work, of restoring the damage of many past years, in a few months. I wash marble floors here twice a week, and the water always turns black from this pollution. This destruction is accelerating, out of bounds. We are destroying our earth, our health, for power, for speed, for junk, for death. Choose. Chemistry, machinery, for money. Or Nature and handwork, done for and with love. The bicycle is enough.
Once a student of mine wrote a parable, a fable. Of a great white Tsunami, a tidal wave about to extinguish a coral island culture. And so all the women took to the beach with their spindles, their distaffs, their looms, their needles, and crafted together a vast tapestry, mirroring back to the sea its water, its life, all its colours, its azures mirroring the sky, its ultramarines, all its fish, all its coral, all its moss from the deep sea bed. And the sea saw the sea. And stopped.
And why not begin with taking back our Mother Church? Eamon Duffy in The Stripping of the Altars, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), has described how vibrant the medieval Church was, how greatly the laity, the women, participated in it, with their gifts to it of embroidered raiment and altar cloths, their commissioning of paintings of the nursing Virgin and Child and with women saints amongst the men. (When American A.I.D. introduced bottle feeding in Spain statues of the the Madonna and Child came to be covered up as obscene.) In the Middle Ages were countless legends of Mary as spinning and weaving and sewing and embroidering, as a child in the Temple, in exile in Egypt. Luke in Acts tells of Dorcas being raised from the dead, but first the women showing to Paul the garments she had sewed. Paul himself was a needleman, crafting tents, while also preaching. In Hebrew and in Greek, God 'tents' among us, within us. Those who wrote with the needle had equal power with those who sewed with the pen. Plains Indian women made and owned their teepees, which American soldiers genocidally set on fire and burned down, so families died of hyperthermia. Women once, literally, had 'clout'. Which they earned. And having earned that dignity, they were whole beings, not maimed; they were fully alive, not just waiting, doused in chemicals, in bored idleness, to die. Though long dead, they paradoxically still live in what they leave us, in their reminding us of God, the Spirit, tenting within us. Birgitta's own patched cloak, shaped like a tent, survives, in which she had patched the clothing of her fellow beggars outside San Lorenzo in Panisperna in Rome. In a teepee one sees the whole Cosmos above one, becomes ' oned ' to it, and the teepee breathes as if also alive. My middle son called his, 'Gentle Strength'.
St Clare spun, wove, sewed and embroidered corporals for all the churches about Assisi. Here, in the Biblioteca Fioretta Mazzei we sew corporals, hemming these with drawn-thread work, embroidering the centre cross in stem stitch, white on white, on linen, for use worldwide, in Australia, in Portugal, wherever our guests wish to take them. They are our participation with the altars of the Church, in the Eucharist. In Kenya the most beautiful rosaries were made for us by Alice Waithera and these, too, we give, telling others about her. We also make chasubles for priests, especially gold thread Celtic intertwined crosses upon green for the Holy Trinity and St Patrick's Lorica , taking this design from a baptismal font in Sussex.
For the sculpture by men may be copied in the needlework by women and vice versa. I have seen hand-painted and glazed designs in medieval pottery, found here in the ' English Cemetery '
copied in the embroidery on deacons' chasubles, as seen in the paintings of Florentine Masters of Saints Stephen, Lawrence, and Francis, who all humbly remained only deacons, never seeking priestly ordination. It was in this manner, too, that writing came from the Semites to the Greeks, the Romans and ourselves, and which, amongst the Romans, belonged to both women and men. We can share this world of the past, its coding, through webcrafting, with that of the future. We can share in a generosity of cultures, of languages, of genders, in a giving of gifts, at the birth of a Child, at a wedding feast, at a funeral feast. Weaving and embroidery were a women's culture, a women's literacy, a women's showing of love, closely interacting with men, with children, with themselves. We need to re-learn how to read these epics, the beast fables, these riddles of wisdom, these lost Gospels. And stitch together again the world with beauty.
We find this work healing for our bodies, minds and souls. Indeed, when tunnel carpal syndrome attacks, we find it best to shift from one form of body/hand co-ordination to another, to scrub marble floors, to garden, then return, healed, to the finer work with hands, eyes, mind, of htmling, of drawn-thread stitching, in a rhythm and balance our bodies need and want, rather than in idleness. No treadmill needed! So did Christ and his disciples preach and carpenter and fish and sew tents. We can restore this presence of Christ through the work of our hands, our bodies, in our homes, and in our hermitages. The truest meaning of the word 'economy' is love, which begins at home. In Hebrew one loves God with all one's heart, with all one's strength, one's neighbour as oneself. In Hebrew one thinks with one's heart. Mary, in Luke's Gospel, three times thinks on all these things in her heart. The Lord of Love.
Plato in the Symposium tells us of boxes sculpted on the outside with laughing old pregnant ladies, inside, healing, the good.
Della Robbia shows us two improbably pregnant women, one unmarried, a Virgin, a commoner, the other aged and barren, a rich, privileged priest's daughter and priest's wife, greeting each other in exultation, the mothers of Christ, of John the Baptist, Mary and Elizabeth, containing within their bodies, the Truth, Metanoia.
The salmon of wisdom is leaping upstream against gravity, against probability. The Irish say the 'salmon of wisdom' is the Messiah, is Christ. In times of persecution early Christians had used the Greek initials for Christ meaning 'Fish'. Christ and his disciples themselves fished on the Sea of Galilee. I have eaten St Peter's Fish there with fresh lemons. And at Tabgha on the Sea of Galilee I have seen floor mosaics of loaves, fishes, and peacocks, repeated in Murano, then I embroidered these, too, for the Sisters of my convent fifty years later than they had first taught me needlework, drawn thread work, embroidery.
Within us, handed to us by generations of culture, are marvellous codes about wisdom, about life. We are now breaking that code, that great fishing net, tearing at its knots, from greed, from lust, for 'instant gratification'. Joseph Conrad described the 'Heart of Darkness' of the unseen enslavement of the Third World, telling that tale on the banks of the polluting Thames about the polluting Congo, polluting us all. The tale was repeated in Apocalypse Now about the Ohio and the Mekong Delta, about the Vietnam War. NASA's Christmas card shows the 'earthlights', the dark places being poverty, the bright ones, America, Europe, Japan, the brightest of all being America, squandering God's wealth on ourselves, the globe's non-renewable resources being burned up instantly, infernally.
We become like centaurs with our cars, improbable beast/men, of power, of selfishness. We lament the passing of each species when it becomes extinct. But we ourselves abuse and break our food chain, the chain of life, bringing terrible diseases, caused by the misuse of power, of chemicals, of animals, of humans, the abuse of nature, of creation, of our Creator.
They have now cleaned the Thames from pollution, from chemicals, and the salmon have improbably returned.
With thanks to Catharina Lindgren in Sweden for her
careful proof-reading, and the NASA map.
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