Saturday, February 07, 2009

Of Course, 
I Didn't Have a Camera.

I usually remember to bring my Real Camera to the Arts Market, looking for a good photo opportunity.   But this month, I forgot.

When I do think in advance  about taking pictures, I try to remember to bring the Real Camera, the one with the Real Camera Company name on it -- the one made for the sole and exclusive purpose of photography.  

Because I rode my dinosaur to school, I have never purposely obtained a cell phone with an embedded camera.  My current cell phone does have a camera function, but only because a camera-free option was not available when last I was forced to "upgrade,"  which is the current euphemism for "mandatory replacement of your existing phone (only four years old), which works just fine."

I am such a fossil, and so entrenched in the perfectly reasonable notion that Phones Do Not Take Pictures, that I actually forgot I had a camera right there in the phone in my pocket, so I missed the Spinning Photo of The Year.

Which was:

Five little girls and one little boy, all about eight to ten years old, dressed in sweaters on a sunny late winter morning, sitting snugly in a row like birds on a wire, making yarn with twigs and handfuls of wool.   

So y'all will just have to use your imaginations and pretend that photo is in this spot:


:: ADORABLE PHOTO ::


Anyway.

Every month, artists, craftspeople, and farmers displaying their goods at the Arts and Farmer's Market arrive at the crack of dawn and often bring their school-age kids with them to help out at their market stalls.  The farmers do this every Saturday, and once a month the Arts Market happens in conjunction with the Farmer's Market   As the day goes on, the younger kids tend to wander the market, going from stall to stall to chat with the sculptors and woodworkers, and, more often than not, because I do spinning demonstration during the market, I end up with a small but enthusiastic audience of little people who are intensely interested in the magic of a wheel and spindle.

This time, I attracted a gaggle of six.  One of them said, "I want to learn!" and the others chimed in that they'd also like to try.  Of course, I couldn't properly give each child a turn at the actual wheel while helping customers and simultaneously teaching six children how to draft wool, but there was something else I could do.  "I want each of you to go find a twig," I said.  " A smooth, sturdy twig, about as big as a pencil.  Not too thin and not too thick."  And off they went.

While they were gone, I measured off a fat handful of roving for each of them, and  when they returned, I explained to them the nature of drafting, and how ancient people made yarn with a wad of wool and just a stick and a lump of clay for a whorl.  Of course, there was no clay to be had at that particular moment, so instead of teaching them to drop-spindle, I took out my pocketknife, made a little notch in each twig, and taught them how to draft: how to draw out the wool and wind it onto a simple twig spindle.  I showed them how to draft and twist the first few inches with their fingers, and how to make a half-hitch to attach that to the stick, and then how to roll the twigs down their thighs while gently tugging at the handful of fluff, just a little at a time.

And do you know that half an hour later -- only half an hour -- in between waiting on my yarn customers and answering questions, no fewer than four of the six kids were producing lumpy but perfectly useful single ply yarn?  And the oldest girl had pulled off about five yards of a smooth, bulky weight single ply like she'd been doing it all her life. 

Smiles all around.  One of the little girls belongs to an organic dairy an hour's drive outside the city, where they graze, herd and milk their own dairy cattle.  If you live in the Baton Rouge area and you haven't tried the milk or butter from Smith's Creamery, you're missing out -- get to the store and buy some right away.  

When her mother came to round her up, she was pleasantly astonished that her child had made yarn, and had made it with a stick.  That's the other picture I didn't get to take:  her mother scrutinizing the makeshift spindle and saying, "You made this?  With a stick?"  

When the noon bell rang at St. Joseph's, signalling the official closing time for the market, I had a chorus of "more lessons next time, please?"  And I watched as the kids scattered, running back to their parents' respective market stalls, beaming with pride, holding aloft their little sticks full of yarn.  

"Look!  Real yarn!  Made from sheep!"  

Even the two kids who didn't quite get the hang of it asked to try again at the next market.

I might just have to bring some crayon-bright roving and some beginner spindles next month, hm?

Coming home from that delightful experience made me wonder: wouldn't it be fantastic if every little kid knew how to spin, and knit, and make things with yarn?  I tried to imagine a world full of kids being actively creative with their spare time instead of rotting their brains in front of televisions and video games.  

I dearly love the Arts Market and the Farmer's Market.  I love them for what they do for the community.   On a fine day you can sit in your stall and ply your trade side by side with dozens of other people who also honor the work of their hands and the fruits of the land.  

It's exceptionally rare to see someone in a hurry at the open-air market.  Even the mayor takes time to chat for a few minutes with each of the vendors he encounters.

The very nature of the event forces people to slow down, to linger over mustard greens, rice, yarn, and cheese.  They savor fresh butter, run their fingers along the handles of carved wooden spoons, and buy  a paper bag full of new potatoes.  While they admire turquoise jewelry, pottery, and blueberry jam, they talk to strangers about the weather, and whether or not they should plant their tomatoes and marigolds just yet, because we probably haven't had our last frost.  They purchase handwoven shawls, artichokes, and scores of other items made or grown with pride by the very same people smiling at them from behind displays of yard eggs, green beans, mayhaw jelly, fresh bread and smokehouse sausage.  They ask the vendors how the shawl was woven, and what sort of chickens laid the eggs.  

The most glaring evidence of the modern world is mostly absent at the downtown market.   Signs are handmade, goods are laid out on colorful cloths draped on folding tables, and the vendor's change is kept in belt bags or cigar boxes.  There are no electrical connections, so there are no glaring lighted signs, and while radios or portable boom boxes are not allowed, there is almost always some music provided by an acoustic band or perhaps a wandering street musician.  The only keen evidence of the twenty-first century is the occasional jingle of a cell phone, or a savvy young vendor unfolding her wireless laptop so a tourist can pay for her hand-beaded necklace using Paypal.  As though by unspoken agreement, the laptop is always discreetly tucked away immediately after such a transaction.

You don't see sullen teenagers, resentful husbands and harried-looking women at the market, although you'd see plenty of that if you went to the mall.  Instead, you see relaxed, happy people delighting in the opportunity to buy something from the person who made it -- but there is more to the happiness than that.  

There is a tangible sense of community.  Perhaps there is something in our genes, something ancient and good, wanting to remind us of the way that we are truly designed to live:  in  not-so-big groups, trading goods and skills with one another in a casual setting, buying, haggling or horse-trading for fresh food right off the farm and skillfully made goods directly from the maker.  

What we have, for a little while on Saturday mornings, is a proper hamlet.  Just the right amount of human beings gathered in one place in such a way as to bring out the best in everyone.  

It's a timeless feeling, really.  It is easy to imagine that, perhaps, in another life, I sat with my wares laid out for sale much as I do today, with only a few inconsequential details being different: I was shaded from the sun by a linen cloth instead of a nylon beach umbrella; I wore a tunic and rough boots instead of jeans and Birkenstocks; I plied a hand spindle instead of a modern Ashford wheel.   The other details could be from anyplace, anytime: a bright cloth laid out on the ground, an array of baskets filled with colorful yarns, a bag of coins to make change, and the earliest spring wind in my hair while I spin sheep hair into something useful.

I feel the same about my neighbors:  it is so easy to imagine the Pickle Lady behind her table full of mason jars, wearing a different dress in the shadow of a different tree ... to envision the beekeeper's tupelo honey in clay pots instead of glass jars ... to picture the vendor's children dressed in simple shifts as they chase one another between adults in the crowd. 

It makes me wonder: is our current economic crisis really a crisis after all?  Or just a harsh correction, a reminder that we got in this situation by wanting too much, carrying too large of a load, and buying things we simply do not need with money we haven't even earned yet?   Is it a crisis, or an opportunity to save ourselves?  Is the current crash simply a warning from Fate to simplify our lives?

In speaking to the other market vendors, I find it enlightening that most of us produce some, if not all, of our own food, clothing, and entertainment.  Most of us are self-employed.  Most of us are self-sufficient to a much greater extent than average, and most of us are multi-skilled.  So most of us aren't grievously worried about being completely destroyed by an economic meltdown because most of us do not depend entirely upon the ready-made, and most of us have no desire to accrue debt for mass-produced consumer goods -- while it's bad enough that you need to make a loan to buy something substantial like a home or farm, it's financially suicidal to dig yourself a hole to buy a closetful of fancy shoes and a three-thousand-dollar designer purse (and a tacky purse at that).  If you lose your job, you just might be able to renegotiate your home loan with your bank, because the home has value.  The same thing won't happen with your credit card company when you can't pay for a houseful of consumer goods. 

It intrigues me to think that the parents of kids who can amuse themselves with wool and sticks don't feel compelled to put themselves in precarious financial circumstances to buy video games and supersized televisions.   Yes, of course, they are worried about the economy, because it will affect the volume of their sales and it will affect their home and business loans, but they are not worried about losing their job and being unable to pay the debt on tens of thousands of dollars worth of plastic and electronic junk ... simply because they didn't buy it in the first place.  

Unfortunately, a great many other people did dive deeply into debt for many, many things besides necessities like a home or business loan, college tuition or reliable transportation, so they have much more at stake when rumours of layoffs arise at their workplace.  

Readers ... please share your own thoughts.  Do you think that wanting less, wasting less and being more self sufficient can help the economy in the long run?  Or at least help you personally during tough times?

Inmates in the Asylum since July 27, 2006: