NONFICTION ISSUE #28

"Corde" by Dave Petraglia, Photograph
*Image: “Core” by Dave Petraglia, Photograph

 

On Weaving

By Jericho Parms

 

LOOM

 

Lately, in the middle of the night, I wake up in a tangle between the cat and my partner, whose chest rises and falls with his measured breath. I still use the word partner although it sounds like we are police officers or share leadership in a law firm; and although technically we’re engaged, I can’t bring myself to say fiancé, which prompts too many questions I’d rather not address.

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Under the covers, his legs stretch over mine. I rub my fingertips between the dips of his knuckles and lace my hand around his. The cat is nestled along the back of my thighs and in the crook of my knees. I stir him and he climbs over my hip, repositions until he is spooned and purring against my abdomen. They have taken over the bed. I would feel diminished, if it weren’t my body they each crave; if mine weren’t the warmth and womanhood they want to weave themselves around, under the weight of the Navajo rug atop our sturdy bed. My mind wanders to an article I read about “manspreading” in the New York City subway. My mind wanders to protest rallies I attended in college, marching for women’s lives—and years later for black lives—over the Brooklyn Bridge. My mind wanders to a photograph of me as a girl alone in a southwestern canyon—bold, daring, stubbornly independent—a mere speck on a boulder in the vast landscape of Arizona, taken while visiting my grandparents in the early 1990s. Now, sleepless, I smile in the dark, picturing the weave of us, a tapestry at rest and alive.

 

WARP

 

Navajo legend teaches that when man and woman first emerged from the earth, the goddess Spider Woman taught them how to weave. The first loom was created from land and sky; subsequent looms were constructed from the trunks of trees. Elements of sunlight and crystal were used as weaving tools. Spindles were made of stone and abalone shell. The vertical strings of the warp, which serves as the foundation of the weaving, were made of sunrays, lightning, and rain.

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My maternal grandfather was born in Pennsylvania in 1920 when Plessy v. Ferguson, the landmark constitutional case that upheld state segregation in public spaces, held sway throughout the United States. Jim Crow laws determined public schools, restaurants, drinking fountains, restrooms, and waiting rooms all bear signs of color.

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My mother was born in 1954, the same year Brown v. Board of Education marked an end—at least in the du jure sense of the word—to segregation in public schools. But de facto accommodations of the law always endure.

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Anthropologists believe that the Navajo learned how to weave in the mid-1600s, from nearby Pueblo tribes who grew cotton and wove blankets and garments on a distinctive Pueblo loom hundreds of years before the Spanish came to the American Southwest.

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My parents, a black man and a white woman, married in 1976, nearly ten years after Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court case that invalidated state laws prohibiting interracial marriage.

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I fell in love, not for the first time but perhaps the last, in 2008, the year the United States voted a black man into presidential office. I called my parents—separate by then, but equal—and each of them listened patiently to my manifesto on progress.

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The most important and long-lasting change in traditional weaving was the introduction of wool. The Navajo, or Diné, as they are called, may have come together as an amalgamation of several tribal and clan cultures of the southern plains. They formed their own distinct culture less than one hundred years before the Spanish Conquest, which brought sheep to Arizona and other parts of the southwest.

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The churro, a small sheep, has long, silky wool, perfect for weaving in a variety of natural shades: white, black, gray, brown, tan, and cream. Wool yarn is preferred because cotton, when used for warp strings, may not tolerate rough use as a floor covering—it’s less durable.

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For years I swore I would never marry, basing my position on the political and moral objection that all people should be recognized as equal in the laws of marriage, that there was still work to be done in this regard. In the summer of 2015, the Supreme Court ruling Obergefell v. Hodges, viewed as a decisive triumph for marriage equality, made same-sex marriage a nationwide right.

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According to legend, Spider Woman left the Navajo with a promise: that if they continued to weave, they would always have enough to feed and care for their children.

 

WEFT

 

Awake at night, I watch detective shows and documentaries about Navajo weavers, the Civil Rights movement, hermit crabs and blue whales, cave paintings and solar systems—beyond soothing my restlessness, they satisfy my hunger for history and evolution, offering evidence of how we live in times of discovery and turmoil, like clues in a case gone cold.

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The Navajo rug we keep on the bed was originally a gift from my grandfather to my mother and father shortly after they married. For a long time my grandparents refused to honor my parents’ relationship, not believing in the future of a mixed-race marriage. Afraid that, like the crosswire threads of a rug’s weft, tracing under and over the warp, such a union’s interlacing—binding—of vertical and horizontal lines, would prove too complex. The question in their minds: What would come of the children?

The rug lay in my parents’ New York apartment before and during the years I was raised there. I don’t remember, or didn’t notice at the time, the stain of silvery gray paint from the year my brother and I wore costumes of cardboard armor and heart-shaped shields—warriors of our homegrown wonderland. Years later the rug was folded up, stored away in my mother’s cedar chest: forgotten about, deemed impractical for the way it held dust, or an unwanted reminder of a marriage that had by then unraveled.

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During the 1960s my grandfather collected rugs and brought them home from his travels throughout the U.S. and abroad. In addition to Navajo rugs, he also favored Persians. Persians for the formal rooms; Navajos for the lived-in spaces. I like to think he wanted to keep the southwest close underfoot, the way he must have wanted to take the whole of the western desert back east with him after he first fell in love with Arizona. As a young man he worked at the Apache Powder Plant where, among other things, dynamite was made, which forever changed the mining industry. He and my grandmother lived in a small adobe the first year they were married before they made their way back to New England. Finally, after decades of East Coast living, they returned to Arizona to retire on a ranch with sprawling desert acreage. I always wondered what became of the other rugs after my grandparents died. Were they auctioned off as part of the estate? Claimed by a distant uncle? My mother and her brothers stickered their claims on the contents of my grandfather’s home, as if it were an outpost where one could barter and trade inheritance. As it turned out, while our Navajo rug survived, many other rugs from the collection, having been floor-bound for so long, were threadbare, and disintegrated when lifted from the floors of the ranch. The Persian rugs had been damaged beyond salvage years before by one of the incontinent cats my grandmother kept.

At night I try to imagine the time when my partner and I will have to tend to the loss of each of our parents by sifting through contents, belongings, things. I try to imagine sorting through generations of Christmas ornaments, decades worth of vinyl records, my mother’s paintings, icons, and santos from Mexico, his mother’s collection of hobnail glass, his stepfather’s toy trains and model railroads. Instead of putting stickers on our claims, I picture us sitting cross-legged in the attic or in one of our childhood bedrooms playing with the train cars, building a village of still life paintings and glass monuments. This is not to say that I wish us to stay young forever, but that I wish us to stay playful, imaginative, less concerned with the customary steps and stages of adult life. I try to imagine our wedding but cannot picture us in any conventional setting—in a church or chapel, under a rustic arbor on a breezy beach somewhere. We are less a portrait of marriage than a messy assemblage of love. It is yet another way in which I think we don’t quite belong to those traditional categories; instead, we seem—much like my parents—to be weaving our own way. Even the cat, nestled near my breast, struts around like the new avant-garde and is more like a dog the way he follows, begs, demands attention for his fierce loyalty while playing fetch with a paper ball. We are all, in this household, odd that way.

We have been together since the Obamas entered the White House. This would be our dinner party line, if we ever attended dinner parties. We wonder what we’ll do after the administration’s second term. Vote, I suppose. Drive to City Hall, perhaps. Elope across the border. Or maybe we’ll continue to dance at the weddings of our friends, until our hearts pound and our feet grow sore.

“We should probably marry soon,” one of us says—though I can’t be sure who, we’ve said it so many times—adjusting ourselves into the warm covers of the bed, where I trace a design on his back, noting the angles of his shoulder blades, the center tree of rib and spine, where in a matter of hours I am caught under one of his heavy legs, roused by the cat’s paw pads traversing my hip, startled awake at dawn by my own shortness of breath.

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A couple years ago, I took the Navajo blanket from my mother’s chest in New York and moved north. I laid the rug on the floor and tried to see it as my grandfather had when he selected it— his practiced hands seeking the consistent weft of an experienced weaver. I tried to imagine how he must have come to see the harmony of the deep brown and creamy white design and to give the gift as a blessing, delayed though it was, to my parents after their wedding. I tried to see the rug as my parents had, too—how my grandfather’s love of Southwestern tradition and inherited design would provide a strong accent décor once spread out on the floor of their apartment. As much as I wanted to keep this memory close underfoot, it tripped me every time I walked across the room. The warp is contorted now. The rug no longer lies flat but buckles at the edges and through the center seam. Gently used, the weave is worn just enough to have lost its rough stiffness and is now seasoned and soft.

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Navajo rugs have approximately thirty wefts to the linear inch. A weft of fifty threads per inch is a high-quality rug. A count above eighty qualifies a rug as a tapestry. Although I find such specifications fascinating when it comes to artisan crafts, I wish they felt relevant in a contemporary sense. So little can be measured in precise terms these days. If I break my line before the right-hand margin, would this be a poem? If my words push description beyond the discernible world, would I label it fiction? So much depends on the malleable nature of form and function—genre, gender, race, the fractions and fragments that compose identity. My lineage is composed of equal parts English, Irish, and Welsh on my mother’s side, African American, Native American, and Creole on my father’s. More often than not ancestry defies classification. Is a weaving a rug or a tapestry? I fold the Navajo wool and keep it draped at the foot of the bed, as a blanket.

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Awake at night, I replay footage of Navajo weavers in the high desert. I seek metaphor in its details. I am a bully that way, always twisting an idea’s arm until it chokes up some meaning. In the film a woman explains the process of preparing the wool: tying the arms and legs of sheep before shearing. I see the subtle rise and fall of the animal’s pale body beneath her steady brown hands and the ease with which her blade works its way through the downy wool. She describes the process of carding, too: to rid the wool of impurities, to detangle and intermix the fibers. This gives it strength.

 

SELVAGE

 

In the house where we live, the rug is a covering not for the floor but for our bodies, which look nothing alike. Sometimes when we are lying in just the right light, my skin matches the light shade of beige wool in the rug’s diamond design. My partner’s skin is closer to the ivory wool background, now aged. At the edge of the rug, two or more yarns twist about each other to create the selvage cord, which interlaces with and reinforces the fabric’s edge. I wonder if my parents held their skin against the weave as we do. Or if they recognized how their toes blended in as they stepped along the color lines.

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Maybe that’s why I watch documentaries at night about the Navajo, Irish folklore, Aurora Borealis, the great Milky Way, why I read up on urban commentary and landmark legislations, why I have grown obsessed with due process and the Bill of Rights: to find solace in both spiritual and practical ordering. The word “cosmos,” after all, is descendent from the Greek word kosmos, meaning “order,” so perhaps the constitution is just another constellation in a vast and unknown galaxy.

 

LAZY LINE

 

For over a century, Navajo looms were nearly identical to those of the Pueblo. By the end of the 1700s, however, Navajo weaving began to diverge from Pueblo tradition. Namely, they realized that the weft threads did not need to be woven through all of the warp threads in every row but rather could stop wherever they wished, in order to create more discrete pattern designs. Such pauses and breaks in the line are often referred to as “lazy lines.” They appear as subtle diagonal lines across the horizontal weft and allow a weaver to create a wide fabric without having to reach from one side to another with each pass of the wool.

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In addition to innovations in design, born of a fascination with the way spiders create and spin their webs, Navajo weaving embraces a greater use of color than that of the Pueblo. Perhaps that is why their art lives on. Maybe my grandfather knew this, too. As a white man of means he collected the artisan wares of indigenous cultures and displayed them in his home. While his politics may have been influenced by the Jim Crow era in which he was raised, his reverence for beauty is a legacy I have tried to honor. He was as much a product of his generation as I’ve been a product of mine, reckless in my search for independence, pompous in my progressive claims. We all endure the often chaotic displays of our heritage: my grandmother’s alcohol-filled liver, her brother’s suicide shortly after attending my parents’ wedding, my uncle’s fatal car crash, the common traits of substance abuse and manic behaviors. How can we master the lazy lines that fly in the face of inheritance, insist that we not be felled by traditional notions in a world of “manspreading,” racial blind spots, persistent social stigmas? Can we break the mold that came before us, diverge from our teachings, marry across racial lines, divorce when that marriage fails, or perhaps not marry at all? Are we truly capable of such a break—a pause or redirecting of pattern—or are we fooling ourselves with our stubborn insistence that the world may be a series of alternatives?

 

PATHWAY

 

A traditional Navajo pattern is determined long before the weaving begins, and every nuance of the design is recalled from memory. The Navajo believe that part of their spirit or soul gets trapped in the rug as it is woven. The contained spirit must have a way out, however—a release—in order for a woman to have the energy and imagination to continue weaving. Often called the spirit line, or weaver’s pathway, the thread is woven into the textile as a thin line that extends from the center design field across the border all the way to the outside edge of the rug. Frequently placed near a corner, spirit lines are made with the same color as the center field’s background.

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For many years I’ve been obsessed with memory, how it can shelter us, and become like home. But lately, I’ve been trying to see things differently. Home is just as much a mosaic of ownership, of colors and textures, of things new, and used, and handed down, floating restlessly between the warp threads of time and place, and the weft of our individual narratives. Every so often something new flexes its potential to become iconic. Is my definition of home a series of images, anecdotes, and legislations? Is my concept of self an array of colors woven into a rug of ivory, chocolate, and charcoal, a dab of silver paint? Are the threads I find scattered around the bed the shedding of a past or the dowry I bring to our future?

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The Navajo woman teaches her daughter the weaving tradition, explaining to the camera how the same spirituality that binds the Diné to nature also creates family bonds and tradition, both vital in a changing modern world. I want to believe there is a warp and weft to all living systems—a series of events, of timelines that have come before, that allow us to traverse the lines of history. In this way, perhaps the notion of weaving is an apt reflection of aesthetic qualities that fundamentally value the integration of color and design, the personification of an ideal, a bridge between traditional belief and contemporary culture. I am not Navajo, but like my grandfather, I deeply admire their cultural history and grace. In the dark glow of the film credits I sketch the lines of an imagined tapestry, without color or dimension, the lines appearing on the page like a blueprint. My grandparents are no longer alive, but my response to their outdated refrain often surfaces: the children turned out all right, after all. Perhaps I can manifest the promise made by Spider Woman: if I can find a way to weave, to navigate history, to legislate my own identity as daughter, as woman, as free and independent, and remain satisfied at home in my own tapestry of tangled legs, I might always be able to care for the children—or rather that child self, left alone in a canyon to dream. Though at night I interlace my body around those I love in the dark, it is that girl in the canyon whose spirit I want desperately to set free and carry forward.

Jericho Parms

Jericho Parms is the author of Lost Wax (University of Georgia Press, 2016). Her essays have appeared in Fourth Genre, The Normal School, Hotel Amerika, American Literary Review, Brevity and elsewhere. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, noted in Best American Essays, and anthologized in Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction and Waveform: Twenty-First Century Essays By Women. She is the Associate Director of the MFA in Writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and teaches at Champlain College.

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