“ I’m convinced this weaving business is not for me. I’ll settle for collecting and admiring these handmade textiles.”
San Miguel de Allende,
May 11, 2016
I am sitting in the courtyard of an adobe house with several women around me working on back-strap looms, the traditional weaving method here since before the conquest. Two maestras came all the way from Yalalag, Oaxaca, to instruct a small class of women, young and old, including me and my friend Josie Garza.
It’s only day three, and I’ve already given up. I arrived one day late due to my trip to North Carolina, which I’ll talk about later, and already I’m convinced this weaving business is not for me. I’ll settle for collecting and admiring these hand-made textiles, as troublesome and time-consuming to make as any line of prose.
I worked yesterday with the best intentions, the leather strap tight along my lower spine and the fabric stretched from a tree branch, and truly I did try, but the weft and warp would not obey my hands. When my loom collapsed and the precious stick separating all the threads fell out, and my teacher advised me to unsaddle and come back later, I knew I was in trouble. I lost not only my place, but my ánimo.
So I’m not weaving today, and instead I’m listening to el maestro Don Remigio talk about cotton and silk threads, and of his travels in Egypt and Asia, where all the communities of textile makers, combined with the Oaxacan indigenous communities in Mexico, create a wondrous cloth. This is Don Remigio’s vision. He travels to far-away lands and brings back Chinese silk to the hills of his homeland, and Oaxacan women weave this silk together with their native threads into the millennia-old tradition of their ancestors.
DonRemigio is the owner of a business I call my chapel, Juana Cata, whose textile shops are found in Oaxaca, Mexico City, and here in San Miguel de Allende where I live.
My friends Betty and Faby Jiménez mind the local shop, and they alerted me about this one-week workshop, so I thought I should give it a try. But, as always when I fail at a new venture, I gave up too easily, chalking it up as research.
All this to explain how I find myself here today on my own personal back-strap loom — my computer, which also causes me to groan and stretch my spine after several hours of labor. The difference today is that I am in someone else’s courtyard, in a sun-dappled garden, a house of ancient doors, clay tiles, and flowering trees made all the more beautiful by my busy colleagues strapped to their looms like spiders.
Josie is making progress on her textile, though she needs to call out to the teacher for help every other moment. At least she’s fast and has several inches of fabric completed, while all I have is these few paragraphs I'm trying to write.
And now I must tell you about North Carolina. I was invited some time ago to attend the University of North Carolina graduation in Chapel Hill and receive an honorary doctorate. I had been a guest there back in 2014 to give the Thomas Wolfe lecture, and I liked everyone so much, and they liked me so much, they invited me back.
When the honorary doctorate invitation came, I thought of my 2014 hosts, Stephanie Elizondo Griest and Jennifer Curtis, and of the novelist and screenwriter Daniel Wallace, all kindness and courtesy, and of the faculty and students I’d met who welcomed me and made me feel at home. Unlike Thomas Wolfe, I did feel I could go home again. Hadn’t Betty Smith, author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, found a home for herself and her kids in Chapel Hill as a single mom and struggling writer?
So who knew horror-bill House Bill 2 would come along, targeting gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender folks, who still face discrimination and violence even in 2016. It caused me to regret having promised I’d come to North Carolina to accept an honor. I thought if I didn’t come, I would dishonor those who had invited me, but if I did come I would dishonor my friends who need my support.
A quandary. I did what I always do when stuck at crossroads: I went to sleep and let my dreams guide me. Finally, I decided I couldn’t boycott North Carolina. I’d made a trip recently to Arizona, another state whose legislature has enacted discriminatory laws, because I realized if I didn’t, I’d be boycotting the Mexican community in Arizona who had invited me to visit them.
And so, I boarded a plane to Raleigh Durham Airport. A young man — “handsome enough to be Mexican” as my friend Blanca’s mother used to say — sat next to me. He was not Mexican, as it turns out; he was a handsome man from Bombay. We chatted, and I eventually had to admit I was going to North Carolina for a graduation ceremony.
“Whose graduation?” Handsome asked.
“Well,” and here I fumbled for a moment. “Mine!”
“Yours! But you should be proud.”
I explained my sense of unease about being given a degree, since I hadn’t spent a single hour studying there, but my seat-mate assured me the school probably knows best. He went on to tell me he had a degree of his own from Chapel Hill. He’d had a wonderful experience there and now called North Carolina home. He said this with a great deal of joy, which gave me, without realizing it, an auspicious benediction to my weekend. When we landed, I was grateful when he told me, "Welcome home.” We had our picture taken together before we went our separate ways.
Thursday, May 12...
I am seated today on a couch surrounded by everyone's rolled-up back-strap looms as I write this. Our group isn't weaving today, and everyone's more silent than nuns. Today the others are counting threads and knotting the fringe of their finished cloths, while I write to you from my own textile, this unfinished letter.
Yesterday we drank pozontle, a cacao drink, and homemade rice water mixed with cinnamon, an horchata like no other, sweet and clean, not muddy and perfumed like the horchata I’ve always known. We also had black bean soup served with huge Yalalag corn tortillas — bigger than our heads — and chunks of exquisite Oaxacan cheese. All of this food has traveled many kilometers to reach us this week, along with the textile-weaving instruction. (I even ventured to make a tortilla! No easy feat for me, the queen of kitchen disasters.) Later we will assist in making tamales, but for now…
In Chapel Hill, I was met at the airport by my 2014 hosts, Stephanie Elizondo Griest and her partner Jennifer Curtis, a violinist who had improvised astounding music for me the last time I visited. I was happy to hear they're even a stronger duet than when I'd last seen them -- now they’re engaged!
It was Stephanie, fellow tejana and Macondo writer, who had originally nominated me for the Thomas Wolfe Award that year. I was indebted to her for planting the seed for my return visit to UNC, and it was Stephanie who was to accompany me to the events of the weekend as my guardian angelita.
I should explain here that most folks getting an honorary doctorate would’ve done enough research to know what to expect. But I live my life day by day, out of circumstance rather than mindful discipline. So I was completely taken aback when I met Sister Helen Prejean, who would be receiving an honorary doctorate as well. Sister Helen, an author and activist who works on behalf of the incarcerated, is most celebrated for her book Dead Man Walking, which was adapted into a film. Listening to her at the chancellor’s dinner was unforgettable for everyone lucky enough to be present. Sister Helen calls herself a storyteller, and sure enough, whenever she spoke the room hushed and her words sparkled and flashed and flooded the room with her light.
I did not have to speak at the graduation ceremony, which took an enormous stress off me. It struck me as a unique graduation on several levels. First, it was held in their football stadium. Second, there were wonderful words spoken by Chancellor Folt, who was conscientious enough to allow the graduates an opportunity to acknowledge and thank their family and friends. And finally, there was song and live music, which made the event heartfelt. Wind came uninvited, knocking down music stands and sending our four-cornered hats flying.
Even as a temporary North Carolinian, I was moved by the ceremony. Especially when I heard a chorus sing “North Carolina on My Mind.” It made me think, was there a song for Illinois? I don’t know any. I guess no one wants to sing about corn.
But I think the most sacred moment of the day came at the end, when I was invited to supper at Jennifer Curtis’ forest cabin, a remarkable space that was once her mother’s. It was Mother’s Day. Jenn had lost her mother a few months earlier, and mine was on my mind that day too, since it was my mom who valued education so much and enabled me to become a writer.
For our front porch supper we ate grilled salmon and fresh vegetables that tasted like real vegetables. I swang from a porch swing, feeling every bit like a character from a Southern novel. Then we moved to a back porch facing a scrim of trees. This is where we shared a meditation for our mothers. To close the ceremony, Jenn brought out her mandolin and played, “I’ll Fly Away,” which she and Stephanie sang for me. I wanted to sing, but I knew neither the words nor melody. I only know the song made me want to fly too.
Finally, the dark arrived quietly without anyone noticing. What I will take away with me is the wabi-sabi beauty of that lovely cabin, and Jenn playing, and Stephanie singing “Freight Train,” a song by a woman named Elizabeth Cotton who had lived only a few miles away from where we were. A song filled with such longing and sweet sadness. Ah, to write something like that! Thank you, Elizabeth Cotton, for your gift.
I did fly away. The next morning. Before sunrise with “Freight Train” fluttering in my head. All the weekend had seemed filled with mystery and sacredness. And to think, I’d almost not come.
So I am filled with deep gratitude to all the faculty, trustees, students, taxi cab drivers, artists, and, yes, even a woman politician I met who reminded me there’s a lot of work to do to conquer fear.
I am inspired and recharged by the capacity of the human spirit to work for change while preserving the treasures of the past.