Sunday, November 13, 2016

Bamboo Sprouting

I sit here each day in the company of bamboo plants edging my porch. They look primordial and talk to me as beings with humanlike gestures and individual personalities.

It’s a grass, a flowering perennial evergreen. It is sustainable, rapidly self propagates and renewable. It is naturally antibacterial, efficiently converts carbon dioxide to oxygen, is naturally thermally regulated and stronger than steel by weight.

It’s long life makes it a Chinese symbol of uprightness. In India it is a symbol of friendship. Several Asian cultures believe that humanity emerged from a bamboo stem – both man and woman from a single split branch.

In Vietnam, it is a symbol of the soul representing ideas of hardworking, optimism, unity and adaptability. The Vietnamese have a proverb ‘When bamboo is old, the bamboo sprouts appear’. Meaning that they will never be annihilated because if a previous generation dies, children will take their place.

For me that proverb could also be about growth and maturity, the painful process of acknowledging ugly truths and working with them. To be upright in spite of the elements that suggest otherwise. I’ve spent this residency alone with the inspirational words of so many that I’ve had the gift of time to read, and alone with my personal vulnerabilities and alone from the chaos that is happening at home.

To grow into one's own doesn't happen overnight. In spite of how we value spontaneous epiphanies, these awakenings are dormant under the surface waiting for the crack in the foundation to let the light in (thank you Leonard Cohen). Cracks that usually happen during tumult and strife, and according to Buddhist thought, require attention rather than avoidance to dissipate their hold on us.

I'm halfway around the world to find space and time to reflect on all of this. Then there was the election. The results brought many of us out of our complacency to face the reality of what the other half of our country believes, and it’s chilling. This is a good time to look to bamboo for inspiration. To help us remember to stand upright, be strong, go forward and sprout blossoms.

This sculpture, in progress, is inspired by a young bamboo shoot from my grove. 
The fabric is cut from women’s blouses from the market, the stitching is meditative, 
the stuffed form is an abstraction of bamboo posturing as a human. Rebecca Solnit, in her book 
Hope in the Dark, talks about change. How it seems like it’s spontaneous 
but the roots already exist underground and that when these transformations 
happen it's rarely remembered. To continue the metaphor, my seeds were planted 
before I arrived and now they may finally be finding their way to daylight 
in spite of all the shadows. We’ll see. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Alone Together

My residence at Compeung is down the street from Compeung Lake. There’s a narrow road along the banks of the river where I ride my scooter into the village. Tucked into the woods along the way you pass shrines, a thai massage parlor, a noodle maker and this wonderful thatched roof patio where, depending on the day, a smiley gentleman sews grass roofs or weaves baskets. My host told me that this maker welcomes visitors and so I set out to see what he is up to.

Unable to speak Thai or in this case the local Lanna dialect, I used my weaving loom to introduce myself. He was curious for a moment, tossed me some bamboo shavings, and then got back to work. I sat for a couple of hours weaving and watching his steps and it felt curiously safe and familiar.
He was making reeds for baskets from a large bamboo stalk. Tomorrow, if it doesn’t rain, he’ll be gathering grasses so that the next day he can sew some grass roofs. I’m hoping to catch him when he’s sewing so that I can learn. I’ve seen him working from the road… it will be great to get up close.

Simple tools and materials used to take a green bamboo stalk and convert it into the pliable flat reeds used to make baskets. He starts with on knife to shave away the green skin of the bamboo. A second knife shave off rough joins in the bamboo to make it smooth... plus as a splitting tool to break up the strips of bamboo lengthwise. Back to the first knife to continue shaving the outer edge and to shave away the soft pith from the inside.  All performed with a belied simplicity and ease.
This is the closest thing to authentic making that I’m experiencing.  All other opportunities involve staged showrooms and tour buses. In the mountain villages, the reality of daily life forces most people out into the fields or to the city for work… only the physically disabled or elderly stay home to look after children and work on folk handiwork for the markets.

Enterprising mobile shops travel from market to market depending on the day of the week. This was at Saturday market in Doi Saket village. Notice the black and white mourning bunting on the office building in the back.

The notion of maker communities is a romantic one that I have the privilege of living and believing in as a westerner. It is not so romantic here, most people do it out of necessity to eat and put a roof over their head and most are working alone.

An artisan giving demonstrations at a local umbrella factory. A commercially contrived experience but one where local artisans have the opportunity to sell their wares.
A week before I arrived the beloved king of 70 years passed away. Chiang Mai is cloaked in white and black and according to locals the news is all about ‘the black and white’ too. There is a serious political undercurrent among people who feel uneasy about their future as a democracy.  It is unlawful to speak about the royalty or the government with punishment of arrest thus inhibiting individuals from talking to each other and organizing for fear of reprisals.
A small shrine on the banks of Compeung Lake. The king is said to have visited here once thus deeming it a place of stature and respect. 
Brings to mind Ann Hamilton’s interview with Krista Tippet where she opens with the question “Where is it that we can gather and kind of be alone together?” She says there is so much Us and Them and we need to think about how we can all exist in the same space.

Noodles made daily and hung to dry. 
The street food is handmade and crafted in home kitchens and then brought to market. Here you can see eggs that have been emptied, fried with herbs and then placed back inside the shells and skewered before roasting on an open grill. Sticky rice is a big part of the diet at every meal and can be found wrapped in banana leaves, right next to the roasting bananas and typical Chiang Mai style sausage.
Today, I’ll continue with my naïve pursuits of connection. I’m looking for makers in the broad sense. Makers of community here at Compeung, makers of artisan food in the market and makers of roofs ­– to sit in the company of each other, alone in our foreignness, but together in our shared place and time.
Ong's mom with another resident Alex who is here with his girlfriend Manon from San Francisco. Ong and his family are the makers of this sanctuary. The meal times are communal, spiritual places with homemade thai dishes three times a day. The mutual love and respect among family and friends is genuine and deep.