About this time last year I ventured to the North House Folk School in Grand Marais, MN, for three days of basket weaving. Yep, Basket Weaving 101. Ostensibly, the adventure was to create and take home our very own, personalized, Birch Bark Berry Basket. In reality, the trip was much more profound.
None of us knew quite what to expect, having never attended any of the wide-ranging offerings at the North House Folk School. And so we all packed for three days of being together in a cabin up north, collectively making dinners, catching up on each other’s lives, and intentionally stepping away from the demands of our urban lives in creative pursuit.
The trip began in the pragmatic fashion that organizing six friends on a north woods adventure entails — who’s driving, what food shall we bring, who gets the single rooms and who doubles up. That sorted, and safely settled in up north with all of our souls warming around the wood-burning fire, the weekend’s unfolding and weaving began.
The class itself was a hands-on lesson how to bend and twist strips of birch bark into a small container. The instructor painted for us the picture of harvesting the birch bark in early July, slicing the tree and peeling back the skin so as not to damage the trees. Holding the skin in my hands I paid tribute to the sacrifice of the trees for my own pleasure, much the way we might pray before a meal, thanking the animals for our food.
We soaked the birch bark, stripped the large pieces with a cutting tool into one-inch by 2-foot segments, and began the weaving process. We each had a rough idea of our intended finished product, and as we became engrossed in the task at hand, the room became heavy with the silence of concentration.
Then came the mutterings, “Oh, man, this is really frustrating. My bark keeps breaking!” And the comparisons guised in praise, “Wow – Susie, I love the coloring in yours…. Mine looks so dull.”
And so went the afternoon with dreamy periods of artistic absorption dotted with camaraderie and breaks for tea. We learned an appreciation for the history and challenge of basket weaving, and the many faces of the art form itself. For instance, basket weaving is a cultural phenomenon and an intrinsic part of indigenous peoples existence as they use the vessels for religious ceremonies and food gathering. In a larger sense, the art of weaving grasses, reeds, and willow together has been life sustaining by creating dwellings and other shelters.
Perhaps it was this sense of the timelessness and worldliness that enveloped our group as we became more engrossed in our individual yet collective process. That sense that we were each engaged in an endeavor of creating that was both personal and unique — bringing into each creation our personalities, talents, and ideas of beauty and/or utility. And is there a place for both?
Each night, we engaged in a different type of weaving. The beautiful and inexplicable intertwining of human spirit, of friends and families and triumphs and losses. Most of us had lost a parent in the recent past, and as the hours passed, stories of our mothers emerged. And of our fathers or stepfathers, our great-grandparents from Norway or Yugoslavia. As the fireplace warmed us, we let ourselves be vulnerable with one another as we talked about our childhood memories, or concerns about our children and our children’s children.
It was apparent that our lives and stories, each as unique as our baskets, were intertwined. We wove together tales that were different in the telling, but similar with the themes of love, grief, hope, pride, and regret.
I came home with a humble and beautiful berry basket, filled with all of those things, invisible, rolling and tumbling over each other in a way that made me simultaneously weep and sing.
This issue of The Phoenix Spirit also pays homage to local arts programs available for people struggling with Serious and Persistent Mental Illness (Bridgeview), and poverty, homelessness, unemployment, chemical addiction, and mental health concerns (Avivo). See pages 6 and 7.
Pat Samples invites us to explore the art of Improvisational Theatre in her article Let’s Just Have Fun and Make Stuff Up. And why not? Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”
Make your life the best possible performance.