STRINGS IN OUR HANDS
By Erin Conway
I sat on Oscar’s front step in Guatemala, holding his daughter after her first birthday party. After almost three years of Peace Corps working together in his elementary school and a few months in to a stint at an international school nearby, I was automatically invited to all family gatherings. Galy was Oscar’s third child and first girl. I was dressed in my guipil, a bright blue traditional blouse with multicolored figures embroidered in horizontal rows. I was feeling the elegance of fitting in to a standard feminine definition, and really, just fitting for a couple of hours. I was odd in the mess of guests, but enough of a constant that I was not worth staring at, which felt acceptable.
“Magda, she really wanted this. It’s what she has. She’s been so excited.”
“Didn’t you talk about her completing junior high? Or at least elementary school?”
“She wanted a daughter.” He meant what he said in the most positive way, not that his wife was restricted in her choices. My graduate school voice cautioned that Oscar was being ridiculous. There were always invisible strings. Seeing as how I wasn’t I bubbling over with happiness in my professionally dominated existence, I was no one to judge her. At 30, the majority of my close friends were married with babies as well.
The tamascal was a traditionally clay structure, so low that I had to duck down to enter. They were unbearably hot and also the remedy for illness, postpartum recovery and general wellbeing. Even the poorest families allocated a space on their small land holdings to construct this bathhouse. I was generally uninterested in them for my own use. Breathing was like having a blanket over your head on the most humid of summer days. As the women stoked the coals and flicked water, I found opportunities to peak my nose out of the cloth hanging in the door to breathe. For one particular cultural practice, they intrigued me. It never occurred to me previously that a daily task could carry meaning, but in Guatemala I had started to cling to the idea, charging the learning of those tasks in recreating identity. To be seen as a woman was the main reason for letting Oscar’s wife, Magda, watch me struggle to wash clothes by hand once a week in the pila instead of just lugging them to the laundry service available in Panajachel. It was not much different than focusing on the selection of a particular literacy activity or maintaining the science table in my first year classroom so that I could justify a teacher identity. Those actions were markers of belonging, even if I didn’t understand their entire purpose.
I bounced Oscar’s daughter in my arms, and Galy laughed. I asked, “During the traditional first sauna bath did you tap a pencil on a notebook, an echo of the tools you hope she would someday use? I remember you told me you did this with your sons.”
“Yes. But my sisters tapped pieces of a loom as well. Women’s tools.”
“I could teach her something too.”
I paused. What was right! Did this statement escape, because I was simply accustomed in all the educational, academic work I was doing to assume I, the teacher, had answers to offer? My face baked. Was I struggling because I really had no skills or because the relativity of the values of those skills had truly not come to my attention until now?
I began to list Galy’s future in my head. Oscar will teach her school subjects so I couldn’t offer that. I could not teach her to wash clothes, cook, nor any of the traditionally binding women’s responsibilities. No one taught me those things, and I was barely teaching myself. I had no answer. I gave no answer. The dismissal of my worth as a “teacher” in some way for Galy was representative of my growing feelings of unease about what I “knew”. I wanted to have an answer to my own question, not for Galy, but for myself.
I was more tied up in strings than perhaps I realized at first glance, but I was serious about learning. I had been an impatient student in the United States, but by Guatemalan standards, I was almost unbearable. I knew this was true from the Kaqchikel classes with Oscar. I sat in the darkest corner of her shoe store among the boxes of trinkets she displayed for tourists to purchase. Maria Candelaria boasted often of her somewhat uncharacteristic choice to run her store instead of spending more of her hours in her home. That shop was the reason I asked her to be my teacher. Maria Candelaria had the poorly lit shop and she was in it all the time talking to tourists, to the other Guatemalans with shops on that corner, to friends walking by and those that stopped in to see her. I could have regular access to her while being hidden from everyone else. “I want to learn to weave,” I said. Teaching me to weave would be territory as uncharted as her business ventures for the chocolate loving, entrepreneurial mother of five. Sitting on the cement step where the corner of her shop met the cobblestone street, her dappled eyes were always looking up at the hillside’s horizon, across to the municipal building and down the street. They missed nothing, which would be the best or worst thing for me.
“I set up your loom,” stated Maria flatly on a November afternoon. She presented me with a soft green roll about the size of a newspaper.
“Do you have time? Are we starting today?” I asked. She had finished the prep work. She bought strings, by the pound, washed them and dried them. Maria separated them once, ordering on the carreta, what to me would have been a knot the size of a softball. She counted them out, and judging my strength and skill potential, she set about giving the wooly dark mass structure on the muñeca. The muñeca didn’t look like a doll to me, but it had arms and legs that required a figure eight movement in varying repetitions around the dowels sticking up finally inserting the sticks that would sustain the loom to replace the dowels on the ironing board sized slab of wood.
There was a metal hook inserted in the wall in the upper right hand corner of Maria’s store. She indicated with her finger. “Sit down.” She hooked up the twine attached to the first stick, slipping the loop over the hook and began to unroll the loom.
The Mayan backstrap loom could be to some a bundle of sticks and strings, and to others who use the framework, a useful structure.
Not confined to one place, the women took their looms anywhere there was a secure anchor, a tourist path or a bedroom on a rainy afternoon. The inconvenience I found was securing it to myself.
I sat down on the cool tile. I didn’t know how far back from the hook to sit and the low rise waistband on the capri jeans would be a challenge. Maria unrolled the loom about the weight of a bath towel.
There must have been hundreds of strings the size of embroidery floss so close together that the color was barely interrupted by the wavering images of folded weavings piled at the back of the shop. The strings came out as a triangle where they hooked to the top formed by the last stick on the loom as the triangle’s base. The loom moved with the sway of a hammock as Maria brought it towards me. About halfway down were the two larger sticks, one was actually a plastic tube, to divide the upper and lower strings. Just underneath was a swirl of random glossy string that divided the two groups even farther. I saw that the sticks in mine were mainly haphazard finds. I hadn’t expected to have a set of the smooth, uniform wood ones sold in the market. Several of mine had been found on the roadside. Thankfully each stick was marked with a guide string tied in a loop. Even if I didn’t keep the loom balanced and sticks fell out, Maria wouldn’t have to recount to divide the upper and lower strings. The open loom reminded me of a scroll.
“Move over,” she instructed.
Clearly she changed her mind about where to start the first lesson while watching me fumble to fold my legs and hitch up my pants. I slid over and she eased the fountains of cloth in her corte, so that she sat with her knees tucked under. Her weight rested on her heels. “Watch,” she pointed.
The work to do was in front of her. With quick wrist movements, she left two loops of the belt I hadn’t seen she carried in her hand around the two sticks on the bottom.
“Always two,” she cautioned, “Or it will unroll.”
She pulled the belt around her back. The flat leather strip rested under the overflow of fabric and childbearing on her hips. With her other hand, she wrapped the loops a second time. She leaned back and the frame extended. Her body was in charge of the tension. My body was tense, but I was definitely not in charge. Quickly she undid the loops, rested the loop on the ground and pointed at me.
Maria Candelaria was the first woman who had suggested I try to wear traditional dress and mean it. I went to her shop before the parade on the patron saint’s day fair and she dressed me. I left my jeans and t-shirt in a plastic bag until the end of the day. That first day weaving, and for many more after, Maria had to dress me. She hung up the loom, because when I did, it was a shaky balancing act at best. The tensions in the strings, their weaknesses, the variety in shape and size of the sticks, all the individual characteristics of a living being were there to be discovered, but as weaver, I was not accustomed to look for them.
I felt trapped, and almost never secure. I didn’t understand how to work within the frame, much less have the ability to adjust within it. Choices about weaving were made for me long before I knelt down. At least my strings here were visible. Choices made in education long before I opened my first classroom door had trapped me, because I didn’t know to look, much less how to work with them. My question while writing my Master’s thesis had been if the loom could represent the institution of schooling, and the strings its standardized constructs that marked, measured and often divided students. Instead, each time I fumbled for a definition of a particular string or grouping, I felt the physical structure and its resulting ache and frustration more than intellectual endeavor. As an outsider, I depended upon Maria Candelaria to make decisions for me and translate them as best she could.
The loose strings were a page so blank that I could not even understand initially how to approach them. This feeling harkened back to high school. I could hear my advanced algebra teacher checking for understanding. “If I knew enough to be able to ask a question, I would,” I lamenting to myself the amount of unknown. I wanted to learn every time I sat down at the loom, but I wanted to quit too. It was the first recognizable moment where I could have quit learning and no one would have noticed. I was grateful I hadn’t needed level one weaving on my class schedule to be valedictorian.
One session, two sessions, a week passed. I came to the store Saturdays and Sundays mostly, since I returned to the village too late in the afternoon after working at the international school to have sufficient light to work. My first words emerged cautiously as a forest green, wool block of fabric, and Maria Candelaria began to leave me alone, a lot. Frequently, she demonstrated content, like the basic weaving sequence of lifting and then smoothing the strings or wrapping the belt, and then I endured endless minutes staring at my hands trying to make sense of the instructions and the materials in front of me. I could have been kinder than my trademark pleading look when she returned to show me again. The furrowed brow probably made her wonder if things were so awful why was I continuing.
Maria Candelaria assumed much of me. My learning demanded a specificity of instruction, a transparency and explicitness with a language she never used before, and I was not referring to either Spanish or Kaqchikel. This miscommunication occurred about the loom, the strings, the images, and most importantly, the justification for her decisions. As a teacher, I could empathize with Maria Candelaria. I used to be sure that I “knew” my students, and when I didn’t, that a skill like speaking Spanish meant I spoke their “language”. Spanish hadn’t helped me in Wisconsin. Kaqchikel hadn’t helped during Peace Corps. Maria was accustomed to being understood in a different language of practice. I wanted to be able to help her help me, but I couldn’t.
It wasn’t as if she hadn’t thought about me. The string was green because she knew it was my favorite color. She picked wool instead of the more common cotton, because she watched me knit scarves for Wisconsin winters. She made connections to me; they just weren’t helpful ones. The wool string was the heaviest of the three common types the weavers used. As a result, it knotted easier, and required extra strength to weave tightly. I walked or ran up and down the hills between Panajachel and Santa Catarina every day and did push-ups in my room, but my shoulders struggled to lift the strings. I could not maintain fluidity of movement in my hips, nor the patience that might have come if I understood why the act was so difficult. With each knot, I threw more gasoline on the stick frame and impatience flared. I was not outwardly appreciative at the time. I blamed her.
“I broke another string,” I informed Maria. The loom was more balanced because a month into our lessons I had about half the strings now woven and rolled and secured next to me with the important two loops. Now there was only about two feet. She stopped hanging purses and stood over me. Her fingers grazed the somewhat fraying strings until she found the piece she needed to retie to the one now brushing my knee as it hung underneath the shrinking rectangle in front of me.
“You dropped a string,” she pointed out. The movement of exchange between the two main groups of warp strings was challenging to master. There was a division between the top and bottom groups of warp strings. The weaving required an even give and take between the top and bottom. The cloth came together as a string passed between the unwoven strings between the groups in order to forge a connection through the weft string. If I dropped a string then there was a vertical dash where it didn’t go under the horizontal strings. The one she pointed out, I missed in previous rows.
“You could go back. If you want.”
The look on my face groaned no without the sound. This exchange of strings was the basis of everything the weavers achieved. Their images required smooth movement and a constant tension as a foundation. When I began lifting the strings, I used only my wrist, but it required my hips and body weight as well. I retrained my shoulders, hips and back to move together.
“You have to relax. You’re pulling too hard,” Maria warned. There were other strings close to breaking. “Look at the divider string.”
I looked. The glossy divider string swirling through the weaving was littered in green balls. That did not make me relax. It just made me mad, mostly at myself. Most of the strings I broke Maria retied. If she couldn’t, the gap left a scar up the weaving. Mine had a couple of those. It wasn’t perfect. I wasn’t perfect, but I was learning, albeit reluctantly at times.
“That string is looser than the others. It doesn’t stay with the group,” I complained.
“You have to watch for it then. But, look, these rows are tighter.” That was true.
“If you had designs, you wouldn’t even notice the scar from the broken string. Your eye would look somewhere else. It doesn’t matter,” she continued.
A thought popped into my head. I wondered how many imperfect weavings she sold to gringas like me who wouldn’t notice. But what did I gain by noticing? Did a higher evaluation score add aesthetic or dollar value?
“Here, you want to try something else today?” she offered.
“What?” I couldn’t imagine being capable of ‘something else’ if I was still struggling with this.
“Let’s make a duck.”
“A duck.” She couldn’t be serious. Wasn’t there an order to my education? I couldn’t possibly be ready. There was no way I was going to make a duck, but I wanted to. Maria ripped off a piece of light blue floss with her teeth.
“Luis,” her husband, “doesn’t like it when I do this. He doesn’t think it’s good for my teeth.” That’s funny, I felt inadequate, cheating, because I was using scissors.
Maria plucked up green strings under her nail and slipped the blue one behind them. “We’ll make a triangle first.”
The gates were about to burst open with another one of my seemingly endless questions, constant and dangerous like the waters rushing to the lake basin during hurricane season. “Pick up two,” Maria instructed.
“Two,” I repeated, and I picked up two, exactly two strings.
I looked again. “Two? Or two pairs.”
“Two,” she repeated and pointed. She pulled up the strings so that the space showed between her fingers marked by the cinnamon toned skin of her finger.
“So four,” I confirmed to myself. The strings were grouped in pairs of two, but those were not the “pareja” or pair. It was discouraging to hear her words and then to fail using my own imagined meanings. I was struggling to be an active partner in this teaching and learning conversation.
“There! You see, a duck,” she assured me when we finished. Maria handed me a pink string and I wove it through, marking the end of the lesson for the day. It was a wobbly, kindergarten crayon, invented spelling kind of duck, but you could say it was a duck. Or she could. I wouldn’t have dared. The distinguishing shape hovered on the green water. If she was willing to confirm its identity, I didn’t see why I should contradict her. She noticed my hesitation to celebrate though.
“You worry too much. Even if you make a mistake, no one will see it from a distance.” She pulled a weaving down from a folded pile. “Look.” She showed me an entire weaving of shaky images.
“This old woman doesn’t see very well anymore, but I help her by selling these. No one (and she meant the gringos) sees the difference.”
I could have believed this was a marketing ploy like the raised prices I faced at the market. But, I didn’t. In her eyes, the value was the same for the woven cloth regardless of what was on it. She refolded the tablerunner and returned it to its place.
Three months passed and my stamina increased. Secured tightly in the backstrap by Maria’s hands, I watched, listened and focused. I squinted and repeated back actions in my head. I would still realize seconds later I had no idea what to do next. We wove mostly in silence, sometimes together. I began to filter my questions, asking only those that I could not live without. Maria began to pause to see if I had any questions. I desperately prayed for improvement. My friend just wanted me to be happy when I finished.
“I worried about you,” she said pulling out a butcher knife. “You were so upset, I didn’t know if you would finish.” She began sawing at the strings nearest the stick connected to the hook in the ceiling. The weight of the stick began to angle towards the floor and then fell in my lap. “There.”
Unworthy of any library but my own, my green “bufanda” that I would never wear as a scarf, was a more valuable text than any I learned from before. I wanted to unroll it, and with my fingers read it, again and again. When women passing by the shop began to notice my form hunched over the loom, their stares would ask Maria, “n’kemon riya? She weaves?” Her answer was definitive.
“No, not really?” I wanted to say.
The women put a jelly shoe with rough heels sticking out on the smooth cement step, dropped a clean finger down and agreed with my teacher.
“Let’s weave a guipil,” Maria said. She wasn’t asking. She was crazy. Still, if I had someone who, without much reason at all, believed she could work with me. The months of this past year at the international school, my second Peace Corps life, had not been marked by my lesson plan book, but by a series of colored strings. I could find colleagues with whom to teach like learners, motivated to see the strings in our hands.
First, I wove the green scarf. I wore the simple guipil filled with uneven “kotokik”, a zigzag meant to represent water, to special teacher presentation Oscar organized with his teachers in the library in April. They presented their literacy learning from our interactions that year using the library’s new resources and I shared my experience learning to weave. My greatest achievement was the “servilleta” or napkin I completed mostly on my own at the end of the nine month schoolyear. I used other weavings as guides in the hallway next to the room I rented despite the distracting chatter of children. It was cream colored cotton with brown and orange shaded geometric patterns. Most notably it had a scar the entire length, Maria’s nine year old daughter created. She abandoned the loom frustrated, and Maria gave it to me. No one noticed the scar. Not a single string came undone. The integrity of each weaving remained.
My Peace Corps journals were slowly buried underneath letters and shoes in my closet, but the woven imagery chattered its messages vividly across beds, tables and picture frames. They were a juxtaposition of sights and sounds: the splash of water against bent knees washing, the pat and hiss of a tortilla hitting cast iron, the thump of a soccer ball, reggaeton, marimba, the tap of computer keys and the ring of school bells recorded like my favorite bedtime story with beeps to turn the pages in a Bronx accent. It’s common for the family to notice characteristics in common with a child’s tokaya’, or namesake. The next year Maria gave birth to her seventh child, a girl she named Erin. Not only did Maria want to work with me, she saw something in me worth having for her own.
About the Author:
Erin Conway is an experienced classroom teacher, nonprofit staff trainer and curriculum designer who has worked both locally and abroad. Her experiences focus specifically on literacy, both promoting literacy across cultures as well as constructing connections between diverse texts and readers’ experiences. During her ten years spent in Guatemala, she took advantage of learning backstrap weaving to design classroom interactions and educator professional development using a sociocultural lens. Currently, Erin continues to pursue projects that support and structure multicultural programming with youth in her local community.