Sewing To Save The World

by | Dec 17, 2019

“To know yourself is to forget yourself
to forget yourself is to become enlightened by all things”

The famous phrase by Dogen Zenji, and one that is featured on the Zen Garland website says:

“To know yourself is to forget yourself
to forget yourself is to become enlightened by all things”

As I was sewing my rakusu (a garment worn around the neck of Zen Buddhists who have taken the precepts) preparing to take the Zen Garland Vows, it soon became obvious to me that I was starting to get to know myself. My relationship with sewing is a complicated one. As a kid, I was partially raised by my grandmother. I’ve never knew my grandfathers (both had passed away before I was born – one succumbed to pneumonia in 1944, another died shortly after the Second World War).  My grandmother from my maternal lineage never remarried and brought up three daughters as a widow supporting her family out of meagre welfare and a semi-illegal microbusiness of sewing custom dresses for women who wanted something fancy, in the extremely harsh times of constant shortages in a post-war, socialist Poland.

Every winter and summer holiday I spent at my grandmother’s one-bedroom apartment on the first floor of a very old mansion, in a small town on the Polish-Slovakian border. It was close to the rocky Tatra mountains known then for its harsh winters, not unlike Minnesota winters.  Many inhabitants of this region emigrated to the U.S. at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries (mostly to Chicago) and later, between wars, and as soon as the semi-legal and entirely illegal ways to cross the border to Austria, the nearest “Western, democratic” country in the region, opened.

Laborious and frugal, those who left, were always capable of finding the ways to provide their families with rare luxuries: coffee, chocolate, canned ham, all kinds of food that were rarely (if ever) available at groceries then.  And, all kinds of clothes made of rich, luxurious fabric, and American jeans.   Us kids often didn’t even know the names of these items because we’d never seen them before. The clothes needed to be customized, corrected, made to fit bodies shaped differently than the popular American brands.   And here came my grandmother’s skills, essential in this pre-globalization, mid-scale transfer of goods. She developed a circle of steady customers, having learned over the years how to cater to their needs. She took the fabric or baggy jeans and miraculously transformed them. I used to be the part of this magic.   My grandma did the machine sewing, leaving to us kids (whenever we were available) to some of the more menial tasks.

Now, at the age I am today, threading a needle has become quite a task, even with my reading glasses on, so I understand our childhood roles much better now.  Sewing, pinning, basting and invisible stitches – all of these were a part of what, back then, I saw as a torture. Basting seemed endless and unnecessary. Invisible stitches – difficult and daunting.

So, here I was last week. Basting and threading a needle to make invisible stitches yet again. Reaching out through time to this young girl, sitting on a crooked but cozy couch in the kitchen heated by an old stove, so impatient and so disheartened.   I was sewing my past, my present and possibly my future; stich by stich, baste by baste, fold by fold. I was sewing through all my rage, my lack of patience, my doubts, my insecurities, all my fears, all my dreams, and all my sudden excitements.

I recognized that the Zen lineage chart I had just filled in was exclusively male, and yet, I was sewing through the lineage of women so traumatized by decades of wars, violence, sexual abuse, regimes, shortages of all kinds and everyday struggle. I was also sewing through all our better moments, our hopes (lots of them unfulfilled), our joys, and our loves. And, finally, I was sewing here (Winona, Minnesota) without a there.   I was sewing time zones, spaces and places. Until finally I thought, this is how we can save the world; sewing. These invisible stitches which makes all things closer; are not too tight, and not too loose. Just enough space for breathing, yet not too far to reach out. Like this, you can sew the whole world together, so we are not apart anymore.

I have my needle threaded and have already started basting.

Anna Nacher is a Professor of Jagiellonian University, Krakow, Poland, and a 2019 Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence, Winona State University, Winona, Minnesota.

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