Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Craft Is..........?

I regret not posting last week. It got caught up in a complicated series of events involving a birthday party on Sunday that I was going to, but never actually got to. It was over in the Catskills, a couple of hours away, and we learned shortly before the event that 200 people had said they were coming. I was in a fair state of exhaustion, which my friend Elizabeth saw the minute I walked into her place (we were going to ride over together). She saw how tired I was, and confessed that she was almost that tired herself, so we had to decide if we wanted to drive that far for a party that was going to be so mobbed - the place it was being held in is not large. In the end we opted for a day of naps and an evening of Chinese food. A day or so later we discovered that 300 people had actually showed up for the party and that people were just grateful that we had decided not to add to that number. We'll go over and see our friend later in the year and wish him a happy 90th. We'll all enjoy it more that way.

But I kept looking all week for an opportunity to get my post on and the general level of work around here at this time of the year simply prevented it. It happens every now and then. Apologies and regrets.

This week I've been thinking about crafts and crafters (if that will do as a gender-neutral form of 'craftsmen'). This is probably because on Monday I went to the Ulster County Crafts Fair at the Fair Grounds in New Paltz, our local town. There were people from all over the country exhibiting, and there were some wonderful pieces of work - pottery, art, jewelery, furniture, weaving, canoes, and on and on. Of course I bought a mug. I always buy a mug, whatever the occasion. I collect mugs, and I have altogether too many of them, but there it is. It's a fascination of mine. Almost all of my mugs are hand-made. I have a couple that I've bought in department stores, and they are quite lovely, but I don't have the same feeling for them that I have for the others. There's something about the connection with the artist that makes the piece attractive to me. The mass-produced ones just don't do it, no matter how good they are. I suppose that it's this feeling about the connection of a person to something he or she makes - the sense that something of the person resides in the work - that makes Craft Fairs so popular. Even with the economy the way it is, we heard reports of good attendance and good sales from a number of the exhibitors.

So I've been thinking about crafts and people's relationships to them. And it was in this atmosphere that I had my latest haircut. My last post was about my last cut, and it's hard to think that a month has gone by and it was time for another. I deliberately picked the day and time to coincide with what I knew of Joe's working hours at the Hair Palace. I wanted to see if what had happened before was a fluke. Maybe he'd turn out to be the ordinary barber after all and I had just hit a lucky day.

Well, if that's true, I've hit it lucky twice now. He didn't have me in his chair very long before he knew that I'm not a fluke, either; I really do have an interest in his great fascination, and he was off again. This time he talked about days when his customers' hair fights back. Either they want him to make them to look a way that their hair doesn't want to be, or they have hair like mine, which grows in several different directions. That's a particular difficulty, because you can't cut the hair the same way all over that head. It has to be different in different places, and getting that to blend together is a demanding and it takes skill.

I also made him a bit nervous because I mentioned that he'd given me a really great cut the last time I was in. It was then that I found out that there's as much luck as there is skill involved in this. He never knows when a cut is going to be really great. He can have off days and on days. And if he has to "perform" for someone who wants something special, that can be a particular problem. And he knew, even though I never said it, and would have denied it if confronted, that I was expecting something special. True, I was after the conversation and the meeting of minds and hearts that I find in talking with him about hair. We have a connection that is, as I said in my last post, essentially spiritual, and I don't find that often at the Mall. I wanted that, especially. But of course, I wanted a really special job on my hair. Of course I did, no matter what I said, and he spotted that before the words were half out of my mouth. The thing he doesn't know yet - or maybe he does - is that I value what we have found in common more than the actual haircut.

Because............ and this is what I realized this week........... he really is a craftsman. Hair cutting is his craft, not just his job. There's a sense of respect in him for what he does and how he does it. He pays close attention to his customers' hair and to the way that hair is going to respond to scissors and clippers. He gets joy out of making people look good. I don't have any idea of what his inner state is while he's doing that, but I know that mine is a lot better for having the contact with him. He's not just a hair cutter. I respect the fact that cutting hair is a craft for him.

Was this cut magic, like the last one? In a word, no. It's a good cut. Good enough that people have commented on it. But it's not the last one, which was extraordinary. And that's ok. He can stop being nervous. It's fine. And I really will be interested in seeing the ups and downs of this hairy relationship.

The other thing that was happening this week is that it was time for me to be refectorian again. Time to get the coffee made and the tables set and the food served. 30-45 guests all week, and that takes time. Lots of time. All my time. It's a demanding job, and we all wrestle with it, especially on weeks like this.

And this week was different. I'm sure it has something to do with my having taken the time and the effort to work at sharing my reaction to this job. Because I'm basically an extrovert, I don't figure things out by just thinking about them. I have to talk about it to know what I really feel, so some stuff has happened that wouldn't have happened if I hadn't blogged about being the refectorian.

Essentially the transformation that I've wanted for many years actually happened. Being refectorian really became a craft for me. It was work, and it was a lot of work, but it was more than that - it did reach down further into me than I have experienced before. The rhythm of it got into my bones. The value of it (well I'm feeding people, after all!) got into my heart. I cared about it. The change has to do with having become conscious of the link of this task to meditation - the eternal return to what is here and now. Put aside what else you have to do. Draw away from the fantasies of what else you could be doing. Just be there, where you are, and when you notice that you've drifted away, come back, gently, firmly and without recrimination.

And then, as with hair cutting, as with mug making, as with the fashioning of incense, my heart can open. I can do the job because it's a good job, well worth doing. Feed your brothers. Serve your guests. Is that not deeply worth the effort?

So I wasn't even particularly wanting the week to end - and that is a big change, believe me. Yes, knowing that I have some of my time back is a relief, and some stuff that has been put to one side can now be reclaimed. But I could also have gone on quite happily. It would have been worth doing. It was my craft.

I'm glad that people like reading this blog, and people have said that it has been a revelation to them in different ways. Now I discover that it's a revelation to me, too. It helps keep me where I need to be, in the stuff of my life. Good stuff. Good life.

You know what this means, of course. This blog is my craft, too.

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