Monthly Archives: March 2019

Four Words and Boro, Japanese Indigo Patchwork

Writing from Kyoto, March 25, 2019. It’s been four days since I landed in Tokyo and I’ve managed to learn four words: konnichiwa (hello), sayonara (goodbye), arigato gozai mas (thank you very much), and oishi (delicious).  I knew ai (indigo) before I arrived.

Mexico and Japan share a common language through indigo.

An indigo chrysanthemum, simple adornment

Everything here is delicious. Economy meals at corner restaurants where you order and pay in advance from a menu machine are delicious. In my view, as delicious as the priciest sushi set. The people are delicious, the kindest and most generously helpful of any I have met. The fashion is delicious. It is pure deliciousness to be under a cherry tree as buds begin to blossom pink. To say I’m in love with Japan is an understatement. 

The asymmetry of patched cloth, worn to tatters and repaired

My sister Barbara and I have filled our days with what my friend Liz Bell calls flaneuring. The discovery is in the meandering, the randomness of what you will find without a plan. Like the pure ai (indigo) coat I found in an off-beat shop hanging on a rack among nondescript clothes, made in the style of a workingman’s jacket crafted from old recycled cloth in pristine condition, redesigned, repurposed. I didn’t buy it but it was a delight to wear, even if for the moment.

Like Mari Ishibashi, a 2013 graduate of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC, who gave me her phone number and said if we need anything, to call her.

Vest, shibori indigo

With intention, we made it a priority to visit the Amuse Museum in Asakusa, Tokyo, where an incredible textile exhibition of boro was on display until the end of March. Here, we could see and touch an extraordinary exhibition of vintage cloth, saved by folklorist Chuzaburo Tanaka. The textile is now recognized as a national Tangible Cultural Property. Indigo plays a central role in this story. 

Long underwear, each one elaborately embroidered

Indigo is a reverential art form here, and nothing speaks more proudly of Japanese ingenuity, creativity and self-discipline than the utilitarian Boro patchwork from the coldest, northernmost region of Japan in Aomori Prefecture.  

The layering of cloth over the generations

Boroboro means something tattered or repaired. In the layering of the cloth and the accompanying long stitches, called sashiko, used to hold the patches to the base fabric and hemp filling, the fabric takes on a quality of shimmering texture and beauty. It was not intended this way. Boro was born from poverty. It´s purpose was to make a quilted piece of clothing or bedcover from leftover material that would provide warmth in a frigid, inhospitable, harsh climate. Hemp was used because cotton could not be grown in cold areas. Threadbare areas of cloth were repeatedly patched over, reinforced, and reinforced again.

Blanket, hand spun, woven hemp, dyed with indigo, stuffed with hemp

Hard scrabble peasant farming classes made boro, mending the same garments over and over again with spare scraps. Scraps were saved like treasure. Collected, scarce. Hemp dyed with indigo was common. Garments were passed down from generation to generation. Working class people made do with dignity.

Portrait of a grandfather with granddaughter, Aomori Prefecture

Today, the story is different. Vintage pieces of boro are collectible, scarce and costly. Classes are taught around the world in boro patchwork and quilting techniques. Boro is adapted by fashion designers to embellish blue jeans. Boro has become romanticized, commodified as a fashion statement, taking on a life far from its humble roots.

Intricately embroidered apron, and long underwear

We might compare the indigenous cultures of Mexico with the native peoples of remote Japan, who struggle to survive and thrive in the face of poverty, lack of education and with little or no access to health care. In the face of adversity, they create extraordinary cloth. I have written about cultural tourism and how we seek to get closer to those who are the creators. We admire their creative outputs. We may even yearn for a simpler life for ourselves — more basic, more grounded, more meaningful. In our yearnings, do we create a false romantic vision that obscures the harsh realities.

Inside lining, kimono

A core aesthetic of Japanese life and values is called wabi-sabi. It is a worldview based on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. Some say that boro is one of the best examples of wabi-sabi —the cloth and the stitches reflect the beauty of natural wear and use. The cloth and the stitches change, become asymmetrical, born of simplicity, roughness and economy. Beauty is in the simplicity of all.

Padded, stitched and repaired cloth shoes

Wabi-sabi acknowledges three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.

Patched and tattered kimono, indigo

Boro cloth is quirky, repaired, subtle, weathered, imperfect, rustic, spare, minimalist. The cloth is organic, changing, deconstructed and reconstructed. Like the people who made it, boro is resilient and enduring, a testimony to cultural continuity.

I am on a quest for ai. The imperfect piece of ai. I know I will find it.

Patched boro blanket, indigo

Make a Gift in Patrick Murphy Ruiz’s Memory

I’m writing you from Tokyo, Japan, because this is an important concern. After I wrote about Patrick’s death, many of you asked if you could make a gift to honor Patrick’s memory and help his family.

Please share this post so we can raise $5,000+ USD

So, I wrote to Patrick’s brother Robert, to ask. He suggested that Patrick’s daughter Maya and son Aaron would appreciate any and all help from friends. They had unexpected travel expenses to cover to come to Chiapas from Mexico City, where they both go to university.

A Tribute to Patrick Murphy Ruiz: In Memorium

Heartfelt thanks to so many of you who wrote tributes to Patrick’s memory in the comments section of that blog post. The family read every word you wrote and this keeps Patrick alive. He touched so many of us, left an everlasting impression. His life was a gift.

Patrick Murphy Ruiz, photo by Jonathan Tico G

Since Patrick didn’t have insurance, his other brother Juan David covered all the funeral expenses.

Now, there is tuition expense for both Maya and Aaron, that was covered in full by Patrick. With his death, Robert and Juan David have pledged to help however they can. But it won’t be easy. Robert tells me that it would be of extraordinary help to them if friends could make a donation of whatever size to supplement what they are able to provide.

I’m going to give you BBVA Bancomerbank account information to wire funds to Mexico for this purpose.

Cuenta BBVA Bancomer, Juan David Murphy Ruiz, Sucursal: 4439, No. 12627988087, Clabe Interbancario: 012180012627988087, Clave A.B.A. 021000021

You can also send a check with the USA to US Bank , 425 Walnut St., Cincinnati Ohio 45202

Payable to John David Murphy, with a note to deposit into Account Number 182376787350, Routing Number 075000022, or you can do a wire transfer.

Whatever you can give will be deeply appreciated by the family. However, please note that this gift is not tax-deductible.

Thank you from the family!

In gratitude, Norma

Patrick Murphy Ruiz, February 2019, with potter Esperanza, Amantenango del Valle

In Memorium: Patrick Murphy Ruiz, Chiapas Humanist + Guide

Patrick Murphy Ruiz has died. He was a young man, born in 1967, just a tad over age 50. Close in age to my son. A friend told me he had a heart attack celebrating with family on St. Patrick’s Day.

Patrick Murphy Ruiz was an extraordinary individual who I met eight years ago in San Cristobal de Las Casas when I brought a group and needed a cultural guide. I have worked with him each year since.

Patrick Murphy Ruiz, with Esperanza in Amantenango del Valle

I want to pay tribute to the man we just said goodbye to, literally, as our 2019 Chiapas tour ended on March 7. Our last day with Patrick was on Sunday, March 3. On March 5, Patrick had a surgery in Tuxtla Gutierrez to remove varicose veins. I checked in with him via WhatsApp on March 7 to see how he was doing post-operation.

Thank you, Norma. I’m doing fine. I’m recovering and resting.

It took 40 minutes for an ambulance to get to his house after his family made the call.

Patrick Murphy Ruiz with Maria Meza Giron, Tenejapa

What I want to talk about is Patrick Murphy Ruiz, the compassionate nephew of Bishop Samuel Ruiz, who continued the family commitment to defend and support the indigenous Maya people of Chiapas.

Patrick was a story-teller, a historian, a cultural and political interpreter, with deep knowledge about his country, Mexico and his state, Chiapas. He was so much more than a patient tour guide. He was sensitive to the nuances of life and the needs of others. He embraced people, was helpful and concerned. He was generous of self. Calm and empathetic, filled with energy and inquisitiveness. A source. A resource.

We learned so much from him. We learned the political nuances about the Zapatista movement. We understood the Maya Day of the Dead rituals and spiritual path. We gained a deeper respect for the mystical traditions in the San Juan Chamula church.

Ancient Maya cemetery, Romerillo

I can still feel him sitting next to me on a bench inside this church with no pews, the floor strewn with pine-needles, copal incense clouding the air with smoke and aroma. We are both deep in meditation at the moment. The quiet moments are to be cherished. I will always remember this.

I remember him standing tall under the tall Maya crosses at the Romerillo cemetery. He was like the ancient Cieba tree, strong, an anchor, in perfect symmetry. I hear him explaining the thousands of years of history here, the traditions of burial, the syncretism of the Maya and European cross, why the boards cover the graves and are moved aside to allow the spirits passage from the underworld to visit loved ones for a day. The layers of existence and co-existence and existential thought and respect. Patrick Murphy Ruiz could communicate it all.

Patrick explains Xibalba, the Maya concept of afterlife

I loved Patrick as much as I relied on him. Everyone in our groups felt the same way.

If you read this and knew Patrick, please take a moment to share your own memory in the comments section. Take a moment to say a prayer, light a candle, send Patrick’s spirit out into the world to populate his goodness. His life enriched ours.

North Carolina Interlude: Between Oaxaca and Japan

In just a few short days, on Wednesday, March 20, with a fast turnaround, I leave NC for Tokyo, where I will meet my sister and we will travel together for almost three weeks. I’m taking time-out. This is Forewarning: I will be on vacation during this time and may or may not post regularly about my search for Japanese indigo and pottery (in tribute to our dad, who was a potter and ceramics teacher).

In fact, I’m not taking my computer and plan to travel lighter than usual.

Indigo and pigment samples on wool

In this moment, I’m experimenting by using an iPad with keyboard to publish this post. My hope is that I can find a moment or two to write about what I find with photos. No promises, though.

I want to be unemcumbered, or at least, less encumbered.

I´m promising myself that I will allow more breathing space between events next year. I recently read Brain Pickings by Maria Popova, who culls and comments about the philosophy of living with more intention. She talks about Marion Milner, a British psychoanalyst and writer who undertook a seven-year self-study to evaluate her own core of happiness, fulfillment and contentment.

Indigo dye pot, Japanese style

This is a fascinating exercise. I believe to find meaning in life, we must continually reexamine our own values and our relationship in the world. Then, the challenge is to shift and make adjustments as necessary as we are more aware of self, needs and change.

Who we imagine ourselves to be and who we are through behavior is often at incongruous.

As I embark for Japan, a place of deep spiritual belief where one can find meaning in small, beautiful experiences and creative output, I hope to use this time to take a respite from the fast pace at which I’ve been living for the past several months. I hope to use this time to approach 2020 differently.

Museo Textile de Oaxaca, dyeing with indigo.

I made a promise to Oaxaca friends that I would have more time next year to enjoy their company, take art classes, be in the hammock on my rooftop terrace, and limit my travel that takes me away from Oaxaca city.

I made a promise to North Carolina friends to spend more than a few weeks at a time here, with longer intervals to actually connect and enjoy the life I have created here, too.

This is a written testimony to publicly share my intention to slow down the pace. It is a way to make a recommitment to core values as I gain in years (ie. Age!) and life choices become even more important. There is limited time to make up for lost time.

At the indigo dye pot

Thank you for supporting me in my time away from regular blogging and being tethered to the computer. Cherry blossoms await me.

Indigo fields on a Japanese farm

Chiapas Boundaries, Borders and Cloth: Cultural Tourism

Long before the Spanish conquest of the Americas beginning with Mexico in 1521, Maya land was contiguous. Maya peoples spanned what we now know as Chiapas, the Yucatan Peninsula, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador.

Can you identify the Eye of God, the Plumed Serpent Quetzalcoatl, lightening and rain?

While spoken dialects differ, the language of cloth tells a similar and familiar story of the universe and creation: corn, stars, moon and sun, animals, fertility, and rain, the underworld and the heavens. The plumed serpent god Quetzalcoatl is a predominant figure.

Ribbons are a contemporary adaptation of Aztec headdresses with feathers

The Aztecs, seeing the blond and bearded Hernan Cortes, confused him for the reincarnation of Quetzalcoatl and welcomed him. Before that, their empire reached as far south as Nicaragua, where they hunted for the feathers to adorn royal headdresses. Their historical outposts are evident throughout Chiapas, mostly through Nahuatl place names.

Spanish territories in Mesoamerica were divided and governed from Mexico City (the Viceroyalty of New Spain). For more than 200 years, Antigua, Guatemala, served as the seat of the military governor of the Spanish colony of Guatemala, a large region that included almost all of present-day Central America and the southernmost State of Mexico: Chiapas.

Intricately woven daily huipil from Magdalena Aldama, Chiapas Highlands

Maya communities were contiguous until the Mexican Revolution, when geo-political boundaries were drawn separating Guatemala from Mexico. The Usamincinta River was the demarcation line.

All cotton huipil in new colors, an innovation, San Andres Larrainzar

Along this river are two very important archeological sites: Yaxchilan and Bonampak. Symbols from fresco paintings here are depicted in the cloth woven by Maya women across the borders. It is also the region of the Lancandon jungle, home to the Lancandon tribal group that speak an ancient form of Maya. They were able to escape Spanish conquest by staying hidden deep in the jungle.

Corn hangs to dry, Tenejapa

I write about this to better understand the context of the cloth, which has limited boundaries.

Traditional Tenejapa wool huipil with natural dyes

On our recent Chiapas Textile Study Tour, one of our travelers, Rosemary, told me she makes frequent visits to Guatemala to collect Maya huipiles. She said she always wondered why she had a hard time finding the huipiles from Colotenango and Huehuetenango in Antigua, until she came to San Cristobal.

French knots hand-embroidered, Aguacatenango, Chiapas

These Guatemala villages are much closer to Chiapas than they are to Antigua. She surmised that it was easier to export them here. We found many superb examples of Guatemala textiles mingled among those from Chiapas for this reason.

Pillow cover, San Andres Larrainzar

We asked the weavers we met on this journey what they dreamed of for themselves and their families. What do they want/need? What are their hopes for their children?

Sewing basket, Tenejapa, Chiapas

I ask our travelers to think of themselves as amateur cultural anthropologists: to ask questions and to understand what is most important for women, children, families, and their economic well-being.

On the loom, Tenejapa weaving, suspended from the ceiling at Na Bolom

Every artisan we talked with had a similar answer: they need markets to sell what they make. They want their children to have an education beyond sixth grade. They want them to keep the traditions alive, too. They want autonomy and independence from neo-colonialism and government control. They want to be respected for their creativity and traditions.

Seen on the street: Can I take a photo, please? I promise I won’t photo your face.

In other words, they want what we want for ourselves and our children — a life of safety, security and economic well-being, with health care and a just, living wage.

Exquisite machine-embroidered chal (shawl), San Lorenzo Zinacantan

Cultural Tourism: Why are we here?

Why are we here? Is the answer as simple as Cultural Tourism? Is our motivation to experience a world different from our own? We are lovers of the handmade and appreciators of the people who are the makers. We want to meet the makers directly and support them.

In the Academia.edu article What is Cultural Tourism? Greg Richards says, Another major cultural trend that has been important in the growth of the heritage industry has been the growth of nostalgia. The increasing pace of life and the feeling of disorientation and loss associated with modernity has ensured that the preservation of the past has become big business.

I am aware of this as we bring small groups into remote villages. I hope our footprint will be as small as possible. I hope we become observers with heart and empathy. I also want to talk about our tendency to romanticize what many visitors perceive as a simpler lifestyle.

We seem to yearn for a simpler lifestyle.

So, I ask the question of you: Is cooking over a smoky wood fire simpler if it means you or your children will develop emphysema? Is it simpler if you have to travel 20 miles to the nearest health care clinic? What if the school in your village doesn’t have a regular teacher and only goes to fourth grade? Is it a simpler lifestyle when your husband is an alcoholic and family violence is a reality, not a poster? Is it simpler when you find an hour or two a day to weave, after cooking, cleaning, tending children, husking corn, washing clothes?

Can we really know about people and their lives by interacting with them for a few hours and buying what they make? With this purchase, are we practicing cultural appropriation or cultural appreciation? By just being here, what is our impact on how people live and work? Will change happen? What is authentic, anyway?

These are our questions and our discoveries on the Chiapas Textile Study Tour. Would you like to come exploring with us?