The Importance of Being You

Updated: Jun 10, 2018


I had a startling revelation a couple of weeks ago while designing and painting the Gingko scarf, which begins with the story of these Japanese gifts I received when I was around thirteen.


My older brother had a summer job mowing the lawn and doing odd jobs for an elderly woman named Rhea. I'd never been inside a smoker's house else I might have turned down the offer to make some money cleaning for her. When my brother went over to mow the yard or fix the shed, I tagged along and scrubbed off- or was it smeared around?- 50 years of tar from Rhea's windows and walls. I'm certain she must have loved us, but back then it took real effort to believe this was true. Seeing with adult eyes, I realize now that we were likely an annoying compromise for Rhea. She needed help, could only afford to pay teens to do teen-quality work, and so always seemed simultaneously thankful we were there and impatient for us to be finished.


You can imagine the awkwardness I felt at being handed these treasures she had unearthed as we cleaned out a back closet, trinkets with the power to turn her into a young bride again as she told me about her now long-gone husband returning from WW2. They were valuable to Rhea because her best beloved gave them, yet she hated them for what they forced her to remember. That's probably why they'd been living buried in a closet along with the fear, anger and bitterness she had never managed to tackle.


No adult had yet spoken to me this frankly about their own past or feelings, as if I were a friend in whom she could confide. It was profoundly intimate. She told me she might like to give me these things, but only if I would take care of them, only if I would remember where they came from and what they meant to her. She looked me sternly in the eyes examining me for an honest response. I was afraid of her with the same natural fear one has when standing at the edge of a high cliff, breathless, unable to muster the courage to speak for fear the mere distraction of forming sentences would cause me to lose my balance. She mercifully handed these gifts to me in the stillness of the moment releasing me from the responsibility of uttering a proper promise. I wanted to cry, but dared not and choked it back with all my might.


Rhea had a Ginkgo tree in her front yard long before anyone I knew had heard of one. Painting the Gingko scarf brought back all of what I just recounted to you, triggering a cascade of thoughts about how definitive our childhoods truly are. I realized that surely some part of the underlying excitement I feel about Japanese textiles stems from admiring these three items as I've grown up. They inspired a sense of wonder in me because they were different from anything I had yet encountered. They were created by a culture made of people living in a completely other than way from what I knew of my few years growing up in Indiana. Even the specific botanicals on the clutch were foreign to me.


This got me to thinking about the things in our childhoods that have the power to inspire wonder and, therefore, ignite embers of curiosity and even a passion which might propel us into different directions in our adult lives. In my own experience of growing up, all of the examples I would give of these catalysts have the common theme of being new things I'd never before experienced or knew existed- places and artifacts and ideas from outside my surrounding cornfields- which came into my life through the agency of individual people.


These days I am often pondering how I might be able to be a wonder-inspiring Grammy to Emily Ruth and Isaac (and hopefully still other grandchildren yet future!) in a world where information now moves across the globe at the speed of light directly into a personal hand-held device. No mystery. Nothing all that unfamiliar. No place out of reach, instantaneously and somewhat anonymously. When the world is at your fingertips, what, if anything, feels foreign or unfamiliar? For my grandchildren, and all of us for that matter, the entire world can be seen from the living room without ever interacting with another living soul. We might be spectators more than engagers, watchers rather than inspirers. I hope I get the chance to give these I love alive encounters with new and awe-provoking experiences from outside their living room. I hope I don't hear the common response I hear from a lot of people today, "Oh yeah, I've seen that already on YouTube."


I haven't decided how to answer some nagging questions in my mind: Is all sense of mystery gone? Isn't solving a mystery a necessary component in building a strong imagination and inspiring curiosity? If I can see or learn about anything I want to, anytime I want to, from anywhere on the planet I want to, what does special mean to people now? How do I instill the life-giving joy of discovery in children of today's world? If there is no scarcity, how can anything be valuable?


Without curiosity drawing us out into new territories, we become self-consumed and thus life-less. Where there is no spark of wonder, there is no chance for awe. Where there is no awe, there is no reverence that creates passion for something outside of our own selves. And without reverence and passion for anything, we become self-important depressed tyrants who are, at best, far too sad and boring to invite to the barbecue; but at worst, who are sometimes willing and thoughtless participants in whatever is the next fervently shouted group idea, following along because at least there is some excitement or purpose to be felt in it. We lose the ability and even the desire to interact person to person.


The more global we become, the wider the avenue for homogeny as we create increasingly larger circles of like-minded people, all of us echoing ourselves back to ourselves sharing memes and zinger quips with people who we already know will thumbs-up us. We humans have a natural tendency toward herding together. Mob mentality is a real phenomenon. Group-think is more pervasive than ever thanks to the ease at which we can create a few thousand, or hundreds of thousands, or even millions of tribe members across the planet, each of the members willing to go to war with whoever is perceived to be the other tribe. We can even do so without ever leaving the couch. Doesn't that make you queasy? It should.


I have to argue that it is more important than ever before in human history that we cherish the individual. Each individual person is now and always has been the most interesting thing on the planet. There is supposed to be exactly one of you, and each of us is shaped in a completely unique way through our own complex mix of personality, life experiences, DNA, geography, culture, formal education and the list goes on. I'm interested in talking to individual people, helping individual people, loving individual people. I hope I can, along with their parents, instill this value in my grandchildren, teaching them to be curious, discerning, thoughtful, interested and interesting humans.


I wish I had answers to the bigger questions I've presented. If you do, I'm all ears. What I know for certain, though, is that you are valuable, as an individual person, all labels and groups stripped away from you. The most significant encounters you will have in your life, the most valuable encounters you will have, are with individual people. Life is distinctly personal. We learn from one another, influence one another, and this happens most effectively face to face, heart to heart, word by word. So please, be you, and if you're not already, try to get comfortable being a tribe of one. One never knows the impact he/she might have on another one. I'm certain Rhea had no idea the ember she ignited in me. She was simply sharing her honest self, and that was more than enough.


 

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