The story begins with two sisters who barely speak, or rather one sister who says that at this time she needs to live her life separated from her family of blood, in particular that blood lineage from her mother including her mother’s other daughter, ten years her elder, conceived with her mother’s first husband. The other daughter is me.
For several years now, my sister and I have been estranged. That’s how she has wanted it. But not me. She’s my sister and I miss her. I’m left seeking reconciliation, not knowing whether or not in some way she might be open to it, too.
E-mails, letters, presents, phone calls: let me in. I’ve tried all of that. Such supplication will not win me what I want. Reconciliation cannot be strong-armed.
So this reconciliation, if I can call it that, means turning towards what I bring to the impasse. It means tuning my attention to the strained and sometimes frozen, barely intelligible workings of my own heart.
The image is a shawl. It belonged to a friend, whose husband gave it to me along with several other of her precious things after she took her own life. The shawl remained draped over a chair in the guest bedroom. It’s gray, I thought, not my color. And, of course, I couldn’t bear to put it on.
Now, over a year later, I take a long look at it. The gray isn’t flat, impenetrable, as I first thought. When I rest here with soft eyes, I begin to see streams of shifting colors as in a tree trunk or a pebbled footpath, each pebble catching the light in subtle tints. This mohair gray includes hints of silver, mauve, rose and beige. When I contemplate its folds, the once nondescript tone can at moments seem tremulous, luminous, even tender.
I bring the shawl to a Swedish weaver, the descendant of a lineage of village tailors, spinners and quilt makers—who grew flax and raised sheep and goats to spin the fibers for their crafts. In her basement studio, sitting at her loom, this modern-day weaver instructs me. “To make a shawl, you must beat the weft down into place with gentleness.” She steps rhythmically on the treadle as alternating harnesses slide up and down. “You want it soft and pliable so it will drape.” All of the colors in my friend’s shawl—she turns from her labor to look closely, to touch each strand—are in the warp: shiny rayon ribbons in rose, beige, silver and blue made from the cellulose in wood; mauve, green and brown wool from sheep; beige mohair from goat. All in the weft are silvery mohair. These fibers of wood, flax, goat, sheep . . . are woven not only through each piece of work but through the generations. The weave of all of history is patterned into a shawl.
When contemplated with patience and a soft view, any seeming wall—in a field, between countries, separating people, or in the heart—is not monolithic. As with the “gray” shawl with its gently beaten weft to warp and its multiplicity of pastel colors, you can see subtle shiftings; you can see how it interweaves with the world.
Yvonne Rand, a Zen teacher with whom I study impermanence (and all the frozen attendant terror and rages), warns: “You can’t dismantle what you don’t see.” So for many months, I sit on a cushion getting to know the feeling of a gray wall—nondescript, implacable. And another wall seems to close in on the other side. Every way I turn is wall. Only this. It is the work of meditation to notice the shifting hues, to see the patterns: first anger, then frustration, then a kind of taut grief, and within that, a hard pellet all balled up. As I investigate that, it explodes into sadness.
I think of my friend. There must have been a steel gray impermeable quality to her pain. I doubt she could see, could remember all of the hues.
I think of sisters, the particular pain of a rift between sisters. What is the range of hues? I begin to wonder about this complex relation, woven through generations of family comings-together and comings-apart, misunderstandings and forgivings, losses and celebrations. What does it mean to be sisters, to be half-sisters? Ten years’ difference in age, born of the mix of egg with the sperm of different fathers.
And yet . . . we both spent nine months inside our mutual mother’s womb, were both made in part from eggs formed when our mother was inside our grandmother. So we both traveled in close quarters for a long time. Both of us came out through that same birth canal into life in New York City. Both of us smelled the breast, felt the heartbeat of the mother, were soothed by the melodies of her hum, longed for that smell, that beat, that touch, those times we called and she didn’t come. Both of us slept in the same room, first I in the large bedroom with the scary closet and she in the small, and then the other way around. Both of us ate in the same cramped New York City kitchen. Both of us took the same elevator and rang the same doorbell. Both of us took baths in the same bathtub in the same bathroom painted shiny blue.
I grew into teenage, got my period, had boyfriends, did homework and pitched screaming fits with our mutual mother. What was my young sister doing, feeling? I don’t remember. I may never have known. We lived in that same apartment in two disparate but intersecting worlds. In the ensuing years, we read aloud, bicycled, camped out, drove across the country and sometimes talked about what mattered to us. And now we don’t. There have been some signs of a beginning shift towards renewed closeness, moving into the next generation through our daughters—aunts to nieces, cousin to cousin. And in the future, it’s a maybe, maybe not; a sense of possibility.
Not every story has a happy ending. Nor a sad ending. An effort to find reconciliation with the way things are holds no promises of that sort. Peace of mind doesn’t fit into those categories. Diligence and patience, these are required for sensing the changing hues, for seeing the complex weave of a particular story with all stories. I remember how hard it was to put on the shawl. And yet now, at times, I wear it, in all its shifting shades, with some ease.
Thanks to Margery Cantor, Wendy Johnson, Andy Cooper and weaver Maj-Britt Mobrand.