Cloth, Melanie Wilder notes, is the first and last thing to touch our skin as we enter and leave this world. A blanket swaddles us upon arrival to conjure the comfort of the womb, and a shroud cocoons us tenderly like a seed to be planted in the earth. In these acts of receiving and sending off, these woven filaments are given a sacred task, for we have asked them to hold our highest aspirations for someone’s journey here or in their next incarnation. We say as we wrap... May you will always be held in such love and tenderness, and may that knowing deepen whatever path you find yourself on.
Melanie directs the Fiber Arts program at Warren Wilson College, and it was she who answered my email to Local Cloth in Asheville, in which I asked to be connected to people who were making cloth from what they grew or tended. She let me know of the historical use of flax for shrouds, and of her work with students to teach the process of growing, harvesting, rippling, retting, dyeing, and weaving it. By putting their hands on this process she says, she wants them to feel a connection to their own life stages, and how they are supported by a nourishing, nurturing planet.
When I asked Melanie why she said “yes” to my shroud-making project, she explained how strongly it connected with all that she valued, and how critically important its generative lessons could be for our culture’s impoverished ways. At this life stage, she is concerned for her aging parents, and sees no options for their care that are consistent with her belief that they be honored in their last life stage. She cannot provide that care within the existing demands on her life, nor can she bear turning them over for facility warehousing until their bodies let go. She wants for them what she finds when she gardens, dyes, spins, and weaves--that they feel wrapped and held in the cloth that holds both life and death with tender compassion.
In premonitory dreams, she had received the message that 2020 would be the year of the “great shift” for human culture. While she’d expected an apocalyptic scenario with a mad planet responding forcefully to our abuse of it, she finds it poetically potent that what has finally interrupted us is the normalcy of a virus. She did not expect we would have a choice about who lived or died, and understands the significance of having been given a time to feel into the dysfunction of how we’ve been living, and imagine together what the “great reset” could look like. How would those conversations deepen, she wonders, if we were not so afraid to die?
When Covid-19 returned death to our communal and internal conversations, our first words have been about how to protect ourselves and others from it. For our Field to Shroud project, that posture has translated into postponing the learning circles Melanie and I had planned. In the pause, our communities are incubating the next words for how we will live with a virus that is also an expression of this planet. If we allow death to sit with us and join the conversation, then we will have given the future a new shape, in which our choices have the power to give, rather than diminish life. Meanwhile, the flax is growing. A thick mat of green, and still rising.