Customs as Stories


Stories as Customs

All cultures have in common ceremonies we find important, from baby christenings to college graduations.

As a teenager I shunned such ceremonies because my friends and I knew we were way “too cool” to participate in customs that seemed untethered to their purposes. 

But now?

I’ve come to embrace ceremonies and customs, such as the act of bowing when visiting Asian countries and the invitation for elders to eat first at Native American gatherings.

My Honey and I took part in a ceremony this past week where we promised to live an ethical life. 

For a few months we participated in seminars at our local zen center where we learned about the Buddhist precepts.

Our job was to study and discuss the first Five Precepts, which ask followers to avoid killing, stealing, abusing sex, lying, and misusing alcohol or drugs.

Each week we’d think, read, write about and discuss the precepts, peeling back the layers of meaning.

We asked philosophical questions, like, When is it OK to lie? and considered the precepts when meditating. 

If we wanted to “take” the precepts then we were invited to be part of a ceremony at our Zendo once our studies were complete.
For the ceremony each of us sewed a wagessa.

Like hooding at a graduate-degree celebration, we would have the wagessa placed around our necks during the ceremony.

Our wagessas are constructed of navy-blue cotton-duck fabric that loops around your neck–much like an unknotted Western cravat–and the two ends hang loose just above your belly. 

You connect the ends with blue cording after you make two knots that looks like three-leaf clovers. 

For a seamstress the project isn’t too daunting, but for someone who has never sewn–like my Honey–the learning curve is steep.

Although he accepted a little advice from me at the beginning–like how to sew a running stitch and then turn the fabric inside out–he was determined to sew alone.

The instruction is to contemplate the project while you sew, and Honey took the task seriously. 

But no one said you can’t ask for help, and my feelings were a bit ruffled that he didn’t need me. 

I would peer in from time to time and find him sewing like a surgeon, using a hemostat to hold the needle in place while he looped the thread in, out and around.

The finishing touch is tying the knots together with a few inches of leftover cording, much like the rope that loops around the hangman’s noose. 

I saved my leftover cord by sticking it in my pin cushion, but the cord disappeared–not an unusual occurrence when you live with Coyote. 

I was worried because I felt the wagessas were supposed to look the same, with no one standing out from the others.

Nothing in the house could substitute for a few inches of navy cord so I visited a local fabric store in search of cording.

And I found some.

Trouble was: the cording wasn’t for sale–it held together sheets of fabric that formed a book.

The cord created the binding and handle for the book.

I was surrounded by a sea of fabric books, each one tied with cording.

Cording I would have to snip discretely from the book and then smuggle out of the store if I were to purloin some.

What a dilemma: steal a few inches of cording so that my wagessa would comply with the customary apparel or blow past the precept that discourages stealing.

Better to have an imperfect wagessa than steal something to make it perfect.

I settled for a few inches of navy ribbon–the same color as the cord–for the price of eight cents, took it home, and sewed it onto my wagessa, hoping no one at the ceremony would notice that mine differed ever so slightly.

I’ve known American Indian women who purposefully make a tiny mistake in their sewing or beading projects.

Why? The reasons are as varied as the women.

The one I like best comes from an elder who told me that the mistake is made to show the creative work is from the hand of a human being.

Turns out the Buddhist sewing project not only serves as a fitting story about keeping the precepts: it also let me merge my zen practice with my Native teachings.

Now that’s a story.

6 March 2017

#nativescience

#cynthiacoleman

#nativewriter

#wagessa

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About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. She is enrolled with the Osage tribe.
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