Making your own burial shroud

A week-long event called “Reimagine End of Life” is taking place in San Francisco right now. As a part of this, Carol and Ms. M. will offer a workshop on Saturday called “It’s a Wrap: Design Your Own Burial Shroud.” The point of the workshop is not to make the actual shroud you’re going to be buried in, but to start thinking about a design for something that you’d like to be wrapped up in after you die.

Tonight, Carol and I decided to play around with some materials and try a few things out. So we went down to Joanne Fabric and got 3 yards of 90 inch-wide unbleached cotton muslin, and a couple dozen different colored fabric markers. We wrapped Carol up in the muslin to see how much cloth was needed, and discovered that 2 yards of 110 inch fabric worked. (But if I were to do this again, I’d use a 90 inch square. And if I were making one for myself — Carol’s five foot nine inches tall, but I’m six foot five — I’d probably want a 110 inch square of fabric.)

Carol lay on the cloth diagonally. I flipped up the corner down by her feet first, folded over one side then the other side, and finally flipped the top corner down over her face. After flipping the corners back down, I used a pencil to make faint lines about where I folded the fabric; then when I started drawing, I knew about where to draw the designs.

Carol wanted to draw a face, but I said that would be far too difficult. Instead, she let me draw an abstract design within an oval shape:

Next I drew a design on the final flap of fabric that would be folded over her body. Ultimately, I suppose you could draw designs over the entire piece of fabric. But most of what would be exposed would be those two flaps of fabric, as you can see in the photograph below:

(That took me about an hour. But I have excellent hand skills, and years of training and experience in making art; someone with less experience could easily take two hours to get that far.)

To complete the shroud shown in the photo, I’d use fabric paint to fill in the design — perhaps a light wash inside the drawing at the head, with a dark bold color outside it; and then a light wash inside and around the swirls in the part over the body. If I wanted a more carefully crafted shroud, I’d get another piece of fabric and hem all the edges, and repaint the design on the hemmed fabric.

Really, though, for me this isn’t about coming up with a carefully-crafted final product. It was very pleasant working with these materials, and it was a chance to reflect on — not on death so much as to reflect on the entire life cycle.

Cost: 90 inch cotton muslin is about US$8 a yard. A nice set of fabric markers is going to set you back $20-35. If you want to use paints, that will cost you about $3 per color (for good-but-not-expensive paints). If you want to try stamping or printing with dyes, expect to pay about $45 for a starter kit.

Registration is closed on the workshop, but if you contact Carol directly ASAP, she might be able to get you in.

Senet, an ancient Egyptian game

Quite a few years ago, when I was visiting the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (MFA), I saw the ancient Egyptian board game Senet made out of faience (a type of pottery) and wood. Scholars and board-game-lovers have invented modern rules for Senet, based both on ancient Egyptian depictions of people playing Senet and on the several surviving copies of the game. I’ve read through several modern reconstructions of the game, but all the modern rules seem overly complicated. I wanted a set of rules that would be easy for school aged children to learn.

This week I came up with a simple set of rules, rules which remain fairly consistent with what is actually known about the game but are easily learned by school-aged children. The rules are below the fold.

The interesting thing about Senet is that it can be understood to represent the journey of the ba (roughly equivalent to soul) after death through the underworld to some kind of eternal life — it’s not just a game, it’s religion! Some day, I’ll write a lesson plan that ties Senet to ancient Egyptian religion. In the mean time, it’s still a fun game.

Above: The game board I made, printed out and trimmed to size. I used whatever I had around the house for playing pieces — 5 light-colored cubes, and 5 coins (mostly old Boston subway tokens). I made throwing sticks out of some pieces of wood I happened to have (popsicle sticks would work better), and I used a rubber stamp to put an Egyptian scarab beetle on one side so each stick has one clear side and one marked side.

Rules for playing Senet follow…. Continue reading “Senet, an ancient Egyptian game”

Look. Listen. Feel. Visiting other faith communities.

I’m in the process of updating our congregation’s “Neighboring Faith Communities” course for middle schoolers (available online here).

The introductory video for this curriculum might be of interest to readers of this blog, so here it is:

I’ll put the script for the video below the fold, as some group leaders might want access to it. Continue reading “Look. Listen. Feel. Visiting other faith communities.”

Snapshots from the Garden of Eden

We went to the Contemporary Jewish Museum today, and I particularly enjoyed Dina Goldstein’s photographs, from a series she calls “Snapshots from the Garden of Eden”: large black and white photographs, maybe three feet by five feet, of staged tableaux showing characters from the Hebrew Bible and Jewish folklore. My favorites:

— King Solomon, looking debauched and slightly bilious, sitting up in a large bed on which are sprawled two partially clad women among disarranged bedclothes (the wicked thought that crept unbidden into my mind: King Solomon as a role model for Judge Roy Moore)

— An unsettling image of a child sitting on a bed completely absorbed in looking at a tablet computer while a strange lights circles around her (the photograph was titled “Ibbur,” but to me it looked more like a dybbuk)

— Rabbi Lowe wearing safety glasses and standing at a bench covered with electronic test equipment, putting the finishing touches on a Golem that maybe he’s going to exhibit at the next Maker Faire

If religion is another mode of cultural production, this is the sort of thing we should be doing: constantly re-imagining religious narratives and metaphors. And by re-imagining, I don’t mean a modernist literalism that, on the one hand erects large granite monuments representing the Ten Commandments in an Alabama courthouse, and on the other hand denies the validity of all religion because religious stories are not literally true; the modernist literalism of both fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist atheists is unable to cope with the uncertainties of metaphor.

Instead of literalism, I like Dina Goldstein’s way of re-imagining religious narratives: both sincere and ironic, both reverent and irreverent.

A minor deity

Here’s a small figure, probably a deity, from the Ifugao people of the Philippines. This figure sits on top of a small container used for holding agriculatural lime (a misture consisting primarily of calcium carbonate), one of the constituents used in preparing a mild stimulant from betel leaf (Piper betle) and the nut of the areca palm (Areca catechu).

This figure, made sometime in the first half of the twentieth century, is probably an ancestor deity, or a guardian deity — akin, perhaps, to the household gods of Rome, minor deities which have retained a place in the collective memory of the Western tradition.

In the West, we tend to assume that a deity by definition is unitary (or unitary-but-triune), and transcendent. We forget that for much of human history, there were a multiplicity of deities that lived quite close at hand; and we forget that a significant percentage of humans today still live in a world where many deities live close at hand. And perhaps these close-at-hand deities have never really left our collective consciousness; today we keep our glowing smartphones always with us, just as the ancient Romans kept the statues of their Lares or household gods close at hand so that they might consult them constantly, to ensure good fortune.

An Asian Mary

On a recent visit to the Asian Art Museum, I saw a beautiful mixed media sculpture of the Virgin Mary. The body of the sculpture was made of wood, the head and hands of ivory, a crown of stars of metal, and the hair of actual human hair.

When Westerners think of Asian religious art, they tend to think of Buddhas and Ganeshas and Guan Yins, forgetting that Christianity has had a presence in Asia for more than 1900 years. So of course there are Asian Christs and Asian Marys.

This Virgin Mary was made in the Philippines, to whence Christianity was brought by European Christians about five hundred years ago. The sculpture cannot be precisely dated, but was made sometime between 1650 and 1800.

Anyone familiar with European Christian art from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance will recognize the iconography of Mary standing on a crescent moon. But some of the details feel Asian. Mary’s facial features do not look stereotypically European, and according to the wall label next to the sculpture, “Early Spanish reports describe artists of Chinese descent as well as Filipino artists carving these images in the Philippines.” The treatment of the draped fabric feels non-European to me, especially Mary’s blue robe, which takes on a life of its own in a way that European Renaissance sculptures, based on classical models, never do; it feels more like the flowing, moving fabric found on some Chinese sculptures, or even on some Medieval European sculptures. I particularly like the use of human hair, a material that anchors Mary in the human realm, and keeps her from drifting into a realm of inaccessible transcendence.

In short, here is a deity that incorporates European iconography with Asian forms and sculptural traditions; she is a globalized deity who also links the human to the transcendent realms.

Pounding flowers

One of the best projects we did in Nature Camp last week was “Pounding Flowers,” a project from the book A Little Bit of Dirt: 55+ Science and Art Activities To Reconnect Children with Nature by Asia Citro (Woodinville, Wash.: Innovation Press, 2015), pp. 72-73. The idea is to collect several different flowers, arrange them on a piece of watercolor paper, cover them with paper towels, and pound the heck out of the flowers so that they release their juices which are then absorbed by the watercolor paper.

Our campers, who were ages 6-7, particularly enjoyed pounding the flowers with rubber mallets. So did we adults: the feel of the impact of the rubber mallet on a hard concrete floor was satisfying in itself, and the addition of the flowers sandwiched between towels and watercolor paper was even better.

(Photo courtesy of Ecojustice Camp; parents provided a media release for this child.)

But I was not entirely satisfied with this project myself. The paper towels did not work very well; they tended to shred under heavy pounding, and the flowers tended to shift under them. So tonight I tried something different. I collected some flowers; arranged them on a piece of watercolor paper on a smooth concrete surface; then instead of paper towels I laid another piece of watercolor paper over the arrangement, and pressed gently down.

This worked extremely well. It was even more satisfying to pound on, because the top piece of watercolor paper didn’t shred, and it didn’t shift much. When I was done, I got two pieces of pounding art, mirror images of one another. And, best of all, this process yielded more detail of the flowers: I got distinct outlines of the petals or pistils in some cases.

This was a very fun process art project to begin with, and by sandwiching the flowers between two pieces of watercolor paper it got even better.

Agni

Agni, the ancient Vedic deity of fire, has always appealed to me. But until today, I’d only met Agni through poetry, like this hymn to Agni, the fifth hymn of the third book of the Rig Veda, as translated by Ralph Griffith:

Agni who shines against the Dawns is wakened;
the holy Singer who precedes the sages:
With far-spread luster, kindled by the pious,
the Priest has thrown both gates of darkness open.
Agni has waxed mighty by songs of praise,
to be adored with hymns of those who praise him.
Loving the varied shows of holy Order
at the first flush of dawn, he shines as envoy.
Midst mortal’s homes, Agni has been established,
fulfilling with the Law; Friend, germ of waters.
Loved and adored, the height he has ascended;
the Singer, object of our invocations.

Thus I was pleased to finally see a visual depiction of Agni at the Asian Art Museum this afternoon. He was part of a painting from the Ramayana, protecting Sita during her trial by fire, as imagined by a Balinese artist c. 1850-1900. Since this was a traveling exhibit, photography was not permitted, so I drew a quick sketch of Agni — leaving out Sita, Rama, the army of monkeys, the tongues of fire, and everything else in this detailed painting:

Agni, pencil on paper, 3-1/2x5 in.

Music for democracy

How do we get rid of the rancor and hatred that was stirred up by the recent presidential election, and rebuild democracy?

How about with music? Here are four examples, in chronological order:

1. Sing with Ocupella Nov. 30: Their announcement reads: “In response to the election results and ongoing turmoil, Ocupella and other singers are creating a public musical gathering for those who want to act in a positive and powerful way in response to the new era in our country. The long and noble tradition of song fueling social movements lives on, and will live on. We hope you will want to be part of it. Our next ‘Singing For Us All’ will be Wednesday evening, November 30, 4:45-6 PM at Ashby BART. ALL VOICES ARE WELCOME! Lyrics provided.”

2. Sing with Michèle Dec. 2: Michèle writes: “I’m hosting a special post-election #MeetupAmerica gathering this Friday, December 2, at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church on Washington at Curtis, in Albany. The idea behind #MeetupAmerica is, ‘No matter how you feel about the election outcome, we can all agree that democracy works best when we don’t just post online but come together face-to-face… Don’t underestimate the power of community.’ Come with a list of your fears, hopes and present joys. We’ll share our lists and sing, at the very least, This Little Light of Mine. Children are absolutely welcome. We’ll start at 7 p.m. and end the structured part of the evening before 8 p.m. The sanctuary is ours until 8:30 p.m…..” Let Michele know if you’re going to attend; there’s contact info on her Web site.

3. Sing for Democracy Dec. 4: This is the group I’m helping to organize, and here’s our announcement:

Join us for a song circle Sunday, December 4, from 2 to 4 p.m. on the 1st Sunday of the month at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto. We welcome all singers, as well as guitars, ukuleles, banjos, and any other instrument that goes well with singing.

Why we sing together:
— After the rancorous and divisive 2016 election, some of us felt a need for more music, and more community, in our lives
— We wanted to bring together several musical communities
— You can never have enough singing

What we sing:
We’re kinda making this up as we go along, but here’s what we have so far:
— We’ll have copies of the “Rise Up Singing” songbook
— You can bring your own songs to share — bring a dozen lyrics sheets or lead sheets, or teach simple songs by ear
— We’ll go around the circle, each in turn choosing a song to lead

4. Inauguration Eve concert Jan. 19: Bruce is arranging a concert the night before the presidential inauguration. He’s working on an interfaith gospel choir, a gay men’s chorus, and music from several different faith communities. I brought Bruce’s idea to Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice tonight (thanks to Kristi), and they’re going to see if they can add their support.

So this raises a question:

How are YOU using the arts to resist hatred and build democracy?