In Defense of Basket Weaving

A degree in basket weaving… This is supposed to be a metaphor for a useless degree—a degree that will reap no financial rewards whatsoever. There’s an art to basket weaving, of course. In fact, I own many baskets, like the colorful baskets from West Africa, the ones made from recycled magazines, and the ones from the craft store. 

Baskets are necessary. They are vessels. Humanity has always needed vessels. We, in our bodies, are vessels. And we all come from the ultimate vessel–the womb. 

Someone had to weave my baskets with their bare hands. I have a couple of “fair trade” ones, or some made by single mothers in Kenya with shredded bits of American fashion magazines (the irony). I don’t suppose there’s some giant factory with intricate machines weaving baskets. So, of course, there are still basket weavers in the world, and they learned the ancient art from somewhere and from someone. 

My degree in Writing for Children and Young Adults is like a degree in basket weaving—not the “useless” part, but the ancient art part. Telling stories to children is an ancient art. We’ve all been told stories. Stories are our myths and folktales that have evolved into our religions and worldview and cosmology. There are still children being born, of course. So they need stories. The stories of their families, their communities, and their cultures are what ground them to this place, what settles them into their own skins. 

The old stories will give them a frame of reference, a foundation. The new ones will affirm the here and now for them. They will connect them to a certain zeitgeist. 

One of my favorite authors, Ursula K. LeGuin, wrote an essay called “The Carrier Bag Theory.” Part of the idea of the essay is about subverting the lone hero narrative where a man goes forth on an adventure and follows a straight and sometimes narrow path to heroism. There’s evil in the world. The world needs a savior. One man, and only one man, was born to save this world. But he must battle beasts, resist tempting sirens, and confront he becomes the hero of his world. Stories that follow this trajectory are more like ropes or fishing lines or arrows or phallic symbols. Male-centered, and for the most part, Western-centered. They too have served their purpose in history.  

LeGuin proposes in her essay, the Carrier Bag story. The bag is like the womb, the vessel, out of which all the elements of a story can spring forth. In this sense, baskets hold our stories. And stories carry our cultures, our traditions, our morals and taboos. And to weave baskets is to weave our brokenness back together again—to remember the stories that made us whole. 

So when I look around my community, at all those statistics and articles and documentaries about a lack of this, and a dearth of that, and woe the poor children, the underserved, the underprivileged, and the at-risk, there is indeed a crisis. My day job(s) take me into different schools throughout NYC, I have children in public school, and my husband is a veteran public school teacher. I know firsthand that there’s a problem—a big one. And it has to do with stories—the stories children are reading and internalizing about themselves, and the stories they read and hear about other people and the supposed power they have in the world. When the stories we hear and read are not the ones told by our foremothers and forefathers, it’s like having tupperware in place of baskets. Okay, bad analogy. It’s like having plastic bags for baskets. Okay, worse analogy. But I hope you get the point.

I recently came across a video about expensive art degrees. It makes me sad. And for a moment, it made me feel not very smart. But I had to shift my perspective. I truly believe art is healing work. I have to see it as such. And art is a science. Basket weaving is a very intricate science— think fractals in math. And the most valuable thing I learned from story art school is that great stories, like baskets, can have mathematical patterns. Yes, like the snowflake the snowflake method. They can be graphed and charted and measured and quantified. It’s a science and it’s a healing art. 

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