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Making Rags

In every house I’ve lived in, there is a drawer filled with neatly folded rectangles of soft cloth: torn up sheets and pillowcases, dismembered tee shirts. Often their patterns are familiar. A favorite dress or comfortable shirt has slowly faded with use, until it no longer serves its original purpose. So they are torn apart along the seams, cut and folded into uniform shapes and piled away in a handy place, waiting for transformation into new, useful objects. When there were children around the house, these little squares of cloth served as the softest handkerchiefs — far softer than any paper product ever made. When the children got older, the clean white squares were handy to rip apart and remake into absorbent bandages for tender scraped skin. Three strategic snips with the pinking shears and a scrap of ribbon made a doll dress. A really clever mother could make “rag curls” in a little girl’s hair; wound up and tied after the Saturday night bath, then unwound into shining ringlets for church the next morning. Dustcloths. Scrubrags. Dishtowels. Hotpads. Anything that demands a quick wipe, right now. This is what we used before paper towels were invented, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth. I’m sure my mother, who instilled this habit in me, never thought of herself as some kind of postmodern deconstructionist housewife. She was just following the Depression-era mantra: Use it up. Wear it out. Make it do. Or go without. This was the underlying wisdom everywhere on the potato farm where I grew up. Everything that was useful, got used. And everything was useful. Even my toys were recycled. My favorite paper dolls were cut out of the Sears Roebuck catalog and pasted to cardboard. Each doll had an elaborate wardrobe and extensive set of accessories. When I was twelve, my father bought the blueprints for the model home at the Wisconsin State Fair, and built a modern new house next to our farmhouse. It was wonderful — futuristic, really, with hot water heat and a cooking range with a pullout stove top. My mom loved it. She was a city girl by birth, and well educated; one of the first psychiatric nurses in the country. But even a beautiful new house didn’t stop her from making her own laundry soap from lard and lye on the redwood deck. And she still made rags. As I grew to adulthood, I chaffed against the feeling of always having to “do without” something. Something in me longed to have enough stuff that I could throw itaway. Like many in my generation, I spent most of the 1980s suffering from a form of “consumptive affluenza.” I wrote copy for advertising agencies. Had some good jobs, in cities like Appleton and Milwaukee. But I didn’t like some of the things I was writing about. I told myself, “if I don’t write it, somebody else will.” And there was that paycheck thing. That was nice. But it all came apart. Those things often do. And in 1987 I found myself moving to an intentional community called High Wind near Plymouth, Wisconsin. I lived above a greenhouse and published the quarterly journal of the community, Windwatch. I lived just up the hill from an organic Community Supported Agriculture project called Springdale Farm. Here was a place where I could do desktop publishing…and make rags. They both fit. Eventually I built a home at High Wind, a geodesic dome with an air-to-air heat exchanger and lots of passive solar. It was so tight I could heat it mostly with the waterbeds. It housed my daughter, myself, and my new little ad agency, dedicated to ethical advertising. The house had all white floors. I used a lot of scrubrags. My life seemed to go in seven-year cycles. In 1994 I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts to attend Harvard Divinity School after receiving a call. The call actually came from James I. Ford, my pastor at Unitarian Church North in Mequon. He said, “You want to be a minister? Do it now.” I applied and was accepted. So I sold everything I owned and moved. I made rags in Boston, too. All those hardwood floors. It was during my time in divinity school that I began to understand the force that moves some of us to use things at hand instead of going out to buy things we think we need. Carrying everything I bought home in my backpack, on the bus or the train, made me examine and think carefully about every purchase. Of course, extreme poverty, exorbitant rents and attending one of the most expensive schools in the country had some influence, as well. But I realized that the people who have that frame of mind — the people who make things — were the people I wanted to serve, to “minister to.” I discovered the Rainbow Family first. The people who hold annual gatherings on public land, create a city of as many as 20,000 for a week, then clean and restore the site so exquisitely that you couldn’t tell people had been there. I began to see them everywhere. Monochromatic earth brown children riding the rails, marked with tribal tattoos and jewelry made from native materials like safety pins and bottle caps. They knew a million and one things to do with rags. They had something I came to think of as “the art spirit,” the ability to see beauty in everything and anything that came to hand, creating new artifacts from old. It was the obverse of the old Depression Era mantra. It meant one used things because they were inherently beautiful, not necessarily because there was a need to “make do.” After Harvard, I went to a place called Dreamtime Village, an art community near LaFarge, Wisconsin. There I learned about a new idea called “permaculture.” An oversimplified explanation of that concept might be something like this: “Instead of forcing plants to grow where you want them to be, find out what likes to grow on the soil you have, and encourage it to grow there.” This added a new angle to the whole rag-making idea. Not only does anything and everything that comes to hand have utility and beauty, but some of it you can eat, and it will sustain your physical body. More adventures and travels followed, I worked with my partner, Dr. David Schemberger, to create a healing community in an old stagecoach inn at Rhine Center, about halfway between Milwaukee and Green Bay, near Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. I traveled for a year, living in my van and staying with friends, family and strangers who became friends and family, through Colorado, California and Oregon. I made rags at my daughter’s house, where I helped her start a community in Colorado Springs. I made rags at San Gregorio, California, when I stayed with a group of people who had set up a communal living situation in the old stagecoach inn between San Francisco and Santa Cruz. And I made rags in the Food Not Bombs kitchens in Eugene, Oregon, where it was my privilege to help make food for the brave kids who were sitting in the redwood trees and protesting the madnesses of our culture. Just before the turn of this century, I sensed it was time to seek shelter. In the fall of 1999 I was making sandwiches in the Outpost kitchen, listening to the coverage of the WTO riots in Seattle. I had my fill of teargas the summer before, in Eugene. The rag I had worn covering my mouth wasn’t quite enough to protect my lungs. I had come to Riverwest, never realizing that I had come home. But the longer I live here, the more signs I see that this is where I belong. It fits with my habits and philosophies. The Free Box in Garden Park — and I know some people object to it. But it is, for me, an emblem of Riverwest. There are so many useful, beautiful things there. Alley shopping — it has all the pleasures of going to the mall with none of the expense or the “consumerist” guilt. I’ve moved a lot since coming to Riverwest, partly because that’s the only way to get the landlords to fix up the houses, but partly for the pleasure of leaving a lot of my belongings on the curb, only to have them disappear by the next day. And then the pleasure of “shopping” for new pieces that fit into my new place. And here my ragmaking has reached new heights. Cleaning cloths and curtains. Patchworks of beloved old silks too precious with memories to throw away. Rugs braided out of worn out socks. Covers for books and boxes and pillows and furniture. Everywhere I look, I see softly fading fabrics, as pleasant and familiar as the gently aging faces of old friends. And the best things about making rags: there’s a never-ending supply.