Sunday, July 17, 2011

An Extended Metaphor

Greetings from sweltering Albuquerque, where the locals are praying for rain and those of us staying at this hotel are praying for reliable wifi (which I think I've finally found in a public area) and decent coffee (the acquisition of which required a hotel shuttle ride to a Starbucks this morning). The conference is great; the hotel's more than a little wonky.

I've been doing some knitting here -- finished a pair of socks for Gary's mom -- but I miss weaving, as much for its psychological and cultural resonance as for its physical pleasures. Weaving's been a very potent symbol since people started doing it, of course, so my thoughts on this subject probably aren't remotely original, but I wanted to get them down anyway.

My novice understanding of weaving, or at least of the weaving I've been doing, is that a cut or broken weft thread is no big deal: you just use another piece of weft and keep going. In fact, the fabric's more interesting the more varied the weft is. But if one of your warp threads breaks or is cut, you're in big trouble, because that's the structure that holds everything else together.

On an individual level, the weft is the variety of our life: the different things we do, the different places we go, our varied friendships. The warp would be whatever we consider our bedrock, the things it would be crisis to lose. For some people, that means job or career; for others, it means social status; for most of us, it includes both our core beliefs and our most significant relationships.

On a larger level, the weft is the huge diversity of life and cultures through time; the warp is God, gravity, thermodynamics, whatever we think of as the glue that holds everything together.

Often, though, we don't think about the glue. In weaving, there's a style -- often seen in rugs and tapestries -- called weft-faced weaving,, where the weft is so closely packed together that you can't see the warp threads at all. This would correspond to a life or creation so full of day-to-day processes and routines that the warp -- the underlying structure or ordering principles -- never gets thought about, and effectively becomes invisible.

We become aware of the warp in two circumstances; either when a warp thread breaks (when we lose one of our foundations) or when the weft thins out, becoming less densely packed and revealing the underlying structure.

In chaplaincy, it's axiomatic that people facing The Big Stuff -- disease, disability, death -- are usually engaged in some kind of theological reflection (even if they don't recognize it as such) and welcome company and guidance. The Big Stuff, losing your health or your mobility, or facing the end of your life, or watching a loved one die, can feel like the breaking of a warp thread. Everything's falling apart. A good chaplain (or any other friend or advisor) can try to help the person re-envision this: No, your warp threads are still there, but you have to work with different weft now.

That quintessential chaplain's question, "So how are you getting through this?" asks the person to examine and name warp threads: friends, family, faith, whatever. The warp is what keeps us going, what allows us to continue into the future, or to imagine a future at all.

Hospital patients also engage in theological reflection, though, because they're lying flat on their backs and, often, have so little else to do. Their daily routines are temporarily absent. They aren't going to work or school, doing housework or gardening, chatting (as much) with friends. In other words, their weft threads have thinned out to the point where they start asking, "Hey, so what're those other things under there?" For some people, illness is the first opportunity they've had or taken for this kind of exploration, for the examination of their lives' deep structure.

That's as far as I've gotten with the metaphor, and people who know more about weaving than I do can probably say more about how one repairs broken warp threads. But I do think this metaphor shows why weaving has always been such a powerful image.

Thoughts, anyone?


  1. I loved this. I like to think that people with weft heavy lives have super strong warp to support it. The ramifications of a weak warp would be horrendous.

  2. Anonymous5:33 PM

    OK, I'm actually too tired and burned out to comment on the weaving/chaplaincy metaphor, but I just wanted to say I'm glad you're keeping up with posting here as well as on FB!




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