A few days ago I was at the beach. It was a warm day for the beginning of October, and I had just come from body surfing in the frothy waves. Nearly all the students from my college were relaxing on the beach, and I joined a group who were playing hacky-sack on the sticky, wet sand near the water.Read More
Once upon a time, in a land of mountains, rivers and fertile valleys there stood a village. This village, although small, believed itself to be of singular value, for unlike most small villages, this village had a purpose beyond mere existence. From the outside it looked much like any other village, but from the inside things were very different. Each member of the community carried the conviction that what they did mattered to the entire world. Their role in the world involved the making of a simple white cloth distinctive for its alpine purity. The village founder had invented this cloth at a time when no cloth in the world could claim to be perfectly white. The process whereby the sheep’s wool would be transformed into a pure absence of color (without even the slightest hint of a stain) represented the very latest in fabric manufacture. The founder and his friends soon decided to abandon the usual lifestyle of rural villages and become full-time cloth makers. They organized the village into working groups—some raised the sheep, others processed the wool through repeated washings, still others spun, while the rest worked the looms. The village had one purpose—to provide the world with the only truly white cloth that could be had.
With time, the cloth attracted attention. Kings and Queens, statesmen, bankers, and even the religious elite flocked to the village to first see the new cloth and then, of course, to buy it. For a time, white became all the fashion as thousands came to associate this cloth with all that was good and true and precious in the world. Dyed cloth lost market value. Scarlet cloth, especially, lost its appeal and even the blues, yellows and deep purples looked artificial for their dyed appearance and tendency to fade over time. The village prospered; it even grew as people moved there in order to help produce more of the miracle cloth. The future of the village stood secure—its looms worked long hours, and its people rejoiced that they had a good purpose in the world.
As the village prospered, it used its wealth to build workshops, schools, and churches. It sent some of its best artisans out to the far flung reaches of the world with samples of the white cloth. These men and women, in turn, established colonies that also produced the white cloth in careful obedience to the original method. Thus, over time, the village ceased to be just a village—it became a culture and a way of life. For a long time, nothing changed. Nobody thought that any other cloth would ever challenge the purity of the white cloth.
Strangely, the first hint that the village’s white cloth empire might not last came from within. A lone voice suggested that, perhaps, the imitators and the competitors (and there were many) might not be so bad after all. To be sure, their white cloth often emerged stained with water marks and even the occasional dark spot, but maybe pure white cloth had been over-rated. Perfection seems attractive at first, but over time that kind of standard of production can become tiresome.
At first none of the villagers paid any mind to such ideas, and eventually the dissenting voice just died away. But a germ had been planted. After so many years of success, it seemed impossible that white cloth could ever be questioned. But as new generations were born, they began to wonder, “why and on what grounds do we assume that white cloth is the best?” Once these questions circulated around the village, trouble began to brew. The white cloth doctrine had never been questioned before—the village simply believed. But now it seemed necessary to evaluate this belief.
Furthermore, the demand for pure white cloth had diminished over time. Competitors had tried to imitate the pure white cloth; now they just turned out fantastic colored cloth, since the demand for color far exceeded the demand for white. Indeed, the once much maligned scarlet or red cloths came roaring back into fashion as if the white cloth had never been. Red, red, red—like a pageant of livid rebellion it spread over the world until the village began to worry that its pure white cloth would soon become obsolete. Stalwarts proclaimed the eternal verities of pure white wool. But the red cloth now captured the world’s fancy.
Gradually, the village found itself forced by circumstances, as it were, into making other types of cloth. At first, the white cloth remained pure white with just a hint of color along the base of each bolt—a dyed fringe, as it were, that did not so much interrupt the white purity of the cloth as offer a distinct contrast or heightening of the whiteness. This seemed a reasonable compromise, since this new design did not wholly abandon the white concept even as it gave the village freedom to experiment with using color. White remained the authoritative color, but more care now went into improving the color dyes.
The village began to change. No longer distinct in the world and, thus, no longer a leader, the village became just another imitator. They still produced the white cloth, but in lesser amounts. Quality control suffered—the white, although still white, was not as pure as before. Nobody seemed to notice, however, since color now absorbed them. The old manuals lay untouched in the village library—for years nobody cared to read them. Villagers lost the original processing methods through gradual neglect. A few old people continued to work at home in the old ways—but they did not sell much of their pure white cloth. The young gave up the white cloth altogether. The village museum had a special exhibit for the old ways, and each year the village held a special celebration of the founder and his amazing invention, but everyone in attendance wore colors (although they never wore pure scarlet or purple—that would have been a heresy!)— still, most agreed, the pure white of the olden days seemed entirely dated and, of course, impractical. More to the point, it no longer sold.
Much of the goodness of the old ways continued—the village remained close-knit, and workers enjoyed a high standard of living along with a palpable sense of a general purpose and cohesion. The children all attended the village school; the adults ate the same food, wore the same clothes and enjoyed the same stories. Their colored cloth (now with a distinctive white band along the base) won prizes and even sold much better than the old pure white cloth ever had. Often, you could hear people wondering aloud how they could have lived so long with nothing better than dreary old white. After all, it was much easier to add color to wool than to try to get all the wool into a condition of pure white—dyeing the cloth, it turned out, was much easier than washing all the impurities out. Indeed, you could leave many of the impurities in the wool by concealing them under a rich dye of purple or scarlet.
But the villagers’ occasional reverence for the old ways did not last. Among some, it seemed silly to stick to the band of white amidst so much color—why include any white at all? Why not just do solid color? These persons began to leave the village. At first nobody noticed, but in time, it seemed that village gatherings got smaller and smaller. A few radical voices claimed that the only way to get the village back on track would be to revert to total and pure white cloth production again; but saner voices knew this to be impossible, since nobody really had the stomach to do all that washing again. Furthermore, few in the outside world wanted to buy the old pure white cloth. Meanwhile, the village shrank. Fewer students attended the village school. Some parents argued that the school curriculum focused too much on the past, and they argued that the techniques taught for the use of color dyes lacked rigor. These parents, naturally, sent their children to outside schools where the red and purple dyes had been perfected. And these children, naturally, did not return to their home village except to visit their aging parents or to peruse the museum exhibits and smile smugly at their good fortune for having escaped the provincial life.
The day came when the village school closed. This happened on the same day that a rich son of one of the village elders (he had made his fortune in red cloth!) donated a massive sum of money to the restoration and improvement of the village museum. The village students now all attended a more prestigious school noted for its brilliant red and purple dyes. Some of the parents moved out of the village in order to be closer to this new school. The students came home from school with their hands looking and smelling of red and purple dyes. The parents beamed proudly at their children’s good fortune in the world.
Finally, as the old village slowly died, their remained just one old woman who still recalled how to manufacture the pure white cloth that had, at one time, given the village its place in the world. She continued to make the cloth of her ‘people’ even though her people were no more. Each day she washed, carded, spun and washed again the wool into the purest white cloth the world had ever known. Yet nobody cared and nobody knew. Yet, she still worked each day to finish a remnant of cloth; a scrap or a little fragment that, although small, perfectly reproduced the character of the original. I am told that this woman did not die. She lives still, and she still makes the pure white cloth; but she does this alone and with some sadness, but always hoping that some young person, a person with a life yet to be lived, will come to her house and ask to be taught to how to make the purest white cloth ever known to the world. She waits—her door never closes, and if you stand outside you can hear her singing the woof and the weave of her doctrine in clear white notes that linger in the air as if to say, “Come to my loom, come and be taught, come to hear, and then turn your hands to the white”.