TRAVELOGUE: By The Time You Are Real
by Jennifer Alyson Wonderling
Somewhere in Rajasthan, India, we trudged for days through factory buildings and across open lots to look at myriad furniture, knick knacks, architectural items, and antiques. At some point we found ourselves deep in the belly of an old maze of a building. This was six years ago: my first trip there, and the only trip my youngest son’s father and I have taken there together.
To get to them I had to walk through endless rooms, up yet more stairs, and down. What I would discover may have seemed insignificant to many, probably the reason they were in that room, cast about on the floor that way. But to me, they were exquisite, even before my eyes focused on them, and, in fact, before I understood what I had found.
During that and each subsequent trip I have taken to source items for Nectar, only some of the things along the journey have struck me enough to make the trip back. Each time I have found one of these, it has been as if I had discovered a real treasure, camouflaged among the inconsequential that had been placed there just to test and distract me. Yet the way I have measured their value has not necessarily been in how much money I thought they might yield, or how underpriced I knew them to be. They were jewels to me because I appreciated how they have made me feel. And after nine years of observing the visceral reactions my clients have to the pieces at Nectar, I’ve become increasingly confident that the same excitement I feel will translate to others; that what our customers are responding to—is the potency of experience. It is not just being at Nectar, but what may actually be imbibed in each piece that has been made by hand and has a history of people within its forms. And even the wood: reclaimed, shape shifting, but always carrying an unusual history bound silently among the knots and layers. Then, among the things which speak to me, there has always been one that stands out even more than all the others…
I have observed the loud speaking, brightly colored buyers who come from New Zealand, Europe, Asia, or the US, like me. The factory owners do their best to schedule their clients at different times so we won’t cross paths, covet the same items. But I have seen what they point to, what they have tagged to claim as their own. Things that, to me, too often lack soul, that don’t hint at someone’s working hands and the honing of a surface until it reveals a unique and personal story. I seem to have a particular affection for the pieces that are just a little bit “off”—where the symmetry is slightly imperfect, where both the maker and time are revealed in the finished item.
A few years ago, my aunt Ellie introduced me to the concept of the Japanese aesthetic and world view Wabi-Sabi, which celebrates rustic imperfection, understated elegance, or “wisdom in natural simplicity.” These are concepts I have been living by for many years without knowing there was an established philosophy behind it. The quality of Wabi-Sabi is exemplified when “the life of the object and its impermanence are evidenced in its patina and wear, or in any visible repairs.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wabi-sabi) Within the same reference, Andrew Juniper notes that “[i]f an object or expression can bring about, within us, a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing, then that object could be said to be wabi-sabi.” For Richard Powell, “[w]abi-sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.” Although Nectar does not have a particularly spare or Zen aesthetic overall, there is a potency of experience, and this I very much attribute to this awareness and how it affects the choices I make at Nectar.
My youngest son’s father has an uncanny ability to see things in nature that seem to appear just for him. Walking along side Karsten in the woods, he can reveal an exquisite feather on the path that I simply couldn’t see before he discovered it, even though I had looked right there! It’s as if he had dreamed it into being. And there, he points, that bird nestled on the branch above us, a tree I had just scanned, taking in all it’s magnificent details—or so I thought. It is a magical ability it seems he has, a sensitivity for which I have been deeply grateful. He walks with nature, absolutely graceful and quiet, careful to allow the hidden and the unexpected to present themselves. It has always enhanced the experience for me, no matter how visceral or healing it would have been otherwise.
At the markets and in shops, it is me who seems to have a kind of sensitivity. (Although, ‘walking with stuff’ doesn’t quite have the same poetry or elevation that ‘walking with nature’ does!) In any case, I don’t say this to sound boastful. After 9 years of buying things that appeal to a wide range of tastes, the common connection has been that I have let my heart do the choosing, rather than a perception of a market or a trend. And people seem to respond in kind…
Amidst endless warehouses of assembly-made furnishings, gaudily painted metal knick knacks and other bright and mirrored things, I find the items that don’t belong and need saving. Small antique, beautifully carved metal animals for my children (a silver elephant with tusk up, two unique brass horses); an ancient Ganesha, details softened by time and fingers; old tin cigarette boxes from the ’20s; a large brass antique Ibis sculpture; a hand painted wooden horse, colors faded just right. Tables, trunks, and all kinds of unique furniture that would make the long journey across the sea to their temporary residence at Nectar before moving into other’s homes and businesses.
On the particular day of which I write, I had the feeling that there was something especially potent ahead of me, steps before I even entered the doorway. I vibrated with it, a new layer of heat coursing through my tired body that was already sweltering from the experience of Rajasthan in April. We were deep in the old unventilated building, without air conditioning, after days of seeing countless items piled, stacked, tumbling in every direction I could see. It had taken me many, many days to find my way here, and to them. Finally. My body coursed with rightness, as if they were why I had come. Maybe I too dreamed those particular things into being, sensing they were important without knowing even what they were.
The room in which they lay was small and darker than most, a mere passage into the next. It held discarded items, mismatched, unimportant. But there on the floor, cast aside in small piles or merely strewn haphazardly on the floor, were what seemed like small round boxes. I barely saw them with my eyes. It was the quickening of my heart, which I literally felt so strongly I was sure I heard it, thinking it might be audible to the others too, and that the sound might give away what I knew. That I had found the treasure.
Many tops were separated from bottoms, some lay propped as if more eager for me to take them with me, better prepared for their journey. I could make out that they were hand-painted and old, some with more detail, others rather crude. Small white buttons decorated the tips of some of the tops, an extravagance which would turn out to be carved from bone, giving an otherwise simple design a hint of elegance.
“How much are these?” I asked tentatively to a room full of men. There was my agent from the factory; the man who tagged the items and assessed how much room of the shipping container each item would take up compared to how much was left; the chai wallah who brought and carried the tea and waters; some other man who wrote things down; and Karsten. They all seemed surprised that I would bother with those trinkets, that rubbish. Someone did some calculations and surmised they would be about $5.00 each, some $7.00. “I’ll take them all,” I said, trying not to sound too excited. It didn’t matter what they were for, why I was compelled, or what these men thought.
I would soon come to know that they were old bindi pots, the vessels that held the red powder that would become the “holy dot” worn traditionally by married Hindu women (although not restricted to one religion, region or even sex). That pinch of vermillion, skillfully formed into a flawless red circle by a practiced fingertip at the window of the third eye, and sometimes applied in a path along the center part of her hair to announce a woman’s commitment to the “long life and well being of her husband,” holds much importance. And yet in that very patriarchal world of India, because the bindi pots are (mostly) women’s domain, they were carelessly discarded there on the dirty floor, undervalued. That conspicuous smashing up of the sacred and profane is exemplified and paraded everywhere in India. Where the faithful of paths that profess non-violence and “live and let live” run businesses that too often harm others or the earth, or embody the confusing dilemma of manufacturing religious artifacts in a very unspiritual way, or they protect and “honor” the holy cows by not eating their meat while they do nothing to prevent the animals from grazing on garbage and dying from the plastic bags in their bovine bellies. And on and on. So there I was, stumbling upon that kind of duality and some part of me seemed to know I needed to carry those sacred objects out of there and return them to a place of honor.
I now have about fifty of those pots in a glass case in my home. I pay homage to them each day, to the women who once held and used them, when I light my incense, practice some yoga, and meditate each morning. When I first brought them home, I carefully studied each one to notice the subtle differences in color and design. Some have little turrets for tops. And though I didn’t catch the association in that darkened room across oceans and land, all are round like a womb, and most look uncannily like a breast, that holy source of life and comfort.
Ironically, that trip was where Karsten bought me my antique engagement ring, in a little shop in the Khan Market. So I too was on the edge of that important rite of passage, though I had been perched there before. The sapphire and diamond ring looked like a fleur-de-lis to me, a nod toward both our French origins, though I didn’t say so. And how perfect, I thought as I proudly looked at it on my finger, that finger. Four delicate petals surrounding a small round diamond at the center, one for each of my older boys (not Karsten’s); and one for Karsten and me, to signify our new connection as a family; the diamond at the center to represent our unspoken spiritual connection and love. At 38, I was to be a bride a second time.
Most of my old wooden vessels still reveal the faded stain of the bright vermillion dust. I wonder who held each pot in her hands, what she felt that first time as she applied the first dot to her forehead. All the potency of hope, joy, expectation and worry about the responsibilities and new identity that fanned out before her as she looked in the mirror. Red signifies love, honor, prosperity. It is more obviously the color of blood: of menstruation and a woman’s readiness to procreate, of the stain on the sheet in Muslim cultures that is still often proudly hung out a window to announce the maintained purity of the virgin daughter on her wedding night. It is also the color of connection—through family lines and even through all of us—humans and every other species that share the same color coursing through us. A realization that every new mother becomes acutely aware of, at least for a time until we too often forget.
Sadly, when a Hindu bride is widowed, she is obliged to either wipe off her bindi, or trade the red color for black, along with her saris that are soon leached of color, life, and individuality, for austere white fabrics.
In India, the area between the eyebrows is known as the Ajna, or site of concealed wisdom. This sixth chakra is the important seat of concentrated spiritual energy, which leads the seeker to self-realization. So in addition to the bindi representing one’s betrothal to a man, it also speaks of someone’s respect for their inner guru and their commitment to their own spiritual path. I would like to believe that as the young bride in such a patriarchal culture matures and comes into herself, she, like me, will come to also recognize her commitment to herself, her inner guru, and her spiritual path that is distinct from that prescribed to her by her husband, family and culture.
I began this blog on February 14th, the internationally celebrated day of love. The same day, I sold my engagement ring from that trip to India of which I write. It seemed a necessary release. Especially knowing it would go to a sister friend who appreciated it as much as me from the start and who happened to be celebrating 10 happy years together that very day. Strangely, I had also discovered that morning that my birth name was not Jenny, as I had believed it to be my whole life, but Jennifer, a name I had previously associated with a certain austerity and hardness that I try to avoid. Yet, I appreciate that a change in name also signifies a shift in identity. And since lately I have been shedding all kinds of skins and even acquiring some new ones, perhaps then too, a name change (or at least the awareness of its potential) is in order. And now, post second marriage, navigating life as a single mother of three while gestating the creative outlets of Nectar and writing, I find myself pondering concepts of womanhood, what defines me and what doesn’t; while being grateful for the winding path and dust-cloaked treasures.