Joseph Anderson

Indigo stories

Today my eyes are full of visions of indigo textile patterns from an exhibit I saw yesterday at the Seattle Asian Art Museum: complex layerings of shapes in an extraordinary variety of rhythms from all over the planet: Japan, Java, Nigeria, South America and beyond. I wrote a few days ago about the ways a single-line narrative doesn’t necessarily capture the full richness of our lives. Of course no conceptual structure can fully capture the ways our consciousness can twist and turn in on itself…but patterns are a useful way to strike a balance between the seeming chaos that often bedevils us, and an overly simplistic “story” that compresses the meaning of our lives into too few dimensions.

I just got a taste from the exhibit of the complex ways that Indonesian fabrics in particular carry rich cultural meanings in their apparently abstract designs. And from Central Asian rugs to African kente cloth, it’s not unusual for humans to see textiles as carriers of group stories. In our contemporary industrial world we are bit less tuned in to the nuanced meaning of patterns like this (jeans and t-shirts tell their own stories, but the meaning is not in the subtleties of the weave!). Still, there are plenty of patterns for us to reflect on, given to us by the natural world. 

Before my brain was taken over by textiles, I was enjoying the Wikipedia article on Patterns in Nature, which includes this lovely link-filled sentence: “Natural patterns include symmetries, trees, spirals, meanders, waves, foams, tessellationscracks and stripes.” So much to explore! I’ve been thinking about this as I continue to work toward a deeper understanding of the Soul Cartography process I’m developing. As part of the class we have been doing an exercise on mapping the recurrent themes of our lives onto some form of pattern. The different possibilities produce radically different results: seeing one’s life as a tree means a sense of a central trunk and branching manifestations, whereas waves suggests repeated discoveries of common themes through iterations of greater or lesser intensity. Different patterns result in different insights, and multiple patterns (perhaps an infinite number) can be applied, usefully, to any given life. This in itself offers something profound about the nature of our human existence: a seashell inscribes its life in a spiral; a lowland river as a meander, an apple flower as a five-fold radial symmetry. But we as humans are more protean: our consciousness can shift into various configurations as the need or opportunity arises, and may indeed be expressing multiple configurations at once.

Let me use myself as an example: I have been musing recently on the recurring theme (perhaps “wave” is the metaphor) of disappointment and heartbreak in the various workplaces I’ve occupied. Sometimes I think my life as a reader, which I would characterize as a series of somewhat random fascinations (Napoleon is currently in heavy rotation on my mental playlist), fits the “meander” profile quite well. And one of my major life patterns, the realm of developing a spiritual identity, has recently taken a form that could be described as a tree with three trunks but many branches. I’m beginning to see that reflecting on patterns in our lives is particularly useful to steer us away from simple formulas, and begin to come to grips with the multitude of shifting configurations we are constantly managing.

Some patterns, once they are real, dig deep into us and unearth real insight (the waves of work disappointment is one such item for me at this time). Some patterns are dazzling and compelling, but initially too mysterious to understand. I’m reminded of a vivid experience on our trip to Japan: a visit to a Kyoto store that sells antique kimono material. From the huge stacks we peeled back layer after layer of the brightly colored, insanely varied fabrics, repeatedly dazzled by the beauty and diversity of what we saw.

In our lives too, there are is no shortage of patterns. It’s exhilarating, and important, to witness that variety: that helps launch us into an awareness of the magnificence each of us carries. But it’s also good to notice if there is a particular pattern that holds special fascination right now, one might be worthy of asking some deeper questions about. That particular bit of cloth might have a good story to tell.