Sunday, June 14, 2015

The History of Cotton

--Never let it be said that I am a faithless woman.  We've had the same sheets on our bed for almost 13 years now.  They have been washed to blissful softness.  The first time the fitted sheet ripped, a few weeks ago, I mended it. 

--If I was a different kind of writer who had lived a different kind of life, I might be writing an essay about all those sheets have seen--and in fact, I suddenly have a short story idea.

--But I'm not living that kind of narrative.  My sheets have mainly seen us in some of the most boring moments of life, like sleeping and waking up.  No children have been conceived between those sheets.  No one has died between those sheets.  We did not betray each other.  We have not seen a succession of pets.  We did move the bed and its sheets from one house to another, but that's the extent of the drama.

--When the fitted sheet ripped again this week, we decided it was time to get new ones, which we did yesterday.  They look beautiful, like a Monet painting--but they have not yet been washed to blissful softness.

--I went back to get more matching pillowcases:  2 for $24???!!!  Is it just me, or does this amount of money seem like a lot for simple rectangles of fabric sewed together?  I found some different pillowcases in a color that matched on clearance for half that price--and made with organic cotton. 

--I don't mind cotton treated with pesticides, so organic was not the selling point.

--I was transported back to my childhood classrooms in Montgomery, Alabama where we talked about cotton and cotton's history in the U.S. South and the Civil War and slavery.

--Without Eli Whitney's cotton gin, some historians theorize that slavery would have been abandoned.  It's the cotton gin that effortlessly separated the cotton from the seeds that made cotton such a cash crop.  When you had to pay for the upkeep for the slaves to do that work, cotton's profitability plummeted.

--I think about a time a few years ago when I stayed at Mepkin Abbey.  My African-American friend and I took a walk to the African-American cemetery, a trek that took us through a huge field of cotton.  My friend spread her arms wide and said, "I have never seen cotton growing in a field!"

--I think of the landscapes of my childhood, where we were never far from cotton growing in fields.  We either took a field trip to a cotton field or one of my elementary school teachers brought in cotton so that we could see how difficult it is to get cotton off the seed and stalk by hand.

--I have wondered if my childhood teachers had their history wrong when they taught me about the cotton gin.  Did slavery make agriculture more profitable, and thus would never have been voluntarily abandoned?

--And it's impossible to keep my thoughts away from the plight of today's migrant workers.  Some labor theorists would tell us that migrant workers are a sort of slave.

--I think of my younger vegetarian self who declared that meat is murder (did I say that before I saw the album by the Smiths?  Hard to remember).  My younger vegetarian self didn't know about the abusive practices that brought her vegetables to her table.

--It is so hard to make fully ethical choices.  I think about the workers in India who made my sheets--were they paid fairly?  And who gets to define fair?

--Perhaps it is best to adopt a spiritual practice that seems akin to the way that some Native Americans bless a meal.  We routinely say grace at my house, and we thank the animals and plants that gave up life that we may live, the farmers and truckers and grocery store staff and all the workers that bring our food to us, the hands that prepared the food, and we ask to be blessed to do God's work by the energy that the food brings us.

--I could do the same thing with every object:  bless the hands along the way that brought it to me and ask that they be protected.

--I cannot grow my own cotton; I cannot even grow my own food.  But I can pray for the ones who provide for me.

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