Jan Davidson: "People are surprised they've made a trunk of stuff when they thought they were resting."
“We still make things,” says the bumper sticker for the John C. Campbell Folk School.
Why bother? Lord knows, there are plenty of things around. And why would one spend what amounts to months of one’s life playing bump-ditty, bump-ditty on a banjo, when all one has to do for music is insert one’s earbuds? Why is the Folk School, with all its handmade, hand-holding, low-tech tradition still going after 88 years?
The late writer and “This American Life” contributor David Rakoff gave me some insight about what really was happening in the classes. He had come to Brasstown to do a piece for the New York Times Magazine. He acknowledged the scenery, praised the home-grown food, enjoyed the music and did some of the more balletic square dancing we’d ever seen in Brasstown. After a couple of days he came to see me.
“This place is amazing,” he said. “I’ve never been anywhere that there’s so much flow.” I had no idea what he was talking about – had he somehow become impressed by our new state-of-the-art septic field? I was just about to tell him it was among the largest and most over-engineered in Cherokee County, when David said to me, “Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.”
We don’t hear much of that kind of talk around here so I didn’t know whether to bless him or just look dumb.“He can tell you all about ‘Flow,’” Rakoff said, “Look him up.”
I did, and it was a revelation that helped me understand what goes on at the Folk School, and why we make things.
My advice is to learn to say “MEE-hayi CHEEK-sent-mee-hayi,” so you can drop it in the conversation at the next coon hunt. This Hungarian-American psychologist had many years ago (was I the last to know? Again?) listed the conditions needed for “flow”: concentration on the present; awareness and action merged; loss of reflective self-consciousness; personal control of the situation and activity; altered sense of time; doing something intrinsically rewarding. “Flow” is not what is meant by “going with the flow” with its connotation of “whatever.” Flow is intense concentration, the exact opposite of apathy. It can suspend time and concentrate space to a few inches in front of your eyes, between your hands.
Well, shoot, that’s pretty much what we do all the time in Brasstown – close-up, intimate, repetitive, it might look monotonous if you’re just a-watching, not a-doing. A basketmaker threads his tiny oak strips through meticulously shaved ribs. A woodcarver with a Sponge Bob bandaid puts knife to wooden duck at a focal point just past the end of her nose. A weaver treadles and beats, rocks and rolls in a trance as old as looms. A fiddler off in the woods with a new tune forgets to eat dinner. The blacksmith knows no time but the fire. Old folks speed up, young folks slow down. At the end of a session, some people are surprised to find that they have somehow made a trunk full of stuff while they thought they were resting.