The Broom

We really had only two options. Either I was going to lay the broom down on the kitchen floor for Maggie the kitten to explore, or the silly nish was going to bring the thing down on her own noggin. In terms of inquisitiveness, Maggie is very bright. Common sense is another matter. I have, unfortunately, always been one for protecting others from the consequences of their own stupidity. So I put the broom down. Maggie sniffed it, patted it with an exploratory paw, skitter-danced at it, did a couple of flying-squirrel all-legs-out leaps over it, and then got sidetracked by her unending need to chase the big cats around the house.

I remember buying this broom from the grocery store out at the mall--how long ago? Two or three years? Four? I can't remember. I'm a traditionalist in the broom department, and I remember being grateful to find a Real Broom--you know, the classic wood handle and broomcorn working end, instead of something made of plastic. I remember putting it in my shopping cart with more regard for the awkwardness of the thing than for the price ($7.18 plus tax --I never did take the price tag off, I find now). For however long I've had it, it's served me in the classic kitchen cleanup dance: sweeping under the cabinet kickspaces, digging into the corners, creating a dustpile to be swept up and discarded.

Now, picking up the broom to put it away, I found a label wrapped around the bottom of the handle: CNIB BLINDCRAFT. CNIB is the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. I hadn't realized that my broom had been made by blind people. People who dwell in a darkness I can't begin to imagine had taken this straight wooden stick (what is the wood, anyway?) and fitted broomcorn whisks to it, nailing in a tack to anchor the binding wire and whipping the wire tight around the broomcorn tops to hold the whisks firm. Then someone's hands had guided a rough stitcher across, binding the whisks into the right flat, flaring shape--the same familiar broom-shape I can remember sweeping the front walk with, back when I was 5. The woman who swept her house looking for the lost coin either made her own broom or bought it from a local broommaker, a face-to-face transaction. The hands that made this broom are, however, unknown to me: I don't even know what province the broom came from.

Unknown hands made the clothing I wear. Unknown hands cut and shaped and stitched and overstitched my loose-fitting trousers and the comfortable top I picked up from our local discount store. I tend to buy cheap clothing, and so the hands that made the clothes I wear are most likely small and brown, the hands of third-world women and children. Similar hands most likely shaped the running shoes I wear - really quite elaborate productions, if you sit down and pick one up and look at it for a while. Unknown hands set the bristles into my hairbrush. Unknown hands molded and glazed my Flying Crozier coffee mug.

Things-made do range extraordinarily wide... I was in a local artist's studio last weekend, admiring her glass-fusion pieces, works of delight and skill. Last fall, I got to see a master cabinetmaker delicately setting inlay into a cherrywood desktop. I drive a car made by unionized hands, put together briskly and mechanically, for a solid worker's wage. I work at a computer whose circuitboards were made by aseptically gloved and skilful hands. Some made-things bring deep creative satisfaction or at least a decent living wage (or better still, both).

But I eat off plates made, glazed and fired in Thailand. I use plastic cups made in China and pressed-glass tumblers made in hellhot factories in Indonesia. I have, on my desk, both an antique silverplate box, cast by hands that have probably been dust for a century, and a Beneres brass coaster - did the maker of that have any creative say in the pattern of stylized lotus, or was it purely a paint-by-numbers job?

In fact much of the stuff in this world is made by people who have to sit there, hour after hour, doing the same sort of mindnumbing operation over and over again, usually in appalling/unhealthy/dangerous conditions and for ridiculous wages, and often when they should be in school or at least out playing - all so that we may have our goodies cheaply, without having to do this same work ourselves. We get to live a little bit higher off the hog at their expense, and we justify this to ourselves by worshipping Competitiveness and the Free Market Economy. (Which is pretty silly, if you think of _haute couture_, but that's another story.)

Too often all trace of craft or creativity has long since left the making. The oldfashioned broommaker could weave patterns into his broomtops; they had a certain visual satisfaction. You can't do that these days; it's not economically viable. No point lamenting what can't be changed, but it is such a high price to pay ...

What does, I think, matter, and matters a great deal, is to remember that the hands that made my broom, or my plastic tumblers, or that Beneres coaster, or the top I'm wearing, are human hands. They are attached to arms which are attached to bodies which have minds and souls and hearts alive and beating.

I'd like to think that, as the real people attached to these unknown hands sit and stitch (or mold plastic or glass or put bristles into hairbrushes or paint brassware), they at least get to talk to their neighbours. I'd like to think that when they're silent, they find some inner richness to go into--a room to enter and close the door on a world that has no interest in who they are, only in what they can produce. I'd like to think that however little life values them, at least they know that they're valuable. This last, sadly, is less likely, especially if the hands are the hands of a third-world girl or woman.

I am, however, absolutely certain that God treasures each and every single one of them, however unwhole and imperfect (for who among us is whole or perfect?) And for that reason, if for no other, we have a duty to regard the realness of their humanity. They are not Producing Units; they are people, as real as we are, as hurting and vulnerable, happy or angry, grieving the loss of a parent or child, fearing the future, irrationally happy, preoccupied or in love, as we are. We have a duty to work to make their lives more tolerable.

For they will be with us in the Life to Come, where God will strip off all our self-justifying illusions, making it clear to us what our choices were and why they mattered. And then we'll truly see these souls that were attached to the bodies that were attached to the hands that made these things so cheaply for us. We'll get to look them in the eye, truly, soul-to-soul, and say "Sister; brother."

Copyright © 1999 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 13 Nov 1999
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