In the Hmong language, “kajsiab” means the relief of stress from worrying about the safety of loved ones. Yesterday, I visited Kajsiab House, here in Madison. This is a place of sanctuary for Hmong elders–people who experienced things I can’t begin to fathom during the Vietnam War.
I became aware of Kajsiab House recently when I saw a “wish list” for the center and it included sewing machines. Having seen beautiful Hmong handiwork and knowing the mission of the house, it seemed like a natural local connection for The Sewing Machine Project. I didn’t want to “step on any toes”, culturally, and decided that visiting them and sewing beside them would be a gentle way for these gentle women to get to know me and eventually to accept an offering of sewing machines to keep at the house. I visited along with a group that goes in regularly with projects for the Hmong women.
The group of women looked me over carefully and went about their work, hand sewing balls and beanbags that would be given to others for therapeutic use. I quietly pulled out a sewing machine and began sewing up beanbags too.
We finished our projects and were invited to share lunch–men sat on one side of the room, women on the other. The women talked and laughed amongst themselves in a language I couldn’t understand. Towards the end, they began sharing Hmong words with me, teaching me to say “thank you” and “you’re welcome”.
Why do I feel the need to write about this? As I watched these beautiful women sewing, their hands working so nimbly and their faces and bodies relaxed, I thought about sewing as a healing art…something so familiar that our hands do it as our minds relax. The faces of these women were lined and aged and I’m sure many of those lines spoke of pain and sadness of trauma remembered, loved ones lost, a country left behind, but as they sat and sewed, I saw the small lines of smiles around their eyes and mouths.
As I left they spoke in Hmong, “go safely, come again”.
I wouldn’t miss it for the world.