Slow Down, Embrace The Blues, Be Human: An Interview with Walter Cabal


Today we're thrilled to introduce Walter of Cabal Crafted, who will be joining us with a weekly column on the blog for January's Embrace The Blues initiative. With a background in philosophy and self-taught in product design, Walter shares some really great insight on how the two intersect and continue to guide his mentality and work. The four-part series "Conversations with Creatives on Re-developing a Vision Through Melancholy" will kick off next Tuesday morning; join Walter as he interviews a different contributor from our upcoming Blues Issue each week, helping build a dialogue around The Blues, and exploring the depth of the concept.

"By exploring the blues with other creatives I hope to uncover different ways of thinking about the world, and glean insight into how to fully engage the totality of being human. This means joining in the conversations of other creatives may yield different methods and ways to #embracetheblues for me and for other people."  —Walter

Walter, thanks for joining us! I’m so excited to have you as part of our #embracetheblues initiative this month. Can you kick it off by telling us a bit about yourself and how you got started with Cabal Crafted?

There are so many things that the concept intersects with that I’m passionate about. So, I’m beyond thankful to be a part of the #embracetheblues initiative. Thanks for having me!

I’ve been thinking about the beginnings of Cabal Crafted and I wanted to mention something only those closest to me know. Poetry is my first craft, and it taught me the fundamentals of building things with the method of using only what’s necessary and no more. For any appreciator of poetry it’s known that every word, every connotation, every pause, and stop, and punctuation, is an intentional choice. It’s the notion of creating cohesive pieces that are not only immediately beautiful to take in but are also ripe with meaning. I think these were some of the beginning seeds of Cabal Crafted, and my passion for design and handcraft. For me good design is poetry. Every detail is chosen intentionally, with the goal of giving value to human living. Like a poem it is aesthetic, but because it is shareable and accessible, there is a usefulness to it. I also think that well designed pieces, like well written poems have a long shelf life.

Spot on analogy! For me, that's one thing that's so great about handmade — every little detail has been contemplated. Why is creating with your hands so important to you?

In the modern world I think design, specifically product design, tends to have a kind of machine “tonality” about it. Rightfully so, too.  We are after all people living in a time period after the industrial revolution.  The standardization of processes and products especially with the help of computers makes sense for our industrial rhythms. My impression is that the efficiency we learned from those industrial rhythms can be milked of its wisdom and moulded to be more human. My thought is that we can give product design a different tonality. A more human one. 

Product design and handcraft tend to be very polarized categories in the popular mind, and I think this is a false dichotomy, meaning that the solution doesn’t have to be an either / or, but that it can be somewhere in between. In my mind beautiful, useful, well constructed, design that harmonizes with one’s life doesn’t have to be geared towards mass manufacturing only. In like manner,  I don’t think moving away from mass manufacturing has to be only one-off type work either. 

Creating with my hands, especially through Cabal Crafted, is something important to me, because I’m trying to find an intersection between handcraft and informed, and formally approached design methods. I think we can learn something from the convenience of having computerized help, and continue to develop our skills as humans so that the value of human labour doesn’t diminish. 

Computers definitely make work faster, but since when was “faster” inducted into the hall of human virtues? For me, patience, self-control and self-discipline, kindness, peace, goodness, gentleness are more conducive to human flourishing. Moving faster and faster is the pace that I see all around me, but I’m not convinced that a fast pace makes for well integrated communities.


And to step back a bit and take in the full landscape, why do you think the rise of the maker movement is significant to our fast-paced culture and humanity as a whole?

Before I answer I wanted to make a note that I’m not in a position that necessarily sees how everything objectively links together in our current economic landscape. This means that I have a pretty limited perspective. I don’t presume to have an end-all answer, especially since I’m participating in the maker movement myself.  I can really only say how things appear to be from my vantage point - so give my view up to be revised and set straight by people who can see taller, and clearer than I can.

Anyways, I think people - at least the one’s around me - are beginning to see that the convenience created by computer operated machinery does not always add to a full life. It may lead to more leisure time, but it’s my belief that a full life doesn’t only consist of leisure. Humans tend toward wondering, asking questions, and wanting to move somewhere, wanting to grow. Somehow we also want to do creative work that has something to do with our lives like making meals that satisfy our hunger pangs and also taste good. I think in North America - especially in southern California the need for convenience, has planted the human tree in a glass cube, and the roots and branches of our deepest parts feel cramped and want to spread beyond that.

Maybe the maker movement is helping to discover that the glass cube of convenience is breakable. Some are finding that living outside of the convenience cube is much more freeing. 

I think modern human beings have the inkling that producing more stuff at a faster pace isn’t really adding to our well being. It’s my view that yet again in history the creatives are playing an integral part in the conversation of what it means to be human, by being examples of an entirely different way to do life. That sparkling glimmer of something beyond what’s been given to us, has attracted me, and perhaps this same thing is something that attracts others.

"Cabal Crafted takes much of its cues for how to thoughtfully and practically reorient the human way of working and living from the lifestyle of monks. I find kindred spirits in Christian monks like Francis of Assisi, and Brother Lawrence; and I find it in the Shaolin and Zen monks. Their integration of spiritual and physical development through martial arts tends to be misunderstood by much of the post-enlightenment western world. In both cases, this way of living is rooted most of all in pursuing things that are sustainable and good for the human being. Cabal Crafted is interested in this same thing: Human flourishing, for the craftsperson and the customer." —Walter

I love that you inject philosophy and teachings into your everyday mentality. Being formally trained in philosophy, how do you think this finds its way into your work with Cabal Crafted and beyond?

Philosophy comes from two greek words Philos - which is a particular kind of love, and Sophia which has to do with wisdom. Philosophers are literally lovers of wisdom. It’s Plato who suggests that the unexamined life isn’t worth living. The Japanese Tea Ceremony has such a joining of the ordinary world, with a kind of poetic, and spiritual dance. Christian monks contemplate how they can discover new insights about God in their manual labor, in entire days of silent listening for his spirit, and in a life that revolves around prayer. In each of these traditions, the wisdom that someone gathers is directly related to their lives. It’s not just an ideas game for the serious philosophers, and students of philosophy.

This is what I’m trying to do with Cabal Crafted. I’m trying to figure out how product design and handcraft can contribute to how humans live in the world. My thought is that in a consumer culture, perhaps the things we consume mould our habits. For example, our culture in southern California is easily a throw-it-away-and-replace-it kind of culture. We buy things and throw them away when they don’t suit our fancy. In the culture that I live in we don’t tend to repair things, because we’ve learned to replace them. Is it really so far fetched that maybe this contributes to the reason why we throw people away, why we don’t bother with repairing our relationships?  My bags, home goods, basics, and stationery are known for the durable natural materials that they’re made of, but in addition to this I also offer lifetime repairs, in the case that a piece may need it. I want to suggest to my customers that meaningful things are worth keeping, and worth repairing. If we can begin to repair the items that we use, then perhaps we can begin to repair the other meaningful things in our lives, like our relationships with others. I’d like to move away from being a throw-away-culture and towards being a repair culture.


 Who are some of your biggest philosophical inspirations, and why?

I’d like you to think of a mustard seed as compared to a sledgehammer. The little seed is actually not all that impressive. It can’t crush other trees, or build kingdoms. But the value of the mustard seed, the fragrance, the flavour, the powder for creating sauces and mixes is unlocked when you crush it. Instead of crushing other things, it must be crushed to be fully itself. This is a big image in my way of doing life with my friends and my wife, and my family. It challenges me to try to flavour other peoples lives by being small like a mustard seed and it challenges me to acknowledge that part of being a human being is the experience of being crushed by suffering at some points. If you were a wise mustard seed you might even move toward places where you maybe crushed knowing that when it happens the fragrant scent given off is something beautiful.

It maybe surprising to some, but my biggest philosophical influence for how to think about, and how to live a full life comes from a homeless thirty-something Jewish man called Jesus of Nazareth. He's the one who suggests the the Kingdom of the heavens is like a mustard seed - not a sword, or a sledgehammer, or a flag.

As with any of the greats there’s a lot of debate and speculation surrounding him. I know some weird people use Jesus to peddle their political, and religious agendas, and others use him as a kind of catchall authority figure to justify violence and a whole range of other things. But I’d at least encourage anyone to read primary source material on Jesus. Especially his lecture on the hill where he pretty much lays out his whole philosophy on what living fully looks like. It’s pretty intense: Challenges to strive for the good of even people who hate you, that peacemakers not war makers are the children of God, that both the action and the motive behind the action mean something - I mean this is some quality wisdom here, and as a lover of wisdom I drink that stuff up. As a product designer I’m inspired to do something parallel for the world. Something that gives people rich, full lives instead of just more stuff.

As creatives, how can we find small ways to slow down and re-focus on being human?

I’m convinced that it really comes down to changing the things that we want. If we intend to be better people, better consumers, better stewards of the earth, we may have to start wanting different kinds of things. Things that are good. 

The things that we want, we think about. The things we think about we do. The things we do affect other people - it’s literally a ripple effect. If we only fix our habits, then our true wants and desires would later come out. This is why people can’t change their lives fully. The focus is so much on washing the outside of the cup, on changing the appearance, on changing the habits that people can see. If we can find a way to change what it is that we want, I think we will be transformed with new minds that think about different things which will yield acting differently, and those good actions naturally spill into other people’s lives. In short, my view on re-focusing on the essence being human comes from examining the dirt on the inside of the cup and finding someway to truly get rid of that inner gunk. Wash the inside of the cup and the outside will get clean also.


You touch on this in your article in the upcoming issue, but without spoiling the piece, why are The Blues important to you?

The spring sky blue reminds me of youth, and running along undulating waves of hills. Notice though, how empty a clear blue sky is. I notice a kind of paradox there: that even in springtime emptiness can be present. The ideas surrounding “blue” suggest these kinds of images that intersect beauty and sadness. I find it interesting that the blues, which are usually associated with sadness, loneliness, and emptiness is introduced with a dignified titled: The blues. It’s as if there is something sacred about sadness. Not that all life is suffering, but that when it occurs - it is appropriate to pause as we do at the death of John Henry after his strong hammer finally wins the race against the automated steam drill engine with his own human hands. 

Now, I don’t think that tragedy by itself is beautiful. It rips us in half, and that hurts. Death and depression and sadness aren’t pretty either. But I do believe that beautiful things can grow from them. After all strong, self sustaining, and beautiful trees do grow from the dirt of the earth. Someone once told me that “shit makes good fertilizer”. I’d agree. 


And why do you think they’re important to us as creatives?

I think sadness has its place in the human experience, and I want to press for the idea of talking about our experiences fully. Asimaginative and creative people it may help others re-dignify theirown sadness and they may be able to work on repairing their emotions instead of throwing them away. 

The blue sky is always present above us, even in summer time. I think this is a kind of symbolic representation of life isn’t it? The blues always hangs over our head, and sometimes though it’s okay. Sometimes the blue over our heads is in fact, beautiful enough to remain there while we get the grill going and play ultimate frisbee in summer.

I think creative people have a vocabulary for understanding the intersecting hues of the Blues. A way of speaking about sadness without losing the beauty, a way of speaking about beauty without trashing the darker shades of it’s broad gradient. It seems like the larger culture is losing this way of speaking. Creatives have a way with playing with things. Playing with paint, and wood, and fibre, fabric, leather and even words. I think creatives can teach the culture this skill of maneuvering through, the blues. 

Creative people are needed, and they are important. If we in 2016 are not developing the way we speak about our delicate emotions, and we stuff our emotions using phrases like “I just feel a little blue” as an all inclusive stand in for our true feelings - then we may be doing humanity a disservice by leaving the wide, wild indigo ocean of emotions unexplored. I believe the creative person to be an adventurer, and an explorer of shorts, and I’d like to see the community of creative people help with giving value to human experience in the same ways it has historically. 

Through your conversations with some of our Blues Contributors, what do you hope to explore?

Simply put, I as a person - along with many others - am looking to the creative community to give me a different vocabulary for dealing with the different hues of reality. By exploring the blues with other creatives I hope to uncover different ways of thinking about the world, and glean insight into how to fully engage the totality of being human. This means joining in the conversations of other creatives may yield different methods and ways to #embracetheblues for me and for other people. My larger hope is for others to be able to learn from these conversations and to experiment with developing a vocabulary themselves. In this way we may learn not only to speak about business, and schedules, and calendar dates. We may learn - like the creative people to speak in images, in colours. We may perhaps be able to learn how to speak blue.