Making, Meditation, Meaning

I met my friend K just over 20 years ago. We were both still relatively new mums, our now 20-year-old daughters a mere six months into their lives.

I was early (of course) for the meetup at the YMCA.

I had bundled my daughter up against the prairie cold of February, driven down unfamiliar roads and made my way to a downtown I didn’t yet know. I had located the correct building and parked, carried my daughter inside, and searched for the room which a Somewhat Concerned public health nurse had recommended I find.

At six months, my daughter was smiling, sitting, crawling, exploring, babbling, sleeping through the night.

She was thriving.

I, on the other hand, was not.

I was teetering on the edge of something I don’t like to remember.

We had had *quite* the six months, my husband and I and our baby. There was the jolt of new parenthood: colic and nursing and diapers and sleepless nights. But there was also the move to a new province a mere eight days after she was born. There was the leaving behind of friends, family, career. There was two months of bout after bout after bout of shivering and painful mastitis. There was a house in disarray with boxes to unpack. There was my husband’s new job and his travelling schedule. There was crushing loneliness and a creeping and pervasive certainty that parenting wasn’t actually something I was built for, that I was incapable, that I would ruin this beautiful child.

When I found the room, there were a few mums already there, chatting and laughing and sitting in pairs or threes, in what was beginning to look suspiciously like a circle.

Heart pounding, I took a place by myself on the floor, setting my daughter in front of my crossed legs where she faced the centre of the circle. I kissed her on her temple as I did so often when I read to her at home; she had a smile on her face and I tried to breathe in her untarnished confidence, willing my skittering nerves to calm as I waited for the room to fill.

K, if I’m remembering correctly, raced in right-on-time, and took the only empty spot remaining, the one to the right of me, the new girl.

When I realised what the group did, I nearly panicked. What may sound simple to some — introduce yourself and tell the group how your week is going — strikes terror in those of us with anxiety. And when my short speech had to follow on the heels of a mum whose infant son had just lost an eye to cancer —

Can you imagine? In hindsight, that mum’s pain should have magicked away my loneliness and my overwhelm; why ANY of us had anything to say after that bleak report I now simply can’t fathom.

And yet, I tried—

Hello, my name is Marian, and we moved here six months ago, and I’m…just…so— 

And then, with a silent score of strangers to witness, I slid ashamedly into tears.

I can still hear K’s Oh dear!

And after a moment, when it became clear that I wasn’t going to be able to go on, while I fumbled through pockets in search of kleenex, she repeated her Oh dear, and said, Should I just take my turn?

I’ve often reflected that K saved my life that day.

Which is (of course) hyperbole for what she *actually* did: she extended a hand, she pulled me out, she propped me up, she stopped the sinking.

(Never underestimate the power of friendship.)

I like to imagine I’ve returned the favour. I do know I’ve received it right back again with interest, on more occasions than I can count, despite the fact that we moved away from that prairie city seventeen years ago, and that K and I haven’t met face to face since the September day we left.

This is the sweater I’m knitting for her first granddaughter:

Pattern: Granny’s Favourite on Ravelry.  Yarn: Bamboo Pop (colour Silken).

This is what I know:  when a dear friend is expecting a baby (or a grandchild), one simply must knit a sweater … or crochet a blanket … or stitch a name onto a Christmas ornament … or sew a romper … or cook a lasagna.

For me, this welcoming simply must be handmade. And that’s because, for me, making is not merely about raw materials and a product: it’s not just yarn drawn around needles, loops engaged, fabric created; it’s the route by which hope and love and fervent good wishes are somehow made solid.

Although it’s my hope that the recipient will be able to discern this — that there will be a shot of something hormonal in this realisation, something that more-than-compensates for the lack of a Gap label — it’s perfectly okay if they merely see a sweater.

And that’s because the act of making has already served half its purpose.

It’s been meditation. It’s been coping. It’s been necessary action.

This — the knowledge that making things is both a comfort and a necessity — might just be the sum total of what I know about life.

It might even be the only thing I have ever known:

When scared witless, cross-stitch. When in love, crochet an afghan. When grieving, brew tea, sew clothing, keep stitching. When pregnant after a miscarriage, sew a quilt. When overwhelmed, crochet snowflakes. When patience is stretched, knit mittens. When the fact that you exist infuriates the very people for whom you would throw yourself in front of a bus, bake cinnamon buns. When worry threatens to swamp you, make a garden, make soup. When daughter grows up and goes off to university, knit socks. When you are helpless to help her, knit more socks. When 17-year-old son is too young two days away from leaving for university, sew him a housecoat, offer to sew a pencil case, hide inordinate pleasure when he accepts. When said son is having a worrying amount of fun at university, knit him a hat. When words are insufficient, knit socks for husband of 26 years. When grown children come home to visit, cook curries and bake bagels, mend clothes and sew buttons and darn socks, reinforce their belongings with thread and imagine it’s not a metaphor — imagine it’s literal, that it’s strength you’re weaving into the very fibre of their beings — and then send them off again with containers of love cookies and muffins.

This making has been my solace, my crutch, my raison d’être — I make, therefore I am — my entire life.

And now — especially now — when the world is too much and too wrong and too ugly — when my chest has tightened and I can barely breathe for considering a new life entering upon it — this is the only way I know to stave it all off, and to keep going:

Make something beautiful, do something useful, solidify hope, turn love into a tangible thing.

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Naturing

Forsythia: planted last fall; blooming this spring

 

Looking up through a sun-kissed maple

 

Could these be poppies?

 

Rhubarb

 

Soapwort

 

Deutzia

 

Cranesbill

 

Lacinato kale seedlings

 

Potted herbs

 

Fern fronds unfurling

 

African violet blooming on the coffee table

Ever since I wrote my Nature as Therapy post, I’ve been trying my best to pay close attention to nature, both outdoors and in.

I drank in the show my forsythia put on this spring.

My 12-year-old son and I marvelled at the quality of light that was filtering through the sweet green of newborn leaves as we walked home from school.

I reached back to memories of my mother-in-law’s garden and hoped my analysis (hmm…I’m thinking those are poppies) would prove correct.

I’ve harvested (at her request) stalks of rhubarb so my daughter can bake fruit crisps and cobblers.

I’m breathing in the unfolding beauty currently taking place in my front garden: my favourite soapwort a mass of tiny pink flowers, a delicate Deutzia shrub, several plantings of blood-red cranesbill.

I made newspaper pots and started lacinato kale seeds, nurtured them into being and have (somehow) kept them alive long enough to plant in my veggie garden.

I bought several pots of fresh herbs, snipped the required amounts to make another batch of this vegetable broth concentrate, and am now DETERMINED to keep these plants going (despite having failed miserably each and every other time I’ve attempted to keep herbs alive-and-well).

I tossed the you’re-too-difficult-and-you’re-just-bringing-me-down houseplants and am working diligently at caring for the ones that remain. I’m watching with delight as the re-potted ferns make themselves at home and send new fronds up through the soil and into the light.

All of this naturing — all of this deliberate noticing and nurturing and caring — has caused me to reflect on something my dear friend Rita said last fall:

I really miss caring about such things as growing vegetables and sewing grocery bags and planning meals and restoring banged up furniture that no one else loves any more. I keep trying to “act as if,” thinking that maybe I can make the equation work the other way:  Maybe if I just start doing the stuff, the caring will return and the life will follow suit.

I don’t know if it’s the nature or the noticing or the nurturing or the caring … but whatever it is, I think it’s working, dear reader. All the worries, all the questions, all the fears … they’ve not been erased — they’re all still there — but somehow, in some barely perceptible way, they’re quieter … and I’m feeling just a little bit lighter.

A Post-Earth Day Post From The Future

A couple of months ago, my 12-year-old son and I had a Back to the Future movie marathon (if indeed three movies qualify as a marathon).

I’m known (amongst my immediate family) for a shocking illiteracy when it comes to media which dates from my own youth —

  • Did you see E.T. when it came out in theatres, Mum? No 😦
  • Did you see Star Wars, Mum? No 😦
  • Did you see Ghostbusters, Mum? No 😦
  • repeat, ad nauseam, with nearly every single notable movie of the 70s and 80s…

However — wonder of wonders — I actually had seen the first Back to the Future movie prior to our marathon. (But not in theatres, of course; years later, via VHS).

Not only was it fun to revisit the first movie, and to hear my son laugh at 80s style —

“YES,” I told him, “1985! That was the year I graduated high school, and YES, we actually dressed like that!”

— it was also kinda nice to *finally* (albeit two years late) understand the meaning behind the phrase: It’s 2015, where’s my hoverboard?!

I was born in 1967, and I confess there are times when I am completely gobsmacked by the fact that we’re now living in the year 2017: Wait. What? How the hell did that happen?

Growing up, I remember imagining that the 2000s would be an utterly amazing and entirely futuristic future. That two, and all those zeros … surely they were somehow symbolic. Not only would we have ALL the gadgets (and yes, we do have rather a lot), but more importantly, the coming century would herald the beginnings of a Star Trek-like utopia. The prospect of beaming from place to place was perhaps a bit much to hope for, but my goodness — at the very least, all the Big Problems would be solved. Poverty, hunger, war, and pollution? They’d all be gone! Greed and suffering and inequality? Ah, all that would be but a distant memory; we’d all be living in an egalitarian society, one in which we’d all have the freedom to strive for higher ideals…

(Sigh. Any other idealistic INFJs out there?)

Spoiler alert: all those Big Problems haven’t been solved. Which, of course, you already know, because you’re here with me, in the year 2017, the FUTURE … a mere three years away from 2020, the year in which we were all supposed to be united in working together to solve the Biggest Problem of all, the one that affects and colours all the rest: Climate Change.

This past Saturday was Earth Day, a day that was first set aside as a reminder for us to take care of our one-and-only planet home way back in the year 1970.

I like math, so I’ll do the arithmetic: that’s a whopping 47 years ago.

I confess my feelings about Earth Day have changed as the years have progressed. Idealistic optimism has slowly been eroded, leaving me with a jaded and impatient cynism that I struggle to hold at bay.

In my estimation, Earth Day is the day we (maybe) pick up some garbage. It’s the day we (maybe) plant a couple of trees. It’s a day on which baby steps are encouraged and good intentions are extracted, and that’s all great … except … the year is 2017 and this is the future, and I suspect that the Earth needs a bit more than just one day of caring.

A few years ago, I read Bill McKibben’s Eaarth.

I (unwisely) read it during a time of personal upheaval and it sent me spiralling down into a pit of complete and utter despair.

Although I managed, several weeks later, to climb out of that dark place and to grab hold once again — stubbornly, idealistically — to some semblance of optimism, there’s one phrase that McKibben wrote which continues to gnaw at me.

McKibben begins the book by talking about how a stable earth allowed the formation of human civilisation, and then goes on to propose that cheap fossil fuels were the key to creating modernity. He says:

One barrel of oil yields as much energy as twenty-five thousand hours of human manual labor—more than a decade of human labor per barrel. The average American uses twenty-five barrels each year, which is like finding three hundred years of free labor annually. And that’s just the oil…

He then expounds on the ways in which modernity has gone hand in hand with fossils fuels, describing both the products that we (probably) can no longer imagine living without as well as the economy that those fossil fuels have made possible. And then comes the kicker, the phrase that’s been etched indelibly onto my neurons:

That we’ve wasted it so mindlessly is depressing.

Oh yes, Mr. McKibben. It absolutely is.

Someone once commented, following one of my posts, that my writing carries a tone of disappointment. This didn’t come as a surprise to me: as an idealist, I have high expectations, for myself as well as for others. I have been trying to take care of the Earth ever since I was a small girl and I confess I don’t understand people who don’t care enough to pitch in and do their part.

In Real Life, I have largely kept my impatience and disappointment under socially-acceptable wraps. I have quietly gone about setting good examples: I have brought along grocery bags and refillable water bottles and to-go cups; I have refused and reduced and (sometimes) gently explained why. More often than not I have simply held my tongue. Indeed, while I have failed miserably at the “you get more flies with honey” imperative in writing this blog, I have somehow managed to do a stellar job with that in Real Life.

But I confess this is something that’s getting harder and harder to do the further into the future we sail. That damning McKibben phrase has been running through my OCD brain, turning every grocery store run, every school event, every walk down our manicured suburban street, into a depressing cataloguing of the myriad ways we are mindlessly wasting our precious resources and damaging our one planet.

This hyper-awareness is causing uncharitable things to be muttered under my breath and pointed stares to be levelled. I haven’t yet hurled invectives at banana-baggers at the grocery store, I haven’t yet raced across the street and torn that f*#%g gas-powered leaf blower from my neighbour’s hands, I haven’t yet marched into a Dollarama bearing a sign and chanting,“Hey hey, ho ho, made-in-China gift wrap has got to go!” … but my gosh, it’s probably only a matter of time; there’s only so much mindless wastefulness a person can watch, especially when said person owns 25-year-old cloth grocery bags.

Hopefully, when I finally do snap, the jury will go easy on me.

Weeks ago, I had imagined I would write one of those Earth Day lists. 50 Easy Ways to be Green, or some such title. Clearly, I haven’t done that, partly because I’m not a list person, and partly because all the information is already out there. I have little interest in repeating what others have already said, and besides, I suspect that all the people who want to live more lightly are already doing it.

But truthfully, the biggest reason I didn’t make a list is because they seem to cheerily reinforce the baby step mentality: “Here’s a LOOOOONNNGGG list of all the ways you can help the planet, but WAIT! don’t let that overwhelm you; just pick one thing and start there!”

And this is where I come to the sticking point; this is the reason this post is a POST-Earth Day post and not simply an Earth Day post ….

Because how?

How, how, how … how does one simultaneously say, YES, PLEASE! FOR GOODNESS’ SAKE, TAKE YOUR BABY STEPS!  … and then continue on with, HELLO?!?!?! WE’RE IN THE FUTURE AND WE NEED MORE THAN BABY STEPS! WE NEED A MARATHON!

???

I am truly sorry for yelling.

But I’m angry. And scared. And grieving.

We don’t need baby steps. We need just ONE step. We all just need to open our eyes. We need to actually see and acknowledge the ramifications of what our individual actions are collectively doing to our one and only planet, and then we need to decide that we actually care enough to do something about it.

And as depressing as all this is — as overwhelming as all this is — I, for one, will never give up.

No battle is more sorely lost than the one not fought.

— unknown

 

More Math, Less Hope

MORE MATH:

As an idealistic thinker, I spend a lot of time pondering how I, a simple mum, can effect meaningful change beyond the walls of my own small house.

Because my voice shakes when forced to speak in gatherings of greater than two, I’ve mostly shied away from attending PTO meetings at my youngest son’s K-8 school, choosing instead hands-on work in the school library. Sometimes, however, I’ve been so moved by what I perceive to be wasteful practices occurring elsewhere in the school that I force myself to speak up.

The annual spring dance is one such event, and last year I went out on a limb and suggested a couple of ways that it could be greened-up:

  1. The PTO could stop selling novelty items, such as finger lights and light-up wands. (You know the stuff: plastic crap shipped halfway around the world that provides fun for an hour and then never ever EVER goes away.)
  2. The PTO could encourage kids to make use of the water fountain, conveniently located just outside the gym doors, rather than providing bottled water for the kids to purchase, take one sip from, and then set down and forget.

My reasoning behind these suggestions was brought on by remembrances of how things were when I was a kid. You know: when I was a kid, dances were just dances; when I was a kid, we drank water from a fountain when we were thirsty.

Although my suggestions were received with the expected objections —

  • The water fountain?!?!?!?!
  • But the novelty items are fun!
  • It’s only a little bit of stuff!
  • Selling all that stuff makes money for the PTO!

— they did, to my surprise, end up scaling back on the novelty items. Although that was the only concession they made, that one gesture left me feeling like we had, at the very least, made a small bit of progress.

So what happened with this year’s dance, held a couple of weeks ago?

Sigh.

It seems we went back to square one: the full plethora of crap for sale and no attempt at all to curb bottled water use.

So I’ve spent a couple weeks feeling rather grumbly, with questions swirling round my brain:

  1. Do people — despite all the dire daily news, all the documentaries, all the TEDtalks — still not understand the issues we’re facing, not only with climate change, but also with the fact that plastics are taking over our oceans? Is that *actually* possible? (ANSWER: No. I cannot believe there’s a single person in North America or Europe who’s not heard of climate change or the fact that our oceans, seas, and lakes are teeming with plastic.)
  2. Do people understand the scope but believe their fun and convenience outweigh the concerns of climate change and plastic pollution? In short, do they not give a flying f#*&k about what they’re doing to the planet and future generations? (ANSWER: No. Yes. No. Gawd, maybe. The possibility that this is the case sends me burrowing down a misanthropic rabbit hole in which I (mentally) rail at selfish asshats and despair that I ever had children in the first place.)
  3. Do people kinda sorta see the problem but fail to understand the part they play? Are they stuck in their it’s-just-one thinking? (ANSWER: Maybe? So I know I’ve talked about this before, but I’ll posit it once again: is MORE MATH the way to expose the essential lie embedded in the it’s-just-one attitude? If I had, for example, mentioned the fact that the US uses 50 billion plastic water bottles annually which equals 17 million barrels of oil, would that have been enough to sway the PTO? If I had brought this number-laden infographic to the meeting would the PTO have understood that our throwaway lifestyle is well past the point of fun-and-games?)
  4. Do people fully see the scope; are they doing the math and watching events unfold whilst wringing their hands … but rather than acting are they choosing instead to perform some mental gymnastics in which hope plays a starring role? Are they hoping, for example, that recycling is the end-all and be-all? Are they hoping some new technology will be coming down the engineering pipeline just in the nick of time to save the planet, one which will pull us out of the fire and allow us to continue merrily along on our profligate ways? Are they hoping that children are somehow different beings from us, that they are inherently resilient and optimistic and innovative and that THEY will one day solve all the problems? (ANSWER: Yee-eee-sss? Gah! If people are using hope as an excuse, then here’s a radical idea: I think we all need less hope…)

LESS HOPE:

So … before you dismiss the idea of less hope, and imagine that I’m suggesting we all choose hopelessness and pessimism, please let me explain:

In an effort to quiet my stewing mind, I’ve been turning to podcasts. One of my favourites is Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, an incredibly thoughtful and thought-provoking podcast in which the hosts, Vanessa Zoltan and Casper ter Kuile from Harvard Divinity School, explore various themes found in the Harry Potter books. Although they use both Christian and Jewish theological practices to inform their discussions, their approach is decidedly from a humanistic angle.

One of the episodes that resonated especially deeply with me was the one in which they discussed chapter 13 of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone through the theme of hope.

In the discussion, Vanessa explains that she sees hope often being used in a manipulative manner — even as a tool of oppression — and then goes on to say:

The moment of hope that I completely validate and completely believe in is the moment when … you’ve done everything that you can and there’s nothing left to do. That’s when I’m like, YES! now we hope! But hope a second before that just drives me crazy.

Casper responds:

Because there’s practical things that you can do.

Vanessa agrees:

There’s still practical things you can do. It’s just inaction … I think that we use hope way too early as a society and I guess what I’m calling for is not for NO hope, but I’m calling for a critical use of hope.

And Casper sums up:

The way to think about hope critically means to look for when we’re using it as a way to excuse or to hide the work that needs to be done…

Oh.my.gosh.yes.

Yes, yes, and yes.

Even though Vanessa and Casper’s discussion didn’t touch on climate change or plastic pollution, the implications of inaction in those areas due to hope-without-work and hope-as-an-excuse are abundantly clear.

So, if you’re just as alarmed as me at the state of, well, everything … if you, too, are wondering how you’ll ever be able to look possible future grandchildren in the eyes … then I’d love to know what you think. Do we need more math and less hope? Could that light the way to meaningful change? In my next post I’ll share what I’m doing, but in the meantime here are a couple of eye-opening resources that might interest you:

My Plastic-free Life, a blog by Beth Terry, a woman who read an article about plastic ocean pollution in 2007 and decided she didn’t want to be a part of that sort of destruction anymore.

Karen Lynn Allen’s Musings … She has a four part series entitled “Make Your Life Less Oily in 2017”; the link is for Part I: Taking Stock. (Thank you to Deborah for pointing me to this blog.)

Braided Rugs

img_3980

My mother had a copy of the Reader’s Digest Complete Guide To Needlework sitting on our living room bookshelf, and when I was young I would sit quietly and pore through its pages imagining all the things I could one day make.

(Oh, yes, weirdness epitomised … )

One of the sections in the book deals with various ways-and-means of rug-making, and I remember that this subject held particular fascination for me. Although I was well-acquainted with the process of hooking a rug (because hello, it was the 70s) I didn’t know that one could make a rug by braiding strips of fabric together:

img_3982
Hmmm … yes, but that looks SO time-consuming … and hand-stitching it together? Yikes.

I’ve always loved textiles, a propensity that seems to walk hand-in-hand with my half-Dutch sensibilities. To my eye, rooms are immediately made cosier when hard surfaces are softened by textiles. A kitchen table, for example, looks homier when covered by a cheery tablecloth; a simple linen runner on a sideboard can be transformative; a small rug set before a sink adds colour and comfort. And for me — a person who grew up drooling over a needlework book, a person whose hands were always supposed to be busy — the idea of having handmade textiles … ? Well, that was all the better …

Growing up, I was taught — and dabbled in — nearly every imaginable craft: embroidery, cross-stitch, knitting, crochet, sewing, darning, macramé, rug-hooking … and of course, that other seemingly ubiquitous craft-of-the-70s: spool knitting.

I still own two …

(Does anyone else out there have fond — or otherwise, as will soon be revealed — memories of spool knitting?)

I confess I once-upon-a-time imagined, that like Sister Bear (in the Berenstain Bears Too Much TV) —

img_3981

— I could produce a rug of the sort pictured in my mother’s book, not by braiding, but by spool knitting. But sadly, however much staying-power I exhibited for other crafts, spool knitting utterly defeated me.

Excruciatingly slow —

(And here I simply must interrupt this post to say two things. Firstly: Stan and Jan Berenstain — shame on you for perpetuating the spool knitting myth; there is NO WAY IN HELL that Sister Bear could make that kind of progress in one afternoon! And secondly: Sister Bear — I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you are, in all likelihood, on a fool’s errand; your illustrator is clueless, and you will be lucky to emerge from the ordeal with a pot holder.)

— I remember sitting there, spool and stick in hand, wondering if I would EVER see the fruits of my labour emerging from the bottom of the spool. And when — finally! — those first-wrought stitches DID peep out, it was nothing short of a eureka! moment … only to be quickly replaced by the painful realisation that it would likely take YEARS to produce sufficient length in order to make a rug!

(I swear, spool knitting is THE craft to give a child if you want to torture them school them into developing the patience of a saint.)

When I got married, my mother gave me my own copy of the Reader’s Digest Needlework book, and although it’s come in very handy over the years (I used it to re-teach myself knitting, for example, when I was pregnant with our first baby and suddenly craved some tiny-sweater knitting), it’s also sat there, tauntingly, with all those “one day” projects — most notably the braided rugs — whispering quietly to me.

Fast forward to this house, and to the (first-world) problem of finding an area rug of a suitable size/shape/colour/material for my daughter’s newly hardwooded room. I searched high and low* and bought several** (only to return them all) and then suddenly thought, WHY NOT MAKE ONE?

Hand-stitching a braided rug still seemed like a crazy thing-to-do, but thankfully it was no longer the 70s, and I had access to a little thing called the internet.

I ended up using a slightly modified*** version of this tutorial to make this rug for my daughter’s room:

This is a close-up to show you that this rug was MACHINE-STITCHED! It’s quite large — about 4X6 feet — and was made entirely from stashed fabric.

I ended up so in love with both the process and the results that I’ve since made several more. Six altogether, to be exact, although I won’t bore you with photos of all of them:

This one is in the powder room and contains fabric from chairs I (like an idiot) made for my kids when they were very little … and which they didn’t actually enjoy sitting in.

 

This rug was made for my now 18-year-old son. It contains stashed fabric, an old shirt that had belonged to my husband, a threadbare pair of lightweight denim pants, and several bits of leftover fabric that I had used to make clothing for my kids. (Shhh…don’t tell him, but there are teddy bears in that rug…)

 

This one is in our bedroom, made using leftovers from our quilt and duvet.

 

And this is the latest, but not likely the last …

So … I admit I may be slightly obsessed with making these! The reasons these rugs make me happy are severalfold:

  • They’re great for stash-busting — they provide a good use for leftover lengths of fabric as well as fabric bought with Good Intentions or Just Because.
  • They can be made using clothing or linens that are too worn to be donated to charity, and which would otherwise only be useful for rags or would be destined for the landfill.
  • They’re fully customizable with regards to shape and size.
  • They provide a means of incorporating sentimental textile items back into daily use.
  • They’re useful, providing warmth and cosiness to a room.
  • They’re a (mostly) mindless project, which means they make one feel productive and less guilt-ridden about Netflix binges.
  • They come along surprisingly fast (take THAT, spool knitting!).

*Not really; I hate shopping.

**Two equals “several”, right?

***I made my strips of fabric thicker (about 4 cm) as the suggested 2.5 cm (1-inch) width seemed too narrow.

—ing

Wondering … how to get back to clicking publish.

Writing … umpteen drafts; words that question everything; words I’m not brave enough to speak aloud.

Suspecting … my words don’t matter anyway.

Needing … escape.

Reading … The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. Loving it. Loving knowing my daughter will want to read it too.

Planning … to read more. To fill the year — and quiet the internal chatter — with more and more reading. On the list: Mrs Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury; Diary of a Provincial LadyThe Tenant of Wildfell HallThe Return of the NativeIce Diaries: An Antarctic MemoirNorth and South.

Noticing … a pattern in that reading list: classics, classism, feminism, environmentalism; not a single contemporary work.

Continuing … to read aloud to my 11-year-old son. This fall we read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass). I had read it before, but absolutely loved re-reading it; my son was — gratifyingly — enthralled with the depth and complexity of the story. We’re currently reading The Alchemyst series, and are on book #3.

Feeling … grateful that my son is the kind of kid who, at age eleven, will still lean shoulder to shoulder against me as I read, and who, when I ask, Now, where were we?, is able to tell me exactly what happened at the end of the previous day’s reading.

Realizing … 40-some years on, I can still “hear” my Dutch grandfather’s voice, and can picture him across the table, as he prayed and then read aloud from the Bible after lunch. Onze Vader in de hemel…

Knitting … constantly. A hat, a smitten, a pair of mittens, and three miniature Weasley sweater ornaments in the weeks before Christmas. Another hat and a half in January, some progress on yet more socks, and another pair of mittens requested and planned.

Listening … to CBC Radio and podcasts. As It HappensIdeasTapestry. Listening to Tapestry led me to the really lovely podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Text.

Cooking … everything Oh She Glows. 2016 was the International Year of Pulses (legumes, for those unfamiliar with the term pulse); I meant to do a post about it, but didn’t…

Drinking … black coffee and green tea.

Enjoying … darning socks. Really.

Waiting … for snow. We did have a white Christmas, but then came rain and warm temperatures and now the snow is gone.

Liking … my 2016 wall calendar so much (it was a year of Amanda White’s Writers’ Houses) that I wish I could just keep using it in perpetuity.

Deciding … to put away the sewing machine.

Looking … for reasons to be optimistic.

Watching … hockey practices while knitting.

Ignoring … cold hands while knitting while watching hockey practices.

Questioning … if the word work is losing its meaning as a verb.

Considering … the various scenarios that could arise with Trump as US president. Aren’t we all …

Marvelling … at the ability of a fair few to be willfully blind to facts and to not see that which is right under their noses.

Admiring … a certain young woman who is brave enough to go on exchange.

Embracing … my looming 50th and my greying hair.

Wishing … I knew if some things were worth my while.

Making … inroads in purging sentimental clutter. I’ve bagged some baby clothes that have been sitting on a chair in our bedroom for the past six months.

Cringing … at the fact that some of those baby clothes are 20 years old. And that I allowed 20-year-old baby clothes to sit on a chair in our bedroom for six months.

Buying … new glasses. After three years with a frame I loathed I now have a pair which (I think) says classic with just a hint of edginess, exactly the look I was going for.

Hoping … the people I am worrying about will be okay.

Wanting … that certain young woman on exchange to pick up some locally-made sock yarn. I know I told her not to worry about it, but I really do want some.

Pretending … not to be worried. About everything. All the time.

Trying … to believe that small things matter.

Serendipitous Gardening

As it turns out, sometimes NOT weeding ends up being a good thing.

(Which is surely a metaphor for something … )

Our almost-entirely-untended vegetable garden yielded ten squash this fall.

(TEN! Nine butternut and one spaghetti.)

Question: When would squash plants be considered weeds?

Answer: When you don’t plant them.

When I planted our veggie garden threw down some seeds this spring, not a single squash seed was sown — which means all these squash are a gift from our compost bin.

So, what to do with ten all-at-once squash?

We ate two in the usual way (for supper: one was roasted, one was diced and steamed and added to a dish).

Last week, I roasted another three:

Two trays went into the oven at once. I baked them at 350F for about 40 minutes.

 

And after puréeing the squash, I baked three double batches of “pumpkin” muffins:

Did you know butternut squash can be substituted for pumpkin?

(I didn’t … thank you, internet!)

In other compost bin news, ours also produced this wonder:

We don’t know with absolute certainty, but we suspect it was an avocado plant.

Nature amazes me.

Nature as Therapy

I took a walk along the lake yesterday after getting my 11-year-old part way to school.

It was a drizzly fall morning and the sky was purple-hued and the water silent and still and while I “should have” just turned around and gone home and dusted or swept or baked, I didn’t; I walked on …

Here’s something I realised a couple of weeks ago: there are now days in which I don’t step foot out of my house.

I used to take twice daily walks in order to deliver and fetch my youngest from school, but our routine changed this September when I began providing some before- and after-school childcare for my son’s friend whose mother is a nurse. While it’s entirely debatable whether one 11-year-old boy would have needed a mother to walk him to school, it’s an absolute given that two 11-year-old boys don’t need a mother to walk them to school.

Nope. Now, most days I send the two of them on their way with a wave and a Have a good day!, and the door is shut, and it isn’t opened again until 3:30 when I greet them with Hi! How was your day?

And it didn’t occur to me until yesterday’s walk, when I felt myself breathing deeply for what felt like the first time in days, the air damp and sweet, the raindrops a gentle shiver on my umbrella, that I may have inadvertently made things harder for myself these past couple of months. Not only am I dealing with messy and depressing emotions, not the least of which is having children grow up and become old enough to go off to university (or to walk to school independently), but in the midst of all of it, I’ve allowed myself to forget something vital, something I’ve known for a long time: namely, that nature is healing.

I felt this healing power once before: a long-ago trip to the Rocky Mountains, post-miscarriage, somehow helped me to move past my grief. There’s something ineffable about perceiving your own insignificance while being surrounded by abundant life: walking along a trail and taking in the impossibility of tall spruce perching on craggy slopes; observing saplings taking root in infinitesimal nooks and crannies; feeling the surety that life will simply be — that the trees will continue on just fine without us, thankyouverymuch, that they will remain standing long after I — and any children I happen to be fortunate enough to bear — have passed from this existence. And equally important, or maybe even paramount: knowing just as surely that not all life can be, that seeds are spun that cannot take hold, that saplings wither before their time … and that this is not design or malice but simply chance, and that nature brooks no room for overwrought emotion when contemplating this. It simply is.

I’ve long felt I prefer my nature wild and untamed and — most importantly — out of the realm of personal responsibility. Nature is something that happens naturally, in wild spaces, and thus a backyard, a space which we in suburbia feel pressured to cultivate to Pinterest-worthy perfection, surely does not equal nature. Or if it does, then at the very least it must be well-behaved nature, nature that keeps to its boundaries, nature that’s always wearing its Sunday Best.

This is a notion I’ve long cultivated, and I’ve spun myself a narrative to illustrate my place in all this: I’ve told myself that I am not much of a gardener, that gardening is too much work, and that it’s work I don’t enjoy and don’t have time for. Indeed, I spent much of this past summer inside, shirking the outdoors, trying to escape the sweltering heat and humidity. What could have been medicinal doses of greenery were relegated to mere telescopic snatches through windows, and when I did step outside? It was overwhelming. Unchecked natural nature creeping over and displacing what was supposed to be well-behaved and cultivated nature: uninvited weeds; bullying perennials; a cacophony of overgrown shrubs; a blemished “lawn”; a neglected and accusatory vegetable patch.

But I’m now wondering: what if I tried to rid myself of the notion that yard work and vegetable gardening and perennial beds are only yet-more-work that isn’t-getting-done? What would happen if I led myself outside and let the wondrous living details of this abundant life embrace me? Perhaps I should be spinning the whole thing into a prescription of gardening-as-nature-cum-DIY-psychotherapy.

Thyme growing around and between paving stones; honey locust leaves: diminutive, and to my eyes, charming.
Autumn blaze serviceberry; so very aptly named.

And maybe if I did that, if I took the time to care for — and heal — my own small plot of nature, maybe that small plot of nature might in turn heal me.

Randomly, On a Summer’s Day

I am — once again — reading the Harry Potter series aloud to my youngest son.

This is his second read-aloud, and although I’m thinking this must be my fourth complete-series read-aloud, I may be mistaken; my older son claims I did not actually read the entire series aloud to him. Said older son is, in fact, extremely irritated with the fact that I am STILL reading books aloud to his 11 year-old brother: WHY are you reading to him?! He can read on his own! He’s like TWENTY! 

Um … because my 11 year-old asked? Because I LOVE Harry Potter and am more than happy to re-visit the story?

I think the thing I love most about Harry Potter is the richness of the story. I’m one of those easily fascinated people, someone who positively craves details, and — curmudgeonly irritation over comma splices aside — Rowling’s vividly imagined and deeply nuanced world absolutely bewitched me 😉 when I first read Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone* years ago, before my kids were old enough for the books. As a knitter, one of the details which utterly charms me is the role knitting plays in the series: Hagrid knitting a large yellow something; Mrs. Weasley presenting knit jumpers* for Christmas; Fred and George fighting off hand-knit mittens; Hermione knitting hats for house-elves; Dumbledore wanting — above all else — thick woollen socks, and confessing a fascination with Muggle knitting patterns.

On the subject of knitting (and coincidentally continuing with the Harry Potter theme), I’m knitting yet another set of Hermione’s Everyday Socks (in what is not quite, but hints at, Gryffindor scarlet).

That would be my daughter’s Gryffindor scarf underneath my knitting. The Sorting Hat would definitely place her in Gryffindor; it would be Hufflepuff for her mother

In January, I had set a goal of one pair of socks per month, and although swimming lessons and soccer practices have afforded me some extra knitting time this summer, and although I continue to slot in knitting whenever I’m able (in between pancake flips, for example) I’m still finding that goal to be a bit too ambitious. I am continually torn: how best to spend my free evening hours, when my youngest has gone to bed. Although I’d like to be reading more (I’m almost halfway through Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca), the fact is, I love making things. I cannot imagine a life in which I am NOT making things.

On the subject of making things, my sewing continues, albeit very slowly now that the kids are out of school. My 17 year-old son has cleared his schoolwork out of the dining room and I’ve moved my sewing machine and serger to the window end of the table and set up the ironing board in front of the window. The light is MUCH better and I love looking out, snatching glimpses of green and growing things as I work at sewing or ironing or mending.

Details, details … the two boxes at the forefront are Dutch biscuit tins (which I have had *forever*); they house my spools of thread.

And lastly, I deliberately used the term work in my last sentence, even though the flow would have been better had I just said, “…as I sew or iron or mend.” I’ve just hit a how-the-heck-did-this-happen anniversary: twenty years ago, mid-July 1996, I went on maternity leave from my job as a pharmacist. The very day I started my maternity leave was the day my husband told me he had gotten the position he had been hoping for — the one in another province which would necessitate a move; the one he had assured his pregnant wife he would *never* get — setting in motion a chain of events which resulted in me not returning to my career. Twenty years of stay-at-home-motherhood is a long time to ponder the meaning of work, and — cough*whatasurprise*cough — I have a LOT of thoughts on this subject. I could do a whole (meandering, semantical, over-thinking) post on work … you know, if I were actually brave enough to wade into this quagmire on the internet …


*Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone and sweaters (and a myriad of other changes) in the U.S. editions…  The Americanization of these stories so got my detail-loving-goat that — even though we were living in the U.S. at the time — I bought our books on trips back to Canada.

What I’ve Been Sewing…

So … as promised in my last post, I’m going to share with you what I’ve been sewing. First though, I’d like to talk about what I’ve learned over the last several weeks:

Sewing seems to have a muscular use-it-or-lose-it quality: I used to be a fairly fearless seamstress. I’d take in, let out, alter necklines — and all without hours of angst —- but my decade-and-a-half hiatus (during which I only sewed Halloween costumes and home decor) has cost me dearly in the confidence department. The mechanics of sewing seem to be the equivalent of riding a bicycle, but the leap-of-faith straying from what the pattern instructs is a whole ‘nuther ball game. (Am I allowed to mix that many metaphors?)

If I’m the sewer, I’m also the designer:  Perhaps this is a no-brainer, but I still feel it’s worth pointing out that there are NO pattern police! Who’s to say how a piece is supposed to look? I’ve done a lot of googling these last few months, pulling up countless images of various clothing items. Noticing the endless “anything goes” variation in style has been incredibly freeing.

I need to keep my expectations reasonable:  I’m a bit of a perfectionist, which can be problematic in the creativity department. But I’ve been taking a close look at manufactured garments and they’re not perfect either. The fact is, no one but me will ever scrutinize my lines of stitching for evenness. (Well, my seamstress mother might, but she lives clear across the country.) My new mental measuring guide is now the question, Is this better than an Aéropostale t-shirt? (Which is, admittedly, not an extremely high bar; however, this too has been incredibly freeing.)

The internet is a dream-come-true for this particular sewer:  The fact that the internet is chockablock with techniques and inspiration is a given; however, there are other ways in which it’s a godsend, especially for those of us who are sartorially-challenged. Part way into this sewing adventure I did something I should have done right at the outset. I googled clothing to suit [insert problematic body parts] … and Oh. My. Gosh. the things I have learned … !

For instance, I now know that raglan or dolman sleeves are a good choice to minimize my broad shoulders. I also learned that boatneck styles will only further emphasize my shoulders, as will horizontal stripes. And, because dark colours recede, if I’m going to be doing colour blocking, I should choose a darker tone for the sleeves than for the body of the shirt.

Shoulders aside, I’ve learned that for my particular body type — small-busted and too slim — I should be wearing dark bottoms paired with lighter or patterned tops. Additionally, I should look for tops which have details around the bust, such as pleats or pockets or gathers. Shirts that are belted or which have an empire waistline are also on my “flattering list”.

What’s really interesting to me is that much of this advice jives with what I have intuitively felt about particular items of clothing in the past. The light-washed denim jeans of the 90s always felt wrong, as have khakis. More recently, one of my special occasion outfits — a light blue top paired with a black skirt — felt “right”, whereas another very similar outfit, but which had the tones in reverse — a black top and sweater with a light grey skirt — felt “wrong”.

And now — finally — onto the clothing I’ve been sewing …

As I discussed previously, last year I tried to sew a couple of blouses, neither of which turned out well. Reflecting that what I wear most often, and really needed, was t-shirts, I decided to turn to knit fabric. I do have a serger, which is ideal for stretchy fabric, but it is entirely possible to sew knits using only a sewing machine, and the internet is full of techniques for doing just this.

I used this pattern:

 

… and bought several pieces of knit fabric from our city’s ONE fabric store (in other words, I cannot be overly choosey…).

I began with the piece I liked the least, one which had only enough fabric for the body of the shirt, and I cut up an existing t-shirt (one with a stretched-out neckline) for the sleeves. Being a Very Bad Blogger, I didn’t take a photo of this first t-shirt in its initial stage of hmm-Well Crap!-this-is-too-tight-around-the-bust-and-shoulders-and-doesn’t-look-very-good. Nope! Nothing to see here, folks; move along!

Because this was a trial piece, I proceeded with trying to see if I could salvage it by slitting the front partway down the middle and inserting a strip of fabric in order to add some ease in the bust and shoulder areas. I then proceeded to finish the neckline, using a self-bias binding technique (which had been my favourite neckline technique for woven fabrics when I sewed clothing for my kiddos, although I always do mine* in reverse of this tutorial, which I think results in a neater finish).

This is what it looked like at this stage:

Yes, this is just WEIRD …

I didn’t like how this neckline binding technique worked on the knit fabric, so I removed it and inserted a banded neckline, and then used a double needle, along with my walking foot, to topstitch the seam. This looked much better …

… and by better, I mean the neckline looked better, not the shirt in general.

I had hoped, during this process, that I would end up with a top I actually liked. Unfortunately, after all that work, I didn’t. The less-than-expert insertion down the middle was just wonky and weird, and the white sleeves seemed to emphasize my wide shoulders, making me feel self-conscious.

(And here, of course, is where the internet came to the rescue — those white sleeves were, in fact, the equivalent of a neon billboard shouting out, Hey, look at these broad shoulders!)

This exercise did prove to be useful, however. I had figured out the fit of this particular pattern (and I now know that for those of us with wide shoulders a bust measurement isn’t necessarily going to be sufficient to ensure a proper fit when it comes to a raglan sleeve pattern). So, making a mental note to stay away from white sleeves, I sewed these three t-shirts:

The neckband for the pink shirt came from the white t-shirt I had cut up for the trial shirt. The middle shirt is an amalgam of the original pink fabric I bought (I had just enough for another front piece) and a purged golf shirt that had belonged to my husband. The neckband on the mottled blue shirt is self-fabric, but wrong side out, and I turned the hem on the sleeves to the outside, rather than to the inside, to mirror what I had done with the neck. The neckbands all look a bit wavy, but they do lay flat when I wear them.

I made them in a longer length than the pattern indicated, and I’m quite happy with how they turned out; however, there is one problem with them: except for the navy fabric harvested from my husband’s golf shirt (which was cotton), they’re all either polyester or an unknown “mixed fibre” blend. Ideally I would want cotton t-shirts, but cotton knit seems to be a rare beast at my local fabric store. Knowing I was going to require something cool for the summer (and quite frankly determined that my wardrobe should be more than just all-tees-all-the-time), I decided to re-visit the woven fabric blouse conundrum. I decided that this pattern —

— which I had purchased last year to make this trial shirt —

— was not necessarily a complete dud. I had chosen this pattern partly because raglan sleeves are easy to sew, but I now knew that they should be a good style to complement my square shoulders. Reasoning that the blouse might be flattering if there were some pleats or gathers around the neckline to soften the front, I simply moved the front pattern piece 4 cm away from the folded edge of my fabric, thus adding 8 cm to the width of the front of the shirt. (This 8 cm number was arrived at by pure guesswork.)

This is actually blouse #2. Being a Very Bad Blogger, I forgot to take a photo when I was cutting out blouse #1. (And just in case you’re confused about what’s going on in this photo, I layered the back pattern piece on top of the front simply to have a guide for the sides. This pattern has a front which is made from three vertical sections, but I wanted my front to be a single piece instead.)

The first shirt required quite a lot of experimentation. I played around with pleats at the neckline, but didn’t like how they were looking, so then moved on to trying gathers … happy with that, but deciding that the extra volume through the front was causing the shirt to look slightly maternity-like, and knowing that an empire waist was supposed to be flattering for me, I proceeded to add some gathers part-way between the waist and the bust, covering up and securing my lines of gathered basting with a strip of fabric …

I was very happy with how this turned out, so I made another two tops from the same pattern, although with slight variations.

For top #2, I added ties to the sides which gather the front at the waist in a similar manner to the stitched-in gathers of the first top. I made this one in an even longer tunic length and left slits in the side seams:

And for the third top, I cut the front horizontally at an empire waist height, added gathers to the lower edge of the top part, and then removed the “excess” 8 cm from the bottom piece (by trimming 4 cm from each side). This is also tunic-length, with slits in the side seams.

So … I have to say I have LOVED wearing these tops, which is all fine and dandy … EXCEPT … I now have another problem: I don’t even want to THINK about wearing any of my old and ratty tops … meaning I’m now scrambling to whip up a few more blouses to round out my wardrobe.

I have yet another iteration of this same pattern on the go, and one would think, that by the FOURTH rendition, I would no longer need my seam ripper … but no … I’m not sure what’s going on with this one … maybe it’s the sleeves, maybe I didn’t get the position of the gathering correct, maybe it’s the wild floral pattern … but there’s just something about this top that isn’t yet working …

While I’m mulling over top #4, I’m also trying out something entirely different. This next one is inspired by this top, and I was hoping to use the fabric from this skirt, which has been in my wardrobe for at least 22 years:

I have always LOVED the fabric of this skirt, but haven’t worn it very often. It’s a bit shorter than I would like a skirt to be (mid-calf versus ankle), and whenever I did wear it — paired with either a navy tee or a white blouse — it never quite felt “right”. Now that I know I “should be” wearing patterned tops and dark bottoms, this makes sense — it’s the reverse of what I should be wearing.

I’m thinking that a bit of navy at the top, with the skirt fabric gathered just above the bust might work …

… but indecisiveness is causing me to hesitate: perhaps this isn’t the best use of this fabric (is the pattern too wild for a top?), and perhaps this style isn’t even going to suit me (in which case I will have wasted some perfectly good fabric which I love. Gasp!).

I am, now, in the process of making a trial piece of this style from some scrap fabric, and perhaps once I’ve finished I’ll have a clearer idea of what to do. Any thoughts or suggestions you might have would be most welcome!

🙂

 


*I wasn’t sure how much detail to put into this post … because I’m not a “sewing blog” I felt I should spare you from all of the nitty-gritty intricacies of construction, but if anyone does want clarification on anything I did (or would like to see my technique for self-bias binding), I’ll be glad to share.