Visible Mending and Visibly Mending

Recently Months ago, I fixed my favourite jeans. They’re 18-ish years old and were getting so threadbare that for a while I was one of those fashionable women who sport jeans with rips in all the right places. When the rips began migrating north, however, fashionable began to verge on risqué, and I knew I had no choice but to toss the jeans or fix them.

So, I took a long length of denim I had previously harvested from a child’s pair of jeans—ones that were too worn to send to Goodwill—consulted a tutorial (and my 20-year-old son’s girlfriend who was visiting for the weekend), inserted the fabric into the leg of my jeans, and pinned it in place. Then I hunted down a box of craft supplies and chose a matching colour of cotton embroidery thread, so the stitches that would need to run the entire length of my thighs would be fittingly quiet.

I cut a long length of floss from the skein, and as I separated it into two 3-strand lengths, the action whisked me back thirty-five years to when I sat on the burnt-orange living room carpet of my parents’ house, my back against the red chair, my teenage self attempting to disappear in the small, meditative Xs of cross stitch.

It’s safe to say my Dutch mother—who sat her four-year-old daughter down with a square of aida and a needle threaded with embroidery floss—would be horrified by my pants. She would be horrified by the fact that I wore them for months a year or two as they progressively became more and more fashionable slovenly, but she would be equally horrified by their current post-mended state.

You see, my mother—now 88 years old—grew up in a time when you did not advertise your mending. If your clothing had rips, rents, holes, or frayed bits, you quietly went about the business of fixing things. Mending was necessary and industrious work, and there was pride in doing the job well, so well, in fact, that the broken parts would be invisible.

So, here, dear reader, is where this post goes sideways. It’s where instead of doing the normal and expected thing—presenting a tutorial for visible mending—I follow a completely different thread:

On the morning of the summer day that I finally mended my pants, I spent hours sitting at the kitchen table with my son’s English-major girlfriend, discussing a letter I was writing to the editor of my local newspaper. My son’s girlfriend had recently completed a course titled Writing for Social Change and I was unashamedly picking her brain.

How do we effect change? I asked her. I was burning with the need to respond to a letter in the newspaper that argued Canadians needn’t bother even trying to address climate change because the collective carbon footprint of our small population is too low to matter.

Do facts work? I asked her. What about shame and blame? How about appealing to self-esteem? What about—and here I peered once again at the letter I was composing on my computer—sarcasm and satire?

After hours of agonizing over every word and comma, I hit send.

And then, dear reader, I was blindsided by a wave of anxiety, sickened by panic that was compounded with a side-serving of shame: my son’s completely normal and well-adjusted girlfriend saw my distress.

Take a walk, she instructed.

And I did: I left the house, walked along the lake, tried to breathe, tried to tell myself that everything—the letter to the editor, the outing of my apparent mental illness to my son’s girlfriend, the upcoming federal election*, the impending loss of civilization due to catastrophic climate change, the not-knowing what to cook for supper—would be okay. But it wasn’t until later in the day, when I threaded my needle with embroidery floss and ran those stitches up and down, up and down, up and down that the anxiety finally eased up.

If you’re a regular reader, you know that things have been quiet around here. I have lots of good excuses, but it all boils down to the fact that I have been allowing anxiety to win.

Two days after sending my letter to the editor, I got a response: Yes, this is interesting and we’d like to publish it, but it’s too long. Can you get rid of 100 words?

So, I shaved 100 words and made the piece tight and focused, but instead of sending it back, I sent an apology. I’m sorry for the inconvenience, I said. But I would like to withdraw this piece. I wrote in anger and frustration, and this will only make things worse.

The editor wrote back with unexpected kindness: He said he understood, said I was a good writer, said if I ever wanted to write another letter, he’d gladly publish it, said—if it made me feel better—that another person had stepped up and written a strong rebuttal to the original writer.

And, dear reader, it felt like such a reprieve—until, you know, it didn’t.

This kind of fear is hard.

Speaking—sending words out into a world that has become unbearably ugly and polarized—has gotten me into trouble over these last few years. It got me thrown under the bus by the PTO. It isolated me. It sent me to therapy.

And yet, if you’re the type of person who sees all the threads of where the world has been and where it is headed—if you’re the type of person who doesn’t see mending as mere stitches in fabric, but instead sees mending as unpaid labour, mending as rebellion, mending as art, mending as care-taking, mending as privilege, mending as resilience, mending as environmental stewardship, mending as lowering GDP, and mending (or the lack of mending) as the perfect metaphor for the unravelling of our world—then keeping silent also takes a toll.

Several months ago, I explained this conundrum to my 23-year-old daughter. I told her that not speaking left me feeling sick with anxiety, but that when I drummed up the courage to speak, worry over the fallout that might arise from speaking left me feeling sick with anxiety.

She said, Better to speak, then.

My mother—if she were aware of this blog—would tell me not to speak. Or at least, she would tell me not to speak about weakness; she would advise me to keep all my rips, rents, holes, and frayed bits invisible.

But I can’t help but think that part of the reason the world is in the state it’s in is precisely because we have fooled ourselves into thinking invisibility means non-existence. We have pushed all the broken bits out of sight, shifted the consequences, and taken advantage of those who don’t have the power—or the ability—to speak. I think if we are to have any hope of fixing this world, we have to make all of our brokenness—and our mending—visible.


*On October 21st, Canada elected a minority Liberal government. This means Justin Trudeau is still the prime minister, but he will have to work with other parties to get things done.

#TenYears of Reusable Produce Bags

About ten years ago, I sewed a bunch of really ugly produce bags:

Look at the upper right side: the photo comes with its own verdict…EEK!

I wrote a painfully long-winded post about these bags shortly after I started this blog, in which I explained that one day I didn’t see plastic produce bags, and the next day I did.

So: I searched my fabric box and chose the most lightweight material I could find—a length of hideous curtain lace that my mother-in-law had probably bought on clearance and kept for a dozen years, before de-stashing and re-homing with her too-kind-to-say-no daughter-in-law, who—probably five years later—did the merciful thing (because fabric wants to be useful) and whipped up some reusable produce bags.

My children—especially my daughter—were horrified.

Why—WHY?!—do you have to be so weird, and NO, I am NOT going to take one of these bags and put apples into it, thankyouverymuch, because we are in PUBLIC (!) and who knows WHO might see us here, and . . .

(Ah, such happy memories . . .)

Ten-ish years later—ten-ish years during which I wore my children down and they willingly participated in my madness and I saved approximately 2000 plastic produce bags and my daughter got her own set of reusable produce bags (non-hideous ones which I bought for her stocking two Christmases ago)—my daughter goes shopping in a new zero-waste bulk store in the city in which she lives, and she texts me this photo:

EEEEKKKKK!!!!

Oh my. I think I will. (And I think I have to email the woman behind allthingspreserved.ca, so I can learn the story behind her produce bags.)

This post is a positive offering for the Ten Year challenges that are swirling around on Facebook and Instagram. So many of the pictures are so disheartening, but there are also so many positive things happening, especially in the zero-waste movement.

Zero-waste stores seem to be popping up everywhere—we even now have a tiny store, in the very small and not especially forward-thinking city in which we’re currently planted, a place where I can get bulk dish soap, laundry detergent, shampoo, and toothpaste. And while I know (I know!) that 2000 plastic produce bags saved—or two shampoo bottles, or three dish soap containers—won’t save the world, I can’t help but see all these little things as gateways: little things that can lead to other little things that can lead to bigger things, that can lead us from simple addition all the way to multiplication. Ripples to waves, in other words.

In other ten-year news, it’s ten-ish years since my daughter pushed her pork chop away and declared herself a vegetarian.

My children—especially my daughter—were horrified. Her parents—especially her mother—were horrified.

Why—WHY?!—do you have to be so weird, and NO, I am NOT going to take one of these bags and put apples into it, thankyouverymuch, because we are in PUBLIC (!) and who knows WHO might see us here, and . . . Why—WHY?!—do you have to be so difficult, and NO, I am NOT going to be cooking separate meals for you, thankyouverymuch, because that is doubling my work in the kitchen, and . . .

Ten-ish years later—ten-ish years during which she stuck to her guns and her little brother joined her and I learned even more about cooking and I gave up processed food and we all fully joined her and Oh She Glows became my Bible and her father went down two pant sizes—Health Canada ignored industry pressure and released a new food guide, which recommends a mostly plant-based diet.

Just to be clear: There’s is no connection whatsoever between my daughter becoming vegetarian and Health Canada releasing its new food guide.

There’s only this: Ten years will pass no matter what. And when we come upon new ideas or are faced with new realities, we have two choices: We can flat-out refuse to go or be pulled along protestingly, or, we can open our hearts and minds to new ways of doing and seeing. And if we open our hearts and minds, we might just be very surprised—and grateful—to see where we end up ten years later.

Lessons From My Dutch Mother

Stoic stitchery. This is a paraphrase from The Secret Garden.

This weekend, my 12-year-old son installed the Duolingo app on my phone and I began 5-minute-a-day language lessons in Dutch.

Beyond feeling like learning Dutch is “something I’ve always wanted to do”, and therefore — at 50 — I’d really better get on with it, I’m not exactly sure why I’m bothering. (I’m also not certain Duolingo is the best tool for this task; but that’s another issue and beyond the scope of this post.) The cold hard truth of the matter is that the only Dutch speaker in my life is my mother, who has just turned 86. And although there are apparently incidences of stroke taking away second languages and leaving first ones intact, she does not seem to be faltering at all when it comes to her mental capacities. In other words, I’m perfectly aware that the *need* for me to one day know how to speak Dutch is quite remote.

As many of you probably know, I have a Dutch and German background. My mother emigrated from The Netherlands in the 60s, and then met and married my German father, who had immigrated to Canada when he was 17.

According to my mother, my parents initially had plans to teach my brother and me to speak both their native tongues. Unfortunately for my brother and me, my parents’ resolve on the matter faltered and died very early on, with the result that, except for a smattering of exposure when visiting with relatives (and a quick jaunt through in-one-ear-and-out-the-other high school German), my brother and I did not ever *really* learn to speak either language.

What follows is but one example to illustrate how incredibly unfortunate this state-of-affairs was for me:

My last memory of my maternal grandmother is of her standing on her stoop in Pernis, a small town just outside Rotterdam, waving to me as I — 19-years-young — walked down the street to catch the bus on what was the first leg of my journey back home to Canada. She had, just a couple of hours earlier, led me out of the house, walked with me arm in arm amongst the trees in their backyard orchard, all the while speaking, pointing, gesticulating, looking at my face to see if I understood anything she had said. I caught a few words, here and there, but the underlying here-is-the-important-thing-I’m-trying-to-impress-upon-my-Canadian-granddaughter was entirely lost. Finally, the frustration in her voice a palpable thing, she shook her head in regret and with a rueful half-smile, gave up.

I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t confess that I find it diffiicult, at times, to recall this last day with my oma and to not feel anger at all that was lost.

But of course, dear reader, as you and I both know, it’s useless to cry over spilled milk. So I (metaphorically) pull myself up by my bootstraps (thank you, German father?) and give myself a stern talking-to and proceed to list off all the life lessons my Dutch mother taught me, for which I am utterly grateful:

One thread a night. Dutch girls are (were?) an industrious lot, and I grew up under the notion that if you were sitting, your hands had to be busy. Now, my mother wasn’t an absolute tyrant about it: she herself was an avid reader, and yes, I was permitted to sit and read, but only once I had made some form of daily progress on whatever project I was working on. One thread a night, my mother would continually say, and eventually you will have (for example) a finished cross-stitch piece. Although I sometimes resented the fact that I, THE GIRL, had to sit and embroider every evening — while my brother, THE BOY, did NOT — this has proven to be an invaluable lesson to me. It taught me fortitude and perseverance, it taught me that large and complex projects — crafty or otherwise — are entirely doable when using the one thread a night, each journey begins with a single stepif-you-never-get-started-you’ll-never-get-finished approach.

Is it necessary? The contemplative Is it necessary? is a question I heard often growing up. I remember sliding pocket-sized Peanuts comic books into paper bags — thank-you-for-coming-to-my-birthday-party — while my mother muttered mutinously about how SHE wasn’t going to be the parent who buys UNNECESSARY plastic junk to hand out to our guests. (Ground zero, apparently: this must be where my loathing of plastic crap originated.)

Although I occasionally railed at this frugal and oftentimes utilitarian approach to life — I KNOW a crib skirt is unnecessary, Mum, but I think it will look nice, and YES, I AM going to continue sewing it! — it’s come in remarkably handy while raising children. It wasn’t until I read this post on Finding Dutchland about the pressure an American ex-pat felt when considering whether or not to purchase a Hatchimal, that I fully appreciated that it was precisely this early training with this question that allowed me to coast nonchalantly through the Tickle Me Elmo madness when my daughter was a baby. It was the question that allowed me to easily say No to my children when they asked for all-the-crap littering check-out lanes. It was the question that resulted in Easter baskets and Christmas stockings filled with nothing but socks and books and single bars of chocolate, not a single blade of plastic “grass” in sight, no Dollarama trinkets deemed necessary.

The older I get, the more I appreciate the simplistic beauty of this question. After all, if you only surround yourself with necessary things, if you only perform necessary tasks — if you free yourself from the superfluous — then that allows you to truly see and appreciate and take care of those things that are important.

And, as an added bonus, focussing on what’s necessary is also a more environmentally-friendly way to live. I could do an entire post on all the unnecessary stuff marketers tell us we need, but which in fact is not only unnecessary, but actually harmful…

Sometimes unnecessary things are nice. And, well, kind of necessary. Tulips, potted plants, table runners covering bare wood, suikerbroodspeculaas, coffee and cake and a visit with a friend. There’s *got* to be some lovely unnecessariness to life; it can’t all be about sweeping the stoop and ironing the tea towels and building the dikes.

When you have a book, you have a friend. As I’ve discussed before, I came quite late to this knowledge. But now … I’m not sure where I would be without books; I suspect I’d be very lonely indeed.

Think happy thoughts. Don’t dwell. Remember that there is always someone out there who has it worse than you do.  AKA: DIY Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. The Dutch are known for their level-headed practicality and stoicism. And while I do firmly believe there is truth to the premise that stoicism is sometimes the only way one gets-oneself-through-life, it needs to be said that Dutch sink-or-swim stoicism, while producing a heckuva lot of strong swimmers, can also result in drownings. It can, and often does, come off as unfeeling. And, quite honestly, as dismissive. I don’t know where the Dutch are at with regards to mental illness nowadays, but my childhood experiences have shown me that there is a vital distinction between preaching stoicism to others, and preaching it to oneself. In other words, I can dismiss and diminish my feelings; I can encourage myself to stay strong, to pull myself together, to cultivate happy thoughts — if that’s what I think will help me get through something (and it usually does) — but I don’t appreciate it when others dismiss or diminish my feelings, or imply that I’m weak or self-indulgent for even daring to feel those feelings in the first place. Just sayin’.

So … I need to find a positive way to end this post (because I am trying so damn hard these days to keep positive) and the only way I can think to do that is to share a bit of knitting. Gezellig — THE quintessential Dutch word — is usually used to refer to the cosy feeling one gets when in a warm atmosphere and in the company of convivial friends or family. This introverted homebody finds knitting — while drinking koffie, while in the company of 12-year-old zoon who is quietly reading a boek — to be the very definition of gezellig.

Stockholm scarf. Two strands of MADELINETOSH Merino Light held together: denim and Dr. Zhivago’s sky.

Keep On Keeping On

Keep trying. So, I went to the PTO meeting. And spoke, very briefly, about greening up the activities they run. And yes, my voice shook.

Prior to going, I had asked for some help in honing what to say. Less is more, was the advice. Don’t lecture. Change takes time.  Although I railed (internally) at the latter rejoinder, I think the advice was probably spot on: I didn’t alienate anyone that evening. (Because (apparently; who knew?), alienation is unhelpful and makes people dig in their heels.) I’m now planning on attending all the upcoming meetings, and speaking up at each one, addressing each issue as it arises. What’s more, I’m starting to see that seeds I’ve sown over the years are finally starting to sprout: people I’ve talked to are now starting to talk to others. It’s just as Deborah told me in a comment following my last post: Don’t assume that if you don’t win them over, you’ve lost. Never underestimate the possibility that someone (or several people) there will go away and think about something differently as a result of your intervention.

Keep reducing.  Determined to do even more to shop local, I spent this summer’s Saturday mornings at the farmers’ market. I brought my own cloth grocery bags, but also made sure to bring my ugly lace produce bags as well as plenty of clean plastic bread bags. All the sellers were more than happy to dispense their fruits and veggies into my bags, rather than providing me with one of theirs, and I managed to not take ANY new plastic bags home from the market this summer. This counter-of-all-things is very happy about this small victory.

I’ve also been doing more shopping at my local bulk store. This past February, Bulk Barn began allowing customers to bring in their own reusable containers. This has proven to be dead easy: I make my list, pack the required number of containers in a bag, stop at the cashier for pre-weighing, and then simply fill the containers.

The end of the summer also saw me on what could easily be described as a TEAR through the house. I was literally flinging cupboard doors open, looking for things to purge. This week, I heard about the latest decluttering craze: Swedish death cleaning. Funnily enough, this meshes EXACTLY with what I was feeling at the time: the instinctual and deep-seated desire to take care of things now, rather than to keep putting off the inevitable, not to mention the uncomfortable realization that if I don’t step up to the task of taking care of things then that burden will one day fall on my children. (To be honest, I was also feeling rather desperate about finally, finally getting to the promised point where I will have cleared enough (literal) detritus to see a (metaphorical) clear path forward.)

Keep the existentialistic nattering at bay. I’m trying to drown out my existentialistic thoughts. Which are pretty damn loud. They seep through and attempt to drain the colour from everything.

Pre-parenthood I listened to music all the time. U2, REM, Barenaked Ladies, The Pretenders, The Tragically Hip, Tom Petty. And when I wasn’t listening to music I had the radio tuned to CBC.

Enter parenthood: bawling babies, talkative toddlers, prattling preschoolers — and suddenly it was all too much. Sensory overload. And worse: the Wait, what? missing of things. The only way to cope was to turn everything else off.

Now that my house is emptying of children, now that the silence sits on my shoulders, a weight compounded by worry as my thoughts wander too much into jungles best left unexplored, I need noise. Radio programs. Podcasts. Music, music, music. This is such a night-and-day shift that I believe I surprised my 19-year-old son. He came into the kitchen one day this summer to find me chopping veggies to Coldplay. Who are you and what have you done with my mother?, his expression seemed to suggest.

(This past week has been The Tragically Hip, on repeat. My fellow Canadians will understand; for others, there’s this song, my favourite.)

Keep reading. I abandoned Beatrix Potter – A Life in Nature. I’m sorry, Linda Lear; it was just so.long. On a whim, I picked up Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Because, what a name for a heroine! And such promise, that title: maybe if Eleanor is completely fine, I’ll be completely fine too. (Because that’s how fiction works, right?) It was part laugh-out-loud quirkiness, part cringeworthy Oh-don’t-be-doing-THAT-Eleanor!, part heartwarming love story, and part heart-wrenching life-can-be-cruel, dontcha know …

After that, I went on to Station Eleven. Perhaps a post-pandemic-civilization-has-collapsed-now-what? kind of novel was not the best choice for the summer I was having. But although the story was often grim it was also, ultimately, one of hope. Its back-and-forth movement between past and present as it told the tale of a travelling Shakespearean symphony roaming amongst new settlements (“because survival is insufficient”) — spoke directly to my story-loving heart. Apart from that, I loved its utility as a thought-exercise (what happens when there are no longer any doctors, nurses, hospitals, medicines? What happens when there is no one left to transport fuel to a gas station? What happens when stores are emptied of goods but the supply chain is irrevocably broken? What happens when law-and-order goes missing, never to return?).

Then came Matt Haig’s How To Stop Time. This was a lovely read: an interesting concept (the protagonist’s life stretches on and on and on); spare writing; a light-handed sprinkling of humanistic pearls of wisdom. My copy has been dog-eared, and I’m well into another of his novels: The Humans, which I am completely loving. Next up will be Haig’s Reasons To Stay Alive. And then, what the heck, ALL of his other works. (Thank you, Lynda; I love your reviews and recommendations.)

Keep learning. Keep my eyes open. As much as I’d like to look away, to start humming Mmm-I-can’t-hear-you, to bury my head in the sand, I simply can’t. If this means tears are streaming as I watch A Plastic Ocean or Chasing Coral, so be it.

Keep knitting. Socks, socks, socks. Hockey season has started, which means I’m once again that mum who knits in the stands during practice. I’m also determined to knit while watching TV, because although multi-tasking usually makes me feel I’m doing two things poorly, productivity is key to dispelling the icky feeling I get when sitting in front of the TV. We’re making our way through Star Trek Voyager, determinedly turning our 12-year-old son into a Trekkie. We must have missed quite a lot back when it originally aired in the 90s and we had to be home on Mumblemumble night in order to catch it, because until last weekend I was quite in the dark about how Seven-Of-Nine came to be freed from The Borg. (And inquiring minds do love to know…)

Keep exercising. I’m leaning on a phrase former friends used when describing their über-strict parenting style: Once is a habit. This is the phrase that broke my inertia and keeps me going. I have walked on the basement treadmill every.single.day since mid-June. (I refuse to stop, even for one day, because I know that (with me) Once is a habit is a concept that works both ways.) I get up early enough that I can do sixty minutes … seventy, seventy-five, even eighty on occasion. Once I pass forty-five, I feel like Forrest Gump: I could happily run walk *forever*. My 19-year-old son tells me that’s the runner’s high. (Related: I’ve told my husband when marijuana is legalized next year, I’m going to buy some. I think he thinks I’m joking.)

Keep reaching out. It was just Canadian Thanksgiving, and I’d like to say thank you; I’m so grateful to those of you who not only bear with me as I go on my philosophical — and, ahem, oftentimes depressing, lecturing, alienating — meanderings, but who also take the time to reach back to me. You make this earnest-and-anxious fish-out-of-water feel less alone.

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.

Braided Rugs

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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:

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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) —

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— 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.