Lina lived in Quillium Square, over the yarn shop run by her grandmother. . . . [The] shop had once been a tidy place, where each ball of yarn and spool of thread had its spot in the cubbyholes that lined the walls. All the yarn and thread came from old clothes that had gotten too shabby to be worn. Granny unraveled sweaters and picked apart dresses and jackets and pants; she wound the yarn into balls and the thread onto spools, and people bought them to use in making new clothes. — Jeanne DuPrau, The City of Ember
About 16 years ago, I stood in our kitchen in Minnesota, a set of thin knitting needles and a ball of sock yarn on the counter. At my feet—scattered everywhere on the linoleum and on the carpet behind me—were beads. My two children were extremely fond of making beaded snakes—of giving them names and homes, and constructing stories about their families and having them visit each other—but they were also extremely fond of dumping the beads everywhere and then using toy construction vehicles such as backhoes, bulldozers, and dump trucks to scoop them and push them and cart them around.
I can still remember how I felt as I stood there, a knitting needle in my right hand, the yarn looped around my left thumb and pinky, beads at my feet, children’s voices tugging at me. My husband was probably travelling yet again for work, and I was experiencing the quiet desperation that often came with having unrelieved days on end of just me and my children in the house. Those stitches that I was casting on to that thin needle felt like a lifeline—each stitch was purposeful and orderly, and it was a useful and creative thing I was attempting to do—and I remember thinking that if I could focus on those stitches, I might just be able to succeed at my one goal in life: being a decent mother who didn’t lose her shit and irrevocably damage her children.
This post has taken several sharp turns over the past week. It began as an ode to small things. Then, it morphed into yet-another treatise on handiwork as meditation. Four days ago, it became a rant about women’s work. Three days ago, I dumped everything but the quotation and wrote about reinvention. Two days ago, I yelled at the radio and then vented here about the need to retain a sense of perspective and to keep calm.
Clearly, I have been just as scattered as that box of beads.
I spent yesterday dusting, sweeping, darning, and knitting. While I knit, I watched our prime minister, who is in self-isolation because his wife has tested positive for COVID-19, give a press conference. And as the other news came in—closures and cancellations and directives on social distancing—I kept knitting, and as I did so, I felt my anxiety ebbing away.
We live in a world that uses big measures to quantify success, and because of that, anything small is easy to dismiss. And yet it’s often the small things that end up mattering the most—the small things that build until they collectively break us, or the small things that hold us together when we’re close to falling apart.
The photos, from the top: Darning my older son’s wool socks; knitting socks for my younger son; and—like Lina’s granny—unravelling a pair of hand-knit socks, ones that shrunk in the wash, so I can reuse the yarn. My youngest son needs a scarf, and I think it’s going to be a modification of this one, made from scrap yarn.
How about you? Are small things holding you together too?
It’s been a tough few weeks, with anxiety over the state of, well, everything, once again wreaking havoc, so I’m going with my “usual” I’d-like-to-post-but-am-feeling-rather-stuckish-and-maybe-this-will-get-the-ball-rolling-once-again kind of post:
Walking: My streak of early morning walking-on-the-treadmill now stands at an uninterrupted 255 days. Moderation is clearly not my thing, and the phrase Once Is A Habit (which got me going) has worked wonders at keeping me going. (Even when I woke up feeling decidedly flu-ish on Christmas morning, I STILL walked, a bucket set on the floor beside me, just in case…)
Agreeing: Forced positivismsucks. Can we please stop pushing happiness and belittling ourselves and others for having normal but “bad” emotions? And: Al Gore gets quite hot-under-the-collar in An Inconvenient Sequel. I can empathize…
Acknowledging: Clothes make the man. Or the woman. After years of *needing to*, both my husband and I bought new winter coats this fall: a classic black woollen coat for him; a classic black woollen coat for me. We both look and feel like grown-ups now. It’s rather a nice feeling and we don’t want winter to end.
Knitting: Scarves to tuck into the V of my double-breasted coat. Socks are always on the needles, and I finally bought yarn and began knitting this sweater.
Darning: My daughter’s favourite pair of cross-country skiing mittens. Knit by me years ago, they’ve been darned at least twice before (by me), and once by her boyfriend’s grandmother, who just happened to see a hole in the thumb as they were hanging to dry at their cabin. Although my latest fix would have looked neater had I cut away her boyfriend’s grandmother’s darning, I’m a person who finds metaphor in stitches, and I simply could not bring myself to do it.
Cooking:Why do we only eat Indian food nowadays, Mum? This from my 12-year-old son. It’s not entirely accurate, but yes, I can see his point. My answer: Um, because it’s so damn good…and because I’m in a rut and completely lack the gumption to seek out new recipes…?
Approximating: Taking my no-longer-vegetarian 19-year-old son’s request for butter chicken and naan bread and completely bastardizing the meal: omitting both the butter and the chicken and healthy-ing-up a flatbread recipe by adding whole wheat flour. I’ve been told in no uncertain terms that I am NOT to proclaim to friends who hail from India that I have cooked butter chicken and naan bread.
Buying: Fenugreek from Amazon because I can’t find it locally in our small city. This will allow me to *finally* make something from the cookbook I bought my husband for Christmas (Vegan Richa’s Indian Kitchen), which will expand our repertoire but will only make matters worse for both sons.
Tweaking: I need to add bamboo toothbrushes to that Amazon order. I’m looking for even more ways to reduce our consumption of plastic. I was hoping to find vats of eco-friendly laundry detergent and dish soap at Bulk Barn so I could bring in my containers and go zero-waste with these two items, but unfortunately, they don’t stock either. This means I need to look up recipes for laundry detergent…
Baking: I’m trying to get back to the regular baking of bread. My favourite recipe is the peasant french bread from The Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book. It makes a delicious couple of whole grain loaves and helps with my goal of plastic-reduction.
Listening: My new favourite band is The Decemberists, discovered when driving with my 19-year-old son. Love The Wrong Year, A Beginning Song, Make You Better, Don’t Carry It All.
Podcasting: Not making, just listening. Harry Potter and the Sacred Text (the deep-thinking, humanistic production I cannot seem to stop raving about). They’re currently making their way through The Goblet of Fire, and it’s both lovely and spooky that each episode seems to somehow address the very things I’m pondering.
Wondering: Whether it’s okay for me to bring up the fact that I’m wondering about all the outrage that’s been expressed over the news that an adopted pig ended up on the dinner table. Why is it that some animals are worthy of protection but millions of others are not?
Editing: I removed a 300-word rant about wanting to let loose and lecture someone about egregious plastic bag use. (Yup, I was *this close* to causing a scene in a store last week.) Perhaps this will become a post all on its own. Perhaps it’s best if it doesn’t…
Do share: tell me what you’re —ing these days…the good, the bad, the ugly; it’s all allowed here…
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 step, if-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, suikerbrood, speculaas, 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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
So I have to share this with all of you, because it just makes me so freaking happy 🙂 .
(And yes, I know … they’re *just* socks … but I have a small, simple life; therefore, small, simple things have the power to make me inordinately happy).
I had finished knitting my pair (the ones on the right) in early December, and managed to get the first of my daughter’s all the way to the toe stage. For the non-knitters out there, these socks are a cuff-down construction, so I was just about an inch and a half away from completion, when my daughter came home from university for a long weekend break in the middle of exams.
She was barely in the house when I nonchalantly tossed her my pair and quipped Hey, look what I just finished!
Sure enough — without my asking — she immediately tried them on while I stood by and rubbed my hands together and cackled gleefully Oho! my plan is coming together! .
I even managed a stealthily-arranged and nearly-blasé foot comparison, sans measuring tape, of course, because that would have immediately aroused her suspicions.
As soon as she went back to school to finish her last exams, I once again whipped out the knitting. I finished the first sock, but between baking and agonizing over presents shopping and way too much hockey (oh why is there so much hockey?!), I didn’t manage to finish the second one before she came home for the holidays. Not wanting to ruin the surprise, I hid the knitting once again, spent the next two days shaking from knitting-withdrawal, and on the night of the 24th tucked one lone sock into my daughter’s Christmas stocking, along with a promise that the second would be done in time for her to take the PAIR back to school with her on January 3rd.
And yes, as you can see by the photo, I managed! And she LOVES them. Sock-cess!
So for the knitters out there who might be curious as to why my earlier attempts at sock-knitting had resulted in un-put-on-able socks:
I had used too small a needle, resulting in too many stitches per inch, resulting in too stiff a fabric with too little stretch. Apparently I am a very tight knitter. (*WHAT* a surprise 😉 ).
Although I had used a good sock pattern, following it to a T and adjusting properly for calf length and length of foot, the heel flap had followed a one-size-fits-all approach, which doesn’t provide a very good fit for those of us with high in-steps. I have since learned that measuring from the floor to the ankle bone is the way to determine whether or not you can stick to a standard heel flap, or whether you should make yours longer.
What’s next on my needles?
Well, more socks of course! 🙂
Are any of you making anything these days? I’d love to hear about it 🙂 .
I feel like I have just a bit more to say on food waste, but my mind has been off on other things lately, so it may be a while until that post comes together.
In the meantime…
I was sitting in the Honda garage last Monday morning, waiting on an oil change and a tire swap, and I was busily knitting away, pondering the weightiness of life and death as I thought about my father-in-law who was, at that very moment, on an operating table undergoing coronary bypass surgery —
(I was also, to be honest, thinking hard about whether or not sway bars were a real thing, and if so, if a weak sway bar link — which a repairman had just told me our vehicle had — was something warranting a $250 repair. I’m rather ashamed to admit I’m the stereotypical female who might one day be persuaded that the car needs a new mezmerglobber*… )
— when a female employee walking through the waiting room stopped, and said, “Oh! What are you knitting?”
“Socks,” I replied, although my mind automatically pedantically corrected, Sock, actually…
“Oh!” she said, surprised. “Do people still do that?”
“Yup!” I said, immediately thinking of the Yarn Harlot, and the mother-daughter team at my local yarn store, and Kate, and Glenna, and my favourite aunt, all of whom still determinedly do that. I kept my response to that one chipper word, though; I didn’t confess that I was a bit of a pretender, that I had last attempted to knit socks over a decade ago. I certainly didn’t tell her that the pairs I had knit for my older two kids when they were about 5 and 7 years old, while technically perfectly constructed, had been nearly un-put-on-able, a rather unfortunate quality for a pair of socks to possess.
“Wow,” she said. “That must take a lot of time. You must love it though, to spend that much time making something you can just buy. I take my hat off to you!”
So I admit I sat there for a few moments after she left the waiting room, my hands still, pondering. Why indeed, I asked myself (not for the first time) would anyone spend loads of time making something, oftentimes at greater expense, when they could simply walk into a store and buy an equivalent pre-made thing?
Because I can?
Because it makes me happy to make things?
Because of what knitting represents to me?
I’ve been knitting, fairly steadily, ever since my first pregnancy, about 20 years ago. Although I had been taught to knit at a young age, stitchery was my *thing* and the Knitter wasn’t born until I learned I was bearing life, which I’m fairly certain isn’t a coincidence. But while I suspect knitting is, for me, mostly about an innate and instinctual desire to slather my kids in sweaters and mittens and hats in order to keep them cozy and warm and protected, I don’t think that’s the whole story. Why IS knitting so appealing to me?
On a purely philosophical level —
(I do believe I warned you, right in the title, about the over-analyzing part 😉 )
— it’s worth noting that knitting is a very positive endeavour. Unless you’ve had a gauge accident and things go horribly awry, there’s not a single destructive act in the process of knitting, except for the snip at the very end. There’s no leap-of-faith cutting-out at the beginning (as with sewing), and there’s also no noisy machine to sit in front of; knitting is all building, all quiet creating.
There’s also something staunchly basic and unapologetically practical about knitting which sits well with my minimalistic and down-to-earth soul. Not only does knitting create warm and useful things, but any beauty that may arise out of knitting feels incidental; it’s part-and-parcel to its creation, rather than being an added-on after-effect. A stitch is a stitch after all, and while cables or lace may take a bit more time, their beauty is integral to the item’s form and function.
Knitting has also always been held in my mind in a lofty, aspirational, one-day-I’ll-be-a-knitter kind of way. And that — the feeling that knitting is a worthy thing-to-do — is entirely due to this woman, sitting next to me: my favourite aunt.
I won’t bore you with all the details as to why this woman is my favourite aunt. Suffice to say it involves books, and conversation, and a spirited adventurousness, and a gezellig home, all of which I’ve always aspired to, ever since I was a small child. My aunt has been knitting almost all her life, and her flying fingers, her constant knitting-whenever-sitting, have always fascinated me. She was likely taught to knit when she was four or five, because that’s how things were done back then. There were no made-in-China socks when she and my mother and their three siblings were growing up in The Netherlands, and because she was such a beautiful (and speedy) knitter, the job of producing the family’s knitwear (socks, sweaters, mittens, and hats) fell to her. (My mother, whose knitting was deemed uneven, was the seamstress in the family, and was called upon to do the family’s sewing).
I sometimes wonder: what was that like? Did the pressure-filled fact that people were counting on your creativity turn that creativity into drudgery? Was it even viewed as creativity, or was it simply work-that-needed-doing? And extending forward to today, does the fact that one can now buy ready-made sweaters mittens hats socks turn the individual making of sweaters mittens hats socks into something that isn’t work? Is knitting now a luxury? Or worse: is it a frivolous occupation?
I don’t have the answer to any of these philosophical questions, but I do know this: my aunt is still knitting, even now, when she doesn’t have to. And the fact is, part of the reason I love to knit is because this woman I love loves to knit, and whenever I knit, she drifts into my thoughts.
I thought of her when I bought yarn to knit that first sweater for our first unborn baby. I thought about her as I knit each subsequent sweater, sometimes using yarn she helped my mother select.
I thought about her when knitting mittens for my kids’ growing hands — the small hands that once so trustingly held onto mine — pair after pair after pair, year after year after year.
(well, not really, but I can’t seem to convince my boys that I can produce a manly enough hat for them, and they’re both now waaaay too cool for hand-knit mittens)
— and needing to keep my hands occupied, I’m turning once again to socks. I suspect that for some knitters, sweaters are the holy grail of knitting. For me however, it’s socks. Socks (put-on-able ones, that is) are the thing I will one day achieve, and I know that this is entirely due to the fact that it was nearly always socks I saw on my aunt’s needles.
And somehow, now seems fitting. The last few months have been rather full of weighty issues, and I’ve been a bit of a sappy and sobby existentialistic mess. Who knows … perhaps knitting socks — that most basic of items — will help. And perhaps a good dose of thinking-of-my-aunt — and her emulatable life — will quiet some of those what-is-life-and-how-best-to-live-it questions I’m struggling with right now. Of course, the fact that my aunt was about to turn 85 when I last saw her, two years ago, is unfortunately another rather weighty thought to have to ponder.
*A mezmerglobber is an engine part on the Magic School Bus, which is the best children’s book series/TV series EVER. (IMHO). Ms. Frizzle (another (albeit fictional) emulatable woman) knows all about bus repairs and would never be at the mercy of a repairman.
After a very hot and humid August and early September, our weather has finally turned. We’ve had days where it’s been fresh and cool and breezy; in fact, the other evening, when my husband and our 10 year-old son and I went out for our (nearly) ritual evening bike ride, my hands got so cold that I found myself wishing I had a pair of fingerless mittens.
I almost have a pair. I had been so pleased with the pair I made for my daughter:
… that I decided I needed a pair as well. So last spring, I began working on these:
While the ones I made for my daughter feel a bit too snug (she’s pleased, but in hindsight, I should have gone up another needle size), these ones are neither too snug, nor too loose, but are turning out juuust right.
I should have finished them by now, and would have, had I not put them down this summer in order to begin knitting a hat for my daughter. She had spent the latter half of last winter wearing the hat pictured below, an overstretched monstrosity whose only redeeming feature is that it’s not itchy (unlike the beautiful one I had bought her for Christmas two years ago):
When my daughter came home for the summer I promised her I would make her a new hat, and after some online searching, we found this pattern for Hermione’s cable and eyelet hat, a knock-off of the one Hermione wore in the sixth Harry Potter movie. The designer’s instructions are a little vague: this is a children’s size hat, she says, but for a woman’s size hat you could try adding another repeat — or two — and then lengthening the hat by one full repeat. Now, I don’t know about you, but all of this sounds very imprecise and a bit fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants — not the kind of knitting instructions I usually like to go by.
Plunging in regardless (because, hello!, it’s Hermione’s hat!) I cast on as directed, using a new-to-me method: alternate cable (which was an absolute bear and required several attempts to get right), but once I got past that, the hat went swimmingly.
Or so I thought.
About halfway up, I started wondering if the hat was going to be too big. The alternate cable cast-on seemed way stretchier than anything I’d ever encountered before, and as soon as the circular needles allowed for it, the hat-in-progress began to go on and off both my daughter’s head and mine, many times over, both of us hemming and hawing, both of us wondering, Is it too big? Or just right? Too big? Or just right? while I kept on knittingknittingknitting, until suddenly, the thing was done and sitting there … and yes, it does fit … but the question lingered each and every time either my daughter or I donned it, as we did several times a day over the course of several days: Is this hat juuust right, or is it too big?
Because I’ve knit a stretched-out monstrosity once before (see the blue and green hat above), I’m more than a bit worried that after a wash and a few wearings, it too, will stretch out irretrievably. So I’ve not yet taken the final plunge and blocked it, because I’ve always assumed that that’s the point of no return. Once it hits that water, there’s no going back to unravel the sucker; you’re stuck. (Is that actually the case? I truly have no idea).
Just after finishing the hat, my daughter and I found ourselves in the yarn shop yet again, this time to choose some yarn for my daughter to take to university, so she’d have a crochet project to work on during her spare time when she comes home for Christmas. Completely forgetting that I had a pair of unfinished fingerless mitts I could be working on, I said to my daughter, How about I make you another hat? Maybe two hats would be nice. And maybe this one will be juuust right …
Like most other 19 year-old females, when faced with the possibility of more fashion, she couldn’t resist, and said, SURE! That would be great!
(It makes me inordinately happy that, unlike my two sons (my 16 year-old, who hasn’t worn anything hand-knitted for years, and our youngest, who has just declared he doesn’t want my hand-knit mittens anymore, despite the fact that just last year he said they were THE BEST for making snowballs), my daughter is ever-appreciative of my knitting).
So we chose another yarn and another pattern:
Determined not to make this one too big, and casting aspersions on the über-stretchy alternate cable cast on, which I contend may be the root of the problem with Hermione’s hat, I cast on using my usual method, but this time with smaller needles (because by this time I had done some hat construction research), and at the same time, I also slightly modified the pattern, because although my daughter loves this hat, she doesn’t want a slouchy look; she wants more of a beanie-type hat. Oh, and I almost forgot: I was also using DK weight yarn — not worsted, as the pattern calls for — so I had to do some calculations to figure out how many stitches to cast on.
(So, yes, in case you’re thinking, Oh, I can tell already that this is not going to end well … sigh … you’d be right … )
Now, when knitting with circular needles, it’s hard to tell what the eventual size is going to be. Everything seemed to be going so well, until the day came where I was forced to say:
“So … um … I’m kinda wondering if this is coming out a bit small … ”
My daughter picked it up, tried — and failed — to get it on her head.
“I think it’s just the needles making it so you can’t get it over your head,” I reassured her, suddenly deciding to rally. “I’m just not far enough, I think.”
I decided to go further out onto the limb, despite the fact that I could hear it creaking: “Actually, I think it will be juuust right … if Hermione is too big, then the changes I’ve made here should be perfect.”
“Okaaay,” she said, doubt in her voice. “You’re the knitter!”
Of course, the farther you get in a knitting project, the more you have invested; despite thoughts of Too small? No, juuust right. Too small? No, juuust right. Too small? running through my brain, I kept right on knitting, and then, one day, I inspected it closely and saw this:
At this point, I may have muttered words that rhyme with truck it.
The funny thing is, I had been concentrating so hard down there, near the beginning! It was the early stages, and I’m relatively new to cabling, and I was being so damn careful to get them right. Further up, I was feeling rather cocky; I had thrown caution to the wind and was knitting while watching Netflix*.
And yet, after the swearing, I have to admit it was a relief: I knew then that I would have to unravel the compression bandage the hat. That cable that I sent up the wrong way would bother me every. single. time. I saw the hat. Never mind the fact that I wouldn’t see the hat very often; never mind the fact that I couldn’t possibly see the hat squeezed perched on my daughter’s head as she trudged through snow to make her way to her classes; I could still imagine her trudging through snow to make it to her classes, and when I did, I knew I’d immediately see the cable that zigged instead of zagged.
But although I knew the hat would have to be unravelled, I wasn’t sure exactly how to fix the problem. Should I add another repeat? Should I use bigger needles for the ribbing? Should I once again go with the alternate cable cast on?
Indecisive, but needing to do something (winter’s coming!) I went back to Hermione. Leaving Version One alone, I cast on Version Two with the leftover yarn, this time with my usual method, and with one less repeat.
Knitknitknit and this time my thoughts were running Okay, that’s better, this will be juuust right, juuust right, juuust right … as soon as I run out of yarn I’ll take Version One apart, and then … um … okay … wait a sec … is this juuust right or is this actually too small? Knitknitknit … Oh, dammit, do NOT tell me this is going to be too freaking small! Oh, bloody hell, I think this IS going to be too small …
At this point, I needed to call in the cavalry. So I took all of the above to the yarn store. Their verdict? Version ONE of Hermione’s hat is perfect. The yarn store woman — who knows everything — assures me it should not stretch out like that other monstrosity: firstly, because 1X1 ribbing doesn’t tend to stretch out enormously like a 4X4 ribbing will; and secondly, because it’s merino wool and it has memory, unlike the acrylic/wool blend I used for the other hat. And even if it were to stretch out slightly, it’s superwash wool, meaning I could toss it in the washer, and then in the dryer, and that would bring it back down a notch. She told me to stop knitting the replacement Hermione hat and to go ahead and block the original Hermione hat.
As for the blue Brae hat: it’s definitely too small. I need to add another repeat to the pattern to get more width, but I should definitely use the smaller needles for the ribbing band, and then switch to larger needles for the main body. But this time I should probably take no chances; as Mad-Eye Moody would say: Constant Vigilance!, and that means no Netflix until it’s done …
* Last Tango in Halifax, just in case you’re wondering. A modern-day, almost soap opera-esque series about two families in Yorkshire, England, whose characters say “summat” just like Hagrid 🙂