Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Square 83: Fern frost

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Fern frost is frost that forms on windows. A few mornings ago I found my car covered with not just the usual annoying granular layer, but a splendid floral pattern. What a shame to have to scrape it away.

I used to get these on the windows of my previous apartment. Window frost is usually a sign of a poorly insulated window, but I didn't mind because I didn't pay for heat. Irresponsible attitude? Perhaps, but that fanciful decor on winter mornings was one of the few luxuries about the place.

I have a couple old, poorly insulated windows in my new apartment, too, but now that I pay for hydro I must take a different attitude. I might cover them with a layer of plastic or insulating curtains. Maybe it's for the best.

With politicians from around the world meeting in Copenhagen this week to discuss strategies to address climate change, it is clear we must all work hard to curtail careless use of carbon fuels. We need to make hard choices to adjust our lifestyles, or in the end our planet will impose deadly changes.

Fern frost is a nostalgic reminder of an innocent childhood, maybe a happier time when nature seemed a simpler, more benevolent force. Life on Earth will never be the same.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Square 82: Form

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I like taking a simple form and exploring variations upon it. That's one of the appeals of this blanket blog that inspire me onward. As you get to know a form you can experiment within its constraints. Something that seems simple and repetitive may contain infinite variety.

Structure is one of the things that draws us into music, for example. Most popular songs include several verses (V), a chorus (C) in a different but related theme, and often a bridge section (B) introducing a third related theme. These might follow the sequence V-C-V-C-B-C. Songwriters return to this basic structure again and again because it provides listeners with a reference point. Even a new song can be predictable. The combination of predictability and novelty entertains us, and gives us cues to the rhythm and pace of the song.

Classical music commonly uses several musical forms. One of them, the rondo, follows a structure similar to contemporary song structure: A-B-A-C-A-B-A. Each section presents a distinct theme. There may be additional ones (D, E, F), but ultimately the music always returns to the beginning theme.

I have experimented with a particular form in some of these squares, treating each yarn as an individual theme. Sometimes I have tried returning to the same themes symmetrically as in a rondo, but these mitred squares seem more interesting if they culminate in different colours from which they started. The apex of the square focuses the attention, and the colours there, even though they consist of fewer stitches, draw as much attention as the long outside rows, which form a kind of foundation.

So I have invented an original form. I think the first time I used it was in Square 48. I was establishing a colour rhythm, ripples of light and dark moving across the square the way moonlight draws your eye across the layers of a night landscape.

Since then, I have tried variations on that form. This time I used the square to illustrate it. I chose five solid coloured yarns (dark green, grey, vermilion, purple, and apple green) and five variegated yarns in colours closely related to the first five.

I followed a few simple rules in establishing this form. Each colour is used exactly twice, and each never appears next to any other colour more than once. The first three rows establish the first three colours; after that each new colour is followed by an old colour and vice versa, until the last three rows wrap up the last three colours.. I like how it establishes rhythm and harmony among contrasting colours. This square is odd, but it illustrates the pattern well.


Sunday, November 29, 2009

Square 81: 42

Coming to Toronto for Danny's birthday weekend, I brought along a bunch of yarns that would appeal to him and asked him to select six to nine to use in this square. This presented an interesting challenge for him, and also for me, because the colours were not ones I would have thought to use together. But as he told me while I began to knit, these yarns represent different aspects of himself, and although it is not the whole him, the square presents an interesting portrait of this dear man.

Starting from the outside row, the first and second yarns are from two of his favourite companies, Wellington Fibres and Noro, respectively. The pearly lilac from Wellington is left over from some gloves I knitted for Brenna several years ago, and it is a sleek mohair-wool blend.

The teal green Noro Silk Garden yarn reappears as the peacock blue row, and again closer to the centre as bright lilac. Danny says blue and green were practically the only colours he used in knitting, for many years. They also represent the calm, easy-going personality he presents to the world. The third row is forest green from Cascade, one of the unifying colours in this blanket, and also one of his favourite colours.

The next three yarns represent his creative endeavours.

The grey with hints of celadon green is some yarn he dyed with elderberries. It is a cool, calm colour, but with hints of a stormy side within. The sandy gold came from beech leaves, which was a project Danny and I worked on together. It was my first experiment with natural dyes, so this thread also represents our bond.

Third in this section is a handspun yarn Danny made from a "kitchen sink" batt he acquired from a classmate in his spinning course. It contains a variety of colours—yellow, reddish-brown, even some glitter—and ties into lessons and challenges he described for us in Square 58.

Continuing inward, the last two yarns represent change, and parts of Danny's personality that tend to be hidden. The ember red is Berroco Ultra Alpaca and the variegated fiery red is Manos del Uruguay. After breaking from the blue-green pattern, Danny says, he only knit with orange and red for a long time. Lately his projects have integrated warm and cool colours, which takes us to the heart of the square.

Why 42? 42 is an abundant number. Have a happy, abundant year, my Love.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Square 80: Commuting

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From 1991 to 1995 I commuted to work in Mississauga, a satellite city to Toronto. Throughout those years, the intervening stretch of Highway 401 was under expansion from four lanes to six. Every workday I spent 75 minutes each way pressing bumper to bumper with thousands of other frustrated commuters through narrow construction lanes past industrial parks, which metastasized across the landscape. In the course of one year, commuting added to more than 25 days of what felt like wasted life. After it ended, I swore I would never do it again.

When I began building pipe organs in 2006, I had to drive 25 minutes in the opposite direction to Fergus, a small town deeper into rural Ontario. Highway 6 winds through rolling farmland dotted with woods, and if I don't mind taking an extra five minutes I can follow even quieter country roads.

One misty morning last week I spotted an old-fashioned, rusty windmill spinning in a field of golden corn stubble. The colours of that landscape inspired this square.

I do not begrudge one minute of these driving times. I look forward to them. Each morning the countryside enfolds me like a lover, and carries me to blissful heights of distraction. I try to put everything else out of my head and concentrate entirely on the rhythm of this pilgrimage. It is a twice-daily meditation.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Square 79: Gift season

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My posts to The Yarn have slowed down for one simple reason: gift-giving season. Besides the obvious, my daughters both have fall birthdays. Much of my free knitting time has been taken up making things for them. I didn't knit gifts last year, but Brenna specifically requested a new hat, and by the time it was complete I had decided to knit something for Marian, too. She turns eighteen in a few more weeks, and her gift will be quite different from anything I have made before.

Mom loved this time of year. One Christmas morning about 10 years ago she told me, with surprise, that she had slept through the night, the first time she could ever remember doing so on Christmas Eve. Mom slept easily and frequently, but not then. She was a generous gift-giver, who took at least as much genuine pleasure in giving as receiving.

I picked it up from her. As a teenager I made a lot of my gifts, especially boxes of jams and preserves for my older brothers and their wives. One year I decorated a row of cans (coffee or Pringles size) as soldiers in colourful, historical uniforms and placed them along the mantle, one for each family member. They contained cookies and other goodies homemade by me and Mom.

I celebrated Christmas in style until well into adulthood, but a few years ago became disenchanted. I can't explain why; it was more an emotional departure than a rational one. We might be better off without the consumerism, materialism and rich food, but we should still celebrate family time with or without those things, and my mother's excitement was essentially all about family.

My definition of family has expanded to include friends close to me, and for most of them this is an important season, whether it be Christmas, Hannukah, Solstice, the Festival of Lights or just good old no-name celebration.

I suppose part of my enthusiasm for Christmas was lost when Mom departed from us. This time of year will never be the same without her. But as I told the loved ones who gathered to remember her, Mom's battle with cancer taught her to appreciate every single day as a gift, so we should try to honour her wisdom by living that way, not getting lost in grief and regret.

That lesson was one of the best gifts Mom ever gave, and it inspires me to refresh my own spirit of giving this year.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Square 78: November daughter

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16 years ago today my baby was born by Caesarian section. I don't have much of a stomach for blood and so on, but when the moment came I wanted to be fully present, stepped up to the cloth partition, and looked over to see her lifted from the incision in her mother's belly. She had been relatively peaceful throughout the pregnancy, and in the same way she entered this wide new room full of strange people. She was healthy and alert but the only sound she made was a gentle squawk. No crying, not then.

As a little girl, Brenna had an unusually sunny disposition. One of my worst regrets is that I missed bonding with her during a crucial part of her childhood. Her mother and I separated just after she turned two, and it was not an amicable transition. For a few months I had trouble even getting to see my daughters, and when our times together finally resumed, I had missed Brenna's progression from baby talk to speaking in short sentences.

When she was three I lived for a while with a man named Dan who had two children close in age to my two. It was a one-bedroom apartment so weekends were crazy. We were a melancholy, cantankerous crew except for Brenna, the youngest, whose smiles and laughter cheered many a gloomy Saturday. She loved Dan to swing her in the air, but couldn't pronounce Ls, and kept asking him to fnip her. So Dan called her Fnip, but I used to call her The Bean.

She has always liked movies. Her ability to remember her favourite scripts, even after one or two viewings, is staggering. She is also a great storyteller, and I used to think she could be a great stand-up comic. Unfortunately she is intimidated, as I am, by the scrutiny of strangers. She has grown into a thoughtful, reticent young woman, but still with a keen sense of humour about the absurdity of human behaviour.

It might have seemed to her that I had more in common, or an easier rapport, with her older sister. Marian is more outgoing, and shy people usually envy extroverts.

I know, because I am an introvert, too, but have learned to value quiet company as much as easy conversation. Nowadays we can talk at length, and with greater trust and insight. I hope that growth will continue forever.

Ah Bren, you and I are alike in so many ways: how we gravitate to the outskirts of activity, our greater comfort with written than spoken communication, our longing for trust, our romantic attraction to diffident, tender people.

Many other things I admire. A steady and patient hand allow Brenna to make small, detailed things and draw eloquently. She has a great eye for colour. She loves the woods and is an expert beachcomber, with the ability to find the most remarkable things.

Outdoors she has an endearing habit of finding a perfect secluded place to sit—perhaps a low place under shelter of a bough, or a rock like a stool in the forest—and spending a long time there, peaceful and practically invisible, as if she could create her own veil of air and light. I hope through the many challenges and trials of life she will never lose the ability to find solace.

This yarn is a remnant from a gift I made her. She hasn't seen it yet, but it is nothing like this square really. These are the colours that were left over, and they will stay with me, part of my story.

Happy sweet sixteen, my dear. I wish you rich experiences and kind companions in the year to come.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Square 77: Tosca

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When I was a university student my friend, Peter Satterly, treated me to a dress rehearsal performance of Tosca with the Canadian opera company. Now with the benefit of hindsight, I know this work to be a treasure of the repertoire; powerful and timeless plot, strong characters, memorable melodies, and Giacomo Puccini's lush orchestration make Tosca one everyone should consider seeing. I was a newbie in the 1980s. Tosca won my heart, and I have grown as an opera buff ever since.

The character of Floria Tosca is appealing, very human with strengths and flaws. She is a stage singer, devoted, jealous, fierce, effervescent and kind. She does not realize (at first) her boyfriend, Mario, is a revolutionary. He runs afoul of the merciless and lascivious chief of police, Scarpia, who draws the two lovers into dreadful trouble. Yes, this is a tragedy, grand opera style, but not just about the tragedy of love; it's the challenge we all face as human beings to make difficult choices, to be actors and not just passive observers in life.

One of the musical climaxes is Tosca's second-act aria, Visi d'arte, in which she prays—not the common operatic pining of infatuation and lust, but longing for innocence, freedom and a simple life.

I lived for art, I lived for love.
I never did harm to a living soul!
With a secret hand
I relieved as many misfortunes as I knew of....
In the hour of grief
Why, why, Lord
Ah, why do you reward me thus?

A pretty actress who never thought of being a real heroine, she finds herself caught in the battle between good and evil, called to enact terrible justice. She proves herself to be a woman of action, regardless of consequences. Myself, as an artist far more interested in creativity than politics, I can relate to her dilemma.

Last week I saw this opera performed for the second time, live in high definition from the Metropolitan Opera, with Danny. It was his first time, and it pleased me to see him as captivated as I was by the music and characters. I will never forget the powerful performance by Finnish soprano, Karita Mattila.

This knitted square refers to the exquisite red coat she wore, and the character's beauty, commemmorated in Rufus Wainwright's song, "Damned Ladies":

Desdemona, do not go to sleep.
Brown-eyed Tosca, don't believe the creep.

This new production by Luc Bondy of a popular work has drawn harsh criticism and public disapproval, which I don't understand. The sets are stark, dark and realistic, true to the potent spirit of the tale, as meaningful as ever today, when political power has been widely abused and the rights of many—to live and love free of oppression—are curtailed.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Square 76: Boo!

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I haven't done much special for Halloween the past few years. Next year should be the year to change that.

I used to enjoy it to the max. My favourite costume ever was the Viking outfit my parents helped me put together in grade nine. Dad cut a round shield out of plywood and we stained it brown. The sword and ax head were also cut from wood, but he beveled the edges and painted them silver for greater authenticity. I used cardboard and aluminum foil to make a peaked helmet complete with nose guard. Under my shoes I wore bulky wool socks criss-crossed with rawhide laces. A bulky sweater resembled chain mail, and I cut a cloak out of green cloth. The best thing about that costume was it provided months of enjoyment as props for fantasy games in the woods with my neighbours.

On a more gruesome note, the November issue of National Geographic contains a riveting article about animal mummies from ancient Egypt. The culture venerated some animals as gods and gave them elaborate burials. They alos prepared pets to accompany their masters in the afterlife. For the journey, the dead were also provided with food—essentially mummified jerky.

An entire economy revolved around providing worshipers with votive mummies. When you entered a temple, it was safest to go equipped with a specimen of the god's favourite animal to offer as an intercessor. Many thousands of cats, ibises and other animals were dispatched, embalmed and wrapped in cloth for this purpose. It was a lucrative business, and bred corruption. Modern scans reveal some of the most lavish mummies contain no real animals at all, just mud or perhaps a few bones.

This ancient culture seemed to have more reverence for death than live. It is both fascinating and morbid to consider, a delightful little yarn to inspire your Halloween dreams. I tried to make a square out of the most ghoulish colours possible, but it turned out eerily lovely. Happy Halloween.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Square 75: Grand Manan Island

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In August 2005 I took Marian and Brenna on a whirlwind tour of the Maritime provinces. When I was planning it, my friend Colleen said we must visit Grand Manan Island. She and her partner had camped on a cliff at Hole-in-the-Wall Park and heard whales breaching in the night.

So that is exactly what we did. We never saw the whales, but heard them at night. When fog moved in around 4 a.m., a foghorn started groaning from a nearby point, filling our dreams. In the morning we saw seals entering the weir net below our campsite to catch fish.

Fine rain fell most of the day and two nights we spent on the island. At Southwest Head we hiked along another cliff. We could hear sea waves thundering at the foot, almost invisible through the mist. At Seal Cove, a fishing village hardly changed since the 19th Century, I photographed water droplets on a huge spider web. In the middle of an August week, there were few tourists, and we had the campground practically to ourselves.

All the island was the colours of this square.

On the trip we saw much beauty and enjoyed much hospitality, especially from my Nova Scotia aunt and her family. But Grand Manan Island was our favourite part of the trip, this despite the wet weather. Any tour of the Maritimes would be incomplete without a visit. Grand Manan Island is part of New Brunswick, but off the coast of Maine in the Bay of Fundy. It is reached by a two-hour ferry trip from Blacks Harbour.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Square 74: Genie

Yesterday I brought home some shiny Gatsby Lux yarn to incorporate into this blanket. I got infected sitting next to Rachel at Luttuce Knit's knit night recently. Rachel likes glittery yarn, and somehow I came away feeling this project needed some, too. I'm a bit of a natural fibre snob, so this is a new departure for me.

The yarn looked nice with purples and rich browns, colours that immediately make me think of magic. I don't even believe in magic, really, so where do I go from there?

If I found a magic lamp and the genie gave me three wishes, what would I wish for? I suspect most of us would have a hard time resisting the lure of riches, but my first thought was: "Please eliminate all my debt forever."

I didn't have to think about that one for long before recognizing the catch: the underlying problem is my own behaviour. No magic could erase that.

When I was a boy I had everything I needed, most of the things I wanted, and more. My parents were careful. They always had enough money for a comfortable home, new clothes, good food, family vacations plus a lot of things that many people would consider luxuries. And they never went in debt.

Somehow I did not learn from their example. I habitually spend money I don't have. It's not that I live lavishly, certainly not. Most of the time I worry about paying the bills and spend very little money. Then once in a while I feel rich, but instead of working on that debt, I immediately spend what money I have and a little extra.

At the time it feels like I'm rewarding myself for hard work, but in the long run, having no money is no reward. Someone recently pointed out that this behaviour is self-destructive, and suggested I perpetuate the problem because it is familiar and I wouldn't know how to act if I didn't have to worry about it. She was probably right.

When I was a boy I had a little plastic cylinder for banking all the quarters I got from my allowance. I would save money to buy something special every once in a while, usually a new fish for my aquarium. I've always liked pretty things.

Meanwhile I wanted to run away (most children think about it, don't they?), and imagined I could save enough quarters to get by on for a while. But nothing was more terrifying than the thought of being on my own without anyone to look after me. Nowadays I live alone and spend most of the time looking after myself. It's still terrifying sometimes.

I never saved enough to run away, and I never make much progress paying down my credit card, but if there is one thing I could change to make my life better, that would be it. No, a genie couldn't help, but recently I took inspiration from Leo Babauta, who blogs Zen Habits and claims to have changed a "laundry list" of problems and gotten out of debt by simply changing his behaviour. It's going to take some hard work, learning to keep a budget, and changing the way I think about a lot of things. It's a problem I'm ashamed to talk about, but lately I've been putting the word out to a few friends, and with this square I'm going on record, drawing a line in the sand.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Square 73: Water

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I grew up on the shore of Lake Erie, but it was a much smaller body that formed my first intimate vision of water. The golf course across the road had a water trap by the thirteenth tee, alongside a marsh. There each summer I would collect a pail of ripe water with a few tiny black polliwogs in hopes of raising them to froggy adulthood (I had a book that showed how a particularly clever boy might do it). Invariably I would forget the pail in full sunshine where those cute amphibious progeny met a swift demise. It was a harsh lesson in good intentions. People fancy themselves stewards of nature. In fact we are her subjects.

To no other aspect of our physical environment are we more indebted than the hydrological cycle, and we are at its mercy.

Until the 1970s scientists believed sunlight was the single most important requirement of life. Then we discovered entire ecosystems thriving around deep sea vents, food chains utterly independent of sunlight. At the base were microbes deriving energy not through photosynthesis but chemosynthesis, from chemical reactions between sea water and gases erupting from the vents. Considering this, astrobiologists suggest that we might find extraterrestrial life in our own solar system, particularly in oceans or caves under the surface of moons such as Jupiter's Europa.

Meanwhile we're having a hard time finding enough water to survive on our own planet. Since 1990, 1.6 billion people have gained access to safe drinking water, however a United Nations report predicts the quantity of water available to everyone will decline by 30 per cent in the next 20 years. And climate change is expected to intensify the hydrological cycle, causing drought in near-tropical areas, increased precipitation near the equator and in higher latitudes.

Water is another one of those things we tend to overlook or take for granted until we don't have it. If the threat to biodiversity is not enough inspiration for us to be more careful with our water resources, we should at least recognize that mismanagement is ultimately self-destructive.

The colours in this square remind me of wetlands, considered the most biologically diverse ecosystems. Historically people couldn't derive much economic benefit from them, and drained them. Belatedly we learned the cost. Wetlands are powerful water purification systems. As the world's need for clean water grows, governments and industries have begun to cooperate in conserving wetlands and constructing them artificially.

Since the days of my childhood, I've never been happy living far from water. I miss the lake, but have learned to find inspiration and solace around smaller bodies. In Guelph the Eramosa River has become for me a personal symbol of the journey of life.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Square 72: Small

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On Sunday afternoon Danny and I took in the Guelph Studio Tour. In a typical Bohemian apartment on Suffolk Street we encountered a new artist to the roster, Ellen Jewett. Her website is Creatures from El, and her sculptures feature a menagerie of creatures—dragons, phoenixes—or the more mundane—dogs and snails—transformed in clay by El's whimsy.

What caught my (and Danny's) eye the most were two "two dimensional" works, actually sculptures bursting out of their frames on the wall, depicting the forest floor. It looked like she had sawn off part of a rotting stump covered with an army of lichen, tongues of fern and spritely mushrooms. It was a miniature landscape utterly familiar to me.

In one of my earliest memories of Lake Fletcher, our friend and neighbour, Joyce, had given me a few of those little ceramic animals that used to come in packages of tea. She took me and Mom on a walk over the ridge to the darkest, moistest part of the forest where the ground is coated with rich moss. I collected some and brought it back to the cottage where Joyce gave me a dish in which I could arrange it and create a verdant home for the tiny sculptures.

To this day it is the tiniest plants and fungi that enchant me most. With my daughters' help I have created a moss garden in one shady corner of our cottage property. Lichens don't transplant so well, but ferns do nicely, and every summer a new host of mushrooms volunteers itself from the surrounding carpet of mouldering leaves.

The rippling lake is a grand lady of peace, and the sunsets are oh so breathtaking, but the most intricate vistas are the ones right at our feet. Look out so you don't trample biodiversity!

What are the small, powerful things most people overlook, but that engage your imagination?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Square 71: Sibelius's Second Symphony

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As promised, this time I chose yarn first, then started knitting and waited for the colours and textures to suggest a story. I began juxtaposing intense purple Noro Silk Garden with some dark, rich browns. The combination was unusual, but the story came to mind more easily expected. For months I've wanted to create a square for my favourite musical composition, but didn't know how to describe it in colours. Now this was it.

Friday on Tempo, CBC Radio 2's midday Classical music program, host Julie Nesrallah launched a feature called Music that rocks your world. She described how her grade seven teacher took the class to see the movie, Fame; when Julie heard the final movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, it changed her life forever. She asked listeners to write and tell her about similar experiences of their own.

Later the same day, same station, different program, Rich Terfry described how some music actually affects us physically. It can make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.

I've had that happen. I wonder what causes it: dynamic tension, I suppose. My favourite symphony used to do it practically every time I listened. Over the years the effect has worn off, but still I am profoundly moved.

Unlike Julie, I grew up drenched in 19th Century music, especially Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto, Chopin piano pieces, a little Brahms, and the music of Fantasia. Every day my parents listened to WQRS, the Classical music station from across the river in Detroit. I began finding my own favourite composers, like Schubert, Dvorak and Sibelius, and exploring their repertoire.

I don't remember how or when I first heard Sibelius's Symphony Number Two in D Major, but it became my favourite composition by my mid teens and has remained so ever since. In the evenings when my parents watched TV, I would close the door to family room, go down the hall to the empty living room, put on my vinyl recording of this symphony, turn up the volume, turn off the lights, and go on a long journey. It was only 45 minutes, but also a lifetime.

In those days I experienced music intensely visually. The symphony seems to begin on a sunny hillside, traverse wide open country, move through stormy winter darkness, shift to a windswept mountain cliff, and plunge into deep, mysterious shadows. At the end of the darkness, the traveler glimpses a shining city and slowly approaches. The finale is resplendent and transcendent.

This square is not a literal description of the landscape I saw with my inner eye, but an impression of the music's deep, enigmatic qualities.

I have always related deeply to Sibelius's music without understanding why, but recently came to realize it is because he was deeply inspired by nature. I was an isolated and lonely teenager, and I suppose this music also gave me hope. To my mind, Symphony Number Two suggests all fears and trials are worth enduring, and life is an adventure of inestimable richness.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Square 70: Brenna's colours

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While I was knitting at the cottage on Thanksgiving weekend, Brenna started pawing through my bag of yarn, picking out colours and twisting them together. The first combination she picked included a new skein of ivory Berroco Lustra, the misty green from Tanis Fibre Arts, and some unknown apple green wool. It was delicious. I was struck by the fact that Marian, Brenna and I each have a knack for colour. Our tastes are different, and the yarns Bren combined were unlike anything I had thought of (I like green, but Bren loves it even more!). I was immediately attracted to her selection, and decided to use it in this square. I also incorporated some variegated green and red yarn from Pat Leclair, which I had purchased a few days previous at The Black Lamb. Some of Brenna's ideas are also reflected in the previous square about Thanksgiving (she has a good eye for pink).

How much of our shared passion for colour is in our genes, and how much have I passed on by exposing the girls to my geekish, artsy behaviour? It doesn't matter. Colour is one of my delights, and I'm happy they can enjoy it in their own, unique ways.

In this blanket, I tend to think of a story and then choose yarns to communicate it, but Brenna's experimentation encourages me to approach the colours for their own sake. Perhaps for the next square I'll choose the colours first, start knitting and wait to see what story the yarn tells me.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Square 69: Thanksgiving

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Things I am thankful for.

The gift of two unique and beautiful daughters. Being in love with a man with whom love-making has never—not for an instant—been boring. My dad being alive and well and happy.

My laptop, my camera, my apartment, the new houseplants I’ve kept alive for the few weeks since I moved in.

My cottage, especially my cottage when the sky is clear and the lake is warm, the water blue from above and golden underneath.

The two aunts who encouraged me to bring Danny to my mother’s memorial, the cousin who has cheered me on, my friends.

The places where I like to hang out and write like the Red Brick CafĂ© and the Green Room. Community hubs like Out On The Shelf, the Rainbow Chorus, Writers’ Circle and Rainbow Knitters.

The insight that allows me to derive my own meaning in a universe that is inherently meaningless. Depression that taught me to treasure each day. Creativity that allows me to create treasure. Eyes to see beauty, ears to hear music.

Especially Sibelius’ Symphony Number Two. Also Schubert, Brahms, Dvorak, Rachmanninoff, and Vaughan Williams.

The intimacy that comes as two strangers learn to trust, the joy that comes from trusting myself enough to be alone and enjoy my own company.

Computer games that distract me. Good food that gives pleasure.

Being in love with a patient listener.

Losing my temper. I mean really losing it, for so long that I could almost forget the feeling of uncontrolled anger. The challenge of calm and simplicity that somehow elude me but draw me ever higher and onward.

The words of Stephanie Dowrick, Natalie Goldberg, Annie Dillard and Ursula K. LeGuin; the worlds of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien; the imaginary characters who have kept me company; the real friends who replace them.

My 1920s oak library table.

A grandfather who liked to tell stories and nibble my toes.

All the stars in the universe, meteor showers, the planets, all the things we have yet to discover, all the mysteries that keep us humble, a universe that is far too complicated for us to understand.

Oh yeah, and nature, how could I forget my favourite herbs, shrubs and wildflowers? Let’s start with lilacs, lavender and lemon verbena, the fringed gentians the bloom in August at Singing Sands, magnolias and old-style, fragrant yellow roses, lady’s slipper orchids, sundews and pitcher-plants, the fragrance of a pool of violets in spring, the radiance of a meadow of asters and goldenrod in autumn.

There’s also the birds, especially cedar waxwings, eccentric and gregarious, but also catbirds, all the warblers I learn to identify by ear.

I mustn’t forget pianos, radios or CD players. Cars.

Grocery stores full of familiarity and discovery. Peaches and apricots, mushrooms, shellfish, all kinds of cheese, red wine, liqueurs, pesto, dark chocolate.

My kitchen, my bed, the shower, the windows where sun shines in.

Hardwood floors and stained glass windows, pipe organs, bookstores.

The Eramosa River, Lake Fletcher, Lake Erie, Georgian Bay, Hockley Valley. Towns that enchant and cities that engage.

Live theatre, symphony orchestras. Rufus Wainwright and k.d. lang. Her voice, yes thank you for her voice.

That early memory of running barefoot through the grass with the drone of cicadas in the air.

The memory of my last evening with Mom when we had the conversation I never expected to have, so full of forgiveness. The full lunar eclipse on the night she died and all the full moons since.

The fellowship of lost friends as long as it lasted.

A quiet place on rocks by a stream, deep in the woods, just sitting and watching.

Walking on a winter night on the ice under a full moon, or walking under no moon when the Milky Way is so brilliant I can feel the distance and depth of the stars. The forlorn call of a loon at night, the blinking of fireflies, the choir of toads by a river in Guelph on a mild May evening, the way nature fills more of my life when I let it.

The special way I have of seeing colour and putting different colours together. The way photography, writing and fibre seem to play off of one another.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Square 68: Fall

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It's the Sunday morning of Thanksgiving weekend at Lake Fletcher. Hard frost during the night. Mist rises from the lake, and long beams of the rising sun highlight brilliant maples on the far shore. The dock is slick. Each leaf fallen there is beaded with pearls of ice, or laced around the fringes.

The air is perfectly still. Leaves sift constantly downward, tickling their sisters, whispering, “Come with me!” Two chipmunks chase one another through the undergrowth of bunchberries. A pair of nuthatches visiting the feeder utter soft, staccato syllables to keep in touch. There is no other sound.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Square 67: Meteor shower

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I had a childhood friend named Morgan Lewis. She lived with her parents in Huntsville, Alabama, but every summer she and her sister, Gillian, came to visit her grandparents, who had a summer home down our road. We were both interested in books and nature, and would tape mock radio broadcasts to entertain our families.

Her father, Chuck, worked for NASA, and I will never forget the night he showed us the Perseid meteor shower. The day before, we made a map of the night sky showing major constellations, so we could chart all the meteors we would see. After dinner we went for naps so we would be able to sit up well into the night, but I couldnt' sleep.

Around 11 p.m. our families gathered on the edge of the golf course across the road. There were no large trees around, so we could set out lawn chairs and view the entire sky. It was a clear night with no moon. Mr. Lewis knew more stars and constellations than anyone I had ever talked to, and he identified them for us. I have remembered many of them, like the Summer Triangle: Deneb, Vega and Altair. Deneb, the brightest of the three, is 70,000 times more luminous than the sun and 1,550 light years away.

At first we saw a few small meteors. Mr. Lewis had a good reason for teaching us the names of the stars and constellations, because whenever we saw a meteor, people would call out where it had appeared in the sky, what direction it had taken and how far it had travelled. Morgan, Gillian and I would plot them on the map we had made.

After midnight, as our place on the planet turned to face its direction of travel, the meteors became faster and brighter. Some were distinctly coloured, and some left a momentary tail in the sky. We marked them down furiously, and had to start skipping some of the fainter ones.

In the wee hours a brilliant pink meteor appeared from behind some distant trees and slowly traversed the sky, leaving a long, scintillating tail. It must have taken 10 seconds to cross, finally disappearing near the western horizon.

Our group slowly dispersed to sleep, first my parents and then the Lewises, but Morgan and I stayed out all night until the pale edge of dawn appeared. We had seen hundreds of meteors. Our map showed that most of them appeared to originate near the constellation, Perseus, and radiate outward. This perspective is an illusion caused by the Earth's movement as it passes through a cloud of debris stretching along the path of Comet Swift-Tuttle.

The Perseid meteor shower can be viewed every year around August 12. I have watched several times, but never seen such a spectacle as that night with Morgan and her family. A few years later I visited Huntsville, and Mr. Lewis gave me a tour of Marshall Space Flight Center. I have since lost contact with Morgan, but maybe sometimes we are watching the same stars. I hope we reconnect someday.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Square 66: Elderberry

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Across the road from our house, my parents owned a vacant field that verged on a marsh. There I planted several native shrubs, like snowberry, in hope of attracting wildlife. Then I discovered something growing wild there, one of the things that birds like best: an elderberry bush. I tried making jam from the berries, but it failed. It was full of the seeds, and the sugar crystallized. I didn't make successful elderberry jelly until many years later. But this plant remains for me an icon: nature feeding us, feeding itself, sustenance, sweetness, the cycle of life. Coincidentally, the dark purple Cascade yarn I chose to use as a common thread throughout this blog blanket is precisely the colour of ripe elderberries.

So it was with particular guilt that I cut down an elderberry bush at Danny's house yesterday. In this small Toronto backyard it was not just growing, but burgeoning, taking over its corner, threatening to shoulder the house aside. Elderberries favour moist, rich soil, and I think this part of the city used to be part of Lake Ontario, so the roots must have lots of rank, dark, dirty depths to thrive upon.

The birds came to feed on the berries every summer. I've made jelly from them, and Danny has dyed yarn. The greenish-grey fibre in this square came from that dye pot. So we owe that shrub a lot of thanks.

Instead, we cut it down. Sometimes plants get in the way. It's a fact of life in the city, where space is limited.

When I approached the shrub with gloves and saw, I startled a robin and some white-throated sparrows (Bill has also seen a tribe of Baltimore orioles there). They hesitated to fly away, hovering around as I began hacking at the branches. They couldn't believe it. But by the time the brush all lay in a pile, they had given up and gone away. Later in the afternoon, a forlorn wood thrush appeared on the fence and looked around, casting a mournful, beady glance in my direction, flicking its rusty brown tail in indignation. It circled the yard once or twice before fluttering away in silence and despair.

Guilty. I am guilty.

But as a phoenix rises from the ashes, so a hacked elderberry will re-emerge from the muck, if not here then somewhere else. This particular plant has been cut to the ground several times already. Our world will not soon be rid of them. Ontario will have plenty of fruit for jelly and dye, and for the wild ones to eat.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Square 65: Progress report

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When this idea started to roll, I was fresh with enthusiasm and pumping out four squares per week. I planned to make a full-size blanket, perhaps five by six feet in dimension, and calculated about 14 by 17 squares would be about right: 238 in total. It would take me well into next year.

Then full-time work started lining up and I became busy with other things. I couldn't keep up the knitting pace. At the current rate it would take several years to make that many squares. I balked. I wanted to stop and finish the blanket right away. I was ready to give up.

But new stories kept suggesting themselves. I realized I didn't need to have a definite time frame; I could work until the blanket told me it was ready.

A few days ago when I had completed 63 squares, I laid them all out, nine by seven. It was a great size for a wall-hanging. Once again I contemplated making just a few more squares to round out the stories, finishing, and moving on to a new project.

But whenever I start thinking that way, the squares tell me, "No, we still have more stories to tell." It is like any pilgrimage. It is like life. You can't see where you are going in detail, because you have never been there. You don't know how long it will take, because you can't predict what will happen along the way. But the destination matters less than the journey itself.

I've learned a lot from this trip. I had never used more than two different yarns in one project before. Now I routinely use nine or ten in a single square. Knitting has evolved into a way of painting a landscape, a dream, or a thought.

I have explored the way colours interact, and it's different from coloured pencils or paints, which you can combine to create any colour. The colour of the yarns is immutable, but I am beginning to discover how to use similarities and contrasts to draw out highlights and undertones. A variegated yarn looks very different whether laid alongside a deep red or a muted red.

Perhaps the most obvious change has been the shift from cool, dark colours to neutrals, and warm and bright (inspect the gallery). This is not just superficial. My favourite colour has always been deep blue, followed by green and purple, but I am actually becoming enamoured with orange and its allies. This blanket began as a way to use up yarn in my stash, but has evolved into an excuse to acquire single skeins of anything that catches my eye. This square incorporates several new acquisitions.

I don't regret that, because I know they'll all come to good use over the long haul. Long after finishing this blanket, I'll continue using yarn to tell stories. Hats and scarves will never be the same.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Square 64: Writers' circle

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Someone said it's easy to write; you just open a vein and bleed. I did a lot of my writing longhand until the recent purchase of a laptop, and often would imagine the thread of ink across the white page was not really black, but crimson. The best writing comes when I do not hesitate to plumb my deepest, most difficult thoughts and emotions.

I've been writing all my life, but have experienced a mini renaissance lately. After long years of wishing for writing companions with whom I could meet and share encouragement, in 2007 I took responsibility for my own need of community and started a writers' circle. It meets every week at Out On The Shelf. It took a long time to get going but during the past year it has come to life, and the meeting is one of the highlights of my week.

The most important friendship to emerge from this has been with my writing partner, Sarah. For many months the writers' circle included just the two of us. That evolved into a weekly "business meeting" when we talk about our creative processes and challenges, and set goals for the time ahead. No other habit is more potent in propelling my ideas forward.

Recently I have had trouble with fiction writing. The stories won't move easily from the shadowy recesses of my mind onto the page, and once there they don't seem to communicate what I want them to. I tell myself I must cross this mountain to achieve a higher plateau, perhaps a better quality of prose, but without Sarah and the writers' circle I would probably lose courage and lapse into months of not-writing. So this square goes out with gratitude to them; with ink, blood and the richness of colours we strive to pour out of ourselves.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Square 63: My cottage dream

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I had a brief retreat at Lake Fletcher this weekend with Danny, Brenna and her friend, Anika, and Dad has his friend, Betty. The fall colour was surprisingly subdued for the end of September (this square captures it pretty well), which means it will probably hit its peak when we're back for Thanksgiving in two weeks.

The cottage is about a three-and-a-half hour drive from home. If I go by way of Toronto and Port Hope to pick up loved ones, it takes roughly seven hours. So we arrived around midnight on Friday and had to leave after lunch on Sunday. It is such a long way, and yet it's worthwhile to spend one blessed day and two nights in the deepest sanctuary I know.

My dream is to live and work there. I could spend the week in creative seclusion, returning on weekends to the city for culture and community. That's backwards from how most cottagers live, but the good thing about creativity is you can drive against the traffic if you wish.

If I had the courage to take hold of the writing life and squeeze a living out of it, I could do this.

The vermilion and sage green rows here are newly-acquired Qina yarns from Mirasol Peru. They're 80 per cent baby alpaca and 20 per cent bamboo, so soft to the touch I want to melt into them. The variegated autumn-coloured yarn from Wellington Fibres is one of my old favourites. These colours, delicious to see and touch, remind of the bliss I would like to achieve. The main colour, apple green is unidentified.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Square 62: Light box

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I have decided to buy a light box, but with ambivalence. I hate how medical science calls this condition Seasonal Affective Disorder. It is perfectly natural (not dysfunctional) for people's energy to go through cycles over the course of a year. Many animals in these latitudes hibernate. A few generations ago our own ancestors conserved essential resources by eating differently and sleeping through long nights in a warm cave. Many of the behaviours psychiatry calls mental illness are merely variations, our brains experimenting in order to adapt. Some, like the depression that afflicts some individuals in winter, are reasonable responses to social pressure that runs contrary to nature.

The primary yarn in this square is something from Dye-Version I bought at Kitchener-Waterloo Knitters' Fair earlier this month. These fiery colours evoke an Ontario landscape in autumn. This is one of the most beautiful times of year, but also a perilous one, when my moods and energy respond to the loss of daylight. Some years in October and November I have found my inner landscape eerily out of sync, disconsolate, bogged down, unable to celebrate the vividness around me.

Why am I buying a light box? Why do I submit to manipulating my own environment in an attempt to conform to societal standards I disapprove of? Why do I take a pill to treat a sickness that isn't sick?

The only answer I have is that when I am out of pace with the world, I suffer. No matter how misguided the system is, I have to live in it. And as long as I'm depressed, I won't have any power to change the system. We have to make some sacrifices, waver on our principles occasionally.

So I plan to purchase this thing. Maybe it's like sending my brain for a little vacation on a tropical beach, every morning of the winter. That, too, is something my caveman ancestors could not have done, but I have to admit I like the idea.

The four other other coloured yarns represent states of mind that pertain to this problem: grey for depression, gold for light, violet for creativity, and pale peach for peace.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Square 61: Kettle Creek bag

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For years I have carried a small red canvas backpack my mother gave me, made by Kettle Creek Clothing Company. The name is embroidered on it in golden-brown thread. It is rugged and has already been repaired once by a friend, but is finally wearing out. Kettle Creek closed years ago, and cloth bags like this one are becoming hard to find. It is irreplaceable.

For years after I came out, I used to head into Toronto once or twice a month to visit the gay village, meet men I had encountered online, go dancing at the bars and spend time with friends I had made there. I dated quite a few. I traveled light, and this bag would carry everything I needed for a weekend.

Those were exciting times but also lonely, I suppose. I had lost my social network and was starting over from nothing. I couldn't go back to where I had been, but had to figure out who I really was and what kind of people I belonged with. I was doing what every adolescent needs to do, twenty years late. Few relationships I made in those days have endured until now. I came out in 1996, and it was five years before I started to figure out where I fit in. It turned out to be Guelph after all, not Toronto, but the big city offered a quick fix. That sounds cheap, but you need something when you're on your own. Toronto kept me busy and allowed me to experiment, and that was valuable. I had few constant companions, but the red bag was one of them.

Later I used it more often for carrying my writing things to the E-bar above The Bookshelf, where I liked to hang out and work. Since I moved seven weeks ago and could walk to pick up groceries, the bag has proven useful but suddenly started to show its age.

In one patch on the bottom the threads are wearing bare. I am afraid to carry anything heavy in it. Soon it will become useless.

I used to keep old, broken, lovely things that had sentimental value attached, but I am trying to overcome that habit. In striving for a simpler life, you can't afford to hold onto clutter. One day soon I must let go of this bag, but I need to retain the stories that hang from the fabric. They are part of who I am.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Square 60: Hymn to the sun

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In reading Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams I have been struck again by the thought of how it would be to live months of the year without sunlight. Already in September I am intensely aware of the darkness when I wake at 6 a.m., the sharpening angle of afternoon rays, their poignant golden hues, and the swift return to darkness at dinner time. I tremble. October and November are a perilous time, when my mood might slip into a six-month rut. I have a stock of vitamin D pills in the fridge and am contemplating renting or buying a light box this year. But above all I try to face this challenging season with creativity and hope. It is a deep-earth time, when we bury our seeds of inspiration deep under fold of quiet reflection. After winter dormancy, I wonder what exotic flowers will erupt from my mind when the balance of sunlight returns to the northern hemisphere.

Sun, I knit your light into the texture of this yarn. While you wander, I hold you here with me, always part of my story.

The outer row (and several others) of rich ocre yarn is some Manos del Uruguay Silk Blend Danny gave me, leftover from a hat project. Along with the other darker colours I used here, it suggests the warm, hospitable retreat I would like to establish in my new apartment this winter.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Square 59: Asters and goldenrod

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There are few sights as resplendent as a September meadow full of asters and goldenrod. I dream of making a tapestry to portray this beauty.

A few years ago Danny and I dyed some yarn using goldenrod flowers. Natural dyes often smell foul, but that dye pot made the whole cottage smell like warm honey, and the fragrance clung to the yarn for a long time. I used that yarn for the three rows of light gold in this square.

Wild asters come in many colours. I took all the yarn for this square on an outing where I planned to knit it, but up arrival discovered I had forgotten to pack any white, one of the most common colours and an essential part of the meadow fabric. But several of the Noro yarns I had brought showed white threads of silk, so I used these, doing my best to set their highlights off against saturated solid rows.

Pale pinks are also common. One of my favourite species is Aster lateriflorus or calico aster, so named because the central discs of the flowers vary from yellow to pink, purple or brown on the same plant.

But perhaps the largest and most distinctive is the vivid purple New England aster, Symphyotrichum novae-angliae. This colour is not as easy to derive from natural sources, but I'll have to find it for my tapestry.

I haven't gone on a walk to see asters and goldenrod yet this year. When I thought of doing this square, it reminded me that last year I walked every day from April to December to create a daily photo journal of nature. This year my nature walks have been far fewer, and this story blanket is partly to blame. I haven't had time.

There is not time in life to do everything we want. I have a hard time accepting this truth. When I think about time I tend to feel impoverished. Instead I ought to focus on the richness of opportunities and savour each day as a gift.

Last year I went on a lot of walks, saw some things I had never seen before, took thousands of photographs and created a remarkable photo journal. It was good. I try to take pleasure in the memory, understand that it is still part of my life, even though it's in the past.

It's no good to regret what I haven't done in 2009. Instead of walking and taking photographs every day, I have worked long and hard on this story blanket. It commemorates many things I have seen and love, like asters and goldenrod. It is good, too.

When I am finished I will move onto another adventure, and it will be good, and maybe someday I will lose this habitual regret.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Square 58: Danny's chaos

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Danny is in his second year (of six!) of the Spinning Certificate Program offered by Ontario Handweavers and Spinners at Haliburton School of the Arts. This year he obtained from another student, Alanna, one of her batts of mixed fibres and spun it into some funky yarn for me to use in this blanket. It is the primary yarn in this square, and I added a few solid threads to draw out some of the interesting colours.

Alanna makes the batts from random pieces of fibre leftover from other projects, which resonates nicely with what is happening here at The Yarn. Danny said the different fibres are arranged in layers, and you can see bands of different colours whether you look at it edge on or face on. There is even some glitter!

To spin it into yarn, Danny tried four different methods, with varying degrees of success, and all ended up in the skein he gave me. He prefers to make fine, consistent yarn, but this batt of variable fibres challenged him. It was chaos. He had to welcome and celebrate its variability rather than trying to control it.

Another thing he has learned from spinning is that it doesn't pay off to be too analytical about what your are doing while you are doing it. You have to choose the best method you know to get the results you want from the fibre you have, then start spinning and go with it, let it flow, saving analysis and criticism for the finished product.

The yarn turned out much differently from anything else he has spun, as much as I have seen! This kind of yarn delights me: eccentric and full of surprises, with hints of different colours from which to draw inspiration. I highlighted some of them using burgundy Cascade, pale yellow Létt-Lopi, an unknown green wool remnant, and two yarns new to my collection: an appealing red Ultra Alpaca from Berroco and a delicious deep gold K'acha (merino wool, suri alpaca and silk) from Mirasol.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Square 57: Ottawa

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Until last weekend I had spent about eight hours of my life in our nation's capital. While I was a journalism student in 1987 I visited Carlton University to interview a professor, and I took my daughters there for a summer afternoon in 2004. But I had never had the opportunity to hang out and explore, get beneath the skin of the place with people who know the city.

My friend, Sylvie, recently moved there to attend teachers' college at University of Ottawa, but she had lived there before. I spent some time with her on Thursday and Friday. We went to Byward Market, where a visitor can easily spend a day, strolled along Rideau Canal in the moonlight, and shopped for groceries. Danny and I walked around Parliament Hill, saw an exhibit of Renaissance Roman Art at the National Gallery of Canada, and looked around the Canadian Museum of Nature, which is under renovation. We also shared several meals with our friends, Larry and Ethan, and witnessed karaoke at a tiny gay bar named Swizzles down a flight of stairs at the back of a parking lot.

Ottawa is a beautiful city. This square is an impression of the parliament buildings with their odd stonework and copper rooves. We had some of the finest weather of the summer, and the sky was impossibly blue the morning we walked around the hill.

It's not so far: less than seven hours by train. I can imagine myself making time to escape there more frequently to relax and work.

The dark blue yarn is a fragment Danny gave me, Handpaint Originals from Brown Sheep Company. The variegated green is an odd ball I picked up from Knit-Knackers Yarn Warehouse in Ottawa.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Square 56: Hotel room

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I like hotel rooms. They remind me of childhood road trips with my family, mostly alone with my parents after I was eight years old. We all looked forward to and enjoyed exploring new places, seeing new sights and learning things.

This weekend I'm on my first trip to a new place in more than year: Ottawa. I'll probably write more about that later, but this story is about the first morning in this room at Albert on Bay Suites Hotel.

For the first time in weeks, I didn't have anything to do, at least nothing necessary. The room was so deliciously quiet, I flopped on the couch and stared at the ceiling. It was stippled white, the walls a pale pear. The moment I lay stationary, several things crowded my mind—things I could do with my time, like knit, read, write, phone someone, or go for a walk and explore this new city.

But those neutral colours absorbed my gaze, and I resisted the imperative to act. For what seemed like the first time in months, I let my thoughts drain away and my mind lie empty. Whenever an idea presented itself, I watched it cross my mind, let it pull away, peeling like a layer of onion to approach a core of stillness, let it abide within me. With each skin, I noticed which thoughts underlay the others, and realized what thoughts were most essential to my current situation.

When we're not attentive this way, it's easy to let urgent motives crowd out the truer priorities. When I get home, I want to take more time like this to be still. I have room for it in my new apartment, quiet places to sit in a deep blue room. The power to observe one's self and be mindful of inner processes is an important step in the cycle of creativity.

In this square I used light grey Létt-Lopi and an unknown pale peach oddball yarn purchased on this trip to represent the neutral space of meditation. The quick sequence of vivid, diverse colours represents ideas and motives that divide my time; they are all valuable, but when they fall over one another I tend to feel hurried and frustrated. With further reflection and stillness, some threads peel away and I choose how to concentrate my attention.

Even after selecting the azure wool (probably Briggs and Little), I allowed it to suggest a subtler related shade, the blue-grey fragment of Noro Silk Garden, to finish the square.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Square 55: Train

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I spent yesterday afternoon on the train from Guelph to Ottawa. Danny and I have come here for a long weekend away from the usual, but he would be coming down in the evening, so I went alone.

When I was 11 I took my first train trip. My parents took me on Algoma Central Railway's Agawa Canyon Tour Train through a rugged part of Ontario to see fall colour at its most grand and resplendent. I have loved this most of travel ever since.

Railways seem to find the loveliest scenery. This square does not give a literal depiction of the coloured landscape flashing past the windows yesterday, but my impression. It was a glorious summer afternoon, with puffy clouds in the distance and golden sunlight washing the hills and woods. At times the blue-grey expanse of Lake Ontario spread to our right.

An elderly woman from California sat in the window seat beside me. She was touring North America, visiting relatives in Seattle and Idaho en route to a niece in Ottawa. She had taken the train across Canada, but the rollicking trip was uncomfortable and views of the Rocky Mountains disappointing. She said this stretch in easy-moving cars through rolling farmland was the most pleasant so far. As much as I long for new and exotic landscapes, particularly the mountains of the west, I could appreciate her fondness for Ontario.

What is it about a train ride that heightens romance? I could be travelling anywhere for any purpose, but I'm always delighted. Perhaps it is the sense that I will arrive without mishap, or the relative comfort of the passengers over time and distance. The people I meet on trains are generally happy and not in a hurry. We talk about our diverse origins with nostalgia, our destination with anticipation. These are the blessed comings and goings of life, threads crossing and interweaving.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Square 54: Dill pickles

The first time I took my daughters to St. Jacobs Market, Brenna was about seven years old. After browsing around the tables of baubles and goodies for a while, it was time to get a snack, so we shouldered our way through the crowded food court. I recommended the apple fritters, and the girls agreed. But beside the place where we bought juice was a booth where you could buy a huge dill pickle on a stick. Brenna eyed those, but didn't say anything.

A while later as we were getting ready to leave, Brenna said, "Next time, I'll get a pickle on a stick."

I realized she thought that since Marian and I wanted apple fritters it would be too much trouble to go to the other booth, so I said, "You can have a pickle, too."

I will never forget the way her face lit up. It was as if I had opened a door to all the treasures of the world. I doubt anything can give me greater joy than to see one of my children take utter delight in a simple thing. We went back to the booth, and she spent the drive back to Guelph happily devouring that giant pickle.

I didn't like dill pickles when I was little. It was something I had to grow into, and after making them as gifts for family members I came to appreciate them.

Now I love them, and since Brenna likes them, too, we can have fun making them together. So I have come full circle from the story about making jams with my mother to making pickles with my daughter. When she visited me a few days ago we spent a super evening packing cucumbers into jars. Brenna says she wants a garden and canning equipment of her own some day, so she can carry on the tradition. I hope she will pass the knowledge of this family custom to her children.

Dill Pickles

  • 3 quarts medium-sized pickling cucumbers
  • whole garlic cloves, peeled
  • fresh dill heads
  • mixed pickling spice
  • dried whole chili peppers
  • 3 cups distilled water
  • 3 cups white vinegar
  • 6 tablespoons sea salt

Sterilize jars and lids for 3 quarts or 6 pints.

Scrub the cucumbers and pack into sterilized jars. For each pint also add a dill flower head, a clove of garlic, 1½ teaspoons of pickling spice, and a dried chili.

Bring water, vinegar and salt to a boil. Add the brine to the jars to a quarter inch from the top. Seal.

These jars must be processed in a boiling water bath in a canning kettle, about 15 minutes for quart jars and 8 minutes for pint jars. After the jars cool, check the seals. If a jar does not seal properly it must be stored in the fridge and used promptly.

The pickles are best stored for six weeks to let the flavours blend before use.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Square 53: Apricot conserve

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This week I made apricot conserve. Considering I've been trying to improve my diet lately, this stuff is sugary and unhealthy as hell. On the other hand, it's such a fire pot of nostalgia it must be good for the psyche.

Toronto Transit Commission's Poetry on the Way program places works from Canadian poets in place of ad posters on subway cars. It's a nice way to bring a little culture and reflection into people's hectic schedules. A while back I read Margaret Atwood's "Apple Jelly" on one of the trains. It suggests that making preserves is not worth the cost, time and effort, until you realize the inestimable value of picking a jar of summer off the pantry shelf six months from now.

Growing up, I used to help Mom make jams, jellies, pickles and preserves. During my teens I started looking up and experimenting with recipes of my own, like peach chutney and zucchini relish. At Christmas each year I gave my older brothers and their wives boxes of jars containing memories of summer.

Now when I make preserves it's like spending time with Mom again beside a steaming pot of goodness.

Essex County where I grew up is the southernmost county in Canada, and one of the few places in the country where apricots will grow. They were easy to come by. A fresh apricot, not too ripe, is one of my favourite fruits, second only to peaches.

Sometimes in winter I wistfully approach the apricots in the supermarket, imported from somewhere else. They look so delicious, and their colour is incomparable, like a sunset or a hillside of maples in October. But if I am seduced into taking a few home they are always a disappointment, their texture mealy and dry, their flavour insipid.

The only way to enjoy apricots is during the few weeks in August when the real Ontario fruit can be found at the farmers' market. Even if I go to the trouble to make preserves, come next January it will not be the same—nothing can bring fresh fruit back until next time around. But like those imaginary visits with Mom, it's worth the trouble of evoking the colour, flavour and aroma of a memory.

Apricot conserve

  • 1 quart apricots
  • 1 can crushed pineapple (540 ml/19 oz)
  • ½ cup maraschino cherries, quartered
  • 2 oranges
  • 1 lemon
  • 4 cups sugar
  • ½ cup slivered almonds

Drop apricots in boiling water for 10 seconds to loosen the skins. Remove promptly. Peel and quarter. Drain the pineapple, reserving the juice. Slice oranges and lemon, remove seeds, and cut slices into eighths. Put all the fruit in a large kettle.

In a medium-sized pot, combine pineapple juice and sugar and bring to a boil, stirring frequently. Pour the boiled syrup over the fruit, and bring all to a boil for 25 minutes. A tiny piece of butter may be added to reduce the foam.

Add the almonds and boil one minute.

Remove from heat. Stir and skim for five minutes to prevent fruit from floating. Pour into sterilized jars and seal.

Makes 4½ pints. This is good served with scones or vanilla ice cream.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Square 52: Favourite month

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In August when the sun has started to travel south, its rays fall longingly over the drunken trees. Summer is like a lover departing when he realizes the situation can’t go on forever. Too much growth and heat would ruin this part of the world. He knows he must depart, but his heart is breaking. A wistful morning mist rises from the lake, blinding the sky’s eyes to the forest’s worst failings. The open spaces beneath the canopy smell of old leaves. Grasshoppers gossip in golden grasses along the lane. “He’s going now,” they whisper. “We’ll have our heyday now!” No one wants to imagine what will become of the land when August finally closes the gate and drifts beyond the hill. They don’t appreciate his light and warmth. Everyone has been too busy carousing to notice his disenchantment. August was the best companion we ever had.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Square 51: Bloody Lake

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We have a favourite canoe trip: from our cottage to Bloody Lake. To reach it you have to paddle 45 minutes, then portage across an old beaver dam. Beavers built it decades ago—the dam was there when I was a child—and have maintained it ever since, flooding the area behind and killing trees around the large pond and stream there.

The trunks still stand with branches outstretched, bleached by sun and weather. Great blue herons have colonized them.

Around the verge of the water, wide mats of vegetative matter have spread, creating a bog habitat. Lacking soil, bog plants must resort to unusual mechanisms to obtain nutrition. I have found four species of carnivorous plant. Round-leaved sundew or Drosera rotundifolia captures insects on sticky red threads that cover its leaves. Horned bladderwort (Utricularia cornuta) and purple bladderwort (U. purpurea) capture small underwater creatures with tiny snares. Most imposing, pitcher-plant or Sarracenia purpurea, possesses pitcher-shaped leaves containing water to trap, drown and digest insects. Its maroon clumps are easy to spot on the green sphagnum moss. If you go early in the summer you might be lucky enough to spot flowers of Arethusa bulbosa, which is not carnivorous but a spectacular tiny pink orchid.

Near the dam you will hear tree frogs peeping and see dozens of other frogs of several species in the water. A barred owl, broad-winged hawk or pileated woodpecker might call.

From there you have to poke up a lazy stream choked with waterlilies. The water is dark brown. Finally you reach another larger pond one kilometre long and half as wide. This is Bloody Lake.

It is not spectacular, just a kidney-shaped patch of water with marsh and sparse forest around the edges. The most remarkable thing is that it does not seem to change as the decades pass. There is no sign of human activity, in fact you might imagine no one else has bothered to go there since you saw it last summer. You will find a lone loon or perhaps a family, and a beaver lodge. In the evening I have seen an American bittern making its bizarre call, which it does by shaking the loose skin of its throat. Once twenty years ago a friend and I came upon a moose cow and two calves feeding among the sedges.

Reaching Bloody Lake is not a goal but a journey, one of exertion and observation. Its beauties are not splendid; they are subtle, rich with texture and colour, timeless.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Square 50: Head space

Square 050

I have been reading Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez, a series of meditative essays published in 1986 about his experiences in the high north latitudes. It was recommended by my friend Rebecca years ago and I have since read several of Lopez's books, some essays and some short fiction, but finally came across a used copy of the book itself on Bloor Street in Toronto recently. The chapters dwell thoughtfully on the landscape, anthropology and biology of the Arctic. The facts are a little dated; the text makes no reference to climate change or how it is threatening species, such as the polar bear, that depend on ice for habitat. But the writer paints timeless, vivid word pictures of an environment few of us will ever visit yet strangely crucial to life on Earth as we know it. He reflects laterally on human perception and consciousness, which makes the reading deeply engrossing.

I am attracted to Lopez because his life work has successfully explored the border between nature writing and fiction, the two genres that appeal to me most as a writer. His language is elegant and eloquent, elucidating a concept of mind transcending the human, seeping into cosmology. He almost persuades me to resume believing in a higher creative consciousness, though he rarely speaks directly to that matter. He demonstrates that Nature is greater than we can ever fathom, and we meddle with it at our peril. I have always believed that, whether or not I believed in a god.

I used to write more frequently in this same vein, but for some years my mind has been too cluttered. This problem became vividly apparent over the past week's vacation while I delved into more pages of this profound tome. I need to make more room for my own thoughts. The peaceful corners of my new apartment invite me to sit, reflect and write. Now I only have to make time for it. It's so easy to become obsessed with the million urgent and necessary matters that clutter a day.

Thursday evening I drove Marian and Kerri home from the cottage to Port Hope, and made the return journey along a quiet and forsaken road. Highway 35 winds through low hills and dense forest. On humid nights, trees along the roadside always shine as if with frost. About midnight a waning moon rose and began to appear periodically through clefts in the landscape, casting silver light across each lake I passed. It was a rich voyage for the senses.

I wanted to derive cogent insight from that motor pilgrimage, but nothing came to mind. All I knew was, I need to start making space in my head again. Maybe we all do. Are you too busy to look for lessons arising from your daily activities? You only are because, like me, you tell yourself so. Or you're so preoccupied you don't even ask the question.

Moonlight stretches along the road before me. The dotted line curves out of sight like the threads of yarn into future squares. I will continue to follow, and see what I find.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Square 49: Forest friends

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One morning Brenna and Tory had gone in the canoe, and I found myself alone at the cottage. Solitude can be a fertile space, but I had let trouble and loneliness overtake it. I turned to yarn for solace, opening the bag of many colours, seeking stories. The variegated yarn from Fleece Artist suggested all the colours of the forest outside these cottage windows. I took it onto the deck and began to knit a square.

A chipmunk came to forage for seed under the bird feeder nearby. Chipmunks here are lucky. Brenna as a little girl took a dislike to the larger, saucy red squirrels. Roaring and shrieking, she would chase them into the forest. They would return of course, chattering and mocking her from the branches, perpetuating the cycle of mistrust.

But the quieter chipmunks she welcomes with handouts. This year I notice her regarding red squirrels with more reserve. Time and experience teach us patience.

My peaceful little companion watched me with dark dark, lucid eyes and unconcern as it handled bits of food deftly. I spoke to it and knitted the first four rows while the tiny creature stayed. The rich golden-tan of the variegated yarn resembled the chipmunk’s main coat, so I used black and pale gold to describe the stripes, white Lopi for the belly.

Danny and I hand-dyed the gold yarn here at the cottage a few years ago using autumn beech leaves.

After the chipmunk vanished, a tribe of chickadees came to feed, chattering and squeaking softly. The forest had supplied the companionship I needed, and so injected its own stories into my own.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Square 48: Mom's moon

Square 048

When Mom died, I mostly felt relief because of the time and way it happened. She had been fighting cancer for about five years. During the last year we knew it would be terminal, but except for the side effects of treatment it did not seem to impair her mental and physical state until January 2008. The doctor had prescribed morphine for pain but it had affected her badly, so she stopped. She really didn’t need it.

Near the end of that month I went for a visit. She could still get up and around without the use of oxygen or a walker, carry on conversations, and enjoy music, movies and food. Breathing had become a little difficult, but she was not in much pain. Since trying morphine she had been having unpleasant delusions that made her anxious. Sometimes she said things that didn’t make sense, and sometimes her speech was garbled. It was difficult to witness in someone who had always been lucid and sensible. Still I was grateful for some good conversations during that final visit. We expected her to live a few more months, but it would not be an easy time for her.

On the evening of February 20, Dad phoned to say Mom had slipped away. He and their friend Cathy were eating dinner while Mom rested quietly on the couch nearby, and when he got up from the table he noticed that her skin had turned grey. It was that peaceful.

Then I had to call other family members, friends of my parents, and especially my daughters. I spoke to Marian and Brenna briefly, promising to call again later.

Then I went and picked up my friend, Sylvie. I was becoming agitated and wanted someone nearby to keep me company.

Back home I talked to Dad again and received more information. Then I called my daughters.

There was no answer. I left a message.

It was hardly a thing to be alarmed about, but under the circumstances I began to panic. Where were they? What had happened to keep them from the phone?

After pacing for a few minutes, I pulled out a box of photographs. Sylvie went through them with me and I told her stories.

Finally the phone rang. It was Marian.

“Go look outside,” she told me.

I had forgotten it was the night of a lunar eclipse. My ex had taken the girls down to the beach in Port Hope to watch it for a while.

I went downstairs and opened the front door. The eclipse was still complete, the blood red full moon just beginning to grow bright along its leading edge.

Marian said, “You know how Nanum was always planning things for everyone to do? I think she chose to leave on the night of a lunar eclipse so we would all have something to do.”

Sure enough, when I spoke to Dad again, he had taken time to look at it. And later I learned that my mother’s two youngest sisters had spent the evening together on the phone, in Ontario and Nova Scotia, watching the moon together.

I let Mom go with the full moon, but it returns. I think of it this way: every month she goes on a journey around the world, and whenever I notice the full moon, I take it as a sign she is dropping in to say hello and see how I am doing.

At first I kept count of Mom's circuits, but didn’t experience much grief. I was glad she had gone and become part of nature again, without much effort, as she had wished.

Lately, some 18 months later, some situations have made me miss her. It was this story about the moon that let me and Joyce cry together the other night. I find myself weeping unexpectedly, which I didn’t do when she died. But as the summer moon sweeps low through the southern sky I am reminded she is at peace. I don’t need to remember to count moon cycles for her sake. It is best for our lives to carry on and let her memory pass over us.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Square 47: Settling in

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On a Sunday afternoon we arrive for a blessed visit at Lake Fletcher. With me are my younger daughter Brenna and her boyfriend Tory. I am looking forward to six relaxing days here, not altogether peaceful because my two children and their attendants require ferrying back and forth, but they are old enough that we can carry on meaningful conversations in the car, so the time is not lost.

I deposit myself in a chair on the dock. The weather is warm and humid, the sky softly overcast with incipient rain. The colours of this square describe perfectly the water, sky and dark band of forest across the lake.

I want to claim Fletcher’s calm but as I sit here knitting, a certain family issue presents itself. Instead of quiet, waves of anger begin to wash over me. This is not what I want, but I cannot avoid the matter. It will continue to present itself during the week ahead. I mentally dive into the peaceful, cleansing colours of water, but no matter how deep I go, the annoying script keeps playing in my head.

After dinner, Brenna and Tory canoe to the island and I am alone in the still, darkening cottage. I walk down the forest path to visit our neighbour, Joyce. She was Mom’s best friend from high school, like an aunt to me.

She welcomes me and we sit until midnight on her new, comfy couch talking about Mom, my children, her family, my dad and his new girlfriend, my creative endeavours (she thinks this blanket is a remarkable idea), and all the comings and goings of life. One particular story about Mom makes us both cry. I have told it to friends, but only Joyce can fully appreciate it. After talking with Joyce heart-to-heart for three hours I have released some pent-up emotions. I am ready to settle in and let the spirit of the lake absorb me.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Square 46: Marian's endeavour

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The first time we walked into The Black Lamb I asked my daughters to pick out some yarn. Marian chose the variegated sea-green handspun yarn I have used as the predominant fibre in this square. It was her favourite colour.

My daughters lived in Port Hope. Danny and I had driven there to pick them up for a visit. He knew Laurie (who runs The Black Lamb) and wanted to drop into the store. We had no idea how important an event it would be.

We also picked out some small bundles of dyed fleece. In the car the girls began spinning them by hand, coached by Danny. Marian was particularly captivated. Back at Danny's house he gave her some dyed silk hankies he had on hand (these are not real hankies, but thin squares of silk fibre that can be pulled apart and spun into yarn). Marian spent the rest of the weekend working with these.

Over the next few weeks Marian returned to The Black Lamb on her own. During my next visit to Port Hope when we went back to the store Marian and Laurie carried on like old friends. Laurie was looking for a co-op student to help in the shop.

Marian was eager. This was early last year. Within a few more weeks she was working there for a high school credit, and had struck up an important relationship with Laurie. My daughter acquired a spinning wheel. She learned to spin and dye fibre. She had a knack for colour. Last summer she showed me how to felt wool.

This summer she received a government grant for young entrepreneurs, with plans to produce her own yarn at home to sell on an Etsy website. She has already received several commissions for custom yarn, and her business was reported in The Northumberland News. She is seventeen, fierce and resourceful, and I am proud of her.

[Late breaking news: Marian's business was featured last night on CBC's The National in a story about student unemployment and employment (go to the 11-minute mark).]