Friday, May 22, 2009

Square 7: John Stabler

Square 007

John died of cancer on Wednesday afternoon. Les got the news early yesterday morning and told me when he arrived at work. We spent a few hours cleaning the shop then he let me go early. I came home and directly set about knitting a story about John.

He was also a knitter, although we had never knit together. I didn't have a particular yarn with a story, so I did something different: went through my stash and picked a few colours that spoke to me about John. The blue is a special yarn, one that Danny and I dyed last summer using Saxon blue, a natural dye derived from indigo. This is the first time I have used so many different yarns in a knitted piece, and the first time I've used anything from the large stash of yarn that I have hand dyed. I made this square practically in one sitting last night, a vigil in John's honour, finishing a few minutes after midnight. This will be a good way to address the twists and turns of life for the next while.

John had gone into palliative care only 24 hours before he died, he hardly needed painkillers, his sister was with him and he went peacefully. That was the way he wished.

John and Les had been close friends for about 30 years. I made his acquaintance about 10 years ago, but we became friends more recently. When Les and I were building a large pipe organ for St. James Anglican Church in Dundas, Ontario, John helped occasionally when we needed to expedite a task, or when there was heavy work that required more than four hands. The two of us spent long hours together in the shop, wiring valves and toe boards while Les finished casework. By the time we finished that project a year ago, John was too sick to attend the inaugural recital on the organ.

He was a curmudgeon and savoured the fine art of complaint. But if he knew that you respected him he responded with great kindness and humour. He was a great baker and cook. He was good company through tedious work and gave me many tips about tools and shop work. I will miss him.

The organ at St. James was built in four divisions, one at each corner. The great and the solo flanked the baptistry, and the swell and choir stood at the front of the church on either side. A church team set up vintage cases from another organ for the great and solo, but we had to erect new cases for the swell and choir ourselves. These stood on the roof of the sacristy, and the cases themselves were 12 feet tall, so the top of the cases stood more than 20 feet above the floor of the church. In organ building you must move safely and agilely on ladders and catwalks. A misstep could maim you for live.

We constructed the swell first. John went up and screwed the roof planks down, a vertiginous job that involved crawling from beam to beam.

The next day we were ready to put the roof on the choir.

John said to me, "I'll let you do this one, since you have a head for heights."

"I don't have a head for heights, but I'm used to it," I laughed, then added sincerely, "I will do it."

Next thing I knew, John scrambled to the top of the choir to do it himself. That was the kind of friend he was.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Square 6: Spring in an Ontario woods

Square 006

I am not enthralled with living in Southern Ontario. The summers are humid and oppressive, winters bitter and interminable. But come May 1 there is nowhere else on Earth I would rather be. Few beauties can surpass the awakening of our spring woodlands.

They are not grand. The land is mostly flat, so we lack scenic landscapes. A West Coast redwood would dwarf our most magnificent tree.

This is a beauty of small and sudden wonders: dogtooth violets and bloodroot open delicate blooms where nothing but dry leaves was visible yesterday, mummified branches shed their semblance of death and bear elusive fragrances in the warm sunlight, a shocking patch of marsh-marigolds floods a swampy clearing, overnight the twigs come alight with warblers in all their delicate and radiant plumage, and tree-lined galleries resonate with fruity songs of orioles and thrushes.

Then just as it begins, spring is over. Burgeoning maples shroud the understory in deep shade, the flowers fade, mosquitoes hold dominion and within a few weeks even the songs will vanish as birds avoid drawing attention to their clumsy fledglings.

But its ephemeral quality makes an Ontario spring all the more exquisite, and the rest of the year worth waiting through. Just don't be caught sleeping. This year I missed altogether the subtle blossoms of leatherwood and the not-so-subtle, lotus-like blooms of bloodroot. You have to make the choice to be in the right place at the right time to enjoy the Earth's great riches.

The Manos Del Uruguay wool yarn called "Wildflowers" was left over from a scarf I knitted several years ago, and the dark green Cascade suggests branches or shadows of trees.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Square 5: Renée Fleming

Square 005

Last week on the way home from The Metropolitan Opera broadcast live in HD, Danny and I stopped at Romni Wools. I was still high from the performance, and to make matters worse Romni was playing opera arias. It gave me the idea that besides using yarn left over from projects, I could look for new yarn to evoke specific memories. Here is where the story blanket stops being economical, but I'm already committed up to the shoulders.

I had only been a casual opera fan until The Met began broadcasting live to silver screens around the world during the 2006/2007 season. They started with a series of crowd-pleasers, but Eugene Onegin enthralled me. I have always loved Tchaikovsky's music, but was unfamiliar with this opera.

It begins on the country estate of Tatiana's family, where the young heroine falls under the spell of charming, cold-hearted Onegin. It is autumn, and the stage is littered with bright leaves. Peasants enter singing a harvest song. The colours remind me of October cottage weekends, and I am swept up by the elegant drama of the music.

Renée Fleming carries off the letter-writing scene with fiery ambivalence: 15 minutes alone on stage portraying a girl's struggle with her first infatuation. The performance can be viewed on Youtube: part 1 and part 2. The music is dizzying, wrenching and lyrical. At the 4:20 point of part 2 the orchestra introduces a sweet, descending scale, which Tatiana picks up, imploring:

Who are you? My guardian angel
or a wily tempter?
Put my doubts at rest.
Maybe this is all an empty dream,
the self-deception of an inexperienced soul,
and something quite different is to be.
The musical motif appears again throughout the opera, and I would leave the theatre humming it, holding on until a recording could recall it for me.

Fortunately Fleming's letter-writing scene is recorded on Great Opera Scenes, and a few months later The Met would release the entire opera performance on DVD. Since then I have become an avid Fleming fan.

While dramatic, Eugene Onegin evokes a believable, human scale of acts and emotions. The central tragedy is regret, which everybody experiences. It gripped me mortally, drawing me under the spell of opera just as Tatiana falls for handsome Onegin.

Two years later at Romni Wools, Danny knew I was seeking yarn for the next blanket blanket square, but didn't know what particular opera was on my mind. He pointed out this Fibra Natura Heaven, and it had the Met performance of Eugene Onegin all over it. Watch the letter-writing scene and see these colours. They dominate the entire first act, underlining the passion of a girl whose love will go unrequited until too late.