Saturday, June 20, 2009

Square 25: Silence

Square 025

Arriving near midnight, emerging from the car, I am wrapped in the green fragrance of mixed conifer and deciduous forest. The night is perfectly still. After leaving my baggage in the cottage, I go down to the dock to survey the lake.

The sky is a smudgy black. A few of the brightest stars muscle through the ragged shroud. The water does not move. A bullfrog booms from the far shore. Green frogs mutter quizzically nearby. A tree frog peeps incessantly near the point. Fireflies blink over the bay, scribing an esoteric text across the scroll of darkness. Two loons call in the distance.

By now all anxiety has fallen away. I could sit here in the heart of the night forever, listening to whispers of silence, letting it bathe my mind and body.

By mid-afternoon a quiet but steady shower has settled in. Again the lake is perfectly calm and draws me back to the dock, but I do not stay.

I have always wondered how the rain makes a patchwork of silver and grey on still water. It’s as if the rain is heavier in places, but no matter how long I stand and watch, the pattern does not shift. It waits until I’m not looking. The gods are playing with jigsaw puzzles.

I sit in the living room with the sliding door open, listening through the screen. The watery sky tickles the trees, another voice of silence. The cleansing continues.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Square 24: Pilgrimage to Fletcher

Square 024

One quick square before I leave. This evening I depart to open the family cottage.

Although my parents didn't buy the property until I was 15, we used to visit friends there, so I have spent vacation time every summer of my life at Lake Fletcher. For me that name has always been a synonym for quiet reflection, both mental and physical: mind's troubles draining away as colours play across the water. It is a living, fragrant lake, the water deep gold in the depths, its surface a labyrinth of sky hues. On cloudy days the waves are pewter, on clear days deep cerulean, but most days a mixture of colours dances across even the calmest water.

I wish it wasn't so far away (almost four hours by car), but then perhaps I wouldn't appreciate as much.

Several weeks ago Danny and I traversed the labyrinth in High Park, Toronto, which is based on a famous one in Chartres Cathedral. A labyrinth is an opportunity to meditate. While walking it, I realized that a knitted work is a labyrinth, too: one long path of thread convoluted around itself.

This evening I will treat the long drive to Fletcher as a labyrinth, a pilgrimage to the quiet centre of my life. In this time of change and anxiety, I badly need it! I will take the laptop, three good books, some food and, of course, a selection of yarn. I will return with stories.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Square 23: Anxiety

Square 023

Anxiety is one of the plagues of my existence. This week has not been particularly bad in the big picture, but being in it always feels awful regardless. Yesterday morning I began knitting this as another meditation to meet anxiety head-on.

Red is the colour of debt, which is frequently part of my problem. Combine that with work having been slow for the past year and you get the picture. Then last week an opportunity arose for me to move to a better apartment. It is only slightly more expensive, but the location and condition of the building will be a vast improvement.

My initial reaction was, "I can't afford to move just now." But my current apartment has been rough on me emotionally, and I decided long time ago I should move. I simply couldn't find anything else so inexpensive until now. Several important people in my life urged me to take the opportunity, and I decided I couldn't afford to pass it up. I had to do some creative banking to put together the funds for a deposit on the new place, and the next few weeks are only bound to get crazier as I prepare to move on August 1. Unexpected expenses will come out of nowhere.

There are numerous symptoms of clinical anxiety, but the one most common for me is a burning or pins-and-needles sensation in my ears, neck, shoulders or forearms. It can last for hours. Panic attacks, which are more acute and last no more than 15 minutes, involve racing heart and sometimes even chest pains.

Anxiety is part of the natural palette of human emotions. It evolved as a way of recruiting extraordinary physical functions for the fight or flight response. When our ancestors were still swinging from branch to branch, it served us well in escaping from predators or dealing with aggressive competitors.

In modern Western society we rarely encounter life and death situations, but our bodies are still wired to respond to threats this way, and we do. Some individuals like myself are hypersensitive and experience bursts of adrenalin over things like encountering a rude person, or not knowing how we're going to pay a bill three weeks from now. Anxiety disorder is frequently associated with other issues such as obsessive-compulsive disorder or agoraphobia. It is treatable, and often responds well to cognitive behavioural therapy. If you frequently experience physical discomfort in response to stressful situations, talk to your family doctor. More information is available here. I've had trouble with anxiety all my life, but didn't recognize it until five years ago.

I initially planned to knit this square with just the two yarns starting from the outside, but the warm shades of the variegated yarn quickly got lost in the red. Anxiety can be like that, too: the physical symptoms begin to obscure what problems might have upset you in the first place. You feel like you're going to die, which only makes the symptoms worse. You can't see the subtler colours because of the red.

I decided to take another look at that variegated yard by inserting a few rows of the green, which set off a completely different contrast. But something was wrong. I kept getting too many stitches in the row. I tried unknitting two rows, knit them again, came up with the same number and undid them again. Finally in exasperation I tore out the entire square.

Last night came the news that my application for the new apartment had been accepted. I went online reserved a U-Haul. This move is going to happen, no matter what.

I sat down and cast on the square again. All three yarns are local wool-mohair mixes: the green and the variegated yarns are from Wellington Fibres, and the red is All Strung Out's house yarn.

This morning I realized I never had the wrong number of stitches; I had only been counting the rows wrong. So it was all unnecessary—the unknitting, the tearing out, the frustration.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Square 22: Bandit

Square 022

I have been helping a friend landscape the backyard of a condo this week. Around the complex grow ornamental cherries, and wherever there are ripening berries I will inevitably hear the the soft seeee of my favourite bird. Cedar waxwings have been milling around in numbers. They are not a shy bird, and when they happen to descend from the treetops will permit a human observer to approach for a closer look at their handsome plumage. The sight or sound of cedar waxwings always brings me close to tears.

One afternoon at the cottage in late July the summer I was 16, Mom and I noticed the cat pawing at something on the ground. We interrupted her and found two blind, featherless nestlings on the ground. One was dead, the other so weak it could barely open its beak. We had heard squirrels causing a ruckus in the high canopy earlier that day, and this was certainly their doing. The nest was too high for us to replace the foundling and the parents were nowhere around. We took it indoors, expecting it to die, but we fed it catfood and water and it seemed to gather a little strength. We set a kerosene lamp near its basket for warmth.

Next morning we were awakened by a call like a loud cricket from the kitchen. Our visitor had survived the night and was very hungry. Yellow pin feathers began emerging from its rump, confirming our suspicion it was a cedar waxwing. We began mixing fruit with the catfood. Before long the baby was strong enough to jump on the edge of his basket. If you offered him a finger he would hop there, too.

So began our long and delightful relationship with Bandit, named for his distintive mask and clever, mischievous manner. I published a fuller story of his life on Suite101 in 2000 as "Masked bandit on the wing" (part 1, part 2 and part 3). Besides being stunningly handsome (see his portrait here), he was gregarious, affectionate, temperamental, feisty, valiant, graceful and kind as a bird can be. Waxwings are highly social birds, and we were his society. He would sleep on my shoulder while I did my homework, or hop under my desk lamp, spread his wings and take a heat bath.

But one of his most endearing habits was to dance (like this) when someone offered him one of his favourite foods. He would softly whistle, cock his head, raise his crest, hop back and forth on the table or your arm, and try to hand the delicacy back to you. Waxwings do this when they are courting, but also socially. When a small flock lands on a branch near a source of food, the closest bird will pick a berry or a petal and pass it down the row so every individual has a chance to eat.

It was hard to describe the sleek, fine-textured, subtle olive-brown plumage of a cedar waxwing in yarn, but the variegated Malabrigo gives an impressionist approximation. You can roughly determine a bird's age by the number of red wax tips on each grey wing; although Bandit did not have one for each of his 14 years by the time he died, he had more than any wild bird I have seen.

I still like to imagine that cedar waxwings are messengers from beyond the veil that separates our world from eternity and dreams. Whenever they appear, I stop and pay attention.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Square 21: Stitch 'n' Bitch

Square 021

So here's the thing about World Wide Knit In Public Day: it actually extends over four days, two weekends. Count on knitters to be extravagant with excuses to get together and do what they like best. So if you missed it this weekend, check the website and see if there are any gatherings in your area on June 20 or 21.

Sunday afternoon Ashley and friends moved from the sidewalk outside her store to Royal City Park. When I arrived the place was crowded with families walking their dogs, and children scrambling in the playground. A group of eight people was sitting with their heads down in the generous shade of a tree. I couldn't see any faces, so it was either the knitting group or a prayer meeting. I went over. Not a prayer meeting, thank God.

In the past 18 months I've connected with the knitting community in Guelph. First I started my own group at Out On The Shelf, the Rainbow Knitters. A few months ago I joined Anne Hunt's Monday night knitting group at Studio 490.

Then Ashley opened All Strung Out and started social groups and classes. Ashley is about 23, has an awesome Mom and Dad who help with the store, and is passionate about fibre.

One thing I liked immediately about Ashley's place is that she calls her Saturday afternoon knitting group "Knit and Chat". As my knitting friends will know, these groups are popularly called "Stitch and Bitch", and someone has written a series of books under the title.

I hate the B word. Okay, I realize it has been reappropriated by feminists and become less offensive, and if women want to do that, power to them. When gay men apply it to themselves and one another it is simply misogynist; it is not okay to perpetuate a stereotype in which all of a man's nastiest qualities are considered part of his feminine side. I get so sick of hearing it that I occasionally catch myself using the word as a verb. As a father of two lovely young women, I detest the B word. End of rant.

One way to win instant respect from me? Call your knitting group "Knit and Chat."

Ashley's boutique also sells some beautiful yarns. It tends to the high end, but a few less expensive brands are also available. She is especially keen on promoting locally crafted materials, so you will find a number of small-scale artisans featured.

For this square I used two yarns from All Strung Out. The red is one of Ashley's house yarns; the blue is Merino et Soie, a New Zealand line which has unfortunately been discontinued. I picked up the last skein of this lovely colour at a discount price.

It was good fun to hang out at the park together and knit, especially when complete strangers came over to say, "Oh yeah, this is National Knit Day, isn't it?" I'm enjoying getting to know the fun and eccentric regulars in this group. Why don't you drop in on a Saturday afternoon and join the knitting frenzy sometime? I know you'll like it.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Square 20: Men knit too

Saturday was World Wide Knit In Public Day, and Ashley hosted a sidewalk party at All Strung Out. The purpose of this day is to raise awareness. Knitting is a wonderful social activity because you can be creative and double up your time by hanging out with other knitters. Sure you can build community around writing, painting or any art or craft, but many of them require your undivided attention some of the time, and even outright solitude (one of the interesting aspects of creating The Yarn is that it includes two separate and distinct processes: knitting and writing).

For WWKIP Day I decided to knit a story about men who knit.

Last spring Danny and I attended a men's knitting retreat at Easton Mountain in New York. We drove down with Ted Knitterguy. When we first arrived, I was seduced by the intense presence of nature. It was May and the world was green, green, green! We went for a walk in the woods around the foot of the mountain, and I began photographing trees, fungi and wildflowers.

But as that first day unfolded and knitters continued arriving, I realized what a magical event it would be. I began making new friendships that I knew would last for years. I even met another man named Van, who looked a little like me and had similar mannerisms.

On Saturday we had the opportunity to join various workshops, but I opted to spend the day knitting on a balcony overlooking the small lake. That is a day I will never forget. During its course, various people came and went, joining me, knitting and talking. In particular I got to know the other Van, and Michael del Vecchio, author of Knitting With Balls: A Hands-On Guide To Knitting For the Modern Man. I felt my life becoming richer by the hour. Among other friends I made that weekend were QueerJoe and Kenny, The Boy Who Knits.

Monday morning I left the place with a longing to go back. The friends I made that weekend have become part of my wider community. Since then I have become more active in local knitting groups. But in the four years I have been knitting, I have only met one other man in Guelph who knits.

I know there must be many out there! And there is a particular power that evolves when men meet and channel their energy into this creative endeavour. I find it very appealing.

This square is green with the spring of Easton Mountain, new opportunities and new beginnings. I make it in tribute to the wonderful men I know who knit, also to future friends I do not know. May this story draw you out and draw you in.