Saturday, March 13, 2010

Square 99: Sylvie and Sarah

Square 099

In a house full of people, Sylvie was the one who sat down at Bob’s piano and started leafing through his sheet music. I was interested, too, but when we didn’t find what we wanted, Bob led us to the attic to pore through boxes of everything he had kept from music school. There we found the things that didn’t hold special appeal for him: Beethoven sonatas and Chopin etudes. We carted a few selections back downstairs and took turns plunking away, oblivious to the wall of sociable noise around us. I uncovered one favourite, a tender Brahms intermezzo, sad and warm as autumn leaves, and played it for Sylvie. She took a crack at some Beethoven. Both of us wanted to get our hands on our own sheet music back home. It would be fun, we decided, to get together and perform our favourite pieces. I hadn’t done that with any of my friends since high school. Unfortunately, neither of us had our own piano.

The opportunity came next summer when she house sat for a friend who owned a piano. I had discovered much of my favourite sheet music had been lost, but her host’s collection at least I found my copy of the Rachmaninoff Preludes, Opus 23. The one in D Major marked Adagio is my favourite piano piece of all, a simple melody, but quite challenging. My fingers found their ways up and down the keys. I was almost in tears at the joy of playing again.

That was how I got to know Sylvie. We drank herbal tea and chatted more about music and art. She gave me a jar of peach jam she had made. She has been one of my best friends ever since.

She started dating Sarah in 2003, a few weeks before I met Danny, and our relationships have grown alongside. I stayed with them when my apartment flooded. I love Sarah, too. They have been like family to my daughters.

Sylvie and Sarah are engaged to be married this summer. So I will take some time out from knitting blog squares to make a special gift for them. It will employ the colours in this square.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Square 98: Algonquin Park

Square 098

On the boundary between northern and southern Ontario lies Algonquin Provincial Park. One-and-a-half times the size of Prince Edward Island or Delaware, it contains 2,400 lakes and 1,200 kilometres of rivers and streams. Located a three hour drive north of Toronto, it is many Canadians' point of contact with wilderness.

My family cottage is less than 10 kilometres (as the crow flies) from the southern boundary of the park, so we need not visit to get a regular taste of Precambrian granite and pristine waters. Still, it beckons with the prospect of exploration and adventure.

That was my daughter Marian's idea of adventure, so the summer she was 12 the two of us went on a three-night canoe trip through Rock Lake and Pen Lake in Algonquin Park. We carried the canoe and all our equipment along a portage more than one kilometre long, got caught in a thunderstorm, and climbed a high granite cliff overlooking one of the lakes (some granite in the area is close to the pink colour in this square).

The morning we were camping on an island on Pen Lake, I got up early and walked to a rock platform with a wide view. On the mainland about 50 metres away, I spotted two red wolves standing on the shore. They spied me, too. After we regarded each other for a moment, they drifted into the woods.

Marian saw a black bear near the same place. We didn't have any trouble with bears or raccoons at our campsite. But each night when I hoisted the food pack safely above the ground I would keep two mugs with hot chocolate mix to add water for our bedtime snacks. One evening we went for a little spin in the canoe, and returned to the campsite to find a mouse stealing miniature marshmallows from our mugs.

The images that have stayed with me most are the water, serenely grey in all kinds of weather. One evening while we watched the sunset, a faint rain was falling around us, laying hypnotic patterns on the quiet lake. Its shining surface seemed to blend with the wet curves of rock along the shore. Marian waded into the water. My daughter, poised on the brink of adulthood, appeared to be standing in the sky.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Square 97: Hidden

Square 097

A few times I have started to knit a square without knowing the story, trusting a story to come to me in the process. This week I had my mind on many things, but no story came. I still did not know what this square was about when Danny arrived for the weekend. He offered to suggest one, but after looking at it and thinking overnight, he couldn't come up with anything specific either.

"Maybe it is the square of hidden desires," he said.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Square 96: Catan

One of the hottest board games around is Settlers of Catan and its various expansions. My friends, Brenda and Judy, introduced me to it several years ago and I've been addicted ever since, sharing the joy with my friends and family. The basic idea is that you build settlements and cities around the island of Catan, produce and trade resources from the surrounding terrain, use them to build more roads and settlements to expand your influence and win the game. One interesting peculiarity of the game is that you cannot progress without cooperating (to some extent) with the other players by trading resources. Another interesting element is that when your turns ends you don't stop participating; During other people's turns you can produce and trade resources.

This square represents the colours of the terrain hexes in Catan: forests produce lumber, hills produce brick, mountains produce ore, plains produce wheat, and pastures produce wool.

The expansion Cities and Knights of Catan introduces more complex strategies to the game. In the variant Starfarers of Catan, you blast into outer space, colonize new planets and encounter alien races who offer strategic alliances. Starship Catan is a two-player version. These are the ones Danny and I own, but there are other variations as well. In each game you must beware of pirates who can steal your resources and even break down your cities.

Through a friend of a friend, I hooked into a group that gets together to play Cities and Knights of Catan one Monday evening a month. On long weekends we hold day-long tourneys, bring potluck and invite other friends and partners along, and play all the other variants. Danny and I play practically every weekend. There is a computer version you can play solo—it's my favourite way to kill time. I've introduced the rest of my family to it as well.

Everybody likes it except for Brenna. You see, some of my friends are too competitive.

Two years ago I had just acquired Starfarers of Catan before Christmas. I was driving home from somewhere with my daughters and two friends, and most of us were getting excited about trying the new game.

"I'll pass," said Brenna, sounding blasé.

"Oh come on," said her sister. "It's more fun if we all play."

"No thanks."

We tried to cajole her, to no avail.

Finally I said, "What don't you like about it?"

"I think," said Brenna, "I've been over-exposed to Lesbians of Catan."

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Square 95: Winter mornings

Square 095

Five months ago in this blog I expressed my ambivalance about purchasing and using a light box to overcome seasonal depression, but as it turns out I've liked it pretty well. In October I bought one and started using it every day. In four months I've missed using it less than 10 times.

I enjoy the ritual. Each morning I lie in bed listening to music and the news for a few minutes. By 6:15 I get up, put on the kettle, go to bathroom, choose a flavour of the day from my tea drawer, make a pot of tea and a light breakfast, then sit with my face about 12 inches from the light for 20 minutes. It's an opportunity to start the day right, doing something I enjoy. Usually I knit. Yes, practically all the squares I've knitted for this blog since New Year's have been completed first during those light sessions.

Afterward I focus for a few minutes on creative writing, my first step in The Six Changes Method I wrote about here on January 13. Then I usually have a few minutes to spare for a shower or a perusal of friend's blogs before I leave for work at 8:00.

Two months ago it was still dark outside when I left for work. Now daylight has begun to seep back into the mornings. Sometimes while I fix the pot of tea, if the sky is partly clear I can see dawn breaking over the city through my southeast window. With streetlights and sheets of vapour rising, the skyline looks a lot like the colours in this square. Tomorrow morning the sun will rise at 7:09 a.m. when I will probably be writing at my oak desk. I look forward to watching the progress of morning over the next few weeks.

Before long it will be time for me to stop using the light box—daylight will take its place—but I will maintain the rhythm of getting up at the same time every morning and devoting a sweet hour or so to my creative pursuits. When I was young, it was my favourite time of day, and I think it is becoming so again.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Square 94: Reuse

Square 094

My friend, Jonah, has an Etsy shop devoted to earth-friendly children's clothing handcrafted from reused materials. Check out her blog, Babazoobee. Her goal is to help people reduce their footprint on the Earth, one which we heartily endorse here at The Yarn. In this generation we are beginning to realize the Earth's resources are not endless, and we must learn to curtail our irresponsible consumption.

From the beginning of this project I hoped to incorporate lots of leftover yarn bits from my friends. Jonah was kind enough to offer most of the material used in this square. It resembles a painting of a cleaner, brighter world, like the pristine land of the truffula trees in my favourite Dr. Seuss book, The Lorax.

If you would like to donate yarn ends from one of your projects, send to the mailing address listed in the introduction to this blog. Your stories are also welcome.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Square 93: Valentine

Square 093

Remember in grade school how we would exchange valentines with all our friends? My mom encouraged me to make my own, though I didn't need much encouragement. All she had to do was provide craft supplies and I would go to it. Actually it was one of my favourite times of year. Yes, making valentines was just as good as receiving candy or presents. I was always excited to see what she would bring home from her shopping trip: white and gold paper doilies, red cardboard hearts and cupids, ribbons and colourful stickers.

As I cut and pasted the parts together, I did not know I was evoking antique valentines. Now I realize Mom had taught me how to make the kind of cards her own mother must have received from sweethearts around 1930. This square is also inspired by those.

It is underpinned by the outside row of handspun yarn from my sweetheart, Danny, because I am well-rooted in him.

This is a special time, because I am also newly in love. How far we have come from the the time of doilies and parlours to a society where I am free to love a man, and free to love more than one person. I don't know whether I would call it "free love"; the phrase trivializes a journey that should never be begun without care, consideration, honesty and integrity.

Fresh emotions can lead us to speak and act without thinking. Inevitably we misstep, but such is the quality of being human, and without our frailties we would be less endearing to one another.

At the same time, I do not believe it is imperative for a thoughtful person to restrict his or her romantic feelings to one other. Some derive special meaning and strength from monogamy, no doubt. To me every friendship is a different adventure. No two are the same. I am enriched by the opportunity to explore deeper levels with some people.

To the ones I love—lovers, friends and family—this valentine goes out.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Square 92: Spinners

Square 092

This square is for three friends with whom I like to knit, but they are also spinners: Erin, Lori and Danny. I deny that I'll ever learn to spin, and with friends like these, who needs to? I have received some lovely handspun yarn for this blanket square. The charcoal grey comes from Erin, the blue and variegated red-and-blank from Lori, and the "kitchen sink" yarn from Danny.

Lori and Erin also inspire me with their activism and community-building activities.

The first time I met Lori she learned that I was a knitter, and encouraged me to start a knitting group for the queer community. More than a year later I organized Rainbow Knitters, which meets at Out On The Shelf the third Saturday of every month from 1:30 to 3:30. I look forward every month to sitting down for an afternoon of creativity and good company with interesting people.

Just as these friends add another layer of rootedness to my life, what appeals to me about spinning is that it adds another layer of creativity to a project. It goes a little deeper. Handspun yarn can be as simple or as complex as you please. Who knows, maybe someday I'll stop the denial and go the extra mile to making my own yarn.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Sqare 91: Knit-a-thon

On January 30, we held the second annual knit-a-thon to raise funds for Out On The Shelf, Guelph's queer library and resource centre. About 40 people participated in raising approximately $3,400, enough to cover OOTS's operating expenses for several months. The knit-a-thons have been the library's most successful fund raising events so far. When we started organizing the first one, our goal was to raise $600; nobody dreamed how it would take off. It's amazing what can happen when you get a bunch of knitters together.

The knit-a-thons have been a lot of fun, too. People were asked to form teams of four. Individuals could come and knit for 90 minutes, running relay so the team would have someone working there for six hours. But most people wanted to hang out for the entire time. We sat around on couches, chairs and the floor, talking endlessly. Workshops went on in another room. There was food. There were door prizes, and special prizes to the teams and individuals who raised the most money.

During the knit-a-thon I knitted a super square about three times the size of one of these regular ones. I used rainbow colours. This square is a scaled-down version.

It was a lot of work for a few people to organize the event, but it was so much fun I'm already looking forward to the next one.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Square 90: Herb garden

Square 090

One of the first gardens I had was an herb garden. I don't know what first attracted me to herbs. Mom had the usual spice jars in her kitchen, and used them only sparingly. I liked the fragrance of herbs, but they also possessed an esoteric, magical quality.

I had a National Geographic book entitled Nature's Healing Arts, which traced the history of pharmaceutical medicine from folklore to modern science. The pages were filled with photographs of traditional healers wading through streams and meadows, gathering mysterious and healthful plants. I wanted to be one of those people, and learned everything I could about the medicinal qualities of weeds, trees and wildflowers that grew around our house and cottage. I collected and dried them, but rarely used them because I really did not trust the idea.

I also kept my interest secret from my friends, just as I hid all my gardening prowess. Boys were not supposed to be interested in plants, especially not these kinds. Mom let me hang herbs to dry in the little room with the water heater and pump, and it's almost funny thinking back: I kept my herbs in a closet.

Now I mostly use herbs in food. The ones most popular in Western cooking are Mediterranean herbs from the mint family, such as sage, thyme, rosemary, oregano and marjoram. Their smells evoke warm lands and sunny skies.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Square 89: Amaryllis

Square 089

Mom gave me an Amaryllis bulb for Christmas in 2007 and it bloomed that winter before she died. I had not been reliable at maintaining houseplants, but after the flower faded—and with Mom gone—I tried to keep the plant alive as long as possible.

She used to plunge her Amaryllis pots in a shady place in the garden for the summer so they could rest and store up nutrients, but I did not have an adequate garden space.

So I just left it sitting on the back of the toilet, a sunny place in my old apartment. Finally late in the summer its last leaves faded and fell off. I tossed the pot on dim shelf in the hall, unwilling to throw it out but not knowing what to do with it, and forgot about it.

A few months later (this is a year ago now) I was surprised to see new leaves. I moved the pot to a sunny place, and the plant produced another flower.

I had hoped to repeat the miracle. Last August I offered the plant a sunny home in my new bathroom, then moved it again a few weeks ago to a dark corner of the living room.

This week it began sprouting leaves, but I see no evidence of a flower bud. Did I not give it a long enough rest? If I care for it properly this year, will it have another chance?

I remember a few years ago when my friend Lisa lost her mother she commented how strange it felt to find herself at the top of the family tree. I'm not there yet (my father is still alive), but it hit me recently that when I die, some people who live on in my memory will vanish even from there. My children never met my grandfather, Van, whom I was so fond of. Someday when my children die, no one will remember my mother. What happens to people then?

Friday evening while walking home I saw the full moon, Mom's moon, gazing down from a velvet sky. She went away during the lunar eclipse two years ago this month. She is still there now, dropping by once in a while to say hello, and for now, for me, it is enough.

I'll keep coaxing the Amaryllis to bloom. We grasp eternity however we can.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Square 88: Red mulberry

Square 088

A few weeks ago I had to run a Saturday morning errand to Acton. Danny was in the car with me. We saw a yarn store on the main street so I suggested we go in. I came out with one new skein for the blanket, this deep burgundy Debbie Bliss Donegal Aran Tweed. I've used it already in one or two squares, but wanted to base a square around it. Nothing came immediately to mind so this week I started knitting to see what would happen.

Within the first two rows I began to think of a red mulberry tree (Morus rubra) that grew beside the house where I grew up. Typically red mulberries are small trees growing in the understory, but ours was about 15 metres tall with a girth so large an adult could barely reach halfway around. Originally two of them stood a few paces apart, but one got hit by lightning when I was too young to remember.

The mulberry was a grand tree. Its strong, spreading limbs shaded the south side of our house. It was a great climbing tree. My brother built a fort in it when I was very small, and I continued to use it. My cousin, Bill, used to fall out the tree regularly and broke his arm on at least one occasion.

We had a grey cat named Smudge who thought she was a monkey. She mostly stayed indoors through the winter, but on the first mild spring day she would scramble into the mulberry and leap from branch to branch. Our older cat, Grey Shadow, preferred to lie in the soft, cool shade on the platform of the treefort.

It produced bountiful fruit in midsummer, which were small and insipid, but attractive to many birds such as cedar waxwings. Our patio and the soles of our feet would become stained purple.

The tree also attracted one of the large North American silk moths, the cecropia moth, Hyalophora cecropia. We never saw caterpillars, but sometimes in fall or winter we would find large pale brown cocoons attached to a branch or the trunk. One year we tried bringing one indoors, and the gorgeous moth emerged one sunny winter day. It lived for a few days but we could not release it. That was a sad lesson for us, and we left the cocoons alone afterward.

Our house had a deck off the second-floor bedrooms, and I used to be able to climb between the deck and a branch of the mulberry to get up or down. Sometimes as a teenager I would slip out of my bedroom and down the tree just to roam around in the dark.

After I left home for university, the tree suffered the same fate as its sibling and was destroyed by lightning. There used to be a few saplings around the woodsy edge of the vacant lot next door, but I have not seen one there for many years. I never saw another big mulberry until recently—in Toronto one of the cafés on Queen Street has a tall tree casting shade over the back patio.

We had no idea what a special tree ours was. Now I know red mulberries are endangered in Canada, confined to the most southerly part of the Carolinian Forest zone in Southwestern Ontario.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Square 87: 6 changes

Square 087

I've never liked setting New Year's resolutions, but this year I needed a plan. I spent last fall trying to change too many things about my life and most of them fell flat. So I have adopted a new strategy for 2010.

I have mentioned the Zen Habits blog here before. Leo Babauta, bestselling author of The Power of Less, offers advice on simplifying your life and becoming more productive. He has also designed the 6 Changes Method, a model for changing behaviour, and this is what I have been following.

Here are the basic principles: pick six changes you want to apply in the coming year, address them one at a time instead of all at once, spend two months on each one beginning with small steps and moving to larger, more difficult ones, and be accountable by telling your friends and family.

I've been going with it since the beginning of the month. My first change is to focus on creative writing. I want to finish writing a novel. So I've been getting up earlier to establish a daily writing practice, and it's going well.

Here are a few tips I have learned, partly from personal experience and partly from Babauta's advice:

  1. Don't start anything immediately. Make a plan. When you have a new habit in mind, give yourself a week or two before it starts. Choose a date and time. The anticipation will help you prepare.
  2. Don't try to change more than one thing at once.
  3. When things are going well you might feel inclined to work ahead, but resist the temptation; if you change too many things at once you're more likely to backslide.
  4. It takes a minimum of one month to successfully ingrain a new habit, ideally two months.
  5. Break each change down into steps and start with one so easy you cannot fail.
  6. Make some of your six changes fun.
  7. For harder changes, build a reward system into your plan.
  8. Forgive yourself. One of my friends suggests an 80/20 rule, so if you follow your plan 80 per cent of the time, that counts as success.
  9. Blog about it. It's a good way to be publicly accountable, and your friends can encourage you.

For this square I chose six variegated yarns to represent 6 changes. Some of them are subtle, others more stark, some bright, others earthy, some simple, others complicated.

If you want to simplify or become more productive, there's no reason to wait until next January. Start now. Happy changes!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Square 86: Ancient white cedars

Square 086

The oldest trees in Eastern North America are Eastern white cedars (Thuja occidentalis) that grow on the cliff face of the Niagara Escarpment. The oldest live individual so far identified is located at Lion's Head on Georgian Bay; it has 1141 growth rings. Some dead trees have been found with as many as 1653, and some, with pith wood missing, are estimated to have lived 1800 years.

T. occidentalis is a small tree, normally growing less than 20 metres, but the ancient trees of the escarpment are diminutive, stunted by exposure to the elements. Cedars are a favourite forage plant for deer. The cliff is the only place where they are safe from browsers, forest fires and competition from more vigorous trees.

My plant ecology prof in 1986 was Doug Larson. Imagine my surprise to see him appear a few years later in a Canadian Geographic article about the discovery of these ancient cedars, with which he is credited. The story is recounted in a book I hope to get my hands on soon, The Last Stand: A Journey Through the Ancient Cliff-Face Forest of the Niagara Escarpment by Larson and Peter Kelly. Larson was an energetic teacher, compelled with desire to impart the importance of botany to the masses. I don't know how far his enthusiasm spread, but it has certainly affected my life.

Lorraine Roy's quilt, Burning Bush, which hangs in my living room (see square 43), also reminds me of the flora of the Niagara Escarpment. Sometimes it is not the big, impressive things that are most enduring.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Square 85: Purple

Violet is the colour associated with Sahasrara, the seventh primary chakra, positioned above the head and also known as the crown chakra. In traditional Indian medicine, the chakras are focal points for transmission of energy through the body. The crown is the chakra of higher consciousness. It is associated with dreams and creativity.

In the new year I have launched a plan to implement six changes in my life, one at a time. I've published the list in my other blog. You are welcome to follow along and encourage me to stick with it. The first and most cherished hope is to focus on creative writing, particuarly a novel I have had in progress for several years. I have designated tomorrow as the day to commence a new writing process dedicated to that goal.

I am calling upon all the forces at my disposal to bring this change about, and so decided to knit a square of purple yarn to direct my conscious and subconsious faculties. I threw in some of Danny's "kitchen sink" handspun yarn, because it is all about the creative process. Writing or making art is an incredible journey and you must be willing to set out with only a sketchy map of the path ahead. Today I stand at the head of the trail.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Square 84: Organ building

Square 084

Work on the blanket has taken a hiatus over the holiday season while I busily knitted gifts. 2010 is a new year and I have new projects on the burner—well, actually not so new, but an old project tackled with refreshed vigour and concentration. You can read about it on my other blog, Eramosa River Journal. Meanwhile I plan to continue working on these squares, perhaps at a more relaxed pace than before, but with some regularity.

Another important change is that work has picked up. For months my boss has had a contract in the works to build a new pipe organ for a church in Vancouver. During December we were able to get started on some preparatory work, which set me up to keep busy while he has been on holidays the past several weeks. This job will keep us busy until next fall.

One of the woods we use to build organs is tulip wood, known at the lumber yard as poplar. It is a beautiful tree, uncommon in Ontario, but further south it is grown commercially. The wood has two colours, pale cream with a rosy undertone, and a greenish-brown. This darker colour reminds me of yarn I dyed with black walnuts.

We use poplar to construct toe boards because it cuts cleanly and is stable, not prone to warping. The toe board is the structure on which the feet of the pipes rest. It is full of holes and channels to conduct air into the pipes, and is set up with a system of valves and sliders to shut the air on or off depending on which pipes are being played. We use the band saw, table saw, jointer and thickness planer to cut the boards to precise thickness, then the drill press to drill holes, and the router to hollow out channels on the undersides of the boards. This is my current undertaking.

Many of the pipes are being subcontracted to other shops specializing in their construction. The majority are made of metal but a few are made of wood. We will build some of the wood pipes ourselves. But that is all weeks in the future. Rack boards will also be assembled to hold the pipes in place on top of the toe boards and the rest of the organ—the winds lines and casework—will be constructed around them. Much of the organ will be built in the shop in Fergus, then taken apart and shipped to Vancouver where we will assemble it again.

Building a pipe organ is a journey.