Stitches Through Time

Last month I started a hand-making project I’d envisioned for over a year: to interpret a series of mandalas I’d drawn and painted by tracing their designs onto linen and embroidering with wool crewel yarn. That had been the original plan. But when it took many months for the yarn to arrive from England and to secure the right colour and weave of linen – all ordered online as this was in the thick of lockdowns and I’d seen how website color charts don’t translate well – a chance walk down an aisle at Michael’s (the national chain craft store) where I saw a wall full of cotton embroidery thread in a rainbow of colours, resulted in its rethinking to ‘plan B.’

Then a comment to my mother, when we finally visited in September – she remarkably skilled in high counted cross stitch, our home graced by several of her creations – led to her gladly gifting me with her supply of needles, hoops, scissors, specially made wooden boxes, beads, and ‘signature’ well-organized collection of threads – hundreds of colours in a multitude of hues and metallics. For me who was enthralled with my childhood Christmas gift box of 64 Crayola crayons, I was in that same colour-smitten heaven. I paid an extra baggage fee to bring the entire collection safely home, spent an evening going through it all to understand Mom’s ‘system,’ finally broke the seal on the new tracing light board I’d purchased a year ago in anticipation, and began.

Initially, I thought I’d follow closely the colours in the original watercolour, but I soon realized that working with needle, thread and yarn, despite being close in colour, is not the same as brush and paint. So, I began to improvise within the spaces, using a variety of shades and stitch patterns. I discovered that “split stitch” is pleasing in its coverage, texture, ability to move back and forth between thread and yarn, and in actually making each stitch. It simply feels good to make that stitch.

I also discovered that where I began – sitting quietly in our living room after dinner, everything spread around me – I missed my ‘pack,’ and knew Annie missed me. She has her routine. Once we finish dinner and clean up the kitchen, it’s ‘pack time.’ She settles on ‘her’ love seat in the family room and waits for us to join her. Sometimes when we’re lingering over dinner, she can become quite impatient, pacing back and forth, showing her teeth in that non-aggressive, trying to talk to us way. It’s just not the same if I’m sitting in the living room, even when I cajole her into laying down on the carpet beside me. So I’ve shifted to where the light and companionship are better, often plugging in my earbuds to listen to a podcast as I stitch, while Sig watches a hockey game or aninvesting or horse training video, and Annie, utterly content on the sofa in between, soundly sleeps.

But the biggest discovery has been how soothing I find this act of handmaking. It goes slowly. Gradually I see the colours and textures resemble the painting that inspired the plan. Not an evening goes by when I don’t silently grok and or remark how soothed I feel doing this work. In part I know it comes from the deep appreciation I feel using my mother’s materials and supplies, that my hands are using what her hands had used for years to make beauty. And that given the amount of thread she’s given me, I will most likely have many more years than my mother life to bask in this gratitude.

“There is a juiciness to creativity, a succulence, or a sensuality which both produces and is soothed by creating something. I think that creativity is pleasing to women on a very deep level, whatever form it might take – whether it’s the feel of clay in our hands, the colours that work on us as we knit, the meaning that we find in the words that we write, or the energizing feel of movement as we dance and the music moves through our bodies.”

Lucy Pearce in Sharon Blackie, If Women Rose Rooted, 2019
quoted in “When Women Create,” A Wabi Sabi Life

As I look over my life, my mother always did handwork, as did many women of her generation and those before her. I remember many of the clothes she made for my sister and me until I began sewing my own in my early teens. After living in an apartment for my first thirteen years, my parents built their home and Mom poured herself into its decorating, needlepointing the backgrounds of eight dining room chairs – a meditation in monotony, same stitch, same colour for many months. From there she mastered every style of needlework, again gifting me with cushions, purses, and such. She knit beautifully, always challenging herself in ways I didn’t quite get nor fully appreciate. A brief foray into crewel work and then counted cross-stitch and cutaway, the finer and more intricate, the better. In the last few years, she’s found the strain on her eyes too much, regrettably as she has several half-finished projects and wishes to make each of her grandchildren and great-great grandchildren keepsakes. So she’s gone back to occasionally knitting, and now spends more time reading. It’s a pastime I’m happy she enjoys, as when younger she never did, believing herself to be a poor reader. So utterly untrue when I think about what she’s created with her hands – the patterns she had to read and interpret, the recipes she improvised, the books she kept for the business. A legacy of the hurtful, limiting stories we’re told, or tell ourselves.

“When you learn to make things with your hands, you begin to awaken an awareness of the beauty and value of things in your life. Handmaking teaches us about slowness: the antidote to brevity and efficiency. It shows us, through the patience of our own hands, what goes into a thing. When we put those long efforts into bringing beauty into the world, we are honouring that which made us by creating as we have been created. We are taught to respect the slow, attentive piecing together of the life we yearn for.”

Toko-pa Turner, Belonging, 2017
quoted in “A Homemade, Handmade Life,” A Wabi Sabi Life

And looking further back, her grandmother, my Gramma, was always sewing – spectacular fashions inspired by the turn of the century Edwardian era. Plumed and netted hats, velvet coats. No wonder I was so taken by Downton Abbey for its costume design, as I have old sepia tint photos of Gramma looking just like those women. Too, I have one hundred year old samples of her silk embroidery, and I wore for my wedding the white cotton lawn embroidered dress she’d made for her own – fine hand sewn tucked bodice, tiny mother of pearl buttons.

My paternal grandmother, Oma, too, was a very skillful seamstress, though in the pre and post world war periods of Germany, her talents were out of necessity directed to the functional, utilitarian, to get more wear from what was worn. Emigrating to North America in the 1950s, she became a pieceworker on the assembly line making glass cases for Bausch and Lomb. An accident on the sewing machine nearly severed her middle finger, left its nail permanently clawed over. Her dowager’s hump the price for countless hours bent over those grinding machines.

Before my mother’s second birthday, her mother died. Eleanor, my grandmother, was adopted as a young child. Family dynamics and bureaucratic policy were such that we grew up knowing very little about her. Did she like to sew? Was she a hand maker? Did she embroider or like cooking? We don’t know. We have very few pictures of her, but one as a young girl shocked us all in the resemblance I share with her.

Early this morning I woke having dreamt of her. A young boy hand-delivered a painting or photograph of a young girl child, now restored and framed. Stretching, I had to reach up high and retrieve the parcel from its precarious perch. I unwrapped its golden Klimt-like heavy wrapping paper to see a little girl at sitting at a table outside, surrounded by little glass pots of paint, flowering bushes beside her, blue sky above. I knew immediately it was Eleanor. I felt a whisper in my heart murmuring that this is how I am connected to my grandmother, in little paint pots of colour – the timeless iteration of the 64 box of crayons – in a yard warm with flowers and a blue sky.

“…I needed that bond to feel whole, competent and grounded, connected to my heart and soul, to my community, to my ancestors, and to the natural world around me…”

Melanie Falick, Making a Life, 2019,
quoted in “Joie de Faire,” A Wabi Sabi Life

In the still dark this morning, I sensed this is how I am connected to the lineage of women – through the shimmering cotton threads, warm hued woolen yarns, fabrics woven on looms and sewn into garments and furnishings. That my ancestors whisper to me in dreams and in the stitches we make through time.

Much love and kindest regards, dear friends.

Roses in Winter

“Must be brain freeze,” I just tapped out to a friend, as I’m late again for this week’s post.

It. Is. Cold. An Arctic vortex has descended upon the prairies. Years ago, I recall my city’s well-loved and highly respected meteorologist calling it “the dreaded of all meteorological phenomena: the Siberian High.” Sunshine and signature Alberta blue skies, but with wind blowing steady, take those already frigid temperatures well below zero – centigrade or Fahrenheit – and drop them at least another ten, dangerous degrees. Since the weekend, weather apps have shown red banners and yellow exclamation points and maps show red across the entire province.

But last Thursday, in advance of its arrival, we waxed up the skies and went out to our local provincial park, Blackfoot-Waskahegan, for some easy-going cross-country skiing. As it had been several years since I’d been on the trails, we took a practice run the week before in the new-this-year tracks set on the golf course. Quiet except for the scratch of the skies on snow, my breathing, the squawking and chirping magpies and chickadees, it was heaven sent, though for now, on pause.

Sunday, dressed warmly in a fleece lined wool toque, down parka, gortex snow pants, shearling boots and new “extreme cold” Hesta mitts, I met many folks on the paths, similarly bundled, each enjoying our daily walks in the sunshine. An hour later, the mitts standing up to their reputation, my hands were sweating. The wind blew in that evening, and now even Annie, ever ready to brave the elements – except rain – is less than enthusiastic to be outside. She’s conceded to wearing her boots again with her stylish coat, and we manage a walk around the block. But she didn’t hesitate or pull the other way when I turned down the street headed home. Yesterday after sending her indoors, I took on clearing the sidewalk and driveway of hard packed snow. Got nearly 10,000 steps with it all. That sunshine is a powerful draw. But right this moment, in a day just beginning to clear, she’s napping on her cushion by the space heater as I write.

A year ago today, we were making our way to Sevilla for a winter sojourn in Andalusia. Right about now we were napping in a cozy sleep pod at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. Later in the afternoon, we’d catch our flight to Sevilla, check into our hotel, and enjoy our first of many “al fresco” Spanish tapas. Smoky olives, sweet red vermut on ice, grilled octopus.

Ahhhh memory. “The power to gather roses in Winter.”

During the next few weeks, to mark the occasion I’ll mix an Americano cocktail (first enjoyed during my first visit to Andalusia in 2017) with a slice of orange (not Sevillian, too bitter), chew on Spanish olives, and “gather roses” as I wander across the pages of my journal and photo book from last year’s last trip before the pandemic.

And now, after finishing this post, I’ll check to see if a walk is doable.  And then, inspired by returning to reading Melanie Falick’s beautiful story of hand makers and DIYers, Making a Life, I’ll continue embellishing the sweater I knitted a few years back. Worked from a pattern I’d rejigged, with very fine lacy yarn – a silk mohair blend – it’s rife with mis-takes and mis-stitches, too big, and too disappointing after numerous tear-outs and restarts. After taking it out from hiding a few months ago, glancing at it every now and then, holding lightly what and how to proceed, last night I took needle and thread and using a running straight stitch, took in the sides and arms in an exposed French seam. I roll hemmed the entire sweater, again using a straight stitch, letting it show. Then, with a skein of similarly spun yarn from a sweater my mother made for me years ago, I’m running it though those uneven ladders to bring in texture and colour. A true “wabi sabi” creation, using what’s imperfect with what’s on hand, to make beautiful.

Like the little water colour I did while attending a conference last Saturday on Medieval Pilgrimages. Bored with the academic posturing and paper reading, and needing distraction to sort and discern what was of value for me, I adhered to the principles of intuitive painting – no premeditation, design, or meaning – and simply worked with colour and stroke. And then, almost as an afterthought, used a fine black pen to outline the shapes that emerged. Delightful, colourful, nonsensical.

“Ways to trust one’s own wisdom
to bless the imperfections
to see and make apparent the inherent beauty
to smell crimson roses
even in Winter
when her blizzards blow and blind.”

KW

Much love and kindest regards, dear friends.

Joie de Faire

I knew I needed practices to help me flourish with fall’s arrival, its shorter days, and the inevitable snows and cold of winter. No escaping it, even though we here in the parklands of Alberta have had a stellar September and first week of October with no frost nor flakes. I posted on Facebook last week how remarkable that the geraniums and marigolds in their pots looked more beautiful and abundant now than in the peak of summer.

Early in this pandemic, while making photo books from my last trips to Morocco and Andalusia, I saw the hundreds of photos I’d taken over the past decade and decided to sort into a collection those I’d like to use on the cover of note cards. A few years ago, before the advent of the terrific e-cards I now habitually send, I’d make a photo card to celebrate a family member or friend’s birthday, anniversary, wedding or other life transition. A photo, hand- written or stamped greeting, postage stamp and off it’d go in the mail. I chose to resurrect that practice this fall – my version of a non-Zoom hug or love note – to stay connected with friends.

“…I needed that bond to feel whole, competent and grounded, connected to my heart and soul, to my community, to my ancestors, and to the natural world around me…”

Melanie Falick, Making a Life, 2019

Times have changed. It used to be that I had a paper address book with friends’ contact information. As I composed my list of names, I realized for many I had only email addresses. And so, without tipping my hand too much, I asked, via email, for their “old fashioned snail mail” postal address.

“Over the course of just a couple of hundred years in the so-called developed world, we have become passive consumers of products, services, and information rather than active makers, fixers and even thinkers. Most of the time what we buy is made somewhere else, by a machine or by people we’ll never meet…”

Melanie Falick, Making a Life, 2019

Every week since early September, a few days a week, a couple of names on my list, I’d make a card, with a hand written note, maybe include a well-loved verse of poetry or a quote, a specially chosen photo evoking something for me about that person. Affixed a stamp and return address label and slipped it in the community mailbox.

love note bits

“I gradually came to the conclusion that in its most simple sense, art (as a verbal noun that I now call “artifying” or “artification”) is the act of making ordinary things extraordinary. It is a uniquely human impulse.”

Ellen Dissanayake in Making a Life, 2019

After the first week’s batch, I remembered that the cards I use are good quality water colour stock. I remembered how in that earlier iteration I might rubber stamp the inside with a greeting, and occasionally paint a dash of colour over. So now I’ve taken to embellishing the envelope with rubber stamp image and light water colour wash. “Now that’s an envelop worth keeping!” remarked a friend’s husband upon retrieving her card from their post box.

A friend sent me this photo of my love note to her

“Joie de faire – an inherent joy in making:
There is something important, even urgent, to be said about the sheer enjoyment of making something that didn’t exist before, of using one’s own agency, dexterity, feelings and judgment to mold, form, touch, hold, craft physical materials, apart from anticipating the fact of its eventual beauty, uniqueness, or usefulness.”

Ellen Dissanayake in Making a Life, 2019

I’m crystal clear within myself that I make and send these cards with no expectation of hearing back from anyone. And yet I’ve been delighted to read about how surprised or touched by, or perfect the card. Another friend reminisced about days gone by when letters and notes were the way we maintained our relationships and connections, saying she’d been inspired to follow my lead, and that perhaps this was fulfilling my purpose.

“I think a lot of modern people’s ennui, or feelings of depression or meaninglessness, comes from the fact that although our physical and material needs are met, we are not satisfying those psychological and emotional needs of our hunter-gatherer nature.”

Ellen Dissanayake in Making a Life, 2019

While I was touched with her suggestion, I’m not sure this is my purpose, per se, but it is satisfying that yearning to make, to make something beautiful, to share that beauty with people I cherish, and to invite them – for a moment or longer- to feel they are cherished by me. It is responding to my inner need to flourish when I’d felt so fallow and forlorn during the early months of Covid-19.

“…active making, and making special, contributes to satisfactions
(fulfillment of basic emotional needs) that cannot come any other way.”

Ellen Dissanayake in Making a Life, 2019

It is activating my slogan: The power of prayer and the making of beauty are HOLY ALCHEMY for social change.

And quite simply, it brings me joy.

With much love and kindest regards, dear friends.

Closer to Home

Thinking about this week’s post came from a few rambling experiences finally resting on the need and practicality of being closer to home.

Lifting a page from the books of some friends, we’ve taken a couple of day trips to see some local sights, obscure and otherwise. Like most folks these days, we’ve opted for the “staycation,” sticking closer to home, not yet venturing far enough for an overnight accommodation. While the mountains call, from what we hear people are flocking in droves to Jasper, Banff and Canmore, so we’ll hold off until…. Plus, we didn’t want to kennel Annie. She’s been such a stalwart companion these months, relying on us as much as we her for a steady supply of love and attention. We just didn’t have the heart to leave her cooped up with strangers. And being on leash, the only way in the mountains, gets pretty frustrating with so much wild scent around. After all, she’s a bird dog. Scenting, hunting, stalking and pointing are her nature.

So a drive east down a prairie highway to Viking, a right turn south across the rolling pastures and freshly cut hay fields, up the hill to a white fence enclosing the two Viking Ribstones. An ancient aboriginal site, now adorned with colourful prayer cloths, these large quarzite boulders were carved thousands of years ago to resemble the ribcages of the revered bison, the main source of sustenance for the plains people.

Last week, north and east to Metis Crossing, we spent another few hot, sunny hours enjoying the quiet of this cultural interpretative centre along the shores of the North Saskatchewan River. Bison sausage with saskatoon relish, bannock with fresh rhubarb jelly and saskatoon lemonade were in keeping with history and today’s garden harvest. Flowers grew in abundance.

A stop en route at the Skaro Grotto.

I’d like for us to make a further trek south towards Rosebud and Blackfoot Crossing. That landscape of treeless, golden high prairie cut by deep coulees green with willow and cottonwood, set against an endless horizon of blue begs acknowledgement that it, too, is as magnificent as the mountains. An acknowledgement I’m only too willing to give, though it would be a long day.

This weekend would have been the 40th anniversary of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival. It, like every other festival in Alberta and large gatherings around the world, was cancelled due to the pandemic. Here, every summer weekend we watch rodeos, listen to music of every genre, see theatre at the famous Fringe festival, revel in parades and gatherings celebrating culture and heritage. We mark our all too short summer with one or several of these “must attends.” It’s helps us get through winters that go on and on. All weekend my radio station, CKUA, an ardent supporter of Alberta culture, featured music and interviews from past years’ performers, while the Festival commissioned a full-length film feature, The Hill, to stream and hosted over fifty videos of past performances. As beautiful the efforts to be on “the hill at home,” as I drove past the festival site early Saturday morning, a time when any other year I’d see orange vested volunteers managing traffic, I felt a bit bereft and wondered, when, if ever, would, what has been called North America’s finest folk festival, return. I recalled having had my first pandemic meltdown, weeping the morning I heard it, and my go to, the Canmore Folk Festival, had been cancelled. The ebbing and flowing, waxing and waning of grief. That day it came closer to home and landed on my doorstep.

Yesterday I zoomed in on a conversation hosted by Melanie Falik, author of the recently published Making A Life: Working By Hand and Discovering the Life You Are Meant to Live. A few hundred people from around the world, mostly knitters, listened along. As a kind of checkout, we were invited to type in the chat box one project we’d start this week. I got to thinking that for the past week or so I’d been saying out loud that I needed a project. Something I could sink my teeth into. Something on which to focus my ebbing and flowing, waxing and waning energy. Something besides cooking that would engage my curiosity and creativity.

The photo books from this past year’s trips are done. I’m writing a bit. I’m still committed to not learning how to bake sourdough bread, nor grow a garden (hell, I’m having enough of a time picking slugs off my flowers, and we love the bounty from our bi-weekly CSA, thank you). Like most knitters, though I blush to call myself such, I have a started sweater in a bag and a few patterns and skeins waiting in the bin. But I hardly need more sweaters, or scarves, or shawls, even if Friday’s sudden cold weather reminds me what’s coming.

No, what I realized, as I knitted together these recent bits of my life, was that the dreams I’d been keeping, hoping to sustain me through these days of uncertainty and change, were too far out of reach. I knew I couldn’t hold my breath as long as it would take, if ever, to return to the folk festival as I had known it, or to Morocco as I’d planned for this September. I realized I needed to dream closer to home.

I have no idea what dream or project. Not yet.
But I feel a smile inside and out as I begin to wonder and feel those energies shimmer, swirl and coalesce.

With love and kindest regards.

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