Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Knitting into Spring

Last winter I ripped out several knitting projects and reknit the yarn into wearable objects. This winter, I knit one pair of socks, several pairs of fingerless mitts, and washcloths to give as gifts. I combined leftover yarns into a Downtown Cowl and knit a Zilver shawl using the last skein purchased on a trip to the Wisconsin Wool Festival, September 2011. Then I finished a sweater. I am always a bit surprised when I knit a sweater that fits. My Current sweater is a success.

 In August 2013, I cast on the sweater in Breathless yarn, a merino/cashmere/nylon blend I had previously purchased for a large shawl. The yarn is a shade of sage green which reminds me of prairie grass being rippled by the wind. Shalimar Yarns named the color Limerick. The yoke and fronts of the sweater are trimmed in a checkerboard rib which includes a small cable twist reminiscent of a current of water meandering around the sweater.

As I knit, I thought about currents of all kinds. In rivers and streams, currents are diverted by sandbars, dead trees, and plants at the water's edge. Eventually the current creates a path by following gravity to lower elevations. If one watches long enough, patterns emerge. Moreover currents keep bodies of water from becoming stagnant. Water remains healthy when it circulates. Although currents of sound evaporate, they have a rhythm much like the rhyme in a limerick or sonnet. Ancient epic poems often acquired a rhythm as they were recited because rhythm helped storytellers  memorize and recall stories. The rhythm of poetry is part of its beauty. Currents of wind and air affect weather. Wind currents blow across grasses, through trees, neighborhoods, and open country. They leave evidence on rocks, mountains, lake surfaces, snow in ditches, and leaves against my garden fence. They shape trees in many places, including Interstate 80 through Nebraska. As the wind blew through autumn and winter, I knit on this sweater. I finished it about the time of the spring equinox. The lighter weight yarn makes this a good sweater for Spring.

Right now, I have three projects on my needles, a yellow sweater for a toddler, a pair of socks in a bright yarn variegated with yellow and blue, and a pair of fingerless mitts, also a soft yellow. I do believe I have put away the blue and gray yarns of winter. However, blue will be back in my knitting rotation come summer.

Nine months into retirement, I enjoy the changed pace in my life. For years I have wanted to savor Spring's arrival and now I can do that without being distracted by the end of the school year tasks. Late last summer I was diverted by a chickadee hanging upside down on a deck chair. In February, I watched the gradual change in light foreshadowing Spring. This week, despite Sunday's snow, buds are forming on the birch outside my window. The wind is blowing and I hope the prevailing current is toward Spring.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Making My Own

Recently on an early March afternoon, I read one of my favorite Margaret Wise Brown books, "A Home for a Bunny" to my grandson. "Spring said the robin. Spring said the frog. Spring said the bunny." I don't know anyone who isn't happy to see Spring. All winter I knit with gray, sage green, and shades of blue, so while winter lingered in my neighborhood, I ordered one skein of brightly dyed yarn to knit some cheerful socks. Sometimes you just have to make your own Spring color.

A few days later, I went to the grocery store for a few items, including a lemon. The bright yellow fruit was so inviting, I bought enough to fill a small glass bowl. I made lemon muffins and some lemon flavored simple syrup for lemonade. On one warm afternoon, I made some fresh lemonade and enjoyed it on the deck in the sunshine.

Indoors, I am learning to make books. I checked out some references from the public library and then searched the internet. At Christmas, my daughter gave me a book on bookmaking and I was off on a new adventure. I began by making two small books with blank pages. In the first project, I used the cover of a book I bought at an antique mall for seventy cents. I also improvised some bookmaking supplies from my embroidery, sewing, and quilting days. Instead of ordering book binding tape, I reinforced the spine with a piece of fabric backed with iron-on interfacing. When I made the second book, I cut the cover and spine from cardboard leftover from framing a piece of embroidery. I covered the board with cotton quilting fabric. I substituted a strip of linen left over from an embroidered sampler for mull, the speciality fabric glued to the spine of folded papers before they are attached to the cover.

Next, I made two chap books of my poems. I purchased some watercolor paper for covers. I used pearl cotton embroidery floss and a tapestry needle to sew the books together with the pamphlet stitch. One of my daughter's photos became the cover art. I finished the book with a contrasting strip of 1/8 inch ribbon. The book contains a title page, a dedication, the poems, and a copyright statement, all exactly the way I want them to look. While publishing and marketing my writing is intimidating, making my own books intrigues me. After all there was a time when books were made one at a time by hand.

Whether the subject is books, socks, lemonade, or spring, sometimes you just have to make your own.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

February Color and Light

January and February is a good time for comfort knitting. I knit a scarf from Shepherd's Wool in a pattern called Danger. While I knitted, temperatures dipped below freezing and remained bitterly cold. In fact, the weather was so cold, I completed the bind-off, wove in the beginning and ending ends, and wore the scarf without washing and blocking. For some reason, the name "Danger" reminds me of the "here be dragons" phrase cartographers of the early 1500's used to indicate danger. As I walked on bitter cold days with the scarf wrapped around my face, I thought, "here be danger." Still on those cold days, the neighborhood is quiet and there is a certain kind of beauty in the contrast of snow and bare tree trunks. As I came home to soup bubbling in the crock pot or carrots and squash roasting in the oven, I savored the peace of winter days. Soon enough lawnmowers and other power tools will disturb the quiet.    

Yesterday was unseasonably warm so I drove out to a trail bordering a wooded area for a walk. Even though I walked in a fleece jacket without hat or scarf, the grasses and adjacent wooded area looked like winter. Songbirds were not visible. Instead I saw only a hawk riding thermals in the wind and two big crows perched in tall elms. On the last leg of my walk, I found this wispy feather attached to the twig of a bush. I wish I knew what kind of bird shed this tiny feather with the splotch of gray along the shaft. After a walk through a monochromatic landscape, the feather made me smile.

February marks the month when the light begins to increase. The change is quite subtle, nevertheless the color of the sunny sky seems different to me. The days of slightly increasing light offer the hope of Spring. I hear more bird song too. I recently read that birds don't migrate based on temperatures but on the changes in light.

Last night I put another inch on the "Current" cardigan I cast on last summer. The yarn is a soft sage green. Knitting an adult sweater from fingering yarn with miles of stockinette stitches is a bit like slugging through winter. I wanted to make sure the sweater was worth my time so I put the body stitches on waste yarn, tried it on, and decided I like the fit. Tomorrow the forecast is for cold and snow but yesterday after my walk, I planted basil and chamomile seeds. The basil seeds came free in the mail. I don't know if they will germinate but I decided to plant them in pots and tend them from the kitchen counter. Any extra green color is welcome. I wish you enough color and light to see your way through the remaining days of February.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Used Book Adventures

I happen to think I can learn about anything by finding the right book. Currently I am studying poetry. In the past, I collected and read work by poets Hansen (the new poet laureate of Nebraska), Hasselstrom, Kenyon, Kooser, Nye, Oliver, Saiser, and Stafford for the sheer beauty I find in their language. Now I am reading several other poets whose work speaks to me. I am reading more slowly and making a few notes about the ways they use word sounds and origins, rhythm, and space in their early and later work. Some of my poetry books are new and some are used. I love a new book as well as any book lover. I enjoy the smell and feel of new paper in a book. I love the heft and crispness of a new hard back book as well as the slight tension in the binding of a new trade paperback. I have attended readings to have new books signed by the author.

Still, I enjoy looking at the typeset, the little symbols between sections, book jackets, and cover art of used books. Finding another reader's note in the margin intrigues me. Very old books spin more than one tale. For example, my great grandfather, Harry Ulmer, lived in Omaha in the early 1900's. I know him through my grandmother's stories about him: the car he rented on Sunday afternoons for family outings and the latest contraptions, including a radio in a wooden cabinet, that he carted home. He also brought home books. I know this because I have inherited a few of them, including this small volume of "Snowbound," a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier. This little worn book was published in 1907. From Harry's inscription on the title page, I know that my great grandparents attended a party, perhaps playing cards or charades on June 23, 1909 and he won this little volume. I can see him tipping the straw hat he often wore and smiling broadly while telling his five children about the winter poem he won on a summer day.  

Early in my used book buying, I purchased a few lemons. Once, I received a book that reeked of cigarette smoke. Even propping it open on the deck in full sun of ninety degree days couldn't remove the odor. I notified the seller about the condition of the book and then put it in the garbage. While a notation or two in a book is interesting, a book heavily marked with fluorescent pink high-lighter is distracting so I learned how to read descriptions of used books. Shopping at A Novel Idea, one of my local used bookstores, is a great adventure and a way to view books before purchasing.

Recently, I ordered a couple of books by a lesser known author because I wanted to compare her poetry and prose. When the book arrived in June, I put it on the stack in my writing room. When I opened it this winter,  I discovered it was a signed copy. The paperback is worn but author's signature is very clear.

This month I ordered an anthology of poetry by May Sarton. I have read her journals but decided  to study her poetry. I wanted this anthology in order to make my own notes in the margins. When the book arrived, I noticed a newspaper clipping tucked into the book. The clipping, dated July 18, 1995, was the article published by The New York Times at her death. I think proprietors of used bookstores enjoy the idiosyncrasies of used books as much as I do.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Happy New Year

All morning a fine dry powder of January snow has blown across my window.  The forecast is for one to two inches but I wonder if more will accumulate. On the Great Plains, moisture is good and snow insulates the perennial flowers and bushes. Snow also cleans up the landscape and speaks to me of fresh starts. What could be better on a New Year's Day?

A few days ago, I sprinkled seed on the brick ledge outside the window in order to feed the birds and observe them closely. When I pulled up the blinds this morning two female cardinals and a junco huddled on the ledge pecking at the seed. Soon they were joined by three male cardinals flying back and forth from the nearby birch. Tiny pieces of ice encrusted the mask of an older male. One of the females had a piece of ice at the hinge of her beak. They all differed in coloring and build. The slightest and youngest male was the most aggressive, flying at any other bird who tried to join him on the ledge. The other two males commanded the best spaces on the ledge by turning their heads quickly back and forth. The female cardinals were aware but unconcerned with the presence of other birds. Now and then a pair of nervous chickadees flitted in for a quick treat before darting down into the bushes in front of the house. Snow highlighted the remarkable patterns of the sparrows' markings. One sported a bib of closely spaced charcoal dots while another had a white line around his neck, much like a turtleneck shirt keeping him warm. Little flakes of snow clung to the beaks of the juncos. Sparrows, juncos, and finches fed in groups gaining warmth from each other and reminding me that sharing a meal is an age-old way to connect with others.

My personal New Year's Day parade ended late morning leaving me time to consider my own New Year. Rather than make resolutions for 2014, I plan to "Begin as I mean to go on." (Quote from Charles H. Spurgeon, courtesy of Wikipedia) Yesterday I put away the Christmas decorations and straightened the living room and dining area so the house is in relatively good order. Spotless, I have decided, is not necessary. On the eve of the New Year,  Lance and I shared a meal with another couple. We came home early so I made a cup of tea and opened a new book. Lance wrapped up in the afghan I finished earlier in the week.  The afghan was a two winter project knit from a basket of leftover yarns which only goes to show I don't always need new skeins of yarn.
The cardigan from last Spring is still in progress but I need a small portable project. Today seems like a good day for mittens so after lunch I'm going to find a pattern for some yarn I bought at a sale last week. I will also record birthdays and anniversaries in my 2014 calendar.  Late this afternoon I am making a simple meal of tabbouleh salad and baked chicken because simple sounds good after the holidays. If the wind dies down, I might take a walk in the fresh snow and enjoy the quiet of this winter day. And so I begin 2014 as I mean to go on. I hope you are all warm and looking forward to the New Year.


Monday, November 25, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving

This year, Thanksgiving marks the end of a glorious autumn. Perhaps because southeast Nebraska had adequate rainfall in May and June and fewer 100 degree days, the fall colors were gorgeous. In October I took several walks in a wooded park.  Although the area is different from the evergreens and forests of north central Minnesota and Wisconsin or the Rocky Mountains, these woods, with oak, elm, and hackberry trees, have a rustic beauty of their own.  

Early in October, I examined the last chicory blossoms which I have long admired while driving on highways. One quiet afternoon, I stood still and identified a flicker, a downy woodpecker, and several red-bellied woodpeckers hopping up and down large trunks. I still wonder how birds, without binocular vision, dart through a wooded area without flying into trees.  I finally understood how purple can be an autumn color and wondered if I could find yarn in a similar color.  At the end of the month, I savored the smell of decaying leaves and the last golden light of October.

My favorite walk was the one I took with my daughter and grandsons. The three year old was exuberant with his discoveries. When we came upon a downed tree, he explored the hollow trunk and thought hard about what kind of animal might shelter inside. After he bent over to study a fuzzy caterpillar, he watched it "go home to its mama" and chose a broken stick for a treasure. He eagerly walked to the next bend in the woods looking for a deer but was happy to find a milkweed pod. We paused on the trail while he worried it might sting. After we assured him it was a plant not an insect, he worked up the courage to touch the rough exterior of the pod and laughed as the soft fluff and seed grazed his hand. The baby slept in a front pack carrier on his mother's chest. He woke up as we were returning to the car so she took him out and held him so he could see the afternoon light coming through the trees.

Now, it is late November. I will miss the scarlet and butterscotch leaves of this glorious autumn. Something in the west wind tells me it is time to draw in, grind up cranberries, roast a turkey breast, and wrap up in wool. The first dusting of snow fell last week and my grandson called to ask if I liked to go sledding. Echoing one of his favorite responses I replied, "Sounds fun." As some wise person (whose name I can't remember) said, "Thanksgiving is about what you have." I am so thankful for all that I have and wish the same for you. Happy Thanksgiving.  


Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Story of an Old Sewing Rocker

About ten years ago, a friend, who I will call Mary, gave me this old sewing rocker. Rocking chairs without arms are called sewing rockers because the person sitting in the chair can do handwork without bumping into the arms of the chair. This chair is small and sits about sixteen inches from the floor.
Mary and I are both retired teachers. On the first day in a new job, I stopped to talk to her because she was reading a picture book about quilting to her first grade class. Our friendship developed from common interests of quilting, knitting, and gardening. Mary's husband's grandmother, Olive, was the original owner of the chair. Family members recall the petite woman sat in this rocker as she pieced and quilted. Mary owns a few of her quilts. We both agree she did beautiful hand piecing and quilting.

When I placed the dusty chair in our basement, I wondered if someone had taken an ordinary chair and screwed it onto rockers in order to make a comfortable chair for Olive. This fall I contacted a local man who refinishes old furniture and made arrangements for him to inspect the chair. When my husband and I took the chair to his shop, we enjoyed looking at his work. He is a meticulous craftsman who enjoys restoring old pieces. The gentleman thought Olive's chair was quite sturdy and was willing to take on the project. We agreed on the cost of his work and left the chair. About six weeks later, we returned to pick up the rocker.

Olive's refinished chair is beautiful. The craftsman took the rocker apart in order to remove all of the paint. Then he carefully cleaned each piece, put the rocker back together, stained, and finished the chair. At least, I think he put it together before staining and finishing. I was so taken by the newly refinished chair I forgot to ask about all of his process. The chair is made from four different woods. The seat and back are made from oak paneling while the rungs under the seat are from oak. The rockers are made from maple, a hard wood, while the legs and other curved pieces are alder wood. Alder, related to birch, is a softer wood often used for carving or pieces which need shaping. The thoughtful craftsman had used oak and maple in the pieces that needed to be sturdy and alder when he needed to shape curves. I imagine he thought the paneling would do for the back and seat.  Perhaps he chose it for the distinctive grain.

Recently, I asked Mary what she recalled about the long ago quilter. In 1877, Olive and her husband Hugh left Black Earth, Wisconsin and settled in southeast Nebraska. At the time Olive was twenty-five years old and the couple had been married about a year. Hugh and Olive had two daughters and one son who was disabled due to his difficult birth. Mary thought Hugh ran a "team and wagon business." He may have rented out a team of horses and a wagon. He also repaired wagons. Perhaps he crafted the chair for Olive or perhaps he received the chair in trade for his work. Perhaps he hired someone in the community to make the chair. That part of the story is lost.

When I look at the chair, I imagine Olive rocking as she mended socks, made clothing for her family, and sewed quilt blocks. I wonder how many needles she had and if she unraveled garments in order to have sewing thread for quilt piecing. When Hugh died in 1916, Olive was fifty-two years old. Perhaps she rocked in this chair as she grieved and pieced her life back together. Perhaps she helped with the business or perhaps she sold it and lived on the income. I do know she hand quilted through her lifetime. Together Olive and her unmarried daughter took care of the son who was unable to walk until Olive died in 1940. She was 86 years of age.

The little refinished chair does not look as if it is over one hundred years old. It is quite sturdy and I plan to spend some time rocking in it. After the holidays, I may go through my quilt projects and find something to finish. Perhaps I will knit in this chair. Mary is now in her eighties and happy for the rocker to have a new home. I like to think Olive would also be pleased the chair is being used by another woman who enjoys handwork.