23 October 2011

Spinning Yarns

When the first hints of autumn are in the air, it always leaves me feeling simultaneously (and incongruously) domestic and restless. It's pretty much the only time of year that I, the eternal home-body, long for travel and adventure. Something invigorating and enticing in the crispness of the air, the sharper colors of skies and clouds, the lengthening of shadows that accompanies the shortening of days.

But it also puts my domestic side into high gear - baking, making soups, trying new recipes... looking to make the most comforting of comfort foods. It's also time to brush the dust off my knitting bag and pick up the projects that got shelved a few months ago when the thermometer started hovering around 100, and the thought of a lapful of wool seemed oppressive. Now as the temperatures finally, mercifully start to drop, that same cozy work in progress seems very inviting.

Last weekend, the sunny skies and steady breezes invited me to even better things.

I have some raw fleece that had just been waiting for the right day to be washed in preparation for spinning. So I set up my tubs of water and pulled out the bags of fleece - some Romney and some Icelandic (I love, love, love knitting with Icelandic wool, but have never spun with it before - adventure!)

Now, raw wool looks nothing like those fluffy white sheep you see in nursery rhymes and pictures of The Good Shepherd. It's dirty and smelly and filled with heaven-knows-what that the sheep has picked up in the barnyards and pastures since its last shearing. After you get rid of lots of vegetation and the messiest locks of wool, you wind up with something like this:

So you set to work with hot water, detergent and a good bit of patience (and I may love to work with Icelandic wool, but I swear this particular sheep provided some of the filthiest wool I've ever seen):

After a few rounds of soaking in a series of dish soap laden baths, it's time to rinse:

That's looking a bit more like something I'd want to work with. (The wool on the left is from our dear Icelandic, it's got some grey in it; the wool is actually finally clean!)

Time to put it out to dry. It dries very slowly....

You can see that the light was starting to fade at this point in the day, but still, quite a difference between the first photo of Romney wool, and the now clean fleece:

But it's still not ready to be used. Now it's time to card the wool; it may be clean but it's still got its share of tangles to work out before it's going to be lovely to spin:

Now that's starting to look like that beautiful, fluffy, cloud-like wool we see in pictures:

And it's finally ready to become something useful, or lovely, or better still both useful and lovely:

As I went through a long day (or two) of working with this fleece, my mind kept drifting back to the biblical image of the Good Shepherd.

The sheep he cares for and carries are not perfect, fluffy, clean, story-book sheep. They're dirty and muddy from wandering lost, or getting into muck of their own choosing. Their fleece is tangled from forays into brambles; it's full of bits and pieces of rubbish that's been picked up on the way. But still he loves his sheep and picks them up with as much joy as he would if they were a clean new lamb.

And he has the patience to wash their wool, work through the matted tangles and twigs and briars, helping them to become both lovely and useful (although he loves them just the same when they are muddy, I think it delights him so to see them become the wonderful creations they were meant to be before they wandered off into the muck and briars).

A good day to sort and wash, to card and spin, to pray and give thanks for a patient shepherd who can teach me even when I've chosen to take a day an just indulge in a favorite pleasure. Using my joy in the work of my hands to teach me His even greater joy in the work of His hands.

04 August 2010

The Dog Days of Summer...

It's still 101 degrees at 7:00 at night, so it's pretty much too hot to do anything more than sip ice tea and keep in the shade.

But the flowers have been pretty this summer, and despite the heat we're getting a fair number of visitors to the garden out front.

The bees love the coneflowers....

So do the goldfinches (they like the seeds on the faded flowers); you can just see one in the top right of this photo. They are pretty shy so I could only get so close (there was a second one that flew away as I was trying to get this shot).

The butterflies, not surprisingly, prefer the butterfly bushes. In the mornings and late afternoons we can often see a dozen or more, of all different varieties feasting on nectar.

This spectacular fellow is a Zebra Swallowtail in addition to his gorgeous stripes and long "tails" he has wonderfully intense spots of red and blue, right on the center of his back:

And this one is (I think) a Red Spotted Purple (it almost looks like a Spicebush Swallowtail, but minus the tail, and it has hints of orange spots on its upper wings):

It's always fun to go out the front door and have all kinds of butterflies swirling around you as you step along the front walk. Very much a story-book feeling.

We do, have some less welcome (but no less impressive) visitors to our garden. Things like black widow spiders and cow killer ants (see below) make for some cautious weeding.

But the beauty of the flowers and the swirl of butterflies are more than ample compensation from the more venomous visitors. On these hot, hot days, the colors and life in the garden are very welcome reminders that the discomfort of the temperature is well repaid in beauty.

13 July 2010

Valor is only misguided if you quit...

It's that time of year, again: my annual bout of waxing lyrical about finding inspiration from the Tour de France.

Sylvain Chavanel, one of my favorite riders, has spent the past decade building a reputation for misguided valor: he’s known for making crazy escapes (breaking away from the peleton) and going on his own for a hundred miles, often only to be caught again a few kilometers from the finish. “Pointless heroics”, was a common response, as he rarely got the pay-offs in the big races. But for him, the possibility of success was worth a hundred failed efforts. That's the kind of never-say-die attitude I'd like to emulate.

Despite his boundless enthusiasm for the big gamble of a risky break-away, he also knew when he had to sacrifice his own interests for the good of the team. And he learned from experience; he learned when and how to make the escapes that might actually work - brashness coupled with experience. And this year he wound up getting it right. Twice. In one week. A stage victory and the Maillot Jaune. His victories made even sweeter by the fact that his teammate and friend, Jerome Pineau, earned the polka dot jersey of the Best Climber at the same time.

Watching things unfold there was a lot to admire and inspire. Reaching for the impossible with audacity and tenacity; boundless hope guided and supported by hard earned experience led to success. It would have been easy to have given up on such seemingly fruitless efforts years earlier. But knowing the goal and keeping that in mind, instead of the spectre of failed efforts, was probably a good part of what led to success.

My dad always says “There’s no such thing as can’t.” But “can’t” is an easy excuse some days. So I watch the tour, I watch the exploits of Chavanel, and Pineau, and I watch their joy in success. And I think about the projects and plans I have that seem impossible; and I know I just need to keep going, even if I fail 10 times, or 100 times. And like all the great riders, I need to know when to step back briefly from a goal for the sake of others; but stepping back from a goal doesn't mean losing sight of it.

Not giving up, but growing in understanding and ability, so that one day that almost ridiculously foolish exhibit of heroic effort will bring the greatest result. And if you’re really lucky, may even bring that result even twice in the same week.

14 May 2010

The fine art of distraction...

I'm telling myself that I'm just letting some thoughts germinate as I let my mind and efforts drift to everything except the work I need to be doing. I have three writing projects that I keep dancing around the edges of ("just a little more research, just a few more notes, then I'll get it all written up"), a book I need to finish reviewing, and a presentation coming up in two and half weeks which I haven't even started. Then there are the overflowing email "inboxes" - the personal one with reminders about all the family activities and welcome notes from friends; and the professional one with reminders of webinars I could attend, and new ideas that I can quickly link to and convince myself I'm learning things that will help with my projects, even if half the time I'm just distracting myself. And all the while I have the Giro d'Italia streaming on two live feeds (Gazetta TV has the best video, but Eurosport has an English language feed. Sheesh! Think about it - I can stream two video feeds at once and my laptop is not even flinching!)

Thanks to the ever-growing efficiency of high speed internet, I have built the skill of Continuous Partial Attention to a highly evolved art form.

Actually, I could blame parenting for my distractibility as much as I do the internet. One evening last week, I tried to keep track of everything I did. I couldn't manage it.

A partial listing of an evening with the kids: altered daughter's graduation dress and did practice hair and make up, discussed Chinese characters, bounced around thoughts about national politics and the soccer World Cup, removed a splinter from a child, removed a tick from a dog, explained where some biblical events lined up with the political history of the time, illustrated details of the periodic table and subatomic particles, built with lego, made up another episode of a continuing story about nocturnal creatures in the rainforest in Borneo, talked about the origins of the Cultural Revolution, and made some popsicles. Oh, and got people to and from track, ballet and baseball practices.

Ten years ago, I was still a perfectionist and the constant stream of tasks partially, or imperfectly done, would have driven me mad (in both senses of the word); now I usually just roll with it. This whirlwind is a short-lived one, and I love every bit of it (well, except maybe removing ticks from dogs - I could give that a pass). At some point along the way, you realize that a lot of the "distractions" in life, actually are Life; the things that matter go by in a blink of an eye; the most important conversations in a day might happen in that fifteen second time-slot between teaching someone how to put on eye makeup and how to factor an equation.

Distraction is a fine art - you need to know when the distraction is really the main thing.

20 April 2010

Self Employment Has Its Privileges

I was getting into a bit of a home office funk. Same old space every day, laundry and kitchen work vying for my attention as much as my desk work, and no one to bounce ideas around with. That last one is the worst; whether it be someone to share a great discovery with, or someone to challenge some of my less-than-bright ideas, the lack of colleagues can get a bit lonely.

But then spring showed up and I remembered the other side of the home office. It’s a lot like “home school” - “home” is a nominal term, and if you do it right, home is where you spend the least amount of your time. So I’m enjoying working at outside tables at coffee shops, planning weekly jaunts to the Willard Library, and best of all, making time to run down to my alternate office:

It gets windy by the river, but the view rocks, and I’m starting to remember why I like this home office gig.

19 April 2010

Are You a Good Witch or a Bad Witch?

I’m feeling forced to doubt a recent article which indicated that my silver locks are a leading edge fashion statement,

I was over at the grade school today, and a little girl, about 5 or 6 years old, all blond hair and dimples, looked up at me and beamed, “You look like witch.” She seemed absolutely delighted with her observation.

I started laughing, “Thank you!”

She looked at me, still radiating infinite cheer, “It's because you have grey hair and it's long.” (and admittedly a little windblown after my drive with the car windows down). Out of the mouths of babes.

I guess the only thing left to debate is: am I “a good witch or a bad witch?” I guess that depends on whether we go with L Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz, in which case I’m Glinda, for sure - just hand me my scepter and my throne. If we’re going with the post modern “Wicked” version of events, well, cue up “Defying Gravity” because I’m more likely to be singing that than I am Glinda’s “Popular” (we’ll save the latter for the little blond fashion consultant I met today).

12 February 2010

I think that was a compliment...

I was waiting to check out from youngest daughter's recent Physical Therapy session, when the woman behind me spoke up with a tone of great enthusiasm. "Oh, what beautiful hair!" I turned around and to my surprise, realized she meant me, and not my daughter (whose thick, black hair runs down to her waist - gorgeous!).

She beamed at me, "If I ever let my hair go grey, I hope it is a beautiful silver like yours!" I thanked her, and it was pretty flattering to have someone so sincerely admiring my hair, but my brain was still stumbling over the words "grey" and "silver". What?

It brought back memories of a day a couple of years ago when we were in NYC at the Museum of Natural History, and a woman came up to me and asked if she could take my picture. Turns out she had a website of women who let their hair go grey and "it's rare you see a woman so young with grey hair".

As a matter of fact, I've been receiving lots of similar remarks lately - maybe because in most social situations, I'm probably the only woman in the room under the age of 80 who does not color her hair. Whenever I get those kinds compliments, it's both pleasing and disconcerting. It still doesn't register in my mind that I'm out of my 20s, let alone old enough to have grey (ahem, sorry, 'silver') hair. At any rate, one hopes they are compliments and not a gentle way of saying "get a clue, dear, and color your hair." If I ever do, I think I'll try being a red head; it would be quite a change, but my theory is it is still likely to get less of a reaction than going grey!