Knitting in the Key of LIfe

“Now, let us all take a deep breath and forge on into the future; knitting at the ready.” – Elizabeth Zimmerman, The Opinionated Knitter

The last four weeks have been terribly hectic for me. I’ve been fighting a chronic condition for some time now, and in May it decided to get ugly. My wonderful doctor ordered a huge battery of tests, and wouldn’t you know it, I tested positive for an autoimmune condition. “Good to be diagnosed, but also a shame,” my doctor tells me. Things have been busy for me as I’ve completed batteries of additional tests, visited new doctors, driven to new clinics, and started new medications. Huh. It’s like I’m starting a whole new life.

How best to respond to a body blow like this? Obviously the thing to do is to stay calm and knit! I have knitted though all the crisis of my life. I knitted a new sweater the week that my mom died, made a pair of socks while sitting in the ICU with an ill son, and created an afghan while recovering from surgery. Stranded in an airport for two days? No problem, I have knitting! Knitting can sooth and center me in a way few other things can. I feel calm, hopeful and pleased to be creating something of beauty and purpose during the process. Cheapest therapy around!

So, I made a pair of socks for my sister’s birthday present the week I was diagnosed.  I then started a big project for one of my friends (a cushy vest that she can wear to Colorado Avalanche hockey games),  and bought the yarn to make little purple mitts with owls on them for my grand-niece who just had hand surgery to repair a badly mangled finger. Still, I needed more. I needed to make… a cat!!

My cousin loves all things cat. We saw this meme that has been making it’s way around Facebook that shows a box of kittens with the  “Crazy Cat Lady Starter Kit” stenciled on the side.  Of course she asked for a starter kit of her own. Of course I started looking for a cute pattern to knit a cat. This pattern by Kath Delmeny fit the bill.

Knitted Kitten
First kitten in the “Starter Kit” crate. We’ll have to get a larger crate as I add kittens!

Here it is. Cutest cat ever! I finished it today (on her birthday) and I couldn’t help posing it all over the yard.  I’m so pleased with how spunky it is, and can’t help but imagine that it will be a little rascal that gets up to no good once it’s at her house.

Kitten in Flower Pot
Doesn’t this look like a kitten that will break house rules?

Why do I knit? Because it makes me feel wonderful!

That’s the best medicine ever.

“Knit on, with confidence and hope, through all crises.” — Elizabeth Zimmerman

 

Advertisements

All the Light We Cannot See

One summer I spent a few weeks at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder, Colorado taking a course for teachers. We learned about light (the electromagnetic spectrum), stars, space exploration, and all things fun for geeks of the science teacher persuasion. We developed lessons and activities to teach these topics to our own students, and we even built simple AM radios.

Out in the courtyard between buildings at LASP my team and I spread out our antenna (yards and yards of wire hung in trees and across the ground), plugged in the earplug, and hunted up and down the radio-wave spectrum using our tuner looking for a signal. Suddenly, it was there. A voice and music from far away; a momentary connection to an invisible person that launched us into yelps and leaping high-fives in the afternoon heat. Even for people who can’t survive without computers and smart boards it was a magical moment.

In the book All the Light We Cannot See the author Anthony Doerr tells a tale about connections such as these and so much more. On the surface it is a tale about a boy, a girl, and a fabulous diamond. Under the surface we discover that the “Sea of Flames” diamond is cursed with mystical powers, the boy is a genius whose talents will be consumed by the Third Reich, and that the girl is blind but sees better than many others around her. Their story is framed within the shocking human waste and chaos of war.

This should have been a grim story, and the likelihood that I would continue reading it was slim, but I was captured quickly by the humanity of the characters and the sense of wonder they brought to their worlds. Werner, our young boy in this book, keeps a book of “questions” of the kind only a budding scientist would collect. He builds a radio from scraps, and he and his sister Jutta listen to voices over the airwaves. They learn about the world outside their oppressive coal mining community, and they hear science lessons for children in a French voice that captivates them. “Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever,” says the voice. Their eyes are opened.

Sea Shells
Marie-Laure loves to explore the inhabitants of the ocean shoreline. She especially loves the whelks and collects shells.

Marie-Laure, our young girl, blind from a young age, is raised by her father in a museum in Paris, France. She is a clever young lady who observes, learns, and applies logic to the world around her. She collects pine cones, explores the inhabitants of oceans shores, learns how to classify mollusks by variations in their shells ,and reads Jules Verne  novels in Braille.  Her father loves her greatly.

The lives of Werner and Marie-Laure intersect through the radio. Werner becomes part of a unit that hunts for radio transmissions by freedom fighters in occupied Europe. Marie-Laure becomes involved in outlawed radio broadcasts. Through the radio these two are destined to meet each other. Because this is war, and there is an enchanted diamond of immense worth involved, nothing will be simple. Lives are lost, conditions become desperate, both Werner and Marie-Laure will be trapped in fire-bombed and burning Saint-Malo, and the sea reclaims its own. Human potential will be lost, a promising future obtained. What a book!

The book is much richer than the central characters and storyline. It is peopled with a host of other characters who are connected to Werner and Marie-Laure. It has themes within the central theme. Science lives in its pages, and books shine throughout. We become aware of the immense destructiveness of war; lives and cultures will be impacted for generations to come. We begin to understand our inability to control our own lives, and glimpse the amazing power of self-determination. As with the diamond in the book it is possible for great gifts and curses to exist at the same time. What is the light that we cannot see? I’m pretty sure that it is radio waves, microwaves, the heat from burning coal, and so many things that are obvious looking at an electromagnetic wave chart. “How does the brain, locked in darkness, build for us a world full of light?” Marie-Laure’s great-uncle asks in the book; the light we cannot see is also about souls, promises kept and lost, and the connections that bind us all together.

“Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.”

 

Elephant Walk Socks

Every year, as soon as my taxes are filed, I head to the nearest yarn shop. I mean, how else am I going to recover from “I have to pay HOW much money this year?!” It’s kind of a ritual now. I buy yarn and needles that I don’t even have a project for; the whole point of the outing is get some joy and to feed the stash. That way I drive home happy, excited and looking forward to some productive knitting. Taxes, what taxes? 🙂

Elephant yarn.
Yarn I bought at a favorite yarn store on my way home from doing the taxes.

That’s how I ended up with this yarn (Noro Taiyo Sock Yarn). It’s kind of a happy yarn, don’t you think? I thought that it would make up into something fun for my sister. These are more her colors than mine, and I had plans to make her a little shawl in time for her birthday.

Well, all I can say is that the stash ate this yarn. I put it into the drawer with the other sock yarns, and I never thought about it again. Then, out of the blue, I saw a pattern for socks (Water for the Elephants by Rose Hiver) that I just loved, I dug in the stash for some crazy yarn and pulled this out. Sorry Sis. This yarn is meant to be patterned socks with elephant details. Who knew?

Yarn on the inside of the skein. Hmmm... what will this look like knitted up?
Yarn on the inside of the skein. Hmmm… what will this look like knitted up?

The reason why this yarn seems a little crazy is, no matter how I try to visualize what the final knitted piece will look like, I get surprised. I looked at the end of the skein, and I was pretty sure that I was looking at orange, green and some golden tan. The sequence looked promising, so I cast on.

Not matching socks
Well, who knew these socks would only look distantly related when finished?

Well, the socks turned out great. I just love the little elephants in the Turkish pattern. They fit perfectly, and I couldn’t be happier with how they turned out. Except… they don’t really match all that much. They kind of complement each other, so that is just the way it is going to be. Knitting, the great adventure. I wonder what this pattern will look like in fingerless mitts? I think that I will put the little elephants onto the palms…

Socks and Noro yarn.
The yarn that I used (Noro Taiyo Sock Yarn) made the two socks have very different colors.
Top and bottom pattern of the sock.
I just love the pattern in this sock. The pattern on the sole is pretty nifty, too.

DNA, Evolution, and The Signature of All Things

It seems that my life has become an exercise in synchronicity and random coincidences. I checked a book out of the library, read one that had been sitting on my NOOK for weeks, picked up a book on a sale table at Barnes & Noble, and remembered a video that I used to show my biology classes each winter. Strangely, they all fit together. No matter what I thought the book would be about, it began to talk about DNA and evolution at some point. How bizarre! All three books (The Signature of All Things, The Sociopath Next Door , and Orfeo) echoed things that I remembered from the video series Intimate Strangers: Unseen Life on Earth, which was broadcast in November 1999 on PBS. All these connections are just churning around in my head; here’s my thoughts about the video and one of the books, The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert..

The episode that I’ve become fixated upon while reading these books is the first one in the Intimate Strangers series, The Tree of Life. If you would like to actually watch this episode (and all the others, of course) they are housed at Microbe World. The  biology classes saw this video when they were learning about taxonomy and the kingdoms of life.  In the video we meet Dr. Carl Woese,  a microbiologist of singular vision and drive. Working alone for years, chasing patterns in the mutations of a small, heavily conserved region of DNA, he pieced together the pattern of relationships between living things on earth. Using this information, Woese was able to determine the sequence of descent, establish common ancestors and eventually created a new “Tree of Life”. His work shook up the taxonomy world as domains were created (a grouping above “kingdom” in the normal sequence of “kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species”), and our understanding of evolution was enriched and altered forever. One man, working alone, chasing patterns in the musical score of life that is DNA, was able to change our view of the natural world.

This is what Dr. Woese says on camera in the video:

You have to have your own particular sensitivity to the world, and there has to be parts of it that are beautiful to you, because they’re beautiful to you regardless of what anyone else ever thinks. You see this all the time in an artist, and you see it also in good scientists.

This brings me to The Signature of All Things. In this book we meet Alma Whittaker, the daughter of a botanical robber baron. Raised in a wealthy and enriched environment that encourages learning and allows Alma to meet many eminent people in the scientific world, and possessing the logical mind of her mother, Alma is nonetheless trapped within the small world of her father’s estate. She sets up a lab in the carriage house, explores the land around her, and spends the majority of her life studying the world of mosses and liverworts. Small as her life becomes contained within the estate as she handles her father’s business and the details of life, it allows her to follow her “own particular sensitivity to the world” as she observes the interactions and changes in her moss populations; in truth she sees that mosses living within a timeframe much slower than our own engage in the same behaviors as the animal kingdom around her. It is a life of study in a world that is beautiful to her, and Alma is a good scientist.  Life altering events cause her to leave the estate following her marriage and the death of her father, and she travels to Tahiti and Holland, where the glory and chaos of a larger world help her develop a theory of evolution based on her understanding of mosses. This theory, while never published, propels her into a new life within her mother’s Dutch family and she obtains standing in the scientific community based on her own merits.

This was a good book. I’m a biology geek, so of course I liked it! Is it believable that Alma could have slowly come to a theory of evolution on her own? Sure. This book is a glimpse into the world that gave birth to the original theory. Science can always be pursued by a committed individual of observant and reflective nature. This was the time of Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendel, and Alfred Russel Wallace; Alma would have had access to the same ideas and published works that they had. All three of these men worked alone as gentlemen scientists, observed nature, designed experiments and looked for patterns. They wrote each other and shared their scientific ideas. Darwin and Wallace arrived at the mechanism of natural selection through independent work at about the same time; they published jointly in 1858. Mendel published his work in 1866, which would have been extremely helpful to Wallace and Darwin, but they missed the boat on that one! It will be almost 100 more years before we understood that the molecule of inheritance is DNA, and many more years before Carl Woese read the musical score of DNA to finally see the signature of all things.

Alma never publishes her theory because it can’t explain why all people aren’t sociopaths. Why does altruism exist, she wonders? How can natural selection account for what we see in people around us? Richard Dawkins addresses this very issue in The Selfish Gene. Guess what’s next on my reading list?

 

UFO Rescue: Week 3. Hell hath no fury like an unloved sock…

OK, this was hell week. I took these cute, cute, cute lace socks out of their storage bag and decided that I would finish them up this week. The needles in the sock are a set of my new square double-pointed ones, and I really kind of wanted them back. I had the first sock worked all the way through the heel, and it seemed like it wouldn’t take that long to get them done.

Twisted Flower UFO
Here is the UFO as I took it out of the bag. Once I had figured out where I was in the pattern I was ready to start knitting.

These socks are the Twisted Flower pattern in Cookie A’s book knit.sock.love. I loved the socks as soon as I saw them in the book. The pattern is really interesting, and the design is cleverly laid out to make the pattern flow onto the heel and down the foot. The chart and directions are extremely clear. Fun! I couldn’t wait to get started on these socks again.

Oh, boy. It wasn’t long before I remembered why these socks went UFO in the first place. The problem was the yarn. I had bought this hand-dyed Bluefaced Leicester yarn at a local shop as I thought that the color was really nice.  Once I got into the pattern, however, it displayed some truly unsavory yarn qualities. It was a 4-ply fingering weight yarn, and should have been round enough to show off the pattern well. Well, the yarn was round, but something ugly had occurred in the dyeing process (I think) and it had the sullen personality of garden twine.  There was absolutely no bounce in this yarn at all! It was stiff and slippery; at every opportunity a stitch slipped off a needle and unraveled down three rows in the blink of an eye. The individual  plies of the yarn kept springing apart from one another and I kept splitting the yarn with my needle.

This sock pattern has tons of personality and detail.
This sock pattern has tons of personality and detail.

Then there was the beautiful pattern designed by Cookie A.  This pattern involves lace on every knitted row, cables, twisted stitches and a partridge in a pear tree. You need to read the chart forwards and backwards while manipulating the (slippery) little stitches. There was no way I could watch television while knitting; every bit of my attention needed to be focused on the chart and the sock. Normally this isn’t an issue as this type of knitting has a zen-Iike meditative quality, but things weren’t working out for me with the demon yarn. I had to use five double-pointed needles and a cable needle while working;  I tried four different cable needles trying to find one that wouldn’t slip out. Yeah, right. The cable needle that I needed doesn’t exist.   I began to pull on my hair and refer to socks as THE HELL SOCKS.  More than once they came very close to entering orbit and becoming true UFOs!

Knitted Sock
Too cool for shoes. These babies will be my reading buddies next winter.

Beautiful socks. Wrong yarn. I’m thinking now that I should have washed this yarn before using it to help it recover some of its life before I started knitting.  Oh well, lesson learned.

Tomorrow I am washing these socks to see what will happen. They are beautiful, but I am never putting these babies into shoes. They will grace my feet with their beautiful lace on cold nights while I am reading and remind me that art never shows how long it took, only how good a job you did.

 

 

 

The Goldfinch

I started reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt a few months ago, and quickly lost interest . The main character, Theo, seemed to be a young man with a shaky moral compass and a dose of affluenza. The mother was distracted and slightly self-absorbed. Imminent death loomed just ahead. The plot was unpacking in a dubious manner since I (the reader) was told by Theo right off the bat that things weren’t going to go well. Ugh. It was tax time, and I couldn’t continue.

Still, the Pulitzer Prize isn’t something to sneer at. Perhaps, I thought, happier now that I had the taxes filed, the refund into the bank, the landscaping in the yard done, and a major quilting project out of the way, I should give it another try…

Well, I had to push through parts of the book, but the moment arrived where I was captured by the text and story.  I found myself consumed and engaged in endless reflection about Theo and the other people in the book. I recalled with great sadness the many children living in crisis that I have known during my teaching years.  I finished the book last week in a marathon session that occupied my waking hours until I reached the last page during an apocalyptic thunderstorm. Itching with nerves, racing to secure my animals and batten down the house in a lightening-fired downpour, I continued to ponder WHAT WAS THE BOOK REALLY ABOUT?

Well, that’s a good question, isn’t it! I have spent the last week thinking and thinking about this book. I have gone online to learn about the painting “The Goldfinch”. I have re-read parts of the book. I have searched for meanings and patterns. As I drove around town this week (avoiding thunderstorms!) I have considered the importance of stable adults in young lives, the failures of adults who we think are the safety net for children in need, the lengths some people will go to maintaining “appearances”, the search for meaning in an impersonal tragedy with crushing lifelong impact, and whether a young man named Boris should be considered a human superstorm. Then there is the goldfinch; forever chained to its little perch in an artistic display with extraordinary detail. The survivor of an explosion, a transitional piece in art history, displayed against an empty wall…

Why do bad things happen to good people? Is it possible that seemingly random events can redirect our lives if we pay attention to what is happening around us and we search for patterns? Theo is tortured by this in the book, and in the passing of pages we begin to suspect that Theo can find the safe path again; a chance encounter at the moment of the greatest tragedy in his life will ultimately bring him home.

This is The Goldfinch. It is a book of lasting impact that will continue to unpack in layers in the days and weeks after you have read it. It makes you think about tragedy, craftsmanship, redemption, and art.

You might even find yourself buying a print of the painting.

UFO Rescue: Week 2

For the second week of rescue knitting I picked up a shawl that I had started last fall. It fell to the wayside when the weather got colder and I started working on Christmas presents and socks for the winter. Ignored and forgotten (and wearing some of my favorite stitch markers!) it  ended up getting stuffed into the back of the yarn stash closet.

Princess Shawl
UFO shawl and pattern the day I pulled it back out of the bag.

Poor thing! Hard to remember why it was abandoned in the first place.  It’s kind of a cool pattern, the lace was pretty easy to learn once I was past the edging, and I like that hand-painted pink yarn (Malabrigo Arroyo).  I only had about a foot of the shawl knitted, so this was a little bigger project than the ones I did last week, but still not too bad. I thought I should be able to make a lot of progress on it in a week.

English Rose
Princess Alexandra of Kent rose in my garden.

I took the shawl out to work on in the garden, and there it was. One of my new roses was blooming, and the color was close to that of the shawl.  The name of the rose is  “Princess Alexandra of Kent”, and the colorway of the shawl yarn is  “English rose”. Wow! Synchronicity! Obviously this UFO was meant to be rescued at exactly this moment.

Knitted Shawl
The finished shawl in my garden. I just love how international it is. The pattern is Norwegian, the yarn is  from Uruguay, the yarn colorway is “English rose”, and I’ll be wearing it here in Colorado.

I named the shawl project “Princess Alexandra of Kent Shawl” on Ravelry and got to work. I knit like crazy all week, and the shawl was finished today. Time to prune the rose and to dive back into the UFO pile to find a project for the rest of the week. I think that I’ll do a sock next…