March 30, 2011

Drop the Dog and Run

As I have shared before, I went knitting crazy when I was pregnant. After returning home from Jo Ann's fabrics that fateful Saturday bizarre (not a typo) afternoon, I promptly began working on project after project. I wasn't fast, mind you, but I was long-suffering and tenacious.

Knowing almost nothing about knitting, I suffered blindly through confusing pattern terminology, YouTube videos, casting on, casting off, knitting, purling, shaping oh, so badly....until finally it paid off. It felt like destiny and I couldn’t be stopped.

At the end of several months, I had completed a blanket, a baby sweater, hat and booties, which I finished shortly before Amy Rose was born. During those days before the birth, I began a sort of ritual.

I would get the new knitted baby things out. Then I would fold them and put them into the baby's hospital overnight bag. Then I would get them back out, unfold them, gaze at them one more time, hold them up, assemble them onto the bed as though they were actually on a child, gaze at them, fold them, pack them, get them back out...unfold them...
…gaze...hold them up...
…you get the idea.

I just couldn't stand it. It was unbelievable to me that I had actually made something useful from two sticks and a string.  I was hooked. Once Amy was truly here, you can bet your best, size 17 nickel-plated Addi Turbos with brass tips that she was wearing those clothes all the time. I hated to wash them.

People began to wonder whether or not she had other clothes. The first time they saw the outfits, they would rave, “Oh, isn’t she adorable!”  After seeing them several times, the remarks were reduced to, “Do you need anything?” asked in a careful, sheepish way as they suspiciously stared at the baby. I just wanted to see them on her again and again. That was all. Then, a funny thing happened.

The sleeves began to grow short. The hem rose. Amy Rose did what all children did, she grew.

This could only mean one thing: I had to begin knitting faster immediately!

I worked on a new blanket, some hats, sweaters, all manner of baby items. She was my tiny, compliant model. I loved every minute of it. And, amidst all the joy, I secretly feared for the day she would realize that her own ideas could be expressed.

That day has come.

At two years old, Amy Rose has decided that she loves to run naked. Totally, unabashedly naked. Down the hall, to her room, to the tub, from the tub, down the stairs ... she would run naked down the street if we would let her.

While this is typical for most two-year-olds, it seems to be of particular joy to her. She revels in removing articles of clothing, freely tossing aside toys in her path and, having freed herself from all earthly burdens, rapidly—and somewhat unsteadily—toddle on her way, curly little head of hair bouncing and tiny bottom jiggling.

We have labeled this behavior "Naked Running."

When I am not worrying that she might be cold or that I may need to lay newspapers all over the floor of our house to accommodate this puppy-style behavior, I am trying to teach her that is not socially acceptable to be naked in public.

Of course, here in Portland, Oregon, we have those well-meaning and lovely folks who enjoy nude cycling on occasion, but generally speaking, people, and babies in particular, need clothes.

While in the throes of this nature vs. nurture debate with my two year old, I continue to knit for her--I have all sorts of things in the works for her. And even if Amy's feelings are changing, mine are not: I am still enthralled at the notion of seeing her in my creations. Not only do I like seeing them on her after the hours, days or weeks I spend working on them late into each night, I like to take pictures of her wearing them once they are done.

This would happen every day if I had my way, but our Great Northwest weather and the demeanor of our baby girl prohibit it. Thus, photo shoot days are special.

The other day, after completing a lovely eyelet cardigan and a hat of my very own design, complete with a ruffly, crocheted edge and a ribbon cinch, I wanted to take a photo of Amy in it. I was off work, the sun was sort of out and it was not raining. Much. Here, in the Northwest, we call that a great spring day.

After getting out my camera, my new 50mm portrait lens (purchased in part just for an occasion such as this), and the newly completed knitted outfit, I collected little Amy Rose who came battling all the way, having been torn from watching her Barney DVD.

After arguing in futility for a time with a toddler, I agreed to let her bring her favorite stuffed doggie out with us. I thought that might help the transition. I put new tights, the little hat and sweater and some brand new Osh Kosh B’Gosh cowgirl boots onto my tiny dolly. We headed out the front door.

Jo, my 22-year-old daughter, has recently done some quite artful, intricate wood burning on a crate for our front porch. I liked the idea of seeing the burnt designs contrasting the peaches and cream color scheme of Amy's hand knits. I carefully put the crate on the edge of the wet grass in our front yard. I was willing to take a chance for a photo like this.

I set Amy down so I could use both hands to make sure the crate was balanced on the uneven ground so Amy could sit on it. I wasn't watching her. Amy took off her hat and stepped in the mud next to the grass that had previously been a flower bed before some recent rain.

I cleaned off the new OshKosh B’Gosh boots and sat her on the crate, hat now crookedly perched on her head. Approximately .008 seconds later, Amy took the hat off completely and knelt in the wet grass holding her doggie a little too low. She was saying, “Buggy? Buggy?”

I cleaned off her knees, picked up the now dirty dog and put the baby back on the crate. Maybe the dog would not be so noticeable in the photo. Where had I put my camera? Oh, yes, it had been around my neck. I backed up from Amy and the crate to look through the camera.

Seeing an opportunity, Amy tossed the dog back into the grass and this time threw the hat over the flowerbed into the driveway. She stood up and ran in the opposite direction of the hat throw, toward the neighbor's yard. I stepped in the mud chasing her.

I cleaned off my own shoes and carried a kicking and screaming Amy Rose back to the front yard.

I began to wonder if we shouldn't just wait the usual 45 days for the next sunny day and try again. Provided the sweater still fit. By now, I was sweating from all the clothes: mine, my jacket, hot screaming baby body in tights, boots and sweater. I looked around helplessly, still holding a squirming girl under my right arm, potato sack style. I was looking partly for a more private setting and partly to see if any neighbors could see what was going on.

Our house is situated right next to a fenced off, but very lovely watershed complete with evergreen and deciduous trees. Next to the  fence, the developer put in a quaint sidewalk that winds from the street, to our side yard and curves behind our house. It travels through some nice landscaping and eventually leads to the neighborhood park.

I thought that maybe Amy would like to walk along the sidewalk then she could get her wiggles out and I could finally get some pictures. I put her gently down under a large evergreen right behind our house, her little cowgirl-booted feet found their footing. I gave her the doggie she had wanted to have outside so badly. I arranged her hat just so.

Apparently curious about this little change of scenery, she looked around quietly. A nice breeze had started up, and little wisps of her curly hair were peeking out from under the creamy ruffle of her hat, lifting and floating in the wind. She looked so precious. She squinted in the afternoon sunlight, trying to look up at me. I backed up a little and got the lens cap back off my camera for about the fifth time.

Amy threw the dog down and she ran. She ran for all she was worth. Toward the park. There went the hat....I recognized this as the moment the clothes were on their way off. I wondered if she could do it with a sweater and tights...

I let her do it. I let her run. After all, what harm is there in dropping a little baggage, a little inhibition now and then? Maybe we all should do it.

I lifted the camera and pressed the shutter button.

Stories of Inspiration Wanted!

In honor of Grandmas Miller's birthday today, I would love to hear your own stories of inspiration. You can submit shorter comments and stories in the "comments" section at the bottom of "From Homemade to Handmade."

That said, it has come to my attention that a lot of people have had trouble commenting. If this happens to you, please feel free to email me by clicking on my profile in the lower right hand side of the page.

Depending on how many responses I get, I will post them over the next few days or weeks.

It's always good for us to remember those who helped us get to where we are today.

I will get us started with a comment my daughter posted on Facebook:

Jolene Winner-ZiemerMarch 30, 2011 at 11:54am
Re: New Post! Blame It on Lucille Ball--A Stash Story
I remember playing with Grandma Miller's empty yarn spools when I'd go over to her house. And the little rooster pillow that used to sit on her couch, that I still have somewhere. And the smell and taste of severely overcooked carrots that she made when I was over.

I love this article Mom, it's a beautiful way to honor Grandma Miller.

It reminds me that everything we do in life should be done with knowledge and reverence for the people who came before us. Especially for those of us who are women, knowledge and reverence for the women who came before us.


March 29, 2011

From Homemade to Handmade: Happy Birthday, Grandma Miller

I was a weird kid.

I played with boys, picked my nose and, on an otherwise pleasant camping trip to Ft. Stevens when I was 8, tattled to the game warden on a young man at Coffinberry Lake because he was smoking and fishing without a license. I then sprinted to my parents' white Country Squire Ford station wagon with its wooden side panels and flattened myself out in the rear cargo space for fear that I would make eye contact with the boy who was now having a little talk with the game warden.

For months I had nightmarish daydreams that I had caused him to be incarcerated and would embellish that he had been working to support his family at 14 years old and that I was the one who took him away from his poor mother. Yes, I was a weird kid. But not to Grandma Miller.

She never cared that I chewed constantly on my lips or that I was mistaken for a boy until the age of 12 due to my frizzy hair that my parents had to keep so boyishly short in order just to tame it. No, even though I spent most of second grade out in the hall--in time out--for talking, she loved me.

She was a marvelous seamstress, knitter, crocheter and all around crafter. She always wore dresses, nylons and very sturdy pumps with heels two inches wide and two inches high. When she wasn't wearing a large, ornate brooch, she wore homemade beaded necklaces that she treated like treasures, keeping them in a locked jewelry chest in her bedroom. Her face was framed with the softest short gray hair and I loved to watch her pin it tightly in little clips all over her head at night in order to make it curly in the morning. She was only 5 feet tall, tiny and mighty. She was beautiful. And I was the only granddaughter out of her 4 grandchildren.

Grandma Miller took me under her wing, a tiny woman in the making. She would listen to what I had to say, then gently dish out sagely advice, meted out sparingly and with quiet power. Against my will, she made most of my school clothes and, less to my chagrin, knitted me slippers every Christmas. She spent weeks at a time with me in the summer, teaching me how to live while teaching me how to sew and knit. She had unlimited, stoic patience.

I struggled with my sewing and knitting lessons. I couldn't make a seam straight, and I certainly couldn't get the old-school acrylic rug yarn to stay on the needles. Each time, in each situation, my grandmother would just quietly guide me along, most times ignoring my little girl frustration. She would keep telling me to try again. She would say in her very deliberate, slow voice with the slightest German accent, "If a task be great or small, do it well or not at all." I grew weary of hearing it.

I secretly even used to wonder why we were doing this. After all, I really was only doing it to please her. I didn't really want any more clothes that were "homemade."

That was a shameful word to me then, now bringing new shame--and for different reasons--to my mind as I think of it. As a gradeschooler and preteen, I worried that kids at school would notice my non-designer clothing and make remarks; my red hair and freckles already garnered enough negative attention and I just wanted so badly to fit it in invisibly.

I resented the zig-zag finishing stitches on my clothes that were telltale signs of homemadeness and what to me were unusual fabrics--Grandma Miller called them "polyester cotton," while you may know them better today as "just polyester." Most of them had been donated by the countless people she sewed for at no charge. I didn't care where they came from.

I know I complained, but my parents and Grandma Miller were frugal people. I would stand in my grandma's small retirement community galley kitchen and beg for a top made from velour instead of the polyester cotton. She, in turn, would hang up another fold-over sandwich bag, freshly boiled and ready to be reused, and tell me she would try. I would deeply knit my freckly, strawberry blonde brow with the nearly invisible eybrow hairs, not knowing if she knew what I meant.  I struggled along with my attitude troubles and frustrations for several years.

But I kept trying to sew, even though it was hard.

It just seemed like something I was supposed to be doing--maybe because it had been engrained in me for so long. First for myself, then my small children. Gradually, I began to enjoy it. I guess I was slowly beginning to see something that was not fully realized just yet: "Homemade" means more than just being made at home. The word carries a certain deepness with it that comes from the time, effort and love the creator invests. I looked forward to sharing this with my grandmother as I got older, even if the idea was not completely developed in me. But it was not to be.

In 1993 Grandma Miller began having small strokes, and over the next two years, her health failed her completely. She passed away in 1995 when she was 92 and I was 25. Those last few years were precious and important ones. They sealed my understanding of Grandma Miller's ways and attitudes.

I continued sewing and making our family recipe raspberry and grape jellies like she did. And two years ago, my meeting with Mona at our church (see the first blog entry) completed the circle. I now can do all the things Grandma Miller did. Well, I don't do them as well as she did, yet. But I can sew Daisy Kingdom dresses for my girls and I can knit Grandma Miller's Christmas slippers. And I do it with the full knowledge of what it means to be making them myself.

Grandma Miller. Born March 30, 1903, tomorrow would be her 108th birthday. Susanna Miller--with no middle name, the oldest in a line of 8 children born to German immigrants on a farm in North Dakota--she knew what it meant, too. I miss her so.

I now proudly use the word "homemade." Because things that are made at home are made with loving hands. They are beautiful.

March 26, 2011

Blame It on Lucille Ball--a Stash Story

After my Jedi introduction into the world of knitting two years ago, I began knitting and planning knitting projects for little Amy Rose. I was still pregnant at the time and dreamed almost non-stop of this cherubic angel baby who would surely be my easiest since I did, in fact, have so much previous experience with 5 older children ranging from 10 years old to early twenty somethings. I would surely have excessive free time, I told myself, with this perfect little baby.

I bought book after book of lovely patterns, from the simplest to most intricate in style. I figured that I would eventually learn how to perform all of the most difficult stitches and techniques, so I may as well buy them now. And the yarn to make them. All of them.

This sort of thinking led to what my husband calls a time of darkness. The darkness being not the mood permeating our home, per se, but the vast sea of black ink found in the long-listed details on our American Express and checking debit card bills. I was on a tirade, purchasing all manner of knitting things ranging from Leisure Arts patterns found at big box craft stores like Michael's, to skeins, then hanks then balls and balls of more and more specialized yarns (the terminology increased almost as rapidly as my purchases--almost). 

I was mesmerized by the newly discovered beautiful local yarn shops here in Portland and Vancouver with their friendly, helpful staffs, and I couldn't believe the vast selections of everything fiber from online sources like Jimmy Beans Wool. There was so much to attain! I bought Addi Turbos, some for sock class, some for faster blanket completion. I collected Araucania, Malabrigo, Red Heart and Bernat yarns, all in varying fibers and weights. My book collection was getting absurd and was now stacking on the floor as I had used up the bookshelf. I considered getting rid of Steinbeck and Chopin to make room for Paden and Gardener. I was losing all perspective, like an 8-year-old budding engineer left alone in Lego land with his mother's checkbook, carte blanche. My American Express card nearly caught fire.

I was secretly searching for ways to make it seem like I was not buying so much, looking for nooks and crannies in the house for storage, then purchasing Rubbermaid containers in all manner of shapes and sizes to fit them. I can confidently say that you can fit enough yarn in one square Rubbermaid container to make about 12 pairs of socks (2 of them chunky weight), 2 afghans and at least 2 sweaters, depending on how strong you are and how motivated. You can estimate this by recalling how you did packing your last only-one-allowed carryon suitcase used on your last flight.

Daily, I was learning more and more online, joining websites like Ravelry and local yarn shop sites where I would learn about better and better yarns. I learned that nylon, for example, incorporated into wool yarn makes a more durable sock, then felt compelled to replace the old yarn I already had. Except I didn't remove the old yarn, because what if I learned something else and needed it back?

It looked as though the road to bliss could get pretty expensive. I started to wonder if the yellow brick road that Dorothy had  followed was yellow because it truly was gold. It might have even been a toll road. I sure hope she had some spare change in that basket under the dog.

Through these months of sheer excitement and obsession, my husband would remain encouraging--and patient. He still believed me to be a thinking person. Then one day, he decided to tease me by reading the lists of American Express charges out loud. Not the amounts, just the names of the stores. I think he thought the rapid fire sound might have greater comedic and, possibly, therapeutic effect on me:

"Jimmy Beans
Jimmy Beans
Jimmy Beans
Jimmy Beans

Then the debit card statement:
Crewel World
Jimmy Beans..."

...he stopped. I was about to explain that I needed a coffee each time I went out shopping. It was just part of the deal, and--"Hey," he queried, "Why did you put Jimmy Beans on the debit card? I thought that one was going on the AmEx."

Blank stare from me. On the outside. On the inside, my eyes were widening as I realized that I had done it. I had totally Lucille Balled it. And it wasn't just my red curly hair. I had gone so beyond the pale of rational thinking, that I had moved from not only trying to make my huge yarn fluff look small with all sorts of containers and storage spots, but I had started trying to spread the charges around, thinking they would look sort of, well, thinned out. A thinly veiled, hair-brained scheme that anyone in their right mind would spot in a moment.  I may as well have gone straight to a fast-paced chocolate packing factory and tried to eat all the candy on the conveyor belt to make them look boxed.

I exhaled--I hadn't realized that I had stopped breathing. I regained mental conscientiousness and gave a snappy retort, "uhhhhhh......"

"Honey," my gentle husband said, "maybe you should look at what you have. Maybe you have enough."

Inside I cried out "It's never enough!!!" But outside, I said, "Yeah, you're right."

I am happy to report that no marital altercation came of this. My husband, with incredible patience, waited for this latest craze of mine to burn out.

And it did. But not because I came to my senses, I simply filled up my closets--there was no more room.

There was an Old Lady from Dagobah...

Why knitting?

It never even had crossed my mind. Well, that's not entirely true. My grandmother--like so many grandmothers before her--tried to entice me into knitting with a pair of green, warped size 8 plastic Boyle knitting needles and a family heirloom slipper pattern. But it was not to be. As an 8 year old, I--like so many 8 year olds before me--became quickly frustrated as the yarn repeatedly slipped off the needles as I tried to work it, dropping my stitches and ultimately culminating in nothing more than a pile of tangled acrylic yarn on the bedroom floor. No slippers for me. At least not from my own needles.

Flash forward 30 years...

Entering our annual church bazaar, we knew what we would find--everyone does. There were handmade candles, ornaments, cookies, quilts--so many knitted and crocheted items. Dozens of them. My husband and I made it a point to attend this event every year faithfully. We wanted to support local craftswomen and men who spent so much time and effort to bring us such affordable and beautiful creations--many of which are sold to raise money for good causes. 

As the familiar old-church-fellowship-hall smell--now mingling with holiday bayberry and pumpkin spices--enveloped us upon entering, we began to wander around the crowded tables, most of them practically overflowing with colorful items crowded together and stacked high.  Browsing was an incredibly slow process as shoppers would crowd and thin, ebb and flow around each banquet table and slender aisle. There was a lot of standing and waiting to get to each display. I was glad we didn't have a stroller with us....yet.

I was about five and a half months pregnant with our sixth child--Amy Rose to be, our sixth of "yours, mine and ours." I was not new to pregnancy, but because she was the sixth, I was also not so young, either. We had planned on staying as long as we could, but since I had been pretty sick and uncomfortable through the whole thing, I had mentally planned on being ok with leaving the bazaar a little earlier than usual--just this one time. Then we wandered into one of the outlying rooms, new to the event this year.

The church hall, with its narrow space and long, low ceiling lined in multi-colored fluorescent lights, was not quite large enough any more for all of the vendors in attendance. The once small country church had an ever-growing population from within and from without. This year, the bazaar planners decided to use some of the classrooms outside the main hall for booths. They contained, of course, more of the same bazaar fair. But they also contained something unexpected.

As we wandered into the first, then second classroom, we started talking about leaving soon. We had purchased a few candles, some organic soaps from a local farm, and a handmade quilt from the Catholic daughters with flannel bears and lovely stitching. We had almost run out of hands for carrying things. That's when we heard Mona.

It was a distinctive voice coming from the third classroom. I listened to the voice getting louder as we approached it, dense and German, high and pitchy. Elderly?

Behind a table on the left wall was a strong, short, thickening woman with hair straight out of a red bottle of dimestore dye. Her red lips were thin and bright, threatening to leave their feathery boundaries and any moment. Her small, brilliant blue eyes shone from behind trendy purple metallic bifocals. Or were they trifocals? I judged her to be at least 75, probably more--she was clearly well kept.

She stood silently for a moment, hands neatly behind her back. She gazed at no one in particular. She just stood.

As my husband and I neared her table, she barely smiled. She just maintained a pleasant expression and I wasn't sure if she even saw us. But I saw her. And I saw the lovely things behind her, hanging on her wall.

On display, there was a darling layette: hat, booties, sweater, clearly handmade. The yarn was probably acrylic with little pink sparkles. I didn't recognize the stitches then, but now I can report that the fabric had an interesting grid texture that stood out from its background. It was a result of cleverly alternated knits and purls, exacting in their clarity.

Not meaning to say it out loud, I breathed out, "I could never make something like that..." I just couldn't hide my awe.

Suddenly, a hand reached up and snatched my left wrist. It was her. The red lip lady. Her eyes were brighter than ever, if that were possible.

"You can do this."

I stared at her for a moment, stunned. "I don't know. It's so beautiful..." I was at a loss for words.

"Yes, you can!" She still held my arm. I squeezed the quilt in my right arm closer. She was so certain, almost severe. I began to wonder what was happening.

"You go to JoAnn's Fabrics, you buy the book, you buy the yarn and you do it."

She was insistent. She was sure. She seemed to be trying to transfer secret knowledge from herself to me through squeezing my arm. Was there an electricity forming between us? Some secret knitting bond?

"When I was a child in Germany, I used two pencils and learned to knit. I knitted scarves, socks, sweaters. And lace. They don't make patterns for lace like they used to."

What did this all mean? Was I supposed to be knitting? Was I ever going to get my arm back? Did the baby just kick? Was this turning into some Jedi-Yoda moment? Was she going to call me "grasshopper" next?

A vacuum was forming, a tunnel. I lost all peripheral vision. I expected at any moment that she was going to blindfold me, give me a pair of knitting needles and hurl yarn balls at me, commanding me to use my mind to deflect them.

By this time, the red lady had stopped talking, I got her name--Mona--and that she had been knitting for about 175 years. Rough estimate. She just kept staring at me, as if she was waiting for me to understand something. Something really, really important.

I stared back.


Then, she suddenly relaxed--as if all the necessary information had been transferred from her to me. I looked at her. I didn't buy the layette.

I stiffly told her it was nice to meet her. My husband and I left. Then, wandering as if in a dream, we went to JoAnn's and bought the commanded book. My husband picked out the yarn. We didn't know how to figure out how much to buy, so we just sort of eyeballed it and bought a few skeins of brown and pink verigated Red Heart Sport acrylic.  Probably too much.

I was in a trance, a glorious, blissful trance. Something had happened, something wonderful. Was it so big and life altering that it would surpass my love for my husband, family and friends? Even God? Of course not. But meaning can be found in so many places--it may even poke you with a light saber. Sometimes things happen that can only add to your deepest contentments. Enrich you in ways you never realized. 

Joseph Campbell, American philosopher said, "To find your own way is to follow your bliss. This involves watching yourself and seeing where real deep bliss is--not the quick little excitement, but the real deep, life-filling bliss."

Sometimes we just need a little help to get there.

Watch for it. Find your bliss. You never know where it might be. Or if you are missing it all along.