Monthly Archives: December 2009

Christmas Crazy

Oh Christmastree

Dear Reader:

Merry Christmas! Yes, I am blogging on Christmas morning. Does Shelley have a life, you wonder? I do. Really. But all through the house, not a creature is stirring . . . and it seems like a good time to wish all my constant and dear readers a Happy Holiday. Last night, my family stayed up late to watch A CHRISTMAS STORY which is running 24 hours straight on one of the cable tv stations. We then switched over to WHITE CHRISTMAS with good ol’ Bing Crosby that was running 24 hours straight on another cable tv station. These are probably the only two shows I’ve watched on a cable tv station in the last couple of months. I hate cable television. Happily, my husband is giving me the best Christmas present ever . . . he’s canceling the cable in March.

I’m sorry, but 600 channels of nothing is a big, fat waste.

Like I need more distractions, anyway. Let me tell you about my Christmas experience this week. On Monday I was at the library doing my usual volunteering, when one of the librarians sighed and said, “I just can’t wait until all this Christmas is over,” in the way people do when they’ve burned out on the holiday stuff. The other librarian gave a short laugh and said, “Me too.” I chimed in with an honest, “Not me! For some reason this year I’ve really enjoyed the whole Christmas thing.” They looked at me sideways, incredulous. “Well, what’s your secret?” I shrugged. “No idea. Except I’m just not stressing about getting stuff done, not trying so hard to make it magical, just letting it happen.”

Ha! Three days later and I’m suddenly realizing we’ve eaten all the cookies I baked, I still have date balls to throw together, quiche to bake, presents to wrap, and my allergies have hit for some ungodly reason so I’m stuffy, wheezing, and bubble-headed from the antihistamines. What do I do to compensate? I tell myself that everything is going to be fine, turn on my “Crooners” Christmas cd, and make a list.

Wednesday morning, and things started out okay with no indication of the craziness to come: My husband is on vacation, so we went out to breakfast. Nice, but probably not smart since it wasn’t on “the list.” Still, we enjoyed great food and service at The Peppermill, as usual, and we were charmed to see a bright red fishing shack already pulled out onto the smooth, new ice on Sokokis Lake. I ran into the village market to pick up a few (cartful) of last-minute groceries and baking supplies, and chatted with the guy who was stocking the Squire Mountain tub cheese. Click on the link to read about the company. Squire Mountain was started in 1996 in Fryeburg, Maine, and I asked the guy if it was still made locally. He grinned behind his wire-rim glasses and said, “My wife and I make it.” I said, “I served this at my last ladies’ craft night. The cheddar kind.” He said, “You have to try the new one, Garlic & Herb.” So I grabbed a small container and a package of crackers. It is delicious . . . and local.

So I went home and commenced to baking. Well, melting and stirring and burning and cursing is more like it. I tried to make date balls. I’ve made them before with no problem, but a few things were working against me: an old pan I picked up at a yard sale this summer, my bubble-headed state, and too many things running through the bubble-headed brain. While waiting for the egg/sugar/date mixture to boil, I decided I should water the Christmas tree before it dried out and burned the house down. From beneath the fragrant branches of the balsam fir, I smelled . . . scorching. Ack! Sure enough, the mixture had some to a boil and burned completely black on the bottom. Apparently the old pot had been burned-on before, making it much more likely to scorch again.

I took the goop off the stove, dumped it into another pan, and hoped nobody would notice the slight smoky flavor in the date balls later on. In went the rice puff cereal. I buttered my hands, reached in to form a ball and . . . nothing. It wouldn’t stick. About this time I realized I had forgotten to add the melted butter and vanilla. I quickly added those ingredients and stirred them in, but that greasy butter didn’t help. Frantic, I did what all good cooks do when they get into trouble with a recipe. I called Mom.

She sympathized, but didn’t really have any suggestions other than, “Well, can’t you just eat it like it is?” I thought, “With what? Spoons?” But I just wailed and said, “I’ve gotta go. I’m getting nothing done and it’s already 1 o’clock!”

Keep in mind that I’d already missed a)my dentist appointment on Monday (woke up at 3 am on Tuesday and said “oh s%$%!” and b)missed my friend’s daughter’s violin recital on Tuesday (woke up at 3:13 am on Wednesday and said “oh s%$%!”). My brain was definitely on vacation. My hands attempted to take up the slack, but, alas, the results weren’t good.

So, I dumped the date ball mixture AND the pan into the trashcan and started chopping cranberries for cranberry bread. I’d already made some small breads to take to the neighbors, so I figured this would go smoothly. It did, for the most part, except when the bread was in the oven baking, I relaxed with a cup of coffee and jumped onto the computer to catch up on my email. Which wouldn’t have been a problem except I forgot it was a school day . . . and forgot to pick up my daughter at the bus stop!

Those of you who know me are probably gaping at the computer screen right now. I’ve given up job opportunities fearing I’d miss her bus. It’s a sign of how discombobulated I was that my irresponsible parenting didn’t even faze me. By the time I headed out in the truck, she’d done the right thing and hitched a ride from a neighbor. When I got back into the house, I looked at husband and child and said, “You go shopping without me. I need a nap.” I think the two days of 3 am waking had taken it’s toll (plus don’t forget the allergies and antihistamines.) I think my husband was slightly afraid to leave me home alone with a stove, but he manned up and took the daughter to Cabela’s and Pizza Hut while I napped. By the time they came home, I’d roused myself enough to wrap presents. I guess we’ll find out this morning if I managed to get the right tags on the right gifts.

Finally, I’d accomplished something. Oh, yes, the cranberry bread came out okay except I tried to wrap it too early and it broke in half. No problem. I sliced it up and stuck the slices on a plate.

Did I mention I was still working on a handknit, felted bag for my mother? I finished that up and stuck it in the washing machine on the hot/cold setting. When I took it out, it had felted up beautifully. I lovingly placed it out in the mudroom in front of the electric heater, hoping it would dry enough by the next afternoon so I could wrap it before my parents arrived. It did.

My Christmas Karma was back to normal.

Thursday, Christmas Eve: My mother brought date balls and gingerbread cookies, so I could concentrate on the Christmas Eve dinner: fish chowder, spiral ham, sweet potato casserole, sour pickles, and cranberry bread. There was tub cheese and crackers for appetizer along with some dates stuffed with fresh goat cheese from Downhome Farm that Laura gave me when I went to pick up my milk. The table sparkled with my good crystal and the fancy dishes I bought back before my wedding (at Mardens, where my mother also found my wedding gown, something nobody can believe.) With jazz on the cd player and cheerful hearts, we sat down to enjoy our meal. It couldn’t have been nicer.

So that’s my Christmas horror story with a happy ending. I also wanted to share this year’s most unique gift idea. Laura also suggested this one, and it worked out just fine. I purchased her first emu egg of the year, blew it out, made a bacon/cheese quiche, and presented the quiche and beautiful, dark green egg to my artist friend, Sandy. I thought she might like to paint the egg. Here is a picture of the egg.

I leave you on with wishes for a Merry Christmas, dear Reader. And remember, it’s not about the gifts or the food or the tree, not really. It’s about family and friends and the darkest days of the year passing and the light coming back to the world.

Christmas Carding

Dear Reader:

I haven’t sent my Christmas cards out yet, but I have been doing some carding . . . fiber carding.

One of the neat things about trying to be more local has been meeting new and talented people and learning new and fascinating skills from those people. I took up knitting a few years ago thanks to my friend, Sandy, who bugged, er, encouraged me until I grabbed a pair of bamboo needles and crafted my first fuzzy scarf. Coincidentally, knitting is an activity that allows me to support local business by buying yarn, needles, books, and other supplies from small business owners like Rosemary at Rosemary’s Gift Shop in the neighboring town of Cornish.

If you ever get a chance to visit Cornish, Maine, do so. It is a small New England village with an old-fashioned common green surrounded by vintage buildings, many of which house antique shops, quaint stores, and restaurants. Rosemary has a gift shop downstairs and a large inventory of yarns on the second floor. I can never leave there until I’ve spent at least an hour looking at yarns that run the gamut from tiny fingering weight for socks to airy, bulky yarns perfect for fun hats and scarves. The only problem is deciding which to bring home!

As much as I love buying factory-made yarn in all its variety, I yearned to learn how to spin my own yarn.

I had seen demonstrations at fairs and craft shows, and the process fascinated me. I suspected the repetitive motion and resulting product–usable yarn–would suit my daydreamy personality. I love activities that keep my hands busy while allowing my mind to wander at will. Solitary activities with only the sound of music from radio or cd to accompany the work. Writing falls into this category. It is active, my hands moving over the keyboard and fingers tapping the keys while my mind spins stories and ideas and dialogue. Spinning, I thought, would be similar, but even more tactile.

Lucky for me, I met Laura who offered to teach me the basics of spinning and to let me borrow her cute little Ashford Kiwi wheel. Over successive Thursdays, Laura taught me how to predraft wool rovings, how to spin the rovings into yarn singles, how to ply singles together into double-ply or navajo ply, and finally how to card washed and dyed wool and roll the carded fibers into round, skinny bundles called rolags.

In essence, I started at the end–knitting a garment–and have worked my way back to carding the fiber. If I continue on this course, I’ll end up dying wool and then washing wool and then shearing a sheep and then buying my own flock. I’m pretty sure my husband will stop me before I get to that first, basic step in the life cycle of a sweater. However, this week I’ve been practicing my carding skills, and thought my readers would enjoy learning a little bit about the process.

Dyed Goat Fiber

The dyed fiber comes in a clumpy bundle. This particular fiber comes from a goat–probably cashmere–and contains the outer guard hairs that look and feel just like human hair to me. There’s plenty of woolier stuff in there, too, but the little locks of hair make for an interesting texture. See the picture above.

The first step is placing bits of fiber onto one of the carding paddles. Here you can see the rough, curly pieces of fiber snagged onto the curved teeth of the carding paddle. This paddle I balance against my left thigh while pulling the fiber onto the other paddle in my right hand. As the fiber is transfered from one paddle to the other, the teeth pull and straighten the individual fibers.

After a couple of exchanges

Notice how much fluffier and straight the fibers are now after a couple of passes from one paddle to the other? Once the fiber appears ready, I can lift them in one long, somewhat flat sheet of wool that I roll in a somewhat spiral fashion from one end to the other.

All carded and ready to roll

The resulting tube of fiber is called a rolag. Here is a pile of rolags I made this morning while listening to NPR.

Rolags

From these rolags, I spun a wiry, hairy yarn. The consistency of the fiber was slick and slippery, and I experimented with a couple of different techniques. I finally settled on a modified inchworm technique, pulling out a few fibers at a time with my left hand and smoothing the yarn as I went.

Spinning fiber into single ply

The spinning went fast, and before I knew it, I’d used up all my rolags! The resulting yarn isn’t perfect. The fibers tended to slip past each other as I drew it out little by little, creating tiny bumps called slubs. Luckily, another friend gave me a pile of back issues of Spin-Off Magazine. If you are at all interested in spinning or weaving or simply knitting with handspun yarn, take a peek at this informative and colorful publication.

Looking through the back issues, I made a happy discovery: slubs are cool! In fact, I found a number of how-to articles teaching experienced spinners how to create these slubby yarns on purpose.
Apparently, as you become more adept at spinning, the muscles in your hand get into the habit of making nice, smooth, even yarn–a good thing when you want perfect, beautiful skeins. This muscle memory become a handicap, however, when you decide to try your hand making funky “art yarn” full of bumps and twists and uneven textures. I’ve decided to consider my beginner yarn as art yarn and stop beating myself up for the imperfections. After all, I may never be able to make natural-looking slubs again!

Single ply on bobbin

Here is the yarn on the bobbin. I will work for a few more hours making rolags and will continue to fill the bobbin. When I’ve filled the bobbin, I will decide whether to make a double ply yarn by twisting two strands together, use the yarn as a single ply, or maybe even try to navajo ply–looping the yarn over itself from one strand. Maybe Laura can help me decide which would be the best treatment for this kind of fiber. I can get a pretty good idea of what the double ply would look like by pulling out the end section of the yarn and letting it twist back onto itself.

Test for double ply

Isn’t that cute? I’ve already thought of a use for this fuzzy yarn. It will be perfect for accent rows on a striped hat I will create from various balls of my beginner yarns. I’ve even thought of a name for this dark, shiny maroon yarn–Cherry Holler.

Which makes me think of chocolate-covered cherries.

Which makes me wonder how it would look plied with a dark brown fiber . . . oh, dear, you can see where this is leading.

Next week, tune in for a blog about unusual, local gifts for the holidays. Enjoy your present-wrapping, egg-nog drinking, carol-singing and whatever it is you do between now and your solstice-tradition of choice. That’s it for today . . . Outside the Box.

Local Ties

Mary Jane Slippers


Dear Reader:

Some of us are lucky enough to be living in our hometowns. We have extended families and familiar friends with whom to talk and laugh and share our troubles. Our grandparents, great-grandparents, even great-grandparents lived and worked and loved and died within the familiar boundaries of our town. We know the best swimming holes, the crankiest citizens, the oldest trees. The creaky floorboards of the corner store are as known as the creaky stairs in our own homes. Older folks remember us from when we were kids. We have a support system. People know us . . . love us or hate us . . . but know us. We feel connected and involved.

Others of us aren’t so lucky. We’ve relocated to new towns and cities in search of work, or perhaps we just wanted a fresh start. Without the security blanket of shared history, we find ourselves exposed to the coolness of strangers. We are more isolated than we’d like. We wonder why we just don’t seem to “fit.” Perhaps we’ve landed in a place that doesn’t really suit our personality. Perhaps the natives are distrustful of newcomers. Perhaps we are homesick for the familiar landscapes of our childhood and cannot find even an approximation.

We crave companionship and a sense of belonging. We cast about for fellow pilgrims, for friendship. We wonder if we’ll ever feel at home in this new place. We join circles, salons, teams, groups, clubs, societies, packs, parties, neighborhoods and tribes. We seek soulmates, friends, companions, partners, neighbors, and colleagues. Eventually, if we are lucky, we find some fellowship.

I’ve been talking with various people about this lately (okay, pretty much non-stop for the last six years or so), and it seems that the older I have gotten, the more difficult it has been to hook-up with likeminded individuals, to make connections, to find a circle of friends, to forge deep and lasting friendships.

Growing up in a rather insular church society that included a private school, I had few friends outside the small, yet secure environment in which my parents placed me. My friends were the kids who attended Sunday school with me every weekend and whose desks were next to mine in our Christian-school classrooms from kindergarten all the way up through twelfth grade. We grew up together, went through the process of “becoming” together.

We shared clothes and books and food from our lunchboxes. We slept over at each others’ houses and talked all night. We listened to the same music, had crushes on the same boys, watched the same television shows, and hated and loved the same teachers. We played on sports teams together and sang together in the chorus. We endlessly discussed who we wanted to be, what we wanted to do, who we wanted to marry, where we wanted to live when we grew up. We analyzed our relationships with other friends, boyfriends, parents, and siblings. We talked about our bodies, our fears, our dreams, and our humiliations. Oh, those humiliations.

College friendships were easy, too. There we were, young adults with no more than four years difference between us, attending classes with the same professors, eating the same meals at the cafeteria, sleeping in indentical dorm rooms, drinking out of the same kegs at the same parties and watching the same people pass out behind the couch (okay, so I didn’t go to too many keg parties, but you get the idea.)

Here, too, we shared our thoughts and feelings about anything and everything, growing wiser and deeper together, feeling the possibility and power of our youthful potential. Heady days, figuring out who we really were . . . or were becoming.

Inevitably, graduation and careers and marriage and moves forced us apart, and now most of us live hours and days from each other. We are left stranded in our adulthood and wondering why it is so difficult to forge new friendships that are that easy and comfortable and close. What has happened to us, we wonder?

Dinner Party Table

After much discussion and thought, I think I’ve figured out the secret ingredient to strong friendships–time. When you are a child, and even more so when you are a young adult in college, you have countless hours in which to “hang-out.” As an adult? Not so much. Some of us have jobs and long commutes that eat up most of the weekday hours. We have PTC meetings and volunteer duties. We have houses to clean, wood to get into the cellar, pets to take to the vet’s office, cars to register at the town office. We’re lucky if we can squeeze in a half-hour for exercise and dinner with the family. Heading over to the coffee shop to sit with a friend feels like a luxury we can rarely indulge in.

Mant of us have children and spouses demanding our attention. Grown-up social gatherings don’t just “happen” like they did in college. There is no designated party house for every Friday and Saturday night. Parties are now planned well in advance to allow for childcare arrangements and coordination of schedules . . . and God forbid anyone comes down with a virus or a snowstorm hits.

When we aren’t involved with the daily ups and downs of our companions, though, we lose intimacy. The word “time” is even embedded in the word “intimacy.” In our older friendships, shared history is a shortcut to intimacy. With new friendships, there are no shortcuts. It’s just plain work. Fun work, but time consuming work. And the path is full of twists and turns and false starts and missteps.

Time is the big factor, but we may also be psychologically closed to the kind of friendship we made in our younger years. Having outgrown adolescent narcissism (hopefully) we are sure the other person doesn’t want to hear all about our past triumphs and failures, and so we hold back. We’ve been through stuff. Maybe we don’t want to be completely open because we’ve been burned in the past, shared with someone who took our stories and broadcast them to our embarrassment. We have our reputations and our spouse’s and children’s reputations to worry about.

We don’t want our crazy pasts (or presents) to reflect badly on our families. Maybe a fresh start and a clean slate were part of the reason we left our hometown in the first place. Perhaps we feel foolish, admitting lonliness, admitting mistakes, admitting failures. We are adults, now. We should know better–about everything. It would be daft to admit we don’t, in fact, have it all together.

No longer looking ahead to our adult lives, we are smack in the middle of them. We feel silly talking about our hopes for the present, for the future. Where do dreams and aspirations fit into a middle-aged life? We are supposed to BE there, to have ARRIVED already. We can talk about our hopes for our kids and maybe about retirement (but, really, that’s a little depressing, isn’t it?), but we’ve forgotten how to dream for ourselves . . . or at least we’ve forgotten how to share those dreams. We are embarrassed. We’ve learned to hold in our feelings. It’s what adults do.

Yet, we feel alone. I know I’m not the only one who feels this lack of connection because so many of my women friends confess to feeling the same way (somewhat self-consciously and reluctantly). We don’t know our neighbors the way we imagine we should. Our activities pull us in many different directions. Our kids have baton and music lessons, Lego League or basketball practice, and homework.

Even though we live in the same town and our kids go to the same school, a great bit of life is spent in our cars traveling out of the hometown to points hither, thither and yon. Spouses work in the cities an hour from home. We are so used-up at the end of the day that the thought of getting into the car one more time–even to visit with a friend–exhausts us. In all this hecticness, something gets lost, and most often what is lost is regular time with like-minded companions. Friendship, like expensive chocolate, feels like a luxury we shouldn’t indulge in.

All this busy-ness fractures our communities, as relationships form the structure on which a community is built and relationships are glued together by time.

If we want to feel connected–to our friends, to our community, to our neighbors–then we need to give those ties time to bind. Schedule a regular coffee break with that nice person you met at the PTC meeting. Call your friend two or three times a week and share the highlights and lowlights of your days. Don’t rely on social networks on the internet. Get face-to-face with your favorite people on a regular basis. I can’t emphasize this enough: schedule friend-time.

Maybe you can exercise together, shedding pounds while sharing your life stories. Work on a home project together–first at one house and then the other. Invite a buddy over to watch a football game on Sunday afternoon (you were going to watch it anyway; why not bond over a plate of nachos and a beer?) Host a craft night.

There are layers of connectness. You might not want to be “best-friends” with your neighbors, but recognizing them in the grocery store would be nice. This is something I need to work on. My idea this holiday season is to bake cranberry bread for my neighbors and deliver it along with an invitation to a get-to-know-your-neighbors open house sometime in January.

Shopping at local businesses and volunteering for local charitable or civic organizations are two more ways to make community connections. It’s next to impossible feel part of the “Wal-Mart community” or the “Target community.” But when you go to the local supermarket and chat with various townspeople two or three times a week, you begin to feel connected. You know which cashier can never remember the price of the farm butter but makes the toddlers riding in the carts laugh when she says “see ya’ later, alligator.” When you volunteer at the library, you learn which patrons like the romance novels, which ones gravitate to the home decor section, and who never returns their books on time but always has a friendly comment about that month’s art display on the walls.

As we head toward the beginning of a new year, take a minute or two to think about your local ties. Is there someone you’d like to know better? Is there an organization you’d like to join? Can you maybe give up an hour or two of television in exhange for some quality time with a new friend or neighbor? Give a little of yourself, take a chance on sharing some of your history. If you don’t connect with one person, try again with someone else. Maybe the current place will never feel like your hometown, but it will be your kids’ hometown. Maybe the current place isn’t perfect for your temperament, but you can create pockets of comfort in the community when you begin to forge new friendships. Examine this place in which you find yourself, focus on what you like, and ignore those things you don’t like. At least that’s what I am attempting to do . . . Outside the Box.

P.S. Here’s an idea for a handmade gift for a friend–old or new. Cute little Mary Jane-style slippers. I got the pattern from a most excellent magazine called MARY JANES FARM. The slipper pattern was in the August-September 2009 issue on page 88. I purchased the yarn at the Steep Falls Farmer’s Market a few months ago. The wool came from a nearby farm and was processed into yarn at the Barlett Mill in Harmony, Maine–a wool-spinning mill that has been in operation since 1821! Check it out, grab your knitting needles (there’s a crochet pattern, too), and whip up a quick pair of slippers.