Tag Archives: knitting

Days 42-44: The Color Pink

February Socks Finally Finished

Dear Reader:

As the summer begins its inevitable wind-down, I find myself winding down as well. My feet hurt from hours of walking through museums, parks, and monuments. My brain is overwhelmed with information, my senses are overloaded, and my creativity’s flow has ebbed to a trickle. I’m clumsier. I bump into people in crowded subway trains. I say the wrong thing. I can’t get my umbrella closed on the bus and someone yells at me. The self-deprecating remark made to the grumpy cashier at the bookstore earns me a snide comment. I want to curl up with a cup of tea and a book, stay in bed for the day, and catch my breath.

We all have these times of slowing down, hibernating, or simply laying low for awhile. Knitting is one of my favorite slow-day things. What can be better than some soft yarn, a soothing color, repetition, and the gentle click of the needles as you wind and slip and knit and purl your way to something beautiful?

Pretty in Pink Lacey Socks

One of my goals for this year was to knit one pair of socks per month. These are my February socks, so you can surmise how well I’m doing with this resolution. I found this pattern in the Lion Brand JUST SOCKS book. It is the “Chevron Lace Socks” pattern on page 51, and is supposedly for experienced knitters . . . which I’m not. However, when I read over the pattern, I didn’t think it was particularly difficult, and really I had no problem following it. The only caution I would give is this: don’t drop a stitch. With all the yarn-overs, it really would take an experienced knitter to be able to rework the dropped loop into the pattern.

I used a soft “baby” yarn made of acrylic in hopes that it would wear better than the wool socks I’ve made in the past. I love natural fiber, but this was fun to work with. It has a pretty sheen to it. The pattern called for size 4 double-pointed needles, and because the gauge piece turned out too large, I went down to a size 3. The socks still came out a bit on the saggy side, so when I do these again, I will maybe try a size 2 needle.

Local Virginia Wine

In the spirit of localism, I decided to try a local Virginia wine. This Rapidan River Raspberry was on the less expensive side, a grape wine with raspberry flavor and slight carbonation. It is vinted and bottled by Prince Michel Vineyard in Leon, Virginia. Virginians have been making wine since Jamestown. In fact, the Virginia House of Burgesses passed an article in 1619 saying that every householder should plant 10 grape vines per year in order to promote wine making. I found this information in an article by Alexis K. Brown called Thomas Jefferson and the History of Wine in Virginia. Always knew I liked Jefferson.

The beverage was reminiscent of Boone’s Strawberry Hill wine which, if you were a college girl in the late 1980’s, you are probably familiar with. Poured into a glass with a couple of ice-cubes, it was refreshing enough for patio-sitting and conversation with Hubby. Next time, though, I may splurge a little and go for a more expensive, serious bottle. Their Prince Michel 2008 Barrel Select Chardonnay sounds heavenly.

Then again, the Rapidan River Chocolate–yes, chocolate wine!–at $12.99 might just be too interesting to pass up.

Capital On Monday

While the economic outlook doesn’t look particularly rosy for the foreseeable future, at least Congress was able to get it together enough to pass the debt-ceiling legislation with an imperative to do even more in the coming months. Like I wrote in response one of my more conservative friend’s Facebook post this morning, I’m beginning to feel about the economy and politics the way I feel about the “impending dooms” of peak oil, energy depletion, global warming, and terrorist threat. I believe they are impending, but that the problems are like huge trains speeding toward a cliff, too fast and too heavy to stop completely, especially as we do not seem to have the will or the cohesiveness to make tough decisions and tougher implementations. The best thing, in my opinion, is to go as local as possible, as soon as possible.

What that means for you, I don’t know. As for me, I’m gonna keep knitting and learning how to spin fiber into yarn and maybe start saving seeds and definitely start collecting old-fashioned “know-how” books–not just for me but for whoever has need of that information in the future. Positive action, even small things like this, is better than no action at all.

How have some of you, my dear readers, transitioned to a more local way of living? Feel free to leave a comment and share you ideas and inspirations. You may just trigger similar inspiration in others. We need to collaborate, not compete. Compromise, not cat-fight. Thanks again for reading, and in the spirit of February . . .

Artwork by "The Teen"

{{Heart}} Love ya.

A Day Late and A Sock Short

January's Striped Wool SockDear Reader:

For those of you who have been following this blog, you know that part of my “living locally” philosophy includes going back to some of the traditional skills, means, and ways that have been shoved into a dusty, hard-to-reach corner of our hot, flat, and crowded world. (See Thomas Friedman’s book HOT, FLAT, AND CROWDED.)

I’d like to see the world get a little rounder again. I’d like us to live in our own communities, not simply sleep there. I’d like us to buy bacon from the farm just outside of town, to shop at a food co-op set up in an old convenience store that’s been shuttered for three or four years, and to browse the weekly craft/farmer’s market for locally produced veggies, fruits, bread, jam, cheese, and wine along with hand-knit sweaters, locally-made floral bags and sundresses, maybe even furniture. I’d like us to head down to the old town hall to see a community theater production of a play written by a local author rather than drive to the nearest cineplex to see the latest 3-D extravaganza offered to us by Hollywood. Or maybe someone could open a small movie theater right on Main Street.

Well, a girl can dream, right?

Because I don’t have the energy to make my own crafts, create a food co-op, open a farmer’s market, start a community theater, AND open a movie house, I will stick to what I can do right now. Buying locally when possible. Shopping at locally-owned stores here in town first and then widening out to the larger community. Experimenting with jams and pickles and traditional recipes. Knitting.

Which leads me to today’s topic: January’s Sock of the Month. I realize that today is February 1st. I am also sad to report that I managed to finish only one sock of the pair. The other cuff has been started on my teeny-tiny double-pointed needles and will go faster as I’ve already gone through the directions once.

For this pair of socks, I chose Patons “Kroy Socks” Jacquards yarn in blues, browns, green, and cream. www.patonsyarns.com. The yarn is a soft, washable wool/nylon blend. I’m hoping that the nylon will help prevent the socks from wearing out on the bottom, something that annoyed me when I made slippers out of pure wool.

I already had a sock pattern from the Plymouth Yarn Company called Happy Feet (#1311) for textured rib socks and fingerless gloves. I’d made the gloves in black for my daughter last year and found the directions clear and easy-to-follow. The cuffs are a basket-weave sort of design which paired with the self-striping sock yarn makes for pretty, patterned footwear.

For those of you who think, I could never make a sock; too complicated, let me reassure you a bit. I’m not an expert knitter by any means, but once I learned how to divide the stitches onto three needles and use the fourth needle to do work the stitches, knitting in the round on double-pointed needles required only the most basic skills: knit, purl, knitting two stitches together, and slip slip knit. That’s it! As in cooking, following the directions step by step will lead to success . . . and warm, toasty toes on a cold January (er, February) day.

February’s socks will have to be rosy-hued in honor of Valentine’s Day. If you have a fool-proof sock pattern that would look pretty in pink, drop me a note. Better yet, I challenge you to knit up your own pair of Valentine-inspired socks and send me a picture to post Outside the Box.

Sweet Summertime

Lobstah

Dear Reader:

I had such plans for an organized summer routine–early rising, cup of coffee, exercise, shower, (re)learn some French, write, beach, craft or put up food, supper, water plants, read edifying book, go to bed. Of course there were going to be special days experiencing all that Maine has to offer in the summer–boating, canoeing, hiking, biking, camping, taking in a show at the Ogunquit Theater, enjoying a lobster dinner at the oilcloth-covered picnic table of a quaint, coastal eatery. Strawberry picking, raspberry picking, blueberry picking. A day at the Portland Museum of Art. Another day or two at 19th Century Willowbrook Village museum just up the road a-piece. A trip to the botanical garden over in Boothbay Harbor.

I have no doubt that I’ll manage to squeeze in most, if not all, of these outings, but my daily routine won’t kick in until August. It never does. And for a few brief, glorious weeks I will enjoy Maine, the Way Life Should Be . . . or, Maine, The Way Tourists Imagine Life Is In the Pinetree State. And why not? Why shouldn’t we Mainers (Mainiacs?) take advantage of what our home state has to offer, even if that means popping over to the beach after work one evening to watch the pinky-orange sunset from a nearly-deserted stretch of sand? Or plan a trip to Acadia National Park with the kids? Or go on a whale-watch excursion from Kennebunkport? Why leave all the good stuff to the outa-statas?

Maine Fare

Although I haven’t managed to get into my sweet summertime routine yet, I did find a pre-cooked lobster at the local market last week, and bought it in hopes of making a couple of lobster rolls for my husband’s and my lunch. After freeing the delicious meat from the shells, I found there wasn’t quite as much to work with as I’d hoped. I needed more filling. I diced a cucumber and an onion, mixed it all up with mayonnaise, a little salt, and a little pepper, and stuffed the sub rolls with the mixture. Add a big spoonful of homemade coleslaw and a couple slices of juicy cantaloupe and there you go, a delicious Maine-style summer lunch. (Yes, I would have preferred a simple, classic lobster roll with just meat, a little mayo, the salt and pepper on a buttery, pan-fried hot-dog roll, but this was quite good, too, in a pinch.)

Sockotta Socks!

I’m also happy to report that I’ve managed to complete a knitting project. These socks (I’m going to call them my Maine Summer Sunset Socks because they are the exact color of the sunsets down on Drake Island in Wells where my husband likes to go striper fishing from the breakwater while my daughter and I hang on the beach or hop along the flat rocks hoping to spot a seal) were very easy to knit. The self-striping yarn makes its own pretty pattern depending on what size sock you decide to make. I made these up in the large size so that I could get stripes. If I’d gone with the better-for-me medium, it would have ended up with more length-wise stripes. The instructions were clear, precise, and easy-to-follow. If you are interested in trying this pattern for yourself, it comes from the Plymouth Yarn Company and was designed by JoAnne Turcotte. The yarn is called SOCKOTTA and the pattern is S225, Mother/Child Socks in five sizes–you could knit up some footwear for the whole family just from this one, simple pattern.

I’ve found sock patterns to be complicated in the past, so this may become my “go-to” pattern. The proprietor of local yarn shops are willing and able to help customers find same-weight yarns if, say, I wanted to do a simple white sock rather than a striped, color sock.

The garden boxes are finally filling in with lovely green veggies. According to the Square-Foot Gardening book, I should have been able to re-fertilize the soil with a trowel-full of compost. I decided to put in a bit more than that, using one bag of compost per box. Even then, my plants seemed a little sickly and puny. Last year, I assumed the rain was the problem and amended with some organic blood-meal. This year, we’ve had beaucoup de soleil and some good, high temperatures, so I came to the conclusion that the amending recommendations in the book were not sufficient for my boxes–either I didn’t have the right kind of compost, the original “mix” of compost, peat, and vermiculite was off somehow, or our climate just begs for more soil nutrients.

I picked up a small bag of organic fertilizer at the hardware store for about seven dollars, worked in a half a cup or so into each box (staying a bit away from the plants so as not to burn them), and watered. A week or so later, the plants had perked up considerably.

Since then, I’ve decided that my measly six hours of sunlight may also be a major factor in the lack-of-lushness problem. The greens are thriving, while the tomatoes still seem too spindly. (Greens require much less sunlight, so this is a good clue that my garden site will never produce the plethora of tomatoes I crave). The peas, which took up eight of my precious boxes, yielded only enough for one decent meal. NOT a good use of space. The cukes and zucchini and summer squashes are looking promising. I have one green pepper growing, but something has begun to eat it along with my biggest basil. I dug around in the soil and found some red beetles . . . more on that in a later post.

In the Cottage Garden

This week, Dear Reader, take some time to enjoy the sweetness that summer has to offer. Drink a tall glass of iced-tea on the porch. Pick some raspberries and eat them right out of the box. Take a walk down a country road or a sandy beach or through a city park. Spit some watermelon seeds at your kids. Go to a small-town outdoor concert where the band plays in the gazebo and the townsfolk sit around on blankets and lawn-chairs on a sultry summer evening (bring bug-spray). Start a journal. Buy a sketchpad and some pencils and capture the view from a mountaintop summit. Fill yourself with summer . . . Outside the Box.

Flabbercrabby Purse and Proseal T-Shirt Makeover

Born to be Flabbercrabby

Oh, Baby-Doll

Dear Reader:

For those of you who were waiting to see how the T-shirt makeover turned out, here it is! For some reason I woke up this morning interested in accomplishing all things domestic. I scrubbed the floors, washed the dishes, did a couple loads of laundry . . . and looking at the clock I could see it was only ten o’clock in the morning. What can I do with all this extra time and energy, I pondered. Aha! The t-shirt!

Dragging out my rather dusty Singer sewing machine my parents bought me for Christmas around, oh, 1989, I wiped it down, cleared off the dining room table, and spent the next forty-five minutes trying to find the website that had the cute baby-doll t-shirt project. Once I finally found it, the cutting and sewing went smoothly, and by two-thirty the shirt was finished. Click here for the webpage and instructions.

I didn’t follow the instructions exactly. The designer/crafter simply cut the arm and neck openings and left them raw as jersey does not unravel. I wanted my shirt to look a little more “finished” and I didn’t have any black thread for my sewing maching. I decided to use yellow thread to match the “Proseal” lettering and zig-zag stictch the raw edges. I tacked down the tiny triagular “lapels” with little embroidered x’s and used gold-colored yarn for the drawstring. I’m not especially happy with the yarn, so I may cut the bottom off the t-shirt and use the material to make a jersey drawstring which cinches the shirt above the belly to make the baby-doll silhouette.

Instead of using the yarn to gather the arm “straps” I took the cut-off sleeves and made two tubes of cloth. There was still plenty of sleeve material left, so I made a matching headband. I intend the wear the ensemble to aerobics class tonight, field-testing my new/old shirt. Here are before and after pictures.

Before . . . . . .

. . . . after!

If anyone in the mid-state area needs to have their driveway or parking lot sealed, I highly recommend Proseal for all your hot-cracking needs.

For you Flabbercrabby enthusiasts, here is the premier item of the label: The “Little Striped Dress” Felted Purse. Notice the cell-phone pocket? As my husband and I are considering dropping our land-line telephone service because, let’s face it, cell phones are redundant (but who can do without one or two in the family these days?), I wanted a purse that would allow me have my phone handy at all times, except when driving, of course.

I knit the bottom and ruffley top with a bulky-weight yarn with some wool and the middle stripes with medium-weight 100% wool. I was guessing the middle stuff would shrink alot more than the top and bottom, creating a “waist” for the purse . . . and it worked! I think the handles give it a sundressy look. I still have to attach a button to the pocket flap and may sew in a cotton lining to give the bottom more stability. But isn’t it cute? It’s really darn cool to be Flabbercrabby.

Remember, anything you design and handmake can be labeled “Flabbercrabby.” Go ahead and put your creativity to work. Send me a photo of your masterpiece and I’ll post it here. . . Outside the Box.

Creative Website–Check It Out!

handspun yarn buttoned scarf

Dear Reader:

This scarf is the finished product crafted from the mohair fleece I carded and spun and plied on a borrowed Kiwi spinning wheel. The Kiwi is a beginner wheel, and because I’m a beginner, it works for me. I also have a more traditional wheel given to me by a good friend of the family. My next spinning project will be done on that wheel in hopes that I have acquired the skill necessary to spin the thin yarn that wheel requires. Learning a craft isn’t an overnight project. I’m expecting at least three years to even become halfway proficient. However, the journey may be more important than the destination. Every time I sit down at the wheel or hold a couple of bamboo knitting needles in my hands, I feel connected to the age-old crafting tradition . . . and so can you!

One of my online writing friends has started a new website geared toward crafting and do-it-yourself projects and the creative impulse each of us has inside us. They will be offering projects “in a bag” and blogs and articles. I’m very excited to see these kinds of sites going up on the internet. With all these resources at our fingertips, we can explore and experiment to our hearts’ content.

Make 2010 the year you learn to produce something useful and/or beautiful. I strongly believe that along with relocalizing, we also need to become a society of skilled craftspeople. Imagine producing clothes, furniture, houses, vehicles, toys . . . you name it . . . that are meant to last a lifetime rather than a few months or years.

Check out http://www.creativemindandhands.com/ and make something . . . Outside the Box.

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.

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.

Fair Skies Over Maine

October 2009 056

Dear Reader:

It’s the end of the special time of year known in Maine as “Fair Season.” Starting July 2nd up north in Houlton and ending in the southwest corner in the lovely town of Fryeburg on October 11th, Mainers enjoy a long summer and fall of carnival games, amusement rides, craft exhibits, Grange tableaux, livestock shows, and horseracing, not to mention cotton candy, sticky caramel apples, hot chocolate at the Bingo tent, sausages smothered in onions and peppers, fair fries doused in vinegar, and my family’s favorite: hot turkey sandwiches with the fixins at the Farmington Fair Elks Booth.

This year I was lucky enough to also attend the Fryeburg Fair which is down here in my neck of the woods. Between Farmington and Fryeburg, I was able to hit almost all my favorite goings-on. Heading to the racetrack is always on the agenda. Maine harness racing has been around a long time. In these “trotting” races, the horses pull two-wheeled contraptions called sulkies on which the driver sits and directs the horse. The sport has waxed and waned over the years, but the racing community is a tenacious one. The history of harness racing at the Fryeburg track can be read here.

While harness racing has a long and fascinating history, the agricultural fairs have an even longer one. According to the Maine Association of Agricultural Fairs website, there are 25 fairs and the Skowhegan Fair is the grandmere of them all at age 190!

Skowhegan may be the oldest, but for me the Farmington Fair is dearest. Even though I grew up in the Bangor area, my family roots are in Farmington, so that is the fair we would attend every September. The weather was always a crap shoot. One year we’d be sweltering in the midst of an Indian Summer heatwave. The next year we’d bundle up in our winter coats and mittens. My sister remembers how cold the ferris wheel safety bar felt on her chin. Some years were rainy, and the walkways down past the exhibition hall, the livestock barns, the carny games, and the Merry-Go-Round would be slick and rutted with deep mud. Now they’ve paved the walkways, and while I suppose it is easier–not to mention cleaner–I rather miss the dirt.

Peekaboo

Peekaboo

No Maine Agricultural Fair would be complete without the barnyard animals. This beautiful beast is one of the many oxen I oggled (and who oggled right back as you can see) at the Fryeburg Fair last week. If you’ve never seen these animals up close, you’d be surprised at how huge they are. Walking behind them in the barn, we were very aware of the location of their large hooves and legs. Their backs were taller than my head. Their heads sported pointy spears of horns. They were gorgeous.

These strong, sturdy animals were once used on farms for pulling the plow, hauling logs out of the woods, and pulling carts full of hay or produce or maple syrup. Their equine counterparts, the large draft horses, are also impressive with their regal bearing and rippling muscles. While tractors took the place of oxen and draft horses on most farms when gasoline became cheap and easily available, some die-hard farmers chose to continue working with the large animals. They aren’t just used for cement-pulling shows at the fair, either.

Reading this article from the Amherst Bulletin, I smiled to learn that the farmers at Simple Gifts Farm have decided to train oxen to take the place of tractors. Red and Blue, five-month-old Jerseys are currently being trained in the yoke and will be doing some of the heavy pulling around the farm in the years ahead, replacing gas-guzzling tractors. I can’t help but think that using these animals rather than oil-powered machinery makes economic sense. What could be more efficient than harvesting hay with the very animals that will eat it? How about using the manure to replace nutrients used in the growing of food the season previous? The elegance–yes, elegance!–of such a cycle rivals mathematical equations in my romantic (and admittedly non-mathematical) mind. Someone else might just see poop. I see possibilities.

Like the oxen–and the goats and the horses and the chickens and the pigs and the rabbits–the craft and garden exhibits remind us of our agricutural heritage. Every year in Maine, women still create colorful quilts, warm woolen mittens and scarves, and other textile projects for entering in the contests at the fair. Grange members work together to fill their booths with rows of canned goods, fruits and vegetables, grains, eggs, baked products like breads and pies, and even displays of various tree-cuttings from someone’s back woodlot. Working farms create their own displays, showing off the products of their labor. Art exhibits line the walls with entrants of all ages–two to ninety-two. The 4-H clubs have their own shows and exhibits, sharing their projects with the community.

October 2009 070 One of my favorite exhibits this year at the Farmington Fair was the barn full of “old-timey” rooms. This kitchen has it all–wood cookstove, cooking utensils hanging on the wall, an iron warming on top of the stove, clothes drying on wooden arms behind.

Would I really like to go back to this way of living? Maybe not. But yeah, if I had to.

October 2009 072

And this is what I’d be doing! Oh, how I want to learn to spin wool. I’d love to take a fleece, comb it out, spin it up into some yarn, hand-dye it with some sort of natural, old-fashioned dye (bark for brown, some sort of flower for pink or yellow?), and knit up some socks or mittens or maybe even a sweater. Going to the fair reminds me that these arts and crafts and skills have not been lost, that all we have to do is take up mantle–err, handknit shawl.

October 2009 098
I’ll leave you with this final image taken from the Fryeburg Fair. As we head into the cooler months ahead, I wish you, my readers, a season of peace after the rush and bounty of the harvest.

Now, if only I could get my hands on some fried dough . . . . . . .

Peak(oil)-A-Boo Socks

Peak(oil)-A-Boo Sock

Peak(oil)-A-Boo Sock

Dear Reader:

So the strawberry jam didn’t happen as planned last week. We’ve had rain, and when it wasn’t raining, I was volunteering somewhere or going to a school function or a homeowner’s association meeting. Though I do not earn a paycheck these days, I find my life full of good and useful work. I reshelve books at the elementary school and public libraries here in town. I serve on the Community Garden Committee in my homeowner’s association. I cook the meals, wash the dishes, clean the laundry, drive the child to bus and appointments, organize social events for the family, keep up with a couple online/offline mother’s groups, and attend and work at Parent/Teacher Club events. This year I even donated a knit handbag to the Historical Society penny auction. I’ve been a Girl Scout leader, a class mother, and a chaperone on many a field trip, but, alas, my income tax return showed a big fat zero next to my name in the earnings column. As far as the U.S. governement is concerned, my work doesn’t count.

Since I’m past my thirties, I don’t much care anymore what people (or IRS accountants) think about my earnings-challenged lifestyle. Much. It’s only when someone asks me at a party or upon introduction “So, what do you do?” that I feel a little bit inadequate–if not as a human being, then as a party guest. It’s something to do with the way the conversation comes to an abrupt and embarrassing dead-end when I tell them I’m a stay-at-home mom and library volunteer. I suspect this is a lower and middle-class problem. If I were planning $500 a seat fundraisers instead of pricing used items at the school tag sale, I’d probably generate a little more interest. If I were an heiress–or the wife of a gadzillionaire–I’d doubtless be much more interesting even if I never opened my mouth all night long. Money, as we all know, talks.

In any case, not having inherited a fortune or married Bill Gates, I’ve learned to quickly turn the conversation back toward the person next to me by saying in my sweetest voice, “Anyway, enough about me. What do YOU do?” The relief is evident. The party goes on.

When it comes to volunteering, I’m heartened by Sharon Astyk’s 2009 book, DEPLETION AND ABUNDANCE.

In her book, Astyk spends a chapter talking about the “informal economy” and how more and more Americans may find themselves moving into a lifestyle more like, well, mine. Where I am practicing voluntary depletion, however, many others could be forced into an economically-challenged situation by the global realities of a Peak Oil world. Astyk, concerned about the large “footprint” of the average American, decided to cut her use of energy by something like 90%–and she challenged others to do the same. Her blog Casaubon’s Book follows her continuing adventures in voluntary simplicity.

If Sharon Astyk, with her PhD in literature, can be content staying home, raising children and livestock while continuing to work on her writing projects (which includes her respected blog and published books), then so can I–minus the livestock.

Instead of raising chickens or goats, I knit, since that is unlikely to disturb the neighbors or get me in trouble with the homeowner’s association. This week I tried my hand at sock-making . . . pedicure socks in particular. These socks are useful when you want to wear a pair of flip-flops or thong-style sandals and show off your pretty pedicure. In the spring or fall, you could wear these to the spa and put them on right before the polish is applied, saving your feet from the chill and your polish from getting smeared. (I don’t know what you do about polish-smearing in the winter.) I’ve had exactly one professional pedicure in my life, but something about these socks appealed to me. I used up a lone skein of yarn that had been sitting in my knitting basket for a couple of years and spent a few challenging hours learning how to turn heels.

One sock came out floppier than the other. I ran out of yarn on the second sock and had to bind it off with a scrap of different yarn. However, I learned a new pattern and have started a second pair–in cotton this time–using another skein of yarn leftover from an earlier project. If you’d like to try these yourself, the pattern can be found on Knitty.com. These cute pedicure socks will make fun gifts for the nieces and friends in the coming year, so I intend to make a slew of them out of my leftover yarn–saving money and reducing my cabon footprint at the same time.

When it suits its purpose, even the U.S. government has been known to advocate voluntary simplicity. During WWII, when raw materials and food were needed for the war effort, propaganda campaigns created posters and slogans advocating reduction in consumption.
Use It Up Poster 1943 (I found this poster image at Texas Star Books. The poster sells for $195. Enough said.

Back then, our government told us it was patriotic to use and buy less. What a difference from today when our government tells us that the patriotic thing to do is spend, spend, spend. Ironic, eh? This seeming paradox of spending ourselves out of economic disaster makes sense only when you consider that capitalism is based on growth. When you invest your money, you expect to get that money back plus interest, right? Let’s say you invest in a company that makes . . . socks. The company has to sell enough socks to to pay your money back to you, plus the interest, plus cover all the costs of doing business–payroll, raw materials, energy inputs, insurance, etc. If you want to get your money back with interest, then, you have to hope that everyone goes out and buys scads of socks this quarter.

This is, of course, a simplification of a very complex system, but the root of capitalism is growth. We’ve been encouraged to spend, not save. We’ve been bullied into playing the stock market, working more hours than we should, buying more than we need, using more natural resources than is wise, buying oversized cars and mega-sized houses, changing fashion styles every season–all so the economy would grow. Now, I won’t go into who REALLY wins in this particular game, but it isn’t you and me. We were promised a nice, fat retirement if we put our money into 401K’s and IRA’s rather than paying off our credit cards at the end of the month. Now the house of cards has fallen, the housing market scam has collapsed, our investments have taken a dive, and guess what? If we haven’t reached peak oil production yet, we soon will, and then the fun will really start. Our economy runs on oil–cheap oil–and when the yields start to go down and the prices start to go up, growth will slow even further.

At least, this is what the Peak Oil activists and experts tell us. They could be wrong. I encourage you to research for yourself.

You would think I’d be depressed, believing as I do that our hyper-driven, mega-pixel, high-definition, overabundant life is in jeapardy. I do have my moments, of course, but I also see some good things ahead in a lower-carbon world. More time spent with family and friends. Less concern over being “in-style.” More nutritious, locally-grown food. Vibrant, local communities. Craftmanship instead of crappy goods produced in an overseas sweatshop. Live entertainment rather than electronically-delivered entertainment.

I, for one, would be just as happy to write on a piece of paper instead of a laptop.

The point I’m trying to make is that voluntary reduction in energy and other resources is preferable to an involuntary crash of our entire system. This is Sharon Astyk’s point, as well. Though some of us may be more naturally geared toward a use-it-up, wear-it-out lifestyle (my mother despairs of my ever having matching furniture), we can all find some small ways to make do with what we have rather than going out to the mall for something new. Instead of paying the ridiculous costs of a movie-theater ticket, play charades with your family . . . or if you’re really ambitious, organize a community theater production. Instead of buying a new pair of sandals, make do with the five or six pairs taking up room in your closet. Sew a new set of buttons on your shirt instead of throwing it away. Take a stay-cation instead of a vacation. Visit your local consignment shop. Consider bartering rather than buying. Visit the library rather than Borders. Learn to brew homemade beer (this would be a fun activity for spouses to work on together). Pick up a couple of needles, unravel an old sweater, and ask a friend to teach you how to knit. Go for a walk after dinner instead of plunking down in front of the advertisement delivery system . . . errr, television.

Take a first step toward energy and economic independence.

Do you have some good tips on how to reduce, re-use, or recycle? Drop me a line . . . Outside the Box.

A Handmade Easter

handknit bunny

handknit bunny

Dear Reader:

Meet “Scrappy.” He’s a handknit Easter bunny made from yarn leftover from other projects (thus the name) and my first attempt at creating a toy by hand. I finished him at midnight last night, and while I’m not totally satisfied with the results, I am pleased to have created an Easter basket “outside the box.”

The plan was to put together a basket for under $10, presenting a viable alternative to Wal-Mart’s offerings. Because I already had a wicker basket, scrap yarn, and polyester fiberfill, the stuffed bunny cost me nothing but time. I used a pattern found in Luise Roberts and Kate Haxell’s excellent beginning knitter book FIRST KNITS, published by the Martingale Company in 2005, but substituted yarns and didn’t bother with the cardinal rule of testing the gauge . . . mostly because I wasn’t going to go out and buy new yarn anyway. The stitches needed for the pattern were fairly simple, but sewing the pieces together was a little more difficult. If I had blocked and pressed the pieces before sewing them, the end result would have been neater, but hey, it was midnight! My daughter, who is eleven, doesn’t mind a few uneven seams and crooked embroidery eyes.

Did I manage to fill the basket for under $10? Sadly, no. Candy bought from the locally-owned grocery store was surprisingly inexpensive. A miniscule chocolate bunny, some foil-wrapped chocolate coins, two sugar-crystal sticks, a roll of Mentos, and a toothbrush came to less than $10, but I couldn’t resist tucking in a graphic novel purchased at the Scholastic Bookfair held this week at the local elementary school. The book was $6.99, pushing my expenditure over the limit. However, buying the book at the bookfair benefited the school (one-third of the sales comes back to the school), and let’s be honest, I probably would have bought her the book anyway. All in all, I think she was happy with her Easter basket, and I didn’t spend one penny at a big-box retail store. I didn’t have to travel thirty minutes out of town, I supported my local school and a local business, and I “made do” with materials on hand.

On this Easter day, I wish all of you peace and springtime joy. It is the season of new beginnings, new growth, a reawakening of the earth after its winter nap. We spotted a robin hopping around on our lawn this morning, and green grass is beginning to poke up near the edges of the house. The small lilac sports round, hard buds, and only one or two snowpiles linger where the pine shadows fall most deeply. Enjoy this day with family and friends . . . Outside the Box.