Archive for January, 2012

In a previous post, I said that I would never knit another Aran.  I don’t know why Arans irritate me so, but they do.  The last Aran I knitted, for myself, was my fourth, and I have cursed over every single one of them.  (Three were for my husband.  I figured it was about time I cursed over one for myself.)

Socks, on the other hand, are…I don’t know.  The ultimate crowd-pleaser?  I think so.  They’re a bit more complicated than mittens, but there’s just something about warm feet.  And they are so customizable, as I am proving with the pair I am currently knitting.

The important thing is to get the gauge right.  I worked this out so many years ago that I no longer remember how I came up with the magic number of 72 stitches on a set of size 1 (2.25 mm) sock needles, for my husband.  For my son it’s been a bit dicier; for one thing, his feet are big.  Size 15.  For another, because he works outdoors, his socks have to be knitted in thicker wool, so I usually choose Ragg wool, and that entails larger needles – I think I used a size 4 (3.5 mm).  The good thing about knitting socks for my son is that by the time his feet got so big, I’d begun making notes on all my projects, so the next time he needs a pair of socks, I can just consult my notes.

The current pair is for my husband, the original Wearer of Socks.  When he shovels snow, he wears a pair of work boots that’s a little loose on his feet.  Regular dress socks, even doubled, don’t do the job.  Thick work socks are too thick.  Somehow, the socks I knit, of fingering-weight yarn, fill the bill perfectly.

But you have to be choosy with sock yarn.  I once knit a pair of socks out of bamboo yarn, and the darn stuff was so slippery that it was forever falling off the needles – and these were wooden needles, which had been specifically recommended for working with bamboo yarn.  Never again!  The original yarn, good sock wool, is still the best, in my book.

Then, because it’s for socks, it should be machine-washable.  The doyenne of knitting, Elizabeth Zimmermann, knitted socks of regular wool, and often wrote about the desirability of hand-washing handknits.  I will thank her forever for getting me out of the plastic-yarn groove I was in; I religiously handwash all my handknitted sweaters; but socks, I’m sorry, is pushing it.  I need to be able to throw those puppies into the machine and have them come out looking civilized.

Yarns come and go at an alarming rate.  When I first began knitting socks, some thirty years ago, I stumbled across the Absolutely Perfect sock yarn, a Swiss brand called Arwetta.  No sooner had I laid in a good supply than the business folded.  Then, about ten years ago, I finally found a similar yarn, Froehlich Wolle.  How can you resist a sock yarn called Happy Wool?  Especially since, like Arwetta, it came with its own card of reinforcement yarn (Arwetta had a spool of reinforcement yarn, but it’s the same principle.  Since the stuff is as scarce as the proverbial hens’ teeth, it’s a selling factor).  Note the past tense.  Happy Wool, unhappily, is no longer available, either.

My current hope, as I work my way through my last skeins of Happy Wool, is for Jawoll.  Ha, ha, very clever – it’s pronounced Yah-voll, and means Yes Wool.  Whatever.  It looks like an acceptable substitute for Arwetta/Froehlich Wolle, right down to the reinforcement yarn, and the colors are suitably conservative for a pair of stick-in-the-muds like the hubster and me.  However, my next pair of socks is going to be for me, and I might want something a little more adventurous; Sockalicious, maybe?  It doesn’t come with reinforcing yarn, but I can buy a card of that from the Local Yarn Shop – when I pick up my sock yarn.  I do try to buy local, and discerning blog readers will note that my yarn links all reference a yarn shop in New Hampshire, where I live.

Here’s the thing about knitted socks:  You can really personalize them.  Most patterns will start you with a knit-one-purl-one or knit-two-purl-two rib; I’m not especially impressed with the elasticity of either one.  My current favorite is knit-two-purl-one, and I defy anyone to find a more elastic ribbing.  Holy cow.  27 rows of that, and those puppies will stay up but good.  (The 27 rows came from a now out-of-print book about Maine mittens, Fox and Geese and Fences, and apparently, all Maine mittens begin with 26 rows of ribbing.  It seems like a workable length of ribbing, and you don’t get too sick of it before it’s time to stop ribbing; somehow, my brain added an extra row of ribbing.  Whatever works.)

Now, 72 stitches on four sock needles works out to 18 stitches per needle.  They used to sell four needles to a set, three to hold the stitches and a fourth to work with, but German needles came five to a set – four to hold the stitches and one to work with – and American needle manufacturers seem finally to have cottoned to the idea that four needles make a perfect circle, whereas three needles are tight to work with.  Anyway.  Eighteen stitches per needle.  Or, nine times two.  Nine times two works out to a very serviceable rib of seven knit, two purl, which keeps a purl-hater like me from going completely crazy, but still keeps the socks up on the leg.  I used always to change to stocking stitch after the initial ribbing, but the socks don’t stay up all that well without a little extra encouragement; knit seven purl two works out very well, in terms of Encouragement.

So!  I’ve cast on, using the “long-tail cast-on” method, because it’s nice and elastic.  I’ve got my 27 rows of knit-two-purl-one, and six inches of knit-seven-purl-two.  Now I add in reinforcing yarn, and knit the heel flap.  There are a couple of ways to do this, and one of these days I promise I will try Elizabeth Zimmermann’s Afterthought Heel (if you can get your hands on a copy of Knitting Without Tears, the best heels are all covered in it, including the Afterthought Heel); but for lo these many years, I have knitted her turned heel, and it works well for me, especially since you knit the first four and last four stitches of each row, thus producing a garter-stitch edge that just look spiffy and is easy to pick up stitches on, when shaping the heel.

I won’t go into the actual heel-turning, but I will say that I leave the reinforcing yarn in for the entire process, including the instep of the sock.  This is what I mean about completely customizable, since the hubster desires a little extra padding in this area of his boot, and the reinforcing yarn supplies it nicely.  If I weren’t going to pad this area, I would leave in the reinforcing yarn for the heel and snip it as I came to each instep, joining it back in while I worked my way down the heel.  When I am done with the heel, I like to knit in a strand of a different-color thread on just the heel stitches; this way, when the heel wears out, I can rip it out without having to replace the whole foot.

(I once did try out Elizabeth Zimmermann’s Totally Refootable Sock, from Knitters Almanac, and didn’t like it.  But that’s just me, Traditionalist to the end.)

Once the heel is turned and the side stitches have been gobbled up so that I again have 72 stitches on four needles, I knit straight, stocking stitch on the sole of the foot and my weird 7-and-2 ribbing on the top of the foot, for another four inches, and join in another strand of contrasting yarn, this time around the whole sock:  I will be padding the ball of the foot and the entire toe with reinforcing yarn, and since these areas also wear out quickly, I have planned ahead for this section to be replaceable, too.  This time, I don’t carry the reinforcing yarn around, but add it in as I begin the sole and snip it when I get to the top of the foot.  After a final two inches (six inches in all to the foot, measured out from the garter-stitch of the heel flap), I work the toe, entirely reinforced, and when I’m down to five stitches per needle, I work them off in Kitchener Stitch.

A couple of years ago, I took a class at my Local Yarn Shop on toe-up socks, and the selling point for them was that you didn’t have to work Kitchener Stitch.  I like the idea of toe-up socks because you can just finish the sock off when you reach the end of your yarn – theoretically – I mean, you still have to leave some yarn for knitting the ribbing and binding it off, and then, as it turns out, if you want a bound-off edge that doesn’t cut off circulation in the leg, you have to use a bind-off that resembles – whaddaya know – Kitchener stitch.  I’d rather work Kitchener stitch for ten stitches than for 72.

The big disadvantage of socks is that having knit one, you have to turn around and knit another.  There’s a technique out there for knitting two socks at once, on a cable needle, from the toe up.  Aside from my grumpy objection to toe-up socks, I just don’t like socks worked on a cable needle (the class I took in toe-up knitting was worked on a cable needle).  I like socks knitted on sock needles, thankyouverymuch, and I like them knitted in the traditional way, top down.  And if that means I have to work a second sock, well, so be it.

However…Leo Tolstoy wrote, in War and Peace, about Anna Makarovna’s [sic] Secret Socks:  Apparently, this peasant woman had developed a technique for knitting one sock inside another, and when she was done, she pulled the second sock out from the first.  I think I know how it’s done – I’m thinking a kind of double-knitting technique – but I can’t think how I would keep the ribbing straight.  You’d have to cast on with two separate balls of yarn and knit one stitch for the outside sock and one for the inside sock, then another for the outside sock and another for the inside sock, and then how would you bring the yarn forward for the purl stitch on the inside sock??  Too confusing.

So I’d best get back to my knitting because – I’m still on the first sock.

Reblogged to my knitting blog, Being Woolly-Minded

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The quote for the day from my Franklin Planner is from Samuel Johnson:  “He that labors in any great or laudable undertaking has his fatigues first supported by hope, and afterwards rewarded by joy.”

For an Orthodox Christian, the divide between this life and eternity isn’t all that great.  Of course we can’t see them (though I sometimes wonder about those who are about to make that final journey, since they almost always seem to see people who have been dead for some time), but they are never far from our thoughts, and sometimes you can almost sense their presence.  That feeling is strongest for me whenever I attend a Liturgy; I have been at Liturgies where the only two people visible were the priest and me, and the church has felt packed to the gills.

Be that as it may, a person’s presence is most keenly felt in the days immediately following death.  You’re more aware of them at that time than at any other; even people you never knew personally, if they are close to someone you do know, hover at the edge of your brain.  This is currently the case for me with the father of a member of my parish, a man who was the very first priest of that parish and who is consequently known and loved by a great many members of it.

The other day, his daughter posted a note on Facebook asking for volunteers to read the Book of Psalms for her father.  This is a uniquely Orthodox custom, described in this way in the Orthodox Coverdale Psalter published by Holy Trinity Monastery (I think):  In the Orthodox Church, there exists the pious custom of reading the Psalter for one who has died.  The Psalms are read continuously, except during those times when a Memorial is being served, from the Rite Following the Departure  of  the  Soul  from  the  Body  until  the  burial  of the reposed, and in his memory after that.  This reading serves as prayer to the Lord for the reposed, comforts those grieving for the deceased, and directs their prayers for him to God.  Any pious lay person may read the Psalter for the reposed, and those who do so perform a good work.

I had not known that the Psalter continued to be read after burial, but having learned of the custom, I wanted to do this for my friend and her mother.  So I wrote for details.  Turns out there were several volunteers, and their efforts were coordinated by another member of the parish, whose family is something of a legend in Orthodox circles.  He organized a roster of the ten volunteers so that each of us would read one section of the Book of Psalms a day, and if possible, skip ahead ten sections and read that one, as well:  Thus, I began with Kathisma 8 (Psalms 55-63) last night, picked up with Kathisma 9 (Psalms 64-69) this morning, and hope to get into Kathisma 19 (Psalms 134-142) tonight.

(For anyone who is interested in this unique structure, here’s a link that goes into it more fully:  http://orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/typicon_psalms.aspx)

Because these groups of Psalms are interspersed with prayers specifically for the deceased, it takes a bit of time and effort to get through the whole thing, but not a great block of time; maybe half an hour to 45 minutes.  For me, the hard part last night was that I got the notice so late that I had a hard time staying awake to finish the task!  And because my husband is now home full time, finding a quiet space to work on this will be a challenge, too.

But, “He that labors in any great or laudable undertaking has his fatigues first supported by hope, and afterwards rewarded by joy.”  This is both a great and a laudable undertaking, first, in that it provides comfort to Father Laurence’s family, and second, in that it “picks up where he left off,” so to speak, in continuing the prayer that was such an integral part of his life, while his soul “makes the adjustment” from one world to the next.  I feel so honored to be able to do it.  I hope that I may complete it worthily.

One final note:  Often, when writing about people who have passed on, I write, “May their memory be eternal!”  Only recently did I learn the reason behind this phrase:  At the final Judgement, some people actually will find themselves in hell, those people who were not interested in God while in this life or who actively militated against Him – they are there, in other words, by their own choice.  For those who are welcomed into heaven, the realization that someone they had known and loved was not also there, would make them sad, and there can be no sadness in heaven; so they will not even remember the existence of those who are not there.  I can think of nothing more horrible, or sadder, than a mother who forgets her children, for example, or a husband who forgets the wife with whom he shared his whole life.

So, Memory Eternal, dear Father Laurence, and if my prayers are of any help to you, remember me also, when my own time comes.

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For nearly twenty years now, I have kept track of my life with one of those time-management systems (Franklin-Covey, to be exact).  I like being able to track how I spent my days, and there are other components to this system, such as tracking money, auto servicing, and projects, that I haven’t found anywhere else.  I like, too, that it’s a two-page-per-day system; I can keep track of appointments and Things to Do on one page, and on the facing page, make notes about those appointments, or about the events of my life.  (I could wish that the Appointment section were less detailed – I can think of other things to put in that space – but that’s just me.)

One of the lesser benefits of this particular system is that each day has a quote at the top of the Notes page.  I say “lesser” because sometimes, those quotes are in direct opposition to my own philosophy of life, and I find myself composing tirades to someone who will never read them, clearly a waste of time.  Today’s quote, however, is the inspiration for today’s post:

“The proper function of man is to live, not to exist.  I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them; I shall use my time.” — Jack London

I’m not actually a fan of Jack London’s Survival-of-the-Fittest writings, but this really struck a chord with me.  People who have known me awhile will remember the horrors of my 2006 surgery, about which I will only say, I have not known a day without pain since that time.  (There are blog posts related to it, beginning in August 2006, if you’re curious.)  What sticks with me from that time, though, is the memory of one of the visiting nurses, who, having reviewed my treatment plan, snarkily added, “And were we considering some Lifestyle Changes?”

Now…I’m fat.  I know it.  I’ve been fighting it since before I should have been fighting it, thanks largely to a mother with body-image problems; in my early twenties, I weighed 95 lbs., and she still thought I was fat.  Now I weigh considerably more than that, and there’s no question:  Even by the most generous measurement standards, I’m fat.  I also know that, given the standards of Orthodox eating, it cannot possibly be related to overeating; even if you pig out on vegetables and fruits, how many calories can you possibly be consuming?!  And my own husband, who’s thin as a rail, has had to concede that he doesn’t understand why I am as fat as I am, now that he’s retired and has seen how I eat.

And I’ve gotten The Looks from doctors when I describe Orthodox fasting practices, the ones that say, “Yeah, right, Fatty.”  I’m at the point where I carry an Orthodox pocket calendar and a copy of the fasting guidelines to every medical appointment, and when I whip ’em out, the only possible reaction is the one I get these days:  “Wow, that’s a lotta fasting.”  (It works out to about half a year, give or take a few days.)

So when Nurse Snarky came out with her comment, I made one of the stupidest remarks of my life:  “Don’t even go there.”  Needless to say, the relationship deteriorated from that point on.  Now, though, I know what I should have said:

“Lifestyle changes?!  Oh, yeah, I am so there!  You’re not kidding!  It’s time for some major changes!  And for starters, I’m gonna go back to eating dessert!  Hey, all these years of never having ice cream or a lousy piece of birthday cake have obvioiusly not done me any good at all, so what the heck?!  You only live once, and I’m not gonna live without ice cream anymore!  And exercise?!  Hey, walking a couple miles a day hasn’t done me any good in that regard, either, so you know what?  I’m not gonna waste another second of my valuable time on exercise!  I’m gonna park my butt in my favorite chair and read all the books I’ve been neglecting for exercise, and then I’m gonna stitch my fingers off on all the needlework projects I haven’t been able to get to because of all that stupid walking!  Now, let’s Do It!  Go Lifestyle Changes!”

Not entirely.  I do actually enjoy walking, though not in the current subzero weather (although I understand that the Norwegians say, “There is no bad weather, there is only bad clothing,” in which case, my wardrobe needs a major overhaul).  And dessert was never a part of our diet, anyway.  Not to mention that for at least half the year, ice cream is off limits (no meat, no dairy during fasting periods).

But the point is this.  You can do everything the medical people tell you to do:  eat a low-fat, high-fiber diet, work out religiously, get all the standards checkups and tests, and generally spend your days on various medical appointments.  Or you can decide what’s important for your life, and go out and do it.  And frankly, what’s important for me is not preserving my life at all costs, but living it:  reading those books, working that cross stitch, putting warm woollies on my family’s bodies, and most important of all, maintaining my spiritual life.

This last can, and does, involve long periods of sitting in a car, driving to and from church services; the services are never as long as the total amount of time spent driving.  A doctor would be aghast.  A nurse would think it sheer folly.  But know this:  No matter how much maintenance you put in on your body, eventually it will wear out, and you will die.  The wisest use of your time, therefore, is to spend it on matters eternal, storing up experiences that “neither rust nor moth will consume” (Matthew 6:20), leaving behind a legacy that will follow you into eternity.  In other words:  LIVE.

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What follows is lifted entirely from the blog of an Orthodox Priest (Orthodox Church in America.  And that’s Capital O, as in “Russian Orthodox,” or “Greek Orthodox”).  Father Stephen Freeman has, by now, over a thousand followers of his blog, Glory to God for All Things.  He writes about God, about theology, and about God’s presence in daily life, in a manner completely comprehensible; yet he manages never to “talk down” to his audience.  What he wrote here struck me so particularly that I asked for permission to repost it here.

Beginning The Song of God, by Father Stephen Freeman:

Man is a musical composition, a wonderfully written hymn to powerful creative activity. – St. Gregory of Nyssa (PG 44, 441 B)

In St. Gregory’s thought,  man is not only a singer, but a song. We are not only song, but the song of God. Indeed within one theme of the fathers, all of creation is the song of God, spoken (or sung) into existence. “Let there be light,” is more than the voice of command: it is the uttering of a phrase that sets the universe as fugue. God sings. All of creation sings. The song of praise that arises from creation is offered to God, the Author of all things. It is also the sound of the creation itself, a revelation of the truth of its being. Music is not entertainment: rightly sung, it is the very heart of creation.

The angels within Isaiah’s vision (chapter 6) call to one another in the song, “Holy, Holy, Holy art Thou, O Lord God of Hosts….” The song of one calls forth the song of the other. Worship is the offering of our whole being, calling forth the song of all creation in union with the song which God Himself sings.

To understand oneself as the song of God, a phrase within His hymn of creation, affirms both our uniqueness as well as our union with the whole. Our prayer, our worship, our lives, are an offering of the song that God Himself has breathed.

Our habits of thought provide ways in which we conceive ourselves. It strikes me as worth noting that our modern concept of human existence has minimized the role of music. Music is something that we do, an industry by which we make money. It is an instrument for the glorification of egos. Music is distorted.

At the same time our culture has made music into a vast financial industry, people have themselves become less musical. The ability to play an instrument (other than air-guitar) has declined deeply. Music programs within schools are considered too expensive to fund. The number of young persons with no formal training or experience in music continues to rise. People rarely sing together (a once universal custom prior to modernity) except in the most structured environments. “Folk” music (the peoples’ music) is rapidly disappearing (these things are perhaps more true of America than Europe).

I would never predict a disappearance of music – for human beings are a song and the song will not disappear. But to live in a manner that is alienated from ourselves as the song of God is to live with an existential emptiness. If man is a singer, then he must sing – and he must sing to God.

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On Tuesday, responding to a NaNoBloMo prompt, I wrote about my eighth-grade teacher.  Which is what you get for being too literal:  Like most people (I hope – I’d hate to think I was that dense), I was thinking in terms of schoolteachers.  In fact, there were two teachers who made the single biggest impact on my life:  One was my German teacher, about whom I blogged last November, and one was the poor soul who made his living casting the pearls of music before the neighborhood piglets.

I had wanted piano lessons ever since watching Liberace’s television show in the 1950s.  Of course I had no idea of the effort involved in learning piano, but just to be able to make those sounds…!  But with Dad earning $35 a week and our family growing by leaps and bounds, that was never a possibility.  At some point, however, my aunt got wind of a man who taught accordion in people’s houses; I guess he was teaching the son of one of her neighbors.  She got accordion lessons for her son, and then, I suspect, paid for lessons for me, as well, since there was no way my mother could have carved lessons out of her budget.

Now, accordion-playing wasn’t as nerdy back then as it sounds now.  For one thing, this was New York City, the Land of a Thousand Ethnicities.  Many of them were Eastern European, and the accordion was enshrined as the instrument of choice for polka music.  (It was pretty nifty for klezmer music, too.)  Then there were the Italians in the neighborhood, who simply adored hearing Italian music on the accordion, including, bizarre as it sounds, opera arias.  I guess they were desperate for a little culture.

So every Tuesday for three years, John Livio came to our house and taught accordion.  From him I learned to read music, the functions of G-clefs and bass clefs, harmony, musical structure, fingering – all the basics of  instrumental music for a keyboard instrument, not a few of which stood me in good stead in high school when trying out for Glee Club.  I practiced for an hour each day, frustrated because I just didn’t seem to be achieving the fluency of professional players; I had no idea, and no one told me, of the hours and hours the pros put into it.  That kind of time would never have been available to me, anyway, with six kids running around a four-room house.  And I had my regular studies to contend with, which, let’s face it, were incredibly boring compared with music.

But the lessons were contingent upon my maintaining good grades, and I probably convinced my teachers that I was far brainier than I actually was, because I was such a Good Student.  Amazing, the price you’ll pay for what’s valuable to you.

The lessons came to an abrupt end the day he announced he was going to teach me “Flight of the Bumblebee” – I took one look at all those hemi-demi-semiquavers and said, “I don’t think so,” or whatever the 1959 equivalent was.  I had a week to get used to the idea, and over that week I thought I might like to give it a shot.  I’m sure he would have been pleased to hear that, except…he never showed up.  Maybe he was sick, we thought, but he was MIA the next week, too, and the week after that.

I kept up the accordion, anyway – I did enjoy making music on it – went on to high school and Glee Club, then, in adulthood, to church-choir singing.  Over the decades I developed my voice by listening to good singers and paying attention to the various choir directors I had.  Eventually I directed the choir in my own parish church, then went on to obtain a certificate in choir direction.  When I got that certificate, I took it in to my dad’s sitting room, where he was watching television, and thanked him for shelling out for the accordion lessons, since I don’t actually don’t know if it was my aunt who paid for them.  He looked surprised, delighted, and not a little confused; I don’t think he got what the certificate was about.  But I thought he should have the satisfaction of knowing that the music lessons he was so opposed to hadn’t been in vain.  The one I should have thanked, I was never able to, so here it is:  Thank you, John Livio, for the lessons you taught.  Both musical and otherwise.

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I think I’ve always had knitting in my bones.  It’s the only reason I can think of for the fact that essentially, I taught myself how to knit.

Living in Germany was a great help in that regard.  When I was living there, I think every woman in the entire country knitted.  You’d see them everywhere:  in the train station, on the train, in the park, sitting at picnic benches in the forest, at the laundromat, knitting, knitting, knitting.  I knew how to crochet; crocheted granny-afghan squares became very popular when I was a young teenager, and even my mother, who hated needlework of any kind, learned to knit those.  I made my first afghan when I was twenty.  But nobody in Germany crocheted, that I could tell; everyone knitted, and as I had always considered crochet a poor substitute for knitting, I wanted to knit, too.

On one of my rare forays to the Base Exchange (the Air Force equivalent of a department store), I spotted a magazine, Somebody-Or-Other’s Fall Knits.  (I don’t think it was Vogue.)  The front-cover pattern was exactly what I was looking for, a matching cape and skirt in a rich autumnal brown color.  And it looked like a fairly easy pattern…if only I knew how.  I picked up the magazine and browsed through it, and there in the front were…instructions.  Oh, heaven.  I bought that magazine on the spot, and the next day, went to the yarn shop in town and bought several hanks of rich brown yarn and a pair of suitable knitting needles.  And when I got home, I taught myself to cast on.

Now – knitting takes patience.  Lots of patience.  Casting on, the means by which you get the foundation row of knitting on needles, is especially tough to learn.  I didn’t even know how to make a slip knot.  And of course, what I cast on was so tight that there was no way to get another needle into the loops to form a second row of knitting.  I must have ripped that thing out a dozen times before I got a selvedge I could work with.

Then there was purling.  Knitting was pretty easy, once you got that first row onto the needles; you stuck the working needle into the stitch from front to back, wrapped the yarn around it, and pulled through.  It was just a question of getting the yarn to stay on the needle until it pulled through.  Did I mention that knitting takes patience?  But eventually, there was a fairly tidy second row of knitting on my needle.  And then came real hell, because I had to stick the working needle into the stitch from back to front, wrap the yarn around it, and pull it through again, and this time, that yarn would not stay on that needle!  This is where an experienced knitter would be jumping up and down, saying, “Garter stitch!  Garter stitch!” meaning, you knit every row.  I thought about it.  I think I actually did it.  But need I point out that garter stitch looks nothing like stockinette stitch?  I wanted stockinette stitch.

So I persevered, and after probably about two weeks, I finally had a row of purl stitches on my needle.  Turn it around, knit another row, yay, I get to knit.  Turn it around, phooey, I have to purl another row.

Believe it or not, I actually did finish my skirt and cape in time for winter, and wore them with great pride.  I’m sure they looked as if they had been knit by an amateur; after all, they were.  But I did it.

That taken care of, I returned to my first and favorite needlework, cross stitch, and didn’t pick up knitting needles until five years later, when my daughter turned two.  Just the thought of little fingers and eyes around sharp scissors and needles was unbearable, and there was this cute jacket pattern I had seen in yet another magazine, so I packed away the cross-stitch stuff, bought gorgeous pink yarn, and cast on again – much more smoothly this time.  And this time, I didn’t stop knitting for 25 years.  Sweaters, dresses, socks, I made ’em all.

It was in 1982 that my knitting life really took off.  That was the year when, living in Massachusetts, I walked into a yarn shop in Lexington and found Knitter’s Almanac, by the doyenne of the knitting world, Elizabeth Zimmermann.  I wasn’t really sure I wanted to buy this book; it looked so Advanced, with no real patterns in it, not like anything I could do.  And we really couldn’t afford it.  But there was a chapter on Nether Garments (September), for knitted leggings.  “I first saw this practical garment in Germany,” wrote the Master (Mistress?), and I was hooked; that’s where I first saw it, too.

I never did make the Nether Garments, but – well, have you ever read anything by Elizabeth Zimmermann?  The woman is impossible to resist.  She charms you into thinking you can actually do this stuff, design your own patterns and make things without magazine patterns, knit in the round instead of flat pieces that you have to sew up, actually do math.  The scary part is – you can.  I did.  Fair Isle vests, Aran pullovers – argyle socks! – Icelandic pullovers, you name it, I did it.  Despite what people have been led to believe, federal civil-service workers actually don’t make megabucks, as I know from personal experience, and one of the ways I stretched a buck was to purchase one skein of sock yarn, cut the worn-out feet off my husband’s socks, and knit new feet onto them.  I still have some of those socks.  The yarn was pretty horrible – it pilled like crazy – but they are still wearable.  I wear them now.

My crowning achievement was my daughter’s wedding veil.  This was not without struggle.  I knew what I wanted to make; I had the pattern for it; I was able to purchase lace-weight wool; but never, repeat never, try to tell a non-knitter that you are knitting a wedding veil.  They can’t conceive of such a thing.  Both my mother (the needlework-hater) and my daughter’s future mother-in-law thought I was knitting a granny afghan!!  And it took me a year to knit the Shetland shawl I had envisioned; but she looked lovely in it, and it made a wonderful christening blanket for her two sons.

After that, I put my needles away and got back into cross stitch.  Until my son, who had only ever seen me knit, suggested to his then-girlfriend that something knitting related might make a good Christmas gift.  The girl bought me the Never Not Knitting calendar by Stephanie Pearl McPhee, who should seriously consider changing her middle name to “Purl” – it was like the rebirth of Elizabeth Zimmermann.  The woman literally laughed me into picking up the ol’ needles again.

I still cross stitch, in the daytime, when the light is good.  At night, with nothing but artificial light at my disposal, I take out my knitting.  In the past two years, I have knitted two Aran sweaters and a hat (and I swear I will never make another Aran again), and am currently engaged in a pair of socks for my husband.   The next pair of socks is for me.

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A couple of Sundays ago, my husband and I were chatting with the wife of a now-retired priest, and reminiscing about our early married life in Germany.  My husband was talking about the cold-water flat we lived in, describing how we used to move the space heater from one room to another in order to warm up the next room we would be occupying, and she said, “But then, why did you like it so much?”

Her question brought me up short, because actually, why did we like it so much?  Why do we still talk about those three years in Germany as the best time of our lives?  Because actually, our living conditions were primitive, by modern standards.  We did have running water; at least we didn’t have to use an outhouse.  But cold water was literally all we had, when I wanted to wash dishes, or when my husband wanted to shave.  For bathing, we did have a five-gallon tank that hovered over the bathtub.  At night, before we went to bed, I would set the timer on the tank heater, and in the morning it would be just the right temperature for *one* of us to have a bath (no shower).  While my husband washed, I would fill up a teakettle and boil water; it was done by the time he was done, and he had hot water for shaving, while I made coffee.

When we rented the apartment, it had an electric “stove” that was supposed to heat the whole place.  Unfortunately, it died on us within the first two weeks of winter, so we went out and bought a space heater, a little thing that we could (and did) carry from roon to room.  The worst was in the morning, when the whole apartment was cold; I’d move the thing into the kitchen and get it going to warm up, then turn it off while I went out on my daily errands.  In the afternoon, it kept me warm in the living room; around  4:00 p.m., I’d move it into the kitchen to warm up that space again, so it would be toasty when my husband got back from the base, and while we ate supper, the space heater warmed up the living room.  While we decompressed from the day, the space heater warmed up the bedroom; and so it went, all winter long.

The whole time we lived in Germany, I didn’t drive, at my husband’s request; German drivers really are wild, and he feared for my life.  But that was, and is, a country where bicycles and trains never went out of style, so getting around wasn’t a problem.  The supermarket was around the corner, the base only a couple of miles through a bike path in the woods; my husband and many of our neighbors cycled to and from work every day, and if I needed to get on base for any reason, so did I.  The forest was so beautiful!  Germans love their forests, and the Town Forester kept the path clear of branches, and soft with a good bed of pine needles.  Throughout Germany, hiking trails were not only maintained and clearly market, but labeled with the amount of time you could expect to spend on them; they had fifteen-minute trails, half-hour trails, trails that could take as long as three hours to hike the whole thing, and all the trails were marked along the way, too, via different-colored markers, so that you would end up back where you started.  You couldn’t get lost.

And yes, we could have bought provisions on base.  We could have washed our laundry on base (when the laundromat worked; it was frequently closed for repairs).  We did that, for the first year we lived there.  Then I learned to speak German, which my husband could already speak.  We were already going to weekly Mass at the church in town, so we were a known quantity in the community; after that first year of learning German, we began to live German.  And what a difference it made, to see my neighbors at the supermarket or the hairdresser’s, to buy our breakfast rolls and coffee at the local bakery, to cycle to the laundromat on laundry day, as all my other neighbors did.

For entertainment…oh, for entertainment!  We belonged to two music clubs, one a semi-professional concert choir and one a folk-music choir that was an extension of our church choir, to which we also belonged.  Did you know that despite the devil’s many arts, he can’t sing?  Did you know that every morning, “white veils of mist appear to herald the morning sunrise before it breaks through the clouds”?  Or that the “golden sun is full of joy and wonder”?  Those are just three of the folk songs I learned; there were so many more, full of the joys and miracles of everyday living.

Then there was the concert series at City Hall.  We paid the equivalent of a dollar to hear student musicians play music that stays with me to this day:  Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Schubert, Handel, to name just a few.  These were serious musicians, who took their art seriously, and whose education was completely funded by the State of Hesse, where we lived; presumably, the other states of the Federal Republic of  Germany had similar programs for their young musicians.  We had no television; we didn’t need one.  We had books from the library and light classical music from Hessischer Rundfunk, “our” radio station (there were three.  One was talk, one was rock, and then there was Hessischer Runkfunk).  We had no telephone; who were we going to call?  We wrote letters home once a week, and received letters from home.

It was, all in all, a good and quiet and very low-key way to begin married life.  We had time to adjust to each other, unhampered by the storms of anti-war movements and feminist rebellion that rocked the rest of the country.  I think I was back in America for three years before I learned that the Beatles had broken up.  Because everything was so new – nothing in life was anything like what we had known – I think we absorbed the shocks of married life better than other newlyweds.  Our expectations were minimal, our horizons limitless.  We had the greatest gift of all, time to meld into a single united entity, which stood us in good stead when we did return to the USA and had to weather our families’ expectations of who we were – so different from who we had become.

(By the way, anybody familiar with military life will surely be asking by now, “Why weren’t you in base housing?”  Simply put, enlisted personnel who weren’t career military didn’t qualify for base housing.  And my husband’s college degree, not being in a “critical field” like engineering or flight, wasn’t considered sufficient reason to grant him officer status.  It should have been, but it wasn’t.  You want to talk about government waste?  It’s nothing new.)

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NaBloPoMo prompt:  “Tell us about your first teacher who was important to you.”

The most important teacher in my life, Peter Bochow, used to say:  “He who can, does.  He who can’t, teaches.  He who can’t teach, teaches teachers.”  As he was, at the time, engaged in teaching teachers, this was a shot at himself, and very funny he found it.  I have blogged elsewhere about him, and he will forever be enshrined in my mind as the most gifted teacher I ever had.

But the first one who was important to me, aside from the obvious “first teachers” of parents, grandparents, and the whole broad scope of relatives, was my eighth-grade teacher, Sister Agnes Therese.  Isn’t that sad, that no teacher really touched my life until eighth grade?  But I blogged recently about the Catholic-school experience and its attendant horrors; although Sister Agnes Therese wasn’t the only one, or even the first one, not to engage in wholesale abuse, the others just didn’t have the same impact on my life.  For Sister Agnes Therese had three things going for her:  She was built like a tank; she was absolutely unflappable; and she had a phenomenal sense of humor.

When I say she was built like a tank, I mean just that:  tall, square, shoulders like a linebacker, she looked like she belonged on a farm, hefting bales of hay or rassling with cattle.  I remember telling my mother, on the first day of school that year, that she looked like an admiral.  In other words, she was perfect for the sixty eighth-graders she taught; you’d think twice about messing with her.  Yet…there was just something about her mouth, as if she could barely contain an inner bubble of laughter that was fed by her rambunctious crew.  When we got to be too much for her, she would just shake her head.  “You people,” she would say, in a resigned tone that settled us right down.  Or, “Boy, oh man.”  (I’ve heard of “Boy, oh boy,” and “Man, oh man,” but that particular combination was hers alone.)

She also contributed to my vocabulary a phrase that I use to this day:  “Use your head for more than a hatrack.”  It was classic Brooklyn English, and much more effective than screaming, “Do you people ever think?!” as our seventh-grade teacher used to do.  “Use your head for more than a hatrack” is something I passed on to my own two children, and they understood it as I did:  Someone whose brain was functioning on auto-pilot, or who wasn’t exercising “the little grey cells” up to capacity (hat tip to Agatha Christie and her fictional character, Hercule Poirot).

Eighth grade is a horrible time of life anyway.  Female hormones have half the class in a grip, while male hormones are still blissfully unaware of the opposite sex, and boys think that an acceptable way of telling a girl she’s “all right” is to put slimy things in her desk, or pelt her with ice balls on the way home from school.  I can’t imagine trying to cram any kind of knowledge into the brains of eighth-graders, and truth to tell, I can’t recall a single thing I learned in eighth grade; it was mostly a refinement of things we had already learned, polishing our grammar, adding details to whatever we knew of history and geography (which at the time had yet to be morphed into “Social Studies”), preparing us to go into the wider world as good (Catholic) “soldiers of Christ.”  Science was never a strong point of Catholic schools, so that wasn’t even on the radar screen, though I do recall a bare-bones introduction to physics.  Forget math.  It was definitely taught, and probably there were new things taught, but the whole notion of numbers was so intimidating to me that it wasn’t till I was forty years old that it began to occur to me that I might actually be able to handle accounting – since all it is, is addition, subtraction, multiplication, and the odd bit of division here and there.

So why was Sister Agnes Therese so memorable?  Probably because, in an atmosphere that can still strike terror into an entire generation of Catholics, she never once resorted to terror.  Her weapons were Calm and Humor, an unbeatable combination.  I never got the chance to tell her so; she was out of my life as soon as I left that hellhole, and by the time it began to dawn on me just how much of an impact she had had on my life, she had passed on to her eternal reward.  I hope it is free of horrible little eighth-graders.  I hope she is enjoying many fruits of her life as a Bride of Christ.  May her memory be eternal!

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Plays with Booze

NaBloPoMo prompt:  “Tell us about some of your first toys.”  Oh, dear.  You may be forgiven for not believing this one.

I actually did have a toy, a stuffed elephant (Dumbo was very big when I was a child).  And I have photographs of me grinning prettily, clutching Dumbo, which does nothing to explain why I dislike elephants in adulthood, though the movie may explain why I really loathe circuses.  In any case, Dumbo was a gift from one of my several uncles, I’m not sure which one, and I treasured it.

But as for other toys – not for quite a few years did I have dolls and doll-houses.  Having been widowed very young, and the late 1940s being a time when women with small children just did not go out to work, my mother was not in a position to buy toys.  Although the very notion affronted her mightily, looking back on the whole time – we were poor.  She got Social Security for herself and for me, and probably an income from her sister, whose son she watched so my aunt could go out to work.  That was it.

However, there were other ways to amuse oneself, and I found them readily.  I liked the sound her keys made, so I used to play with her keys a lot, dropping them to get them to make that pretty jingly sound.  Then there were my doll substitutes.

One day (this was my mother’s story, I don’t actually remember it), I said to my mother, “I saw a funny lady today.”  When my mother asked what was funny about her, I said, “She had knees.”  “Everybody has knees,” said my mother, and I replied, “Blackie doesn’t  have any knees.”  And there was no arguing with that because Blackie was…a powder can.  A used-up can of baby powder that I had somehow adopted and turned into a doll, of sorts.  Blackie had a companion, “People” (I liked the sound of the word, that I do remember).  “People” was a whiskey bottle.  When the man who would become my stepfather entered the picture, he courted my mother with boxes of candy; I didn’t get to eat too much of it, but I did get to keep the empty candy boxes with the little paper wrappers that rustled like…pigeons.  (Dad kept pigeons.)

So there is my little roster of toys:  a stuffed elephant, a powder can, a whiskey bottle, and boxes of candy wrappers that sounded like pigeons.  And if you’re wondering how someone who was “really poor” could afford to buy whiskey, you’re not the only one asking that, though in charity, it probably also came from one of my several uncles.  Being Irish, they knew what was important in life.

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NaBloPoMo prompt from January 6:  “Do you wish the start of the year was in a different season?  Which one?”  Better late than never, I suppose.  (Note that the grammatical error “was” is a quote from NaBloPoMo.  In case anyone from that organization happens to see this blog, the act of wishing takes the subjunctive mood, which in this case would lead to one’s wishing that the start of the year were in a different season — as in, “I wish it were in September — but it’s not.”)

In liturgical Western churches, the First Sunday of Advent is the beginning of the Church Year; in the Orthodox Church, it’s the first of September.  (The Jewish calendar also begins the year in September, but on a different date.)  Many, many years ago, when the thought of becoming Orthodox was little more than the Impossible Dream, I picked up Knitter’s Almanac, by the incomparable Elizabeth Zimmermann.  This was a calendar of knitting projects, one or two per month, that covered the span of a year in a most chatty and engaging way.  I was relatively new to knitting then, and hers was the first book I had ever seen that encouraged “thinking knitting,” i.e., not knitting from a pattern but according to one’s own designs and whims.  Wow.  It certainly changed my life.

But I digress.  The first words for September were, “September is the logical beginning of the year.  Summer heat is nearly past, the weather begins to brisken up [sic], schools open their doors to siphon our beloved young out of the house for longer or shorter periods…”  At the time I thought, “She has a point.”  Nowadays, I think she was prescient.  September is the logical beginning of the year.  If summer heat isn’t quite past – in New York, it isn’t past until the middle of October – there is certainly a busier quality to the days of September.  It isn’t only the weather that “briskens up”; the indolence of the summer disappears as if on a wisp of wind, and the human brain stirs itself, as EZ put it, “… adult activity starts to stir, and Mother forms good resolutions and makes lists.”  And not only Mother; those first few days of school are so wonderfully New.  New notebooks, new pencils, new teacher, new subjects to master (or not), sometimes new classmates – it really does feel like a rebirth of daily life.  Even as a mother of school-age children, I could feel the newness of the year.

So why does the New Year fall in January?  It makes no sense.  I could see if people needed a little pick-me-up to get them through the dreariest time of the year, though even then, most younger folk I know welcome winter as its own sporting season (“Think Ski!”), and geezers like me are relieved to have an excuse to sit in a sunny window with books and crosswords and Sudoku, to which I have recently become addicted.  But even without these charms of winter, isn’t Christmas enough of a blood-stirrer to provide you with a sense of jollity and celebration?  Even atheists celebrate something at Christmastime; they must, or we wouldn’t be afflicted with the annual silliness of whether or not to put up public Nativity displays.  Like it or not, that Nativity scene is what Christmas is all about; if you don’t like it, don’t celebrate it.

But since such a large part of the world does celebrate it, in one form or another, I think we should abolish January 1 as the beginning of the year, and go with “the logical beginning” – September.  Perhaps that way, we could return to the custom of celebrating all twelve days of Christmas, from 25 December through to 6 January.  Or, in the case of Orthodox Old Calendarists, from 7 January through to 19 January.  Or, in one particular case (my own), with both an Orthodox Old Calendarist and a Western Christian in the house, from 25 December to 19 January.  Twenty-four days of Christmas!  Talk about Party Hearty!

Post Scriptum:  I would consider myself a disgrace to the world of knitting if I did not direct readers to Elizabeth Zimmermann’s most lasting legacy:  Schoolhouse Press, purveyor of wonderful wools, esoteric knitting tools, enough knitting books to begin a small library, and the incomparable wit and wisdom of the doyenne of the knitting world.  It’s usual, among Orthodox, to greet news of someone’s passing with the words, “May their memory be eternal!” but in EZ’s case, I think her name will last as long as there are knitters in the world; not just her memory, but her work, lives on.

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