Winter storm knits

IMG_6272What better way to start a snowed in weekend than by casting on a simple, chunky hat? If the yarn was gifted by a dear friend and the hat is made for my biggest girl, nothing at all could be better.
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IMG_6271After binding off the snuggly hat just in time for her to do a bit of sledding, I cast on a superfine mohair for a lovely wispy scarf of my own. It’s the Airy Scarf from Last-Minute Knitted Gifts. It took quite a while for my fingers to adjust after going straight from a bulky yarn to a superfine yarn – the the mohair slipped and slid around on the needles for the first dozen rows, featherlight and uncontrollable. But, the decadence of the yarn more than lived up to its Sublime name. I have another two skeins of this yarn in a pale dove grey and can’t wait to find a pattern worthy of it.

IMG_6274Since this snow storm has us fondly in mind of our Canada winter last year, it seems just right to wear the scarf with a beautiful pin I bought from a lovely local shop in St. Catharines, Ontario. The sun is shining brilliantly now and the snow will soon be melting. But knitted goodness will keep us cozy the rest of winter.

In Appreciation of David Bowie

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Image from Rolling Stone slideshow of great David Bowie performances.

It’s been a long week of David Bowie appreciation after his death from cancer and I’m not willing to move away from dwelling on him quite yet. I’m settling into a long, slow burn of mulling his music and the incalculable cultural impact of his life and art. While I reminisce about the presence of his music in my life, I am also enjoying learning so much more about his life and career than I knew before.

During the last few weeks, I was actually quite excited by the release of his newest album and the various retrospectives, interviews, and paratexts circulating around the music. Maybe his death was so surprising to me because he seems timeless – at once frozen in the past as Ziggy Stardust and simultaneously always current, always relevant, always fascinating.

Much of the memorialization of Bowie this week has focused on his iconic imagery, gender bending, and sexual fluidity. While his music and star personae have been life changing for so many people, his musical presence in my life was more subtle. As a cerebral child of hippie parents, I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t listening to and puzzling out his lyrics. By the 1980s and 1990s, when I was coming of age, much of his most controversial work was in the past. My family did not subscribe to cable or watch much television, so I missed out on being an MTV kid and didn’t consume a lot of the visual media that he produced until later in life. Instead, as a child I listened to a tremendous amount of music and some of my earliest memories are of proudly telling my parents that I knew what a song meant. So, while I appreciate the focus on his startlingly odd, beautiful imagery, I tend to care more about his equally weird, delightful lyrics.

Space Oddity was one of those songs I figured out at a young age.

For here
Am I sitting in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do

Though I’m past
one hundred thousand miles
I’m feeling very still
And I think my spaceship knows which way to go
Tell my wife I love her very much
she knows

Ground Control to Major Tom
Your circuit’s dead,
there’s something wrong
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you….

Here am I floating
round my tin can
Far above the Moon
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do.

I can still so vividly remember the heartbreak I felt as my youthful active imagination saw Major Tom drifting helplessly away, towards his inevitable death in the endless void of space. I cried then and still feel my throat tightening with emotion when I hear the song. When I showed the music video of Space Oddity to my media studies students to illustrate the commodification of culture after the opening countdown was featured in a car commercial, their awe and appreciation fizzed through the room.

As a lyricist, David Bowie was a powerful storyteller and social commentator.

And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through

What strikes me about so much of his writing is that he often sings about imaginary lands and dream-like spaces, of love existing beyond the reach of reality.

Baby, I’ll slay a dragon for you
Or banish wicked giants from the land
But you will find, that nothing in my dream can hurt you
We will only love each other as forever

His music is as otherworldly as he has always been, whether in or out of whatever his chosen character of the moment was.

And the village Dreadful cried
As the rope began to rise
For the smile stayed on the face
Of the Wild Eyed Boy
from Freecloud
And the women once proud
Clutched the heart of the crowd
As the boulders smashed down from the mountain’s hand

David Bowie is one star whose magic was only heightened for me as I studied him in graduate school. Some celebrities do not stand up to scrutiny, their mystique and allure diminished under critical interrogation. But, Bowie’s epic life and whimsical works withstand every critique I have seen and I still unreservadly love his music and art in a way that I often can’t with lesser beings.

David Bowie didn’t change my life. He was simply a part of my life, fused into those earliest memories, his unparalleled voice a key part of my teenage soundtrack. Analysis of his identities and works have been important to my training as a scholar and is a constant in my work as a teacher. My husband and I have sung Golden Years together more times than I can remember and I have dance parties with my girls to Suffragette City and Let’s Dance. While I write this, my daughters are singing “we could be heroes! just for one day.” We’re reveling in his music now as we always have and always will.

~ one moment ~

On a rainy, cold, grey day, when you aren’t feeling well and so many responsibilities need to be addressed …. sometimes the best thing to do is just settle on to the couch and organize your knitting bags.

Acknowledging gratitude

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Writing a book makes you appreciate your friends more. Working with my dear friend and co-author, I struggled with the heartbreaking topic we were researching, but I also felt the constant nearness in spirit of the mentors who had shaped our intellectual growth. When it came time to write the acknowledgements for our book, we knew that our deepest gratitude went to two women, both eminent scholars, whose work and lives inspire us. And, of course, we thanked our families for loving and encouraging us. Where would we be without our partners and our children?

Then, as I considered who else I might acknowledge in our book, I could not help focusing on the women whose friendship sustains me, even though we may rarely have discussed the book itself. These women are the amazing fellow academics and mothers who teach, research, nurture the people around them, struggle with the illusion of work/life balance, and are obsessed with pop culture and social justice. These are the women whose children play with my children or who share a hotel room with me at an academic conference. They made me laugh when writing the book made me cry, they are silly and profound. We get caught in the rain together in Montreal, cook together, and commiserate around roundtables. We discuss theory and methodology along side potty training and Ryan Gosling memes.

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These women are from all over the world, from every walk of life. They are my soul mates because whatever I experience as an academic or a mother or a woman, they “get.” I am profoundly grateful for these fierce, fabulous women whether they realize they helped me during the writing of our book or not. So, while we are in this cultural moment of gratitude and one of them is sitting on my sofa next to me as our children dance, make music, and draw, I want to acknowledge them again for their friendship.

So, thank you, thank you, Leigh, Jessica, Stacie, Lori, Rosemary, Lindita, Ammina, and Robyn for absolutely everything. You are all my people.

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Under scrutiny

This article by Ta-Nehisi Coates will take one minute to read and it is well worth that minute. My concern with the notion that police cannot do their jobs under scrutiny is that it implies that their jobs require a lack of public oversight. How can we accept the idea that our society is to be policed by people and institutions beyond our view and above our criticism? If the so-called (and debunked) “Ferguson Effect” is that police are altering their behaviors out of fear that their actions will be recorded, this too implies that their behaviors all along have been something that they don’t want us to see. This is troubling in the extreme.

Members of my family are police officers and first responders. I have known truly upstanding police officers. My hope and belief is that their actions both on and off camera would remain consistent and above reproach. If every single officer of the law cannot live up to that standard, then we should all be deeply concerned that, as Coates writes, “A theory of government which tells citizens to invest agents of the state with the power to mete out lethal violence, but discourages them from holding those officers accountable is not democracy. It is fascism.”

Coates’ fellow writer for The Atlantic, David A. Graham writes that “The implication of the Ferguson-effect argument is that police can’t provide safe streets and low crime rates without massive civil-rights violations—aggressive use of physical force, racial profiling, searches that fall into legal gray areas, and so on—and without alienating black communities.” The impact is far-reaching, from brutalization of students in schools to over-policing of people of color, to racial profiling of innocent celebrities.

Video evidence allows us to know more about the actions of police. Whatever we choose to do with that knowledge, we should absolutely have it and place it under scrutiny. To deny the value of seeing is to wish for blindness, to turn a blind eye to oppression. I simply do not want to live in a society with militarized police forces that are deemed only capable of doing their jobs at the expense of our civil liberties. I don’t want them operating in the shadows and out of our view.

Pickles in jars

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Ah, the satisfying pop! of canning jar lids as they cool. A little music for the ears after a few hot hours of work.

Today, I made Ashley English’s Dill Pickle recipe. So, so simple. Compared to my Granny’s labor intensive sweet pickle recipe I usually make. Today was all about just getting the canning equipment out of storage, cleaning everything up, and making sure the stove in this house would actually heat the water bath to a rolling boil. It was touch and go for a while as the water just refused to ripple beyond a few little bubbles, but a thick rag on top of the lid for insulation seemed to help matters along.

When we moved back from Canada in early May, we were delighted to find a little slightly out of practice garden plot in the front yard of the house we are renting. It was late for planting, but we threw a few things in the ground in the hopes that our girls would at least have the fun of watching growing things maybe produce something to eat. The squash and tomatoes did not germinate and the corn is still a question mark, but the cucumbers were champs. Our few little late vines weren’t enough to make a batch of pickles, but that is what farmer’s markets are for, right?

My plan is to use up the jars I have already to make some tomato basil sauce (our four basil plants have not disappointed and the tomatoes will come from the farmer’s market) before school starts. We are also hunting for nearby orchards and I will definitely be putting up jars of all things apple and peach soon.

What are you canning this season?

Voices and votes

One side of the sign my daughter helped me make.
One side of the sign my daughter helped me make.

I heard the noise from blocks away, as I walked down the greenway with my homemade sign. Crowds usually make me nervous, but on that day I wanted the feeling of being part of something big and loud. IMG_1074 The mood on this bright sunny day was like a family festival, with children running around in the grass and friends laughing together. Elderly men and women, young parents and toddlers mingled in between the towering city buildings. It was so hot that several people passed out, even though organizers hurriedly carried around boxes full of cold water bottles and urged everyone to stay hydrated. Shirts and signs introduced strangers to each other as people declared the groups they represented and the issue they cared about: Voter suppression is wrong. It harms peoples of all faiths and walks of life. It matters. IMG_1076 The North Carolina conservatives in control of the state legislature passed some of the most sweeping voter suppression efforts in the nation as soon at the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act and removed pre-clearance for this former Confederate state. The NAACP of NC has taken the state to trial in my town and organized the rally on the first day of court. This trial matters as it works its way through federal court and shapes the rights of voters nationwide. IMG_1084 The characters that turn out to a political rally can be so eclectic and inspiring. The Raging Grannies, the church groups, the militant activists, all gathered in solidarity around one issue: the right to vote. We were raising our voices to declare together the right for all people to perform the fundamental democratic act of voting. IMG_1079 It felt so good. It felt empowering and energizing in that cliched way that collective action can. As one in a crowd, you feel as if you are making a difference. And, with voting rights on trial, it brought home the feeling that every voice and every single vote counts. IMG_1088 In the face of recent horrific crimes, institutional racism, and crippling inequality, I have at times fallen prey to feeling paralyzed and powerless. What can one person do, after all? Well, one person can march as one of many. One person can vote and be counted. One person can commit to registering a hundred more to vote and then even help drive them to the polling place. One person can join with others and know that every little step matters when you are marching through the streets with a thousand like-minded souls.

The other side of my sign.
The other side of my sign.

The Joy of Dishes

Some fierce women I know have decided that this summer we are all leaning out. That means something different for each of us, but as academics and wives, mothers, sisters, and humans, we seem to have all reached levels of burn out that are taking a significant toll on our health and jeopardizing any sense of balance in our lives. We aren’t just struggling to “have it all.” Some of us have plain lost all sense of perspective about what “it all” even means.

For me, after completing a rather epic year that included starting a new job, completing a four month Fulbright fellowship, co-authoring a book, moving three times, falling down some stairs and suffering other health problems, while my husband completed a master’s degree in one year? Well, leaning out means focusing on health and home this summer. By doing yoga, regularly taking my poor injured body to a chiropractor, adjusting my diet to take out wine and put in more fresh local veggies, I am nurturing my health. By spending more time together and out of doors, we are trying to settle into a gentler family rhythm. We are still unpacking from our last move two months ago, but making a concerted effort to create a pleasant, cozy, clean home. I am reading for pleasure and for spiritual cleansing.

Which brings me to dishes and Buddhism.

Imagine my surprise while reading You Are Here to be reminded of a favorite Anne of Windy Poplars passage:

Nora Nelson: “Well, let’s tackle this pile of greasy plates and look as if we liked it.”

Anne Shirley: “I do like it … I’ve always liked washing dishes. It’s fun to make dirty things clean and shining again.”

“Oh, you ought to be in a museum,” snapped Nora.

I confess I have always related more to Nora in this situation than my beloved Anne. Nora is a bit dark and twisty compared to Anne and, with her broken heart, has every reason to resent washing dishes after her sister’s wedding reception. But, seriously, who enjoys washing dishes at anytime?

I fully understand that one can feel pride in housework. I know people who clean somewhat compulsively and others for whom housework is so routinized that they seem to do it on autopilot. I have known generations of women who approach homemaking as their life’s work or as just one of many obligations. Some can afford to hire the work out. But, I know few women who enjoy washing dishes, or scrubbing bathrooms for that matter.

My own experience with housework is rather fraught, with a working class childhood where washing dishes or sweeping floors or hanging laundry on the line was, in every sense of the word, a chore. I remember feeling a sense of peace while clipping sheets to a clothes line, but scrubbing dishes that piled up after a family of six ate a day’s worth of meals was just drudgery.

I love a well-made bed, with the hospital corners I learned to make from reading my mother’s vintage girl scout books. Did you know girl scouts used to teach how to make beds and properly scald dishes to sanitize them? And how to create perfect place settings for formal dinners? I digress.

By the age of 14, I was also cleaning houses for elderly neighbors and families whose children I cared for as a full-time nanny; later in college I worked as a cleaner at a bed and breakfast. I felt some pride in this work, as I paid for my own music lessons and saved money for college. But, I didn’t particularly enjoy the work. I enjoyed the feeling of doing a days’ work for a days’ wage, but that is something quite different from enjoying the actual motions of the scrubbing.

I fondly recall working for one woman, a bank president’s wife who called me a “renaissance woman” and trusted me to do everything from care for her two daughters to help run payments for customers of her small business. She once seemed puzzled that I was also willing to wash a load of dishes or fold a load of laundry. I didn’t enjoy the housework – but I did appreciate the responsibilities and respect that I had earned by the age of 16.

As an adult, my own housekeeping has been, shall we say … haphazard. I love arranging beautiful bookshelves and still love a beautifully made bed. I much prefer hanging clothes outside to popping them into the dryer. But, I don’t enjoy washing dishes. And I loathe cleaning bathrooms, which I still associate with being paid to do for other people because poverty compelled me to seek employment at a young age. It’s not just that I don’t feel Anne’s joy in making things clean, I also dread the sense of being forced to contend with the endless messes of daily living.

So, when Thích Nhất Hạnh writes about finding joy in washing dishes, it has more personal meaning for me than if he had chosen a different way of illustrating his point that we must live in the present.

“Stopping (shamatha in Sanskrit) and deep looking (vipasyana) are the elements of Buddhist meditation. Deep looking is possible once stopping has taken place. On the cushion, we must stop. During walking meditation, we must stop. Even when we are in the kitchen washing the dishes, we must wash the dishes in such a way that stopping is possible. Every moment of dishwashing should give you joy, peace, and happiness. If it doesn’t, you are not washing dishes as a practitioner. The kitchen is a place of practice. The monks and nuns and laypeople of Plum Village always wash the dishes with mindfulness. When we wash dishes, it in not only the get the dishes clean. It is to live every minutes of the washing. So wash each bowl and each plate in such a way that joy, peace, and happiness are possible. Imagine you are giving a bath to the baby Buddha. It is a sacred act.”

Switching my mindset away from a feeling of housework intruding into my life towards a feeling that the everyday movements of picking up clutter, sweeping, folding clothes, and even washing dishes, are part of a balanced life that creates a peaceful home for my family feels significant. By trying to find joy in housework rather than see it as an imposition I hope to begin avoiding the stress that an untidy house causes us all. I also want to instill a happier relationship with housework in my small children, whom I hope will grow to be the kind of people who simply live tidily out of habit. More than that, I want to overcome the feeling of housework being so tied to memories of a childhood spent doing chores at home and feeling forced to do paid housework for others. Those associations are bittersweet, reminding me a bit of why I related so much to Anne’s own early childhood spent in poverty. I want to work on releasing those painful memories and try to find joy in the moments of cleaning, but also in the result of creating spaces of beauty and peace in which to live daily.

For two weeks now, I have tried to finish unpacking and to focus on a daily rhythm of tidying, to clean with calm and purpose, reminding myself that each wipe and fold contributes to the comfort of my home. I have not quite arrived at joy, but I am striving first for contentment and to let go of resentment. Already, some of the daily stresses of tripping over toys and struggling to find something lost in the clutter of an untidy drawer are falling away. Cleaning my home while cleansing away old negativity feels refreshing.

 

Lingering in hatred for just a moment

My last post was simply to share a poem about peace that reminded me to seek solace in wild spaces when the darkness of the world encroaches. I hoped that reflecting a little light back out towards the darkness would help me and others. Perhaps it did. I have been trying to read, to meditate, to be with my family, and to take the tangible steps of donating to a food bank and joining a local grassroots group in the hope of contributing to solving social problems that I care deeply about.

But, yet, I have also lingered in the darkness a bit. I cannot stop myself from reading pieces of righteous outrage. Being outraged myself at violence and hatred and close-mindedness and insensitivity. As a child of The South who has always somewhat loathed the spaces and symbolism and culture and history and food of the rural southern Mississippi region, I feel a deep connection with this second poem as well. In its own way, it makes me feel better because it seems deeply true. When I read this poem, I know all the beauty and ugliness of every single line – the smells and tastes and vibrancy and decay that forms the place I once called home and always wanted to escape.

For the South

I hate your hills white with dogwood

or pink with redbud in spring

as if you invented hope, as if

in the middle of red clay,

limestone outcroppings,

and oak trees dead with fungus

something slight and beautiful

should make us smile.

I hate the way honeysuckle drapes

fences, blooms in the ditch

where everyone dumps garbage;

the evening air sweet with cedar

and fields of burley;

the way irises and buttercups

mark the old dimensions of a house

destroyed a hundred years ago;

how a span of Queen Anne’s lace

rocks the whole moon, and the sumac

runs dark against the hill.

I hate the drawl, the lazy voice

saying I’ve been away so long

I sound like I’m from nowhere;

the old hand gathering snowballs or peonies

or forking up an extra dish of greens,

bitter, just the way I like them.

~ Neal Bowers

Added: After posting this, I read a piece about the power of poetry that speaks exactly to how I’ve been feeling lately.

In search of peace

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Wendell Berry
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These words have been speaking to me this week, reminding me to
search outdoors for peace in moments of turmoil.