Monday, March 9, 2015

Me and Mrs. Dalloway

     

     “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”  This first line from Virginia Woolf’s novel (named for its heroine) fluttered through my mind Friday afternoon as I made my way through a local supermarket, admiring and photographing the displays of flowers, exchanging small talk with employees, and selecting a few items for an easy end-of-week dinner. In the manner of Clarissa Dalloway, I can be an introspective person, critical of life’s absurdities and saddened by second-guessing past decisions.  But, like Clarissa Dalloway, the bustle of the marketplace and the pleasures of getting swallowed up in making plans distract and engage me, lifting my spirits when they are slumped. 


I couldn't resist a rare treat--roses on sale.  


      While I move in a very different social milieu than that of Clarissa Dalloway and don’t plan society parties or even, at present, have the energy to plan a small get-together in my home, I occupy myself with planning meals, devising household organizing schemes, browsing online maps and tourism sites for an upcoming trip, and other diverting pleasures.  And, of course, as spring approaches, making plans to knit up garments in bright lightweight yarn occupies my thoughts.

     Perhaps I don’t have a right to yearn for spring, though, as I live in a region of North Carolina that hasn’t been walloped by a harsh winter with record-breaking snowfall--like so many states to the north of me.   The Charlotte area only had a light sprinkling of snow once or twice and was hit with a light sprinkling of freezing rain (although the media built up that particular storm with the dire warnings and dramatic diction and tone of voice suited for an impending apocalypse).  But it has been wet and dark on many days.  And we’ve had a schizophrenic season with bouts of record-breaking cold on the backs of balmy days in the seventies.  It is, perhaps, this inconsistency that has made people here ready for a new season.  I hear again and again, “I’m done with winter.”


While this is wool Malabrigo yarn, the "English Rose" color is perfect for spring.  This will be the Berry Wrap from Juju's Loops, a favorite pattern book I bought from Loop of London.   

     
The color combination found in these flowers on display at Publix could be used to make a pretty knitted spring accessory or garment.  


      Knitters share that sentiment.   My local yarn shop is a bustle with shoppers selecting linen, silk, and cotton yarns that recently hit the shelves.  As I am on a yarn fast until Easter, it is difficult to resist these temptations.  However, a store credit allowed me to engage in my addiction and obtain some Louisa Harding Noema in cheerful shades of pink.  Last year, I knit a sweater with this same yarn in a teal color; now I’m planning another, something light and open—perfect to wear this coming summer. 


This Noema yarn displays springtime tones.  

     


     I’m also looking for inspiration for new projects and hope to make a day trip to The Biltmore Estate during spring break.  The Vanderbuilts, who built and lived in this mansion, had an elegant way a life similar to that of the Granthams of Downton Abbey, so, appropriately, an exhibition of 45 costumes from the popular BBC mini-series is currently on display there as part of an exhibit entitled "Dressing Downton."  Making plans for a day trip to ooh and ah over exquisite garments and to visit the Biltmore's springtime gardens is a welcome distraction from this dreary, dragged out winter season.  And, as I’ll be making this excursion after the end of my Lenten yarn fast, I might have to make a stop at one or two  Asheville yarn shops on the way home.  Escapist activities such as yarn shopping and costume viewing—or the party planning and flower shopping of Mrs. Dalloway—might be a bit superficial and shallow, but they take me, and I’d venture to assume lots of other folks, away from the dark moments of  a long winter. 


Lynn, the owner of Cottage Yarn, took a picture of me with my finished winter project, the
Tracery Vest, from The Unofficial Harry Potter Knits.  

I looked at the pattern too quickly at first and cast on and knit the wrong size.  My vest is now proudly on display at Cottage Yarn.




   




Sunday, February 22, 2015

UFOs and a Scary Stash


        One night, when I was in my early twenties, I got in my bed in my family's old Victorian house and cracked open a book about aliens.  The author and publisher of this glossy paperback claimed that its contents constituted a nonfiction account.  This volume didn't present the habits and lifestyles of little green men, though.  Rather, it was about little gray creatures, nocturnal visitors to the bedrooms of unwitting human victims.  Those preyed upon individuals found themselves disoriented, in twilight states, as they underwent invasive and painful medical procedures.  

      As a person who, in present times, occasionally suffers from nightmares that require me to rouse my husband in the wee hours of the morning so that he can provide me with grudgingly given solace, I can attest that I was no different when I was younger.  Horror movies and scary books didn't sit well with me. I couldn't bear to finish that alien book (with a title that, probably due to the effects of post-traumatic stress, I can't recall) and had to remove it from my sight.  I had a similar experience in my late teens when I'd gotten in bed on a cold, windy night to read Stephen King's novel The Shining.  I was accompanied by my family dog, a Labradoodle who, that particular time, was splayed on the bed on a quilt but who sat up with ears perked (as much as was possible with long floppy flaps) and growled every few minutes when a mysterious bang reverberated outside.  (I think a loose shutter was hitting against the house.) Needless to say The Shining remains on my unfinished list (and I've never sat through more than a few minutes of the movie when I've come across it channel surfing).  

     At present, the agitation and anxiety I am experiencing is akin to those feelings elicited by my girlish nocturnal reading.  My once relatively peaceful (and, as yet, never-subject-to-invasion-by-strangers bedroom) is under siege--not by little gray men wielding medical apparatuses or resurrected dead pets on a rampage--but by Unfinished Objects (UFOs)  and by ready-to-cast-on projects--carefully placed in bags.  I wake each morning and look at this bonanza and am frozen with guilt and indecision. 


I am so pleased that I used one skein of two of striped Liberty Wool Light that I've had  in my possession for a year or two.  This hat was a quick project and perfect for the ice storm that headed my way on the day I finished it.  

  
This Eyelet Swirl hat pattern is available for free from Classic Elite yarns.  

        


I used yarn I'd purchased last October to make these Van Dyke socks almost in time for Valentine's Day.  

     

       The cotton worsted weight newborn sweater is awaiting seaming, but I know that the end result will be unpleasing--a lighter yarn would be more in proportion for wear by a tiny infant. The one-foot-knitted-so-far shawl made with lace-weight variegated yarn and cast on on a train in Italy in 2011 hints at a gorgeous finished project.  But the work is so slow moving that, after plying my needles  for an hour or more and making progress on maybe three-quarters of an inch, I am disheartened and unmotivated to pick it up again for months at a time.  The skein of sparkly, expensive Blue Heron yarn would make a stunning evening shawl--if only I could decide on a suitable pattern.  The wound ball of merino and cashmere lace-weight yarn bought in London in 2013 is waiting to use in a gossamer project that I am certain will move towards completion at a speed equal to that of a passive aggressive student when I ask him to move across the room to return to his seat.  I also have enough purple worsted  for a sweater, green DK merin0 for a sweater, etc. Two yarn shops have closed in my area (the owners retired) in the last six months, so buying in bulk was difficult to resist.


     There is also the soft Folio yarn for the Modular Lace Blouse in The Unofficial Downton Abbey Knits 2014.  I'm almost done with the back panel and plan to work solely on this project for a while--after I finish up the Tracery Vest. I've been picking up stitches to add the final ribbing.  


This will be the back panel of the Modular Lace Blouse.  

     
After dragging out my sewing machine, I attacked my sewing UFOs.  This is a quilt made with Downton Abbey inspired fabric.  Now on to the bathrobe, underwear, 19th century pants for a costume that await.  There's also that little girl's dress from a vintage 1950's pattern awaiting buttonholes and its matching coat that needs seaming.  


        This above list is by no means conclusive.  As I type I think about a couple of other sweater projects ready to go. With the onset of my annual yarn fast, though, I have until Easter to make a dent in my stash.  How many sweaters and shawls can be knit in slightly less than 40 days? Whatever the end result of my yarn shopping moratorium, I am not going to be cowed by my exploding stash.  With a little organization--involving squirreling stuff away in bins and boxes--I can go to bed each night and rest easy.  I don't have to face the UFO invasion head on--rather it can be slyly outwitted.   

    Of course, I only have one UFO in a summer yarn (a lacy T-shirt crafted with silk fiber), so when that's completed all of the lightweight garments perfect for balmy weather that beckon from the spring knitting  magazines that have been filling my mailbox might make yarn shopping a temptation too enticing to resist.  Of course, my silky T probably won't be finished until next year's snow is falling. . . .



School was closed for two days due to an ice storm--perfect time for working on UFOs and busting my stash.  




Sunday, February 8, 2015

Knitting Strands . . . and the Big Picture


While not the Irish countryside, my husband's family farm in the North Carolina country offered solace on a Sunday afternoon walk today.  


In the Company of Others is one volume in the At Home in Mitford series by author Jan Karon.  This particular work recounts the trials and joys of an Episcopal priest employed in a mountain town in North Carolina (a locale which is loosely based on picturesque Blowing Rock).  Years ago, I read most of this series and found the books to be both inspiring and moving, while not as overblown and sentimental as other inspirational fiction.



     Unearthed at Goodwill, this novel is proving to be bit of a serendipity, as it deals with topics that hit close to home, such as a dysfunctional family—the one in the story is replete with an angry teen, an equally irate alcoholic mother-in-law, and disturbing secrets that keep rearing their ugly heads.  Father Tim and his wife Cynthia, find themselves in the bosom of this family at a guest house on an Irish vacation gone awry.  In the Company of Others manages to take the characters’ dark moments, unfortunate mishaps, and painful memories and use them to show the reader how unrelenting love and a little less focus on personal desires can carry us through the most trying of times.  In essence, the tale focuses on not forgetting the big picture. 

I need this inspiration at this time. A close friend and I both took new teaching jobs this year.  We are both the same age (fiftyish) and both, as self-proclaimed overachievers and perfectionists, have what I like to call a "heightened sensibility" to criticism.  Our quest for affirmation can be maddening, especially when, as newcomers to highly bureaucratic school systems, we are under close scrutiny and are subject to numerous evaluation sessions.  Unfortunately, the extensive public teacher assessment system in my state doesn’t seem to look at the overall picture throughout the year, just at isolated snapshots.  The entire process is akin to having a stranger drop into your living room while you are knitting a sweater.  The person scrutinizing you might see you finally cast off the most gorgeous lace creation or he or she might observe, instead, you, head down, mouth pursed, eyes glazed, in the process of tearing our six inches where you bungled the pattern. 

Despite my job woes.  I have enjoyed getting to know my new co-workers.  I made this sweater for the granddaughter of  an indefatigable  English teacher who has served as a wonderful mentor and guide.  I had a difficult time deciding which buttons to use. While I actually favor the ones  on the right, the flower buttons seem a little more in scale with an infant's size and add a feminine, little-girl touch.  

The pattern for this sweater, entitled "Sprinkle," can be found in Juju's Loops, a book that is the creation of Juju Vail and Susan Cropper, owners of Loop yarn shop in London.  

     When you go in to hear a detailed and lengthy exposition of the observer’s reflections, you are informed of everything you already knew:  your head was down, your expression was unpleasant and not engaging, you were oblivious to the fact that your cat was clawing the armchair cushion, and, finally, your lace pattern was misaligned by three stitches over the course of five rows.   

Years ago, before the new teacher evaluation system and the current mania for accountability, the experience would not have been the same.  It would have been less demoralizing and would not have contributed to sleepless nights where the observee envisions a future eating cat food or to his or her burgeoning phobia of squawking walkie-talkies (items typically carried by school administrators when they darken classroom doors).

My first year teaching was spent in a high school in a small southern town with a large population of low income residents.  One afternoon, right after lunch, I was told that I had to immediately move everything from my classroom to another room across the hall.  For some reason, an anticipated renovation process was suddenly given the go-ahead—or maybe the construction workers, a motley crew who proved themselves to possess less-than-stellar work ethics, had finally deigned to show up at the job site.  I had my rather rowdy third-period class (one which included five pregnant girls who were all due roughly around the same time) pick up and move furniture, filing cabinets, desks, books, boxes of papers, etc.  (Computers weren’t a part of education at that time.)  As I stood in the hallway between the two rooms supervising, a smiling, suit-clad female administrator from the downtown office informed me that she was there to observe my class.  I told her we were in the throes of moving, but she said that was fine.  She could wait. 

Since there were many hands, the moving process only took a few minutes.  I plugged in the overhead projector and got back to work.  I don’t remember the lesson content—maybe something to do with The Canterbury Tales—but as I stood in the front of the classroom the energy was palpable.  The move had hyped up the students, and I knew it would be no easy task to settle them.  As I presented the day’s activity, I noticed that one resourceful individual had found the arm (just the arm) from a ragdoll in the detritus from the move.  (I think this item was a leftover from some student's creative project.)  I also observed that the students were tossing it to one another when they thought I wasn’t looking.   Somewhere in the midst of this melee a projection screen, improperly affixed to hooks on the wall during the move, become unattached on one end and glanced off my head.  Inwardly I groaned, but I went on with things, making unpleasant faces (when I thought the observer wasn’t looking)  at whatever student was currently in possession of the doll arm.  I finally snatched up the offensive item and tossed it in the trash while the observer was bent over, scribbling on her yellow legal pad.  
   
As an administrator doing a formal review, my observer was obliged to keep a running script of everything that was said in class and was also to record the action around her, so I was prepared for the worst.  Ultimately, though, during our post-conference she focused on the important and positive things, on the overall picture—and didn’t even mention the doll or the projection screen.  The previous review system she had employed focused on practical things.  Were the students working? Was the teacher teaching?  Were things generally organized?  The new system is much more esoteric and political, asking other questions.  Are the activities global in nature?  Is the teacher respecting diversity?    Does the teacher “collect and analyze student performance data?”  After a recent review (of a lesson that took place on a day when I was suffering from the flu and unable to correctly process one thought, let alone engage students with thought-provoking questions) where I was excoriated for the sin of presenting mere facts about the history of the English language, I spent an evening raging and generally beating myself up.  But later, I sat down to read some of Karon’s book and felt my spirits settle.  While Father Tim and Cynthia’s trip plans are thrown off by an injury to his wife’s ankle, a theft in the guesthouse, and a cast of innkeepers with personal woes, they manage to find solace and peace.  Father Tim hears confessions and attempts to guide lost souls.  He also befriends the guesthouse dog and explores the countryside, while his wife, laid up with her injury, paints and enjoys the pleasures of afternoon tea in bed.  Both enjoy local culinary delights. 

Inspired by these characters, yesterday, the day after my disturbing “post-observation conference,"  I woke up and knit for a while, while drinking coffee in bed, and next decided to spend the day enjoying simple pleasures.  I drove to a cafĂ© for a solitary lunch and then went to Barnes and Noble, for coffee and a long period spent perusing knitting magazines.  I even splurged and bought Never Let Me Go, a new paperback novel by author of Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishuguro.  I’m considering suggesting his new work for student summer reading, if it proves to be suitable.  I then went to Cottage Yarn for a little knit therapy.  Words of comfort from a retired teacher who frequents the shop and the infectious enthusiasm of Charo, another regular customer, with a self-diagnosed knitting addiction like my own, were just the medicine I needed.  It was a bright, unseasonably warm day, so I opened the sun roof on my way home and decided that I needed to lose myself in that moment.  During the course of the day, I also talked several times on the phone with my teacher friend in similar circumstances, who—despite the fact that she is highly accomplished and has taught successfully at the university level—had spent part of her weekend crying due to similar job woes.  We encouraged one another to pay less attention to scrutiny and to have faith (despite any feedback to the contrary) in the fact that we are working very hard and are challenging our students to grow.

Despite it being the month of February, Camellias were still in bloom this afternoon.  Taking time to stop and enjoy them provided a much-needed  respite.  

We also need to stop comparing ourselves to the super teachers who spend sixty-plus hours a week at school and then spend their weekends at twelve-hour debate championships or engaged in marathon grading sessions.  Deciding to take my own advice, I have unearthed my sewing machine, an item which was put away at the start of this hectic school year, and am determined to finish some projects over the coming weeks.  I also plan to be a better correspondent to long-neglected pen pals, and I even made a pot of comforting homemade soup.  Maybe someday soon, I can also attempt to create an original knitting design.  (Efforts such as this were abandoned when I embarked on my new employment.) 
   
This is the Tracery Vest in progress, almost done . . . but probably too small for me.


I also have to finish the Tracery Vest, which will probably never fit me, as, preoccupied and stressed, I inadvertently cast on and worked the wrong-sized garment.  (I haven’t had a thirty-two-inch bust since the fifth grade!)  I won’t be discouraged, however, as I will have faith that this garment will expand during the blocking process.  If that fails, I will just have to keep my eyes and ears open for the perfect diminutive person to be the recipient of this item. This project has afforded me hours of knitting pleasure—as well as some expanses of exasperation—but, in the big picture, the finished garment might just turn out okay.  I hope I can say the same for the results of this wearisome school year.  

I've been working on these socks when I need to take a break from the Tracery Vest.  Maybe I will finish them in time for Valentine's Day.


A former co-worker has been waiting six months for me to make and deliver these historic pants for him.  I finally went out this afternoon and bought the brown fabric (in the background) to sew these for him.