Thursday, November 3, 2016

above us only sky

My mom and I are at the house at the lake where she still lives with my dad, sitting at her kitchen table after lunch.  My mom is looking at the Ely Echo, when a story catches her attention that she starts to read aloud to me: "Man Arrested for Killing a Baby Deer in the Quetico". The Quetico-Superior is the forest and lakes between northern Minnesota and Canada, the Boundary Waters, where my parents have lived for 36 years. They have decided to stay in their house by the lake for another winter.

The Quetico was closed to visitors in the late summer, after a strong storm blew down a lot of trees, and closed portages between the lakes. The newspaper story is about a man seen out in the woods, near Tin Can Mike Lake, without a canoe or a pack. Because no one was allowed out into the woods, the sheriff was called.  The man had been seen holding a live fawn deer he said he had caught to eat, but he wasn't hungry, and decided to keep as a pet. The fawn deer was never found. The man was homeless, and had been staying out in the woods through the storm.  He'd covered himself in mud, against mosquitoes.

My mother looked up from the paper.  "Poor man," she said.
"Like Uncle Mikey,"I said.

One of my mother's older brothers, Mikey, was mentally disabled since he was a child.  My mother said he had a terrible adenoid infection, and a very high fever, when he was an infant." What's an adenoid? " we always wanted to know. " It's something here," she pointed at her neck, under her ear.   The family always thought that had made him slow.  As an adult, Mike had lived on the edges of town, not homeless, but in a rented room, over the Town Tap, or the Jolly Roger.

His social security check went to the owner of the bar he lived above, who took out his rent, and gave him the small amount leftover, which he'd spend on beer.  He sometimes had jobs shoveling for the County.  But, he couldn't read, and was often a victim of bullies, in school when he was young, and  when he was older, mean spirited adults. He was shy, and quiet. He also had friends, and protectors, including the bar owner, and a woman who worked there.  She paid him a little to walk her dog when she was working.  She was kind to him, and looked out for him.  He always talked about Patty, and the little dog.

My mom always worried about him.  We lived in Michigan, then.  Mike had always lived in Minnesota, and after the old man died, he'd lived by himself.  In the summer, when our family went back to Minnesota, we'd try to find him.  Often, he'd disappear if he heard my mom was looking for him. But usually we found him, after my mother, my sisters and I hiked up long, dark staircases, to a corridor and rooms that smelled like dill pickles, over the Town Tap.  When she found him, all of his clothes, sheets and blankets went into a wash load. We stopped at the laundromat, on the way out of town, with Mike, who came along with us, out to the lake, where my mother would put him into a hot sauna. After that, he stayed with us for a few days.  We showed him our comic books, and were curious and asked him once, at the cemetery, if he could read.  He said he could, a little, and then sounded out a few names on headstones.

"Mikey had a hard time at school,"  my mom said now. "The boys were mean to him.  Marion and I tried to stand up for him, but we couldn't always be there."

She never told me about Mikey in school before.

"He was in a special education class," she said.  "The girls went to the home ec. room, but the two boys went downstairs to the janitors' rooms. The janitors and the boiler man took care of them, and let them help."

"Sometimes I'd see Mike coming down the hallway, in a big hurry.  He wouldn't even talk to me. He was in such a hurry to get down to the basement.  He loved that," she said. "They were so good to him, those men."

"And there was a woman on our block, who was the first woman to own a boarding house in town.  She was very successful.  She liked Mike, and felt sorry for him when she saw how the kids teased him.  She felt so bad for him that she bought him a...," she looked out the window, at the far shore of the lake, "a-- you put your knee on it, and push it along with your other foot? "

"A scooter?" I said. 
"No, not that."
"A wagon?" I said.
"Yes.  She bought him a brand new, bright yellow wagon.  He never had anything brand new,  all his own before that."

"I think she knew our mother had died, and there wasn't anyone around but us kids. Pa was working in the mines, and over his head with the work of keeping the family together.  Mike loved it!  He pushed that yellow wagon up and down the block all summer.  He wouldn't even let anyone touch it. It made him feel so good about himself, too."

"You never told me about the wagon," I said.
"No?  Well, she did that. Then somebody wanted to take a picture of us kids, to send to Finland. Walfred was already gone away from home, but it was Marion and me, and Mike.  They wanted us girls to sit in the wagon, and Mike to hold the handle, like he was pulling it.  He had a fit.  He didn't even want us to sit in it. Finally, they talked him into it.  We could sit there, but just for the picture.   Mike held the handle, but he said he didn't have to smile."

I like all the stories my mother has told me about growing up on the Iron Range in Northern Minnesota.  She has told me so many stories about the people in her neighborhood, the Finnish immigrants, the miners, the women who owned boarding houses, where she worked as a teenager, after school, making miners' lunches, egg salad out of hardboiled eggs and butter.  She wasn't paid, but helped out, and took food home.

She told us stories about the people she liked, and people she didn't like. People who were deaf, or drunk, or kind to animals. Two teenage girls who lived downstairs, who came up to help when my mother was born at home, the last of four children. Her Pa, blacklisted as a Finnish communist because he joined with workers who struck the mining company because of the low $2  per day wage. Her oldest brother Walfred who rode the trains out to Oregon one summer, coming home into the kitchen, so blackened with dirt and soot,  her aunt, who was cooking, didn't even recognize him.  Walfred, who was an Air Force pilot  in WW2, shot down and vanished in the Pacific ocean, with just a few hundred more miles to log before he could come back home.  How for years they dreamed he'd survived, and was still alive, and would come back in the kitchen door.

The lake water, outside her kitchen window, glimmers across the ceiling above us.   My mom looks back down and smooths the newspaper on the table in front of her,  "Man Arrested for Killing a Baby Deer in the Quetico," she reads the headline again, then starts to read the story she's already forgotten.  It's been a half hour since lunch, and I'd forgotten my mom has dementia.

"Happy Birthday, Mom!"  I call her when I'm back home, in October.
"Oh, is it my birthday? I guess it is.  Thank you!"
"This year is an especially good year for you."
"It is?  Why?"
"You get your birthday wish this year."
"What's that?"
"You finally  get to vote for Hillary for President.  You never thought you'd live so long!
And she's going to win. She's going to be the first woman President of the United States." 

My mom has always been political, and realized she was a feminist in the 70's. Hillary has always been her favorite. For thirty years, at least, my Mom has had Hillary fever.  She's always done so much for women and children, was how she explained it. She has had a Hillary bumper sticker on the refrigerator door in her weaving workshop for many years. Though she has a hard time remembering who the president is now ( A Black Man? ), she still plans to vote.

"OK, Mom.  Don't forget to do it."
"I won't."
"I'll call and remind you!"
"OK! " she says,  and I can hear her smile.
"Hillary.  I was right on the mark, wasn't I?"

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Lucky Duck

Found today in the potato basket in our back hall! Not the face of Christ on a piece of toast, but I'm a secular humanist, so this will do.  A duck formed by chance out of a plastic thank you bag is my idea of a small miracle.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Blue Thread

When  I come back to weave in my workshop at night, the familiar room feels like a different place, where something unexpected might happen.  Night is always a fertile time for me to weave.  One summer night,  when the air was humid, cool, thick, and velvety, and the darkness was inky black, I was weaving a length of 3/4 inch tape, and about to quit.  It was a few minutes after midnight, but I thought I'd weave just a few more inches before I shut off the lights, locked the door, and found my way back along the dark path, cross the creek,  and back to the house.  The air was still, but a cool draft came down the east valley from the ridge, through the open screen, with fireflies lighting the course of the small creek behind the workshop, a chorus of night trilling tree frogs, and a dog barking at a short distance.

I'd been hearing all of this while I was weaving my tape, but the dog barking had caught my attention.

The bark was sporadic, not urgent. I knew whose dog it was, and her name, Maggie, and that she was an old spaniel that would sometimes decide to chase me when I rode my bike by, trying to nip my feet.  Sometimes she and the other dog that live at that house came up around my shop, chasing rabbits together, in the morning, but she never bothered me then. She was Daryl's dog.  Daryl had a farm welding shop a half mile away,  in a shed behind his house, across the West Fork.  He welded equipment for farmers at night, after his day job.  He wasn't married, and lived alone. He was still at work.  The lights from inside his shed glowed brightly through the wide open doors, lighting the willow tree tops across the river.  I didn't have to look to see that.

This dog's barking was so familiar,  a summer sound I remembered listening to when I was a little girl,  on summer nights, trying to fall asleep, after long, dirty, barefoot summer vacation days,  hearing all the night sounds: crickets, cicadas, barking dogs and trains at a distance. All the sounds mixed up in the dark, across the swamp and field, where we built our forts, fought with the boys,  and exhumed old farm dump piles in search of treasure during the day.  At night we played a wild game of sheep and wolves in the dark neighborhood, and pretended we didn't hear when our parents called us in. I've always loved the mystery of the night world, and always found it hard to fall asleep.   Daryl's dog barking this night made me suddenly wistful, and long for one more evening of my own childhood.  Instead I thought, I'll weave this.  How?  I picked up a shuttle, and there was a quill of thin, cobalt linen yarn in it already, and I thought, that will do.  I hate to pick colors at night. I decided I'd weave one blue thread every time Maggie barked for five minutes.  I watched the minute hand, and then started.  Bark, bark, bark.  Quiet, quiet.  Bark, bark, bark, bark, bark, bark.

Whew! I was falling behind.  A pause followed,  quiet, quiet, quiet, quiet.  I may have missed a few of the barks, but in the end I had a 2-inch section of tape, with some random thin blue lines crossing it.  This was my record of 5 minutes of listening to a particular dog barking after midnight, at the confluence of the West Fork and Seas Branch river valley,  July, 2015.  I had a new measure on my tape without measure.

I have a conflicted relationship to measure, and measuring. I usually have a tape measure, hanging around my neck, like a yoke, or a choke.  A weave is one length on the loom, stretched tight.  Relax the tension and the length shrinks.  Tense up, and beat too hard, and the weave compresses.  Cut it down, and it shrinks again. Wash it, dry it, and it grows smaller, or not.  The task to weave a square, or two equal panels to a 1/2 in window width, or a pair of equal length curtains is fraught.  Measure is a burden!

I started to weave my own measureless tapes, partly in response to my father, an engineer, who tried to instill in his family, along with his Lutheran faith,  the idea that if a thing can't be measured, that thing does not exist.  It was long ago, but I have been refuting that untruth for most of my life (also the Lutheran faith). Actually, important things do exist that can't be measured, love, hope, fear.  Emotion is real.  How we feel about our human experience may be the most consequential part of our living.  Consequently, my tapes without measure hold marks of actual and conceptual events, but all of them ephemeral.  Nothing that exists ever lasts, not even memory, is my corollary theory.  On my woven tapes,  I've incorporated marks for my actual waist size, my cat's long tail,  the width of the stripes of woolly bear caterpillars crossing the road on the autumnal equinox between Avalanche and Bloomingdale,  simple actual observable measures. One tape has the height of the largest morel mushroom we found this spring.  It was a significantly big one.  Recording and marking events is a human practice, an activity we engage in, to get ahead of the game. On ancient Scandinavian rune calendars, the marks may have told when to plant seeds, when to cut hay, when to spin flax,  when to expect a spring thaw.   What the marks originally meant fade as centuries pass, but the marks are still there, though we don't know who made them, and the meanings are lost.  The desire to make these records is a record of the persistence of human need to try to capture the present, the thing we experience as reality, and carry it into an unknown and uncertain future.  What persists, over time,  is not the knowledge, but the enigma.

What happened is that Daryl became ill, and died of cancer.  His farm, and some others in the floodplain were purchased by the county.  His house and sheds will be torn down. I don't know where Maggie and the other dog are, if still on the planet. He lived there,  and the memory of him is now disappearing.  But, each time I weave that 2-inch pattern of blue lines into my measureless tapes,  I'm back in that night, when Daryl was welding late at night, across the river, and Maggie barked.  The meaning is mine, and will end when I end.  After all,  I listened to the barking, breathed  thick, midnight summer air, and lived five minutes of my existence, with all of my senses alive, trying to keep it alive in weave, warp and weft, weave, weave, warp and woof. Amused that it was the first time ever I wove a woof.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

arte Rose Wylie

Adding my 2¢ of opinion to an online discussion often seems like a good idea to me, at the time. So, but for the grace of Google, which has locked me out of commenting in my ScanWeave group, until I produce my long lost password, I'd have felt compelled to offer my take on a recent discussion:  how often to advance the warp off the back beam, and  how frequently to move the rocking pivots on the overhanging beater of the Scandinavian loom forward,  for the optimal beat.

It turns out there are many aspects to the subject, which generated heated interest.  Opinions vary from never moving the rocking pivots forward, from a Swedish weaver who averred that no Swedish weaver she knew would ever do it, to moving it alternately, while advancing the warp, every 2 inches, never mind the temple, also advancing.

Of course, this sounds like an exercise I could never accomplish, like bringing myself to a free handstand in yoga class, that would require coordination well beyond my current (or future) ability and concentration, both sadly in decline.  It's probably better I can't comment, because I am  unqualified.  For the record, I've moved the rocking pivots on my loom rarely in my long weaving career, and when I did, it was only as a desperate measure, to eek out a few more inches of a warp that was coming up short.

In days past this kind of discussion would have preoccupied me. Should I pay attention to this? I am self taught and suspect (with substantial evidence) I may have quit teaching myself too soon. Maybe I'm not a real weaver.

But I am always interested in lively discussions by other, knowledgeable weavers, which I love to hear, and experience, if only vicariously, standing outside the inner ScanWeave circle.  To be clear, the ScanWeavers have always made me feel welcome. I do share their intensity about weaving matters, and try to pay close attention to the finer points.  But, I find my interests often lean in a different direction.  My  best hope at this point in my weaving career, is to be a competent weaver, no more, but certainly, no less.  I weave everyday of my life. My genetic code has made me a Scandinavian weaver to the bone.  I try to improve daily, or at least try not to lose ground.

The intensity of my feeling, and my urge to weave, conversely, increases steadily.  This state of mind usually begins with an image, or a memory, a fragile apparition.  I prepare my warps with as much planning and care as I can muster. I practice patience as I work out designs. I work deliberately at each step of the warping process, and try not to rush.  At the same time, I try not to make stupid mistakes.  I supply myself with  the best materials and colors I can procure.  I am finally able to develop very good, even tension, consistently, across my warp. Though I'm quite impressed with myself over these modest achievements, other qualities interest me more, and are what drive my desire to weave as often as I can.

Painters are often the source of my agitation, and tend to send me off in new weaving directions.  Lately, my muse and model for all things artistic is the British painter, Rose Wylie, who likes a quality of "slightly casual misfits," in her paintings. My obsession with her painting is acute, and people close to me have already had their fill of it. I usually can manage to work Rose Wylie into any conversation.

 Rose Wylie has a lot to say about her painting process.  She prioritizes the "object quality" of her canvases, "the thread, the glue, .... the marks of registration."  She cuts her canvases and pastes them on in a very casual, not precious way.  She even used to paint, stacking her canvases on the floor,  and sometimes even walk on  them.  This was not because of a careless approach to her work, but out of an intimate connection with it.  Her work is both careful, highly structured, and meaningful.   "In all the imperfection,"  she says, "the object becomes your own piece of work, it becomes very much a part of you."

 What is more saturated with "object quality" than a weave?  The beauty of raw materials, the feeling and shape that use and time add to the quality of a weave, the power of color and texture to surprise us, and change our perceptions.  I also obsess pay attention to Rose Wylie's fields of color, the division of the canvas, the use of black line, broken lines, subject (memory)..... I'm in artist-love again! Seeing these images sends direct current to my brain as I weave, and technique is a far-off consideration. If I am making a good weave, while getting close to my idea, I've accomplished what I desire. What weaver doesn't feel that way about her work?  Most importantly,  if I burn this new imagery into my brain,  how will it change my weaving?  It will change it. I anxiously wait to see that result.

In recent years I have read some discussion of craft whose highest achievement is not its "finesse, polish, and virtuosity. " "Sloppy Craft" and Arte Povera offer pushback to the dominance of skill as the primary criteria in woven work.  I don't mean to diminish the importance of skill,  but also to beware of its tendency to overpower, and even hold back the weaver/artist from achieving what may be the better part in the work.

Maybe I should have been a painter, but  I'm content to be able to call myself a weaver, even if it's just by the skin of my teeth.

Rose Wylie!

Friday, April 15, 2016

weights and measures

I don't know how much I weigh in stone, maybe 2, as in the above pictured.  Just guessing.
The days are progressing convincingly toward warm-spring, as we leave winter-spring behind.  I read yesterday that the Sami in arctic Scandinavia counted 8 seasons in their year.  Mud season is our equivalent to warm-spring.

 There is just a little leftover snow in a few northside places. Multitudes of tinnitis inducing peepers sound off in the evenings, raucous birds sing for mates well before the sun has risen, spring beauties are showing,  and geese and sandhill cranes are persistently setting on nests of eggs.  Sitting?

I've been weaving spring scarfs on a fresh 26 yard warp, since Groundhog's Day officially marked the turn of my workshop calendar from winter to winter-spring.  I put away cashmere, alpaca, and merino, yarns, and started in again on the perfect 4:  linen, cotton, hemp and silk.  This year I have new West Texas organic cotton from Voices of Industry to add to my usual Bockens. It is a beautiful and lustrous cotton, in milky white.   I've been using it in overshot designs, which remind me of cake frosting, on wedding cakes, specifically. (We have been eating a diet free of lactose,  gluten and sugar for the last 2 months, and I find my thoughts turn frequently to cake).

I've been very excited about this weaving, and apologize to anyone who has visited me in the workshop in the last month, if I have raved on about things weaving after you have lost all interest.  Maybe it's the diet!

In the woods, I have confronted a large, placid raccoon that has me unnerved, and I am not usually worried about anything in the woods.  On its first appearance, near where the turkeys danced, it simply sat and stared at us as Daniel and I walked by. Actually, Daniel decided to approach the sitting still raccoon, for reasons of his own, and when it didn't move away, kept approaching it.  I offered an opinion, from further back, What if it's not well?    It's healthy, he said, from ten paces in front of the beast.  I walked away, and Daniel caught up with me.

It didn't run away, I said. Yes it did, he said.  Later we encountered it, again, sitting near the same place.  It stared, unmoving, while we walked past.  The next day I walked up the  hill road and took the same trail out.  As I neared the place where the raccoon had been, I remembered it, and started peering under the trees. Thankfully, I didn't see it.

What if it's on the other side of the road?  I thought, and turning my head, came face to face with the stare of the same raccoon, not 10 feet from me!  Startled, I screeched a little, then slowly turned and walked away, not to appear as if I were running away.  I thought it might feel like pursuing if I showed fear, and I wondered how fast a large, ill raccoon can run.

Truly, I haven't a clue what any animal thinks.  After a while of brisk, and brisker walking, I hazarded a glance back, and saw no raccoon, teeth bared, giving chase.  Then I ran.

Saturday, March 19, 2016


One time, driving my teenage children home from school, I thought I saw a small red fox, running across a field.  "Look! A fox!" I cried.  "Mom, it's a Walmart bag!" they chorused. Of course, it was a Walmart bag, my eyesight not as keen as I thought.  And I was the driver!

I'm aware how easily my powers of observation may be shaped by my desires. So, when I climbed the hill road last Sunday and saw a shadowy, hulking shape where the road forks, my first thought was that some inconsiderate had left a pile of trash bags on the road. 

 There were some low hanging branches obscuring the details, but what I saw on the next step was two turkey hens bobbing around a handsome-ish Tom, whose whole tail was fully fanned, while he twirled like a figure in a music box.  It was momentarily mesmerizing, a moment when I wished for my camera, only to realize it was hanging around my neck, but the turkeys had already seen me, and vanished into the pines.  

The reverse of my Walmart bag-Fox misperception! 

 The turkey mating scene was extraordinary, and showed me again,  how I rush to assumptions, which prove to be wrong.  Why assume at all?  Why not just open my eyes and look at the thing before I have to know everything about it?
When I was a  young girl, I remember spending a lot of time staring,  not particularly trying to make sense of anything I was seeing.  I think that was a better way of looking.

Bee Yard Report:

Bill Pike showed up in the bee yard  this week and opened up a bee hive to have a look. It's only March, but there were the honey bees,  their back legs loaded like little golden drum sticks with yellow pollen.  Where did they find it?  Nothing is blooming here yet, only pussy willows. It's bee season, but I think they are still tapping the maples. Bill was happy to see the fresh activity in the hive,  and happy to be back at his bee-keeping.   He's spry and a few years past 80. He told me he'll keep bees as long as he can walk. In that case, it looks like he'll be at it for a good while yet.

Watercress is filling up the spring!  So nutritious, so peppery, my spring tonic.

And, one last picture, seldom seen on this blog,  my husband, Daniel, who planted our woods.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Ground Hog Day Blizzard, 2016

I have a banjo that I don't know how to play yet.  I practice holding it, and look pretty good.  It is still possible.  When I can actually play the banjo, there are 2 songs I want in my repertoire:  Cluck Old Hen, and Ground Hog.

We ate the meat and tanned the hide,
the best shoe laces that ever was tied, Ground Hog!
 is the line that kills me. 

I love this song, despite being vegetarian,  if I don't count fish as living creatures.

Our Ground Hog Day blizzard was a doozy, and did not disappoint, after all the extravagant predictions.   The world went white, and in a few short hours, we had our beautiful Wisconsin winter, at long last.  I felt so sorry for my friends, posting pictures on facebook, of themselves sitting in hot tubs, sipping cool drinks, on Sanibel, or out on Key West walking around on a beach, doing nothing in particular.

We Wisconsinites in our Rightful Place had snow to shovel, and we got right to it.  The beauty of snow laden boughs and branches was legendary.  When the sun came out, on all that beautiful
white, heaped and piled on every little thing, our spirits soared!

I took my wool rugs, mostly woven by my mother, out in that pristine, crystalline white.  This is the kind of snow to pile on those woolen weaves and broom off.  They'll look so bright after you sweep them with snow, my mother always said, and she did, and I do (and those rugs do look bright).