My friend is studying to be a wild life scientist, a trapper and catcher of information about the world’s dwindling carnivore populations. He’s approaching his graduation date, but I am only just now getting in a trip to visit him, because after two and a half years, I am finally ready to be separated from Baba overnight.
And so, I find myself on an airplane by myself. It’s a puddle jumper, as Virginia Tech is only a two hour flight away from home, and the plane is so small that I have managed to get myself a seat that is both window and aisle.
Glorious time, for an introvert. Two and a half hours of the kind of solitude that I have become accustomed to, the type where you’re surrounded by strangers who need nothing from you. Although I should be writing, instead I read the last 40 pages of Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Stay and Those Who Leave, the third in her famous Neapolitan novel series. Somewhere near the end of the flight, I close the book on the last page and sigh, knowing that I can’t check out the fourth and final book from the library for another week.
But then I look up, to see that I have been lucky enough to arrive in the mountains in late fall, where the land is carpeted in hundreds of thousands of trees that are all turning red and orange and yellow. Suddenly it strikes me how little I’ve noticed the turn of the season and how few trees really live on my street, although one thing I loved about my neighborhood when I moved to it were the size of the suburban trees. But compared to a real forest, the paltry sidewalks plantings of the suburbs are nothing.
When I land at 6 p.m., it becomes clear that we are the last scheduled plane and the airport is closing for the night. There are cafes and bookstores in the terminal, but the employees have shut off all but the emergency lights and they chat with each other in a way that doesn’t encourage customer interruptions.
It is a relief to be out of New York City, to retreat to a calmer place, where the accents are slower and businesses shut down for the night.
In the morning, we go to Virginia Tech, which is a glorious campus, with serene and stately stone buildings nestled among majestic trees that create a campus that feels more like a well-kept city park than a university. But you can’t go far without running into a memorial for the students and faculty that were murdered here a decade ago. It is a too-solid reminder of the attack on New York last Tuesday, which hit me and mine closer than any would ask for. But we try to move past it, darting between buildings in the gray rain, and watching the Virginia Tech undergrads like zoo animals, because the 15 years that separates us makes them seem like alien creatures.
I am here for a short visit – not quite 48 hours – and most of it is spent on friendship, asking about people that no one else remembers, reminiscing about the people that we were when we were the same age as the students around us. We can’t help but wonder – is the world less innocent now than it was then? Are we less safe now than we were then?
Then the news of the Texas church shooting breaks, so we know.
The flights to America leave from Terminal 2 in Dublin. There was a time when arriving at the airport was a relaxing part of the trip. It was a last chance to sit at O’Brien’s and have one last authentic fry-up, one last cup of well-brewed Barry’s tea before stuffing a real scone in my bag and heading back to the land of hot dogs and coffee.
Time has changed things. O’Brien’s is not what it was. The tea is a weak European blend that we don’t recognize. The fruit is green and the sausages are no longer spiced in the Irish style. The staff are eastern European, serving up a cheaper version of the Irish experience that has lost everything in translation without gaining any international flavor. The beans are insipid at best.
But this barely matters, because we no longer have time to stop there for breakfast before our flight. New American security concerns mean that we must go through two sets of security screenings, as well as customs, before we even get to the gate. Well over an hour later, when we’ve gone past all of that, we queue up for half an hour at the one restaurant in the American section of the airport, where I pick out a muffin that I don’t want because we no longer have time for the staff to heat up a panini. The plane is already boarding, even though we’ve been at the airport for two and a half hours. I swallow half of my cappuccino before throwing out the rest so that this time, thank God, we don’t end up running for the gate. I burn my tongue.
It has been an exhausting trip, this trip back to Ireland to bury my brother-in-law. I’ve cried a great deal more than I expected, while remembering more names than I anticipated. My in-laws are a veritable tribe, a tribe that shows up en masse to major life events. There are cousins and friends and adult children with children of their own, all of whom seem to remember my name. When I ask my Beloved to clarify which cousin Mary that he had just referred to, he gives me a blank look at my dense incomprehension, then rattles off a string of names and relationships that I lose hope of being able to follow by the second sentence. My family has been declining in numbers for a generation; I am simply not equipped with the skills to remember everyone, even after four years of marriage. But I am getting better.
My sister-in-law brought pictures of my Beloved and his three siblings to the wake, one from shortly after the birth of the youngest and another from right before my Beloved left Ireland for good in the late 80s. They are children in the first picture and barely more than that in the second. The second photo hung in the family home for decades, becoming such an icon that my Beloved and his siblings retook it a few years ago. I am so glad that they did now, though I remember being in a rush at the time, because there will never be another one with all four of them together. That time in their lives has finished, long before we ever expected that it would. So we passed around the pictures and told old stories to the new generation, while marveling at the changes in the family between then and now. Baba wandered at our feet, pulling at the photographs and trying to find out what happens when you bend them.
My brother-in-law was buried on Saturday, so we took Baba and her cousins to St. Anne’s park on Sunday for some much needed downtime. There is a playground there that is a Dublin institution. The carved horses and cows had fresh paint once, but it has been worn off by generations of small hands climbing all over them. Baba climbed up onto the Viking ship, which is far too tall for her, and her eldest cousin, who is a man himself now, reached up to keep her from falling. We posed her with her two cousins, and tried to keep her still enough to get a good shot. She doesn’t understand why we would want to sit still in a playground, where there are so many things to climb and explore.
Perhaps there will be a day, years down the road, where we’ll make another photo like yesterday’s, when Baba is old enough to understand, and marvel again at the impossibility of capturing time.
I know that I am grieving, because poetry keeps running through my head. A fragment here, a stanza there. It is a dark season, made darker this week by the passing of my brother-in-law, who was a fine, big man that I’d been planning on having in my life for another 20 to 30 years, at a minimum.
Tonight, we will get on a plane, a red eye flight that will take us over the dark waters of the Atlantic. We’re travelling with Baba and have taken enough red eye flights with her now that I do not think that I will be sleeping for the better part of 24 hours, because toddlers do not understand things like ignoring all of the distractions on the plane for some much needed rest.
There are, indeed, many miles to go before I sleep. Many of them will be spent walking my 30-pound toddler in my arms up and down the narrow aisle of the plane, begging her to just, please God, please just close her eyes.
And I am reluctant to go and see my brother-in-law. In April, my brother-in-law was a healthy man. I saw him this summer, after the brain tumor had started to destroy his body function, but when he was still talking. A seriously ill man, but an alive one, who was asking about the madness that has infected American politics this year, who had opinions about movies and wanted to tell you what you needed to watch next on TV.
As far away as we are, it doesn’t yet feel possible that he won’t be in Dublin, waiting to greet us when we get there. I have no experience of Dublin that does not include dinners at his house, his hugs and kisses, the feeling that he always gave me that I was truly a part of the family, that the in-law part of our names for each other was just a stupid formality that only mattered to other people. He was the first of my in-laws to call me his sister. I will never forget the happiness in his face as he did it, because it must have reflected mine.
Once I see him, then I know that it will be real that he won’t be there anymore. Not this time, nor the next.
And I do not want that. I desperately do not want to talk about him in past tense. I want to keep him in the realm of “is” and not “was.” It’s impossible. It’s just impossible that such an alive person could no longer be with us. It’s impossible that there will be no more beers in seaside pubs and stories of his motorcycle cop days and eating takeaway fish and chips at his dining room table, listening to the fire crackle and pop.
Cliché, cliché, cliché. But things become clichés because they are true.
And that’s where poetry comes to save us, to say things for us in beautiful ways, to express our grief in words that seem worthy of it.
And so, Joe, let me share with you the stanzas that I’ve had stuck in my head since I heard the news of your death. The poem reminds me of you, you who spent your weekends sailing yachts, because it was what you just loved to do. You, who took scuba trips to Caribbean islands, who worked in Croatia for a year, who finally found the adventure you were always looking for in the love of your life. You were never too modest to share how happy you were about the fine adventures you had! — and that gratitude, that spirit is something that we should all learn from you. And so I think of Robin Williams in The Dead Poet’s Society, again, telling a classroom of young boys about the preciousness of each day, because you, Joe, you were the essence of carpe diem. And so I say, to all of you…
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.
My house backs up to the commercial side of town, so we generally keep the bathroom curtains drawn so as not to see the parking lot of the McDonald’s that is, thankfully, just far enough away that its greasy odors stay where they belong. Seagulls often visit its parking lot, particularly in the early mornings, before the restaurant wakes up and cars remove their easy access to the Dumpster. On Monday, as I pulled myself out of a deep sleep fog, the calming
sounds of their squacking and bickering actually registered, penetrating my sleepy brain enough for me to really listen to them. We have been in the forests of Oregon for a week, where there are no seagulls, and the auditory break elevated their voices from a background noise into my consciousness.
When I return home from a truly great vacation, I always have a sense of disassociation when I walk back into my familiar setting. Every time, it leaves me wondering why I put so much energy into a place, if a single week away from it can make it unrecognizable? Is home a place, a feeling, a thing? Is the stuff that lives there really relevant? Am I really attached to the little noises associated with my house, if the seagulls can seem unfamiliar and strange?
In any case, we are home again and reacclimating to the sights and smells of the end of summer in a beach town near one of the worlds’ busiest cities. It’s a far cry from the silence of a ski resort in summer, where we had no neighbors. It was remote enough that we kept planning on driving out at night to see the stars, which we thought would be gorgeously unpolluted, but the cloud cover conspired against us. Next time.
This was Baba’s first trip on an airplane. The thought of managing a
baby through the menagerie of the airline experience stressed me every time I even thought of planning for the trip. The actuality was not nearly so bad. This contrast between expectation and reality was such a relief that I arrived in Oregon in the best possible mood. The main event of the trip was a wedding that was particularly meaningful for me, where I watched a dear childhood friend reach out for the happiness that she deserves, surrounded by her community. Then we celebrated with a beautiful party, where I danced with Baba until my arms ached from her increasing weight. A late night, satisfying conversations with strangers, good food, love and joy. It was a beautiful weekend.
When the celebrations were over, we went into the woods, where my Beloved and Baba and I spent our first vacation together, under the watchful gaze of Mount Hood. Oregon is in a drought, so we joined the natives in shaking our head at the atypically brown appearance of the mountain; snow meandered down its face in isolated patches, while every sign we passed warned us that the forest fire danger was extremely high. In Maupin, a woman approached my Beloved and told him that he was risking a ticket from the fire warden if he smoked anywhere other than standing in the Deschutes River.
I considered pushing him in. For his own sake, y’see.
And yet, despite the dryness of the season, the forests were lush and
alive with life. We saw chipmunks and snakes, small ravens, hawks and — as we drove out to the desert country on the other side of the mountain — vultures. Along the Columbia River, the giant waterway that separates Oregon and Washington, we visited waterfall after waterfall, stopping to gawk and take the same picture that millions of tourists have probably taken before us.
I badly needed the respite from New York. As the summer has worn on, I find myself daydreaming more and more often about living on a farm in the woods, where snow blankets the miles of fields that separate you from your neighbors. Upstairs, I have a desk with a giant window, where I can sit and dream and write while looking at a pastoral scene. The house cleans itself. The pets and children are well-behaved. There’s time and peace and quiet and a solitude that is broken at my convenience. It’s a beautiful dream, particularly in the contrast from the crowded subways and harsh interactions of strangers that are cramped for space. Last week, alone with my family, in a quiet place, I pretended for a while that the dream was real.
This is the time to remember
Cause it will not last forever
These are the days
To hold on to
But we won’t
Although we’ll want to
(Billy Joel — “This is the Time”)
I’ve been doing some organizational work with my computing lately, as long-time readers of the blog may have noticed. As part of it, I found myself cleaning up my digital pictures, which are now a collected set of folders dating back fifteen years.
Fifteen years! How is it even possible?
Aside from my awe that digital photography has been around and accessible to the casual consumer for that length of time, looking through the years of my life captured in this way was really emotional. I found myself searching for the rare pictures of myself, because I’m still struggling with coming to terms with my post-partum body and I wanted to compare my mental image of what the numbers on the scale mean to some reality.
It’s a strange pursuit. Most days, I can keep focused on the fact that this amazing body created a human being — a human being that fills my days with relentless joy. Baby girl is at a really nice point in her development, now that we’ve transitioned from days of constant upset stomachs to watching her learn how to use her body to maneuver into the basics of mobility. Newborns are relatively inert, but now that she’s five months old, she spends her days interacting with her world in the most innocent ways. I spend my days waiting to run home and watch her. There’s really no better consolation to the changes in my body, but it’s still difficult to accept that there have been changes in my body that are beyond my control.
When I first left home, I gained a hefty amount of weight. I was eighteen, with no conception of nutrition. I grew up feeding myself egg sandwiches and Ramen noodles and whatever else I could scrounge in the kitchen. (My mom was very dedicated to her job and, more importantly, hated cooking.) When I moved out and into a ridiculously paid dot com job, I could suddenly afford eating out regularly and lots of dessert. The pounds packed on. When I moved to working a night shift, I used soda to keep myself awake, not realizing the extra meals I was taking in every day in all my empty cans of Mountain Dew. I reached an all-time high score on the scale by the time I was 20, which I didn’t see again until I was seven months pregnant.
I did learn. I learned about exercise and nutrition. I got the weight back down again, as college classes sent me to the gym. Better yet, I learned what it felt like to be fit and strong, rather than just having the effortless thinness of my teenaged years. Pregnancy hit me hard because it took a lot of that confidence and put it on a shelf for a while. For the first time in many years, my feet ached from the weight of my body. I had to catch my breath after walking up the stairs. I couldn’t keep up with the guys at work when we went out to lunch. I had to ask for help to lift things. Looking back, I wish I had enjoyed my pregnancy more, but I spent nearly all of it dreaming of the day when I would have the strength of my body back.
Now, five months after the birth of my baby, I’ve lost most of the weight that I put on, which was significantly more than the recommended thirty-five pounds. The majority of it came off in fluid and baby in the first two months, and there has been a slow but steady decline since, but the last pounds linger. I’ve been doing my best to lose the rest while not thinking about it, but inevitably I will pass a mirror and feel an unwelcome dismay. There are so many other things in my life that are so much more important, but my rounded mommy belly feels like a step backwards to my days of poor fitness. I admit that it hurts my pride.
But rarely does a day go by where I am not grateful for being able to do something that was inaccessible in pregnancy. My abdominals are still rebuilding, thanks to the planks and bridges that are now part of my daily routine, but I can change the water bottle at the cooler at work without having to think about it. If I need something out of the top shelf, I can climb up on the counter and get it. I lift and swing and move baby girl around wherever she needs to go. I can carry her without rest for the better part of an hour. These are all glorious things that seemed impossible a year ago.
And yet, in looking back at my oldest photographs, I don’t see such a dissimilar body. What surprised me most is how unimaginably young I look. I was out in the world on my own, living in an apartment with roommates, working a good job without any knowledge of the upcoming recession that was going to make the next few years full of financial struggles.
My hair, long from laziness, hangs past my shoulders and down my back. It’s usually carelessly clipped up, just to keep it out of my face. My clothes are often unfitted and unflattering, because I didn’t understand those things either. My face is rounder, my waistline bumpier, my arms looser. I could not have predicted what was in front of me, though I remember feeling a lot of anxiety about it. But I didn’t feel young.
Has gazing at my younger body given me any insight into my conception of my body today? Even now, I am fitter, older, more experienced. Then, my fat curled around my waist like a tire; now it hangs in the front as a long reminder of where baby girl lay, head down and waiting, for so many months. Our bodies are still joined, as I guide her to my breast every morning and night so that she can suckle and get the nutrition that she needs to challenge and conquer her world. She has changed me, through the fading stretch marks and the shape of my body. When I look at photographs of myself now — or at the end of my pregnancy — I see our connection in the shape of my waist.
I want to raise a girl that doesn’t spend so much energy on such ridiculous things, as much as I know it is probably impossible. But still, in looking back at my young body, I was reminded of all the places that I’ve seen since — trips to Aruba, Jamaica, Belgium, New Orleans, Canada, Cornwall, California, Paris — that I’d completely forgotten about. There are few pictures of me in those albums, since I’m usually the one behind the camera. Perhaps the takeaway here is to hand the camera over — to make certain that someone records me, not as a record of my body and its shape, but as a reminder of who I’m holding in my arms at the time.
I have been spending a quiet weekend of introversion, catching up on some much needed alone time and rest. It is cold here, so I carefully ran all of the errands that I would need to do this weekend over the previous week, so that I wouldn’t need to leave the house at all from Friday night through Monday morning. My Beloved, in a deep expression of our differences, has driven six hours north towards all of that famous Buffalo snowfall. He is hoping for an epic fishing weekend, as all the less hardy fisherpeople will have been scared off by the six feet of snow that has demobilized that city and the surrounding area.
It does take all kinds to run the world.
I have been soaking up the quiet, like a pumice stone floating in water. Life has been very busy lately, between the baby shower and concerts and baby education classes and all the doctor’s and dentist appointments, so the chance to sit and nap and read and listen to silence has been a luxury. I have been researching a new writing project, which has filled my time with an artistic exhilaration. Even though I have not yet put more than a single sentence to paper in the actual writing, I am filled with ideas and plot and characterization. I love this part of a project; when all is possibility and excitement. The writing itself is harder than the dreaming, but the dreaming is a great deal of fun. This project is historical fiction, so the idea is that spending some time doing research before starting to write will save a great deal of time down the road. Dreaming and reading and lazying about and thinking justified. Sometimes the rest before the race is what just what you need.
We head down to Virginia on Wednesday for our annual Thanksgiving trip. It is one of my absolute favorite times of the year, when I get to spend several days visiting with some of my oldest friends. We’ve been doing this Thanksgiving celebration for about a decade now and I don’t think I have ever missed it. I’m not technically supposed to go this year, since I’m in the third trimester now, but I figure the emotional benefit outweighs any physical risk. It will be my last trip before the trip to the labor ward.
Over the years, the Thanksgiving crowd has changed and grown, as any family does. The people that I bring with me and leave behind have shifted too, as my own life has fluctuated over the last decade. Yet this one trip every year works as my focal point — reminding me that there are certain parts of my life that stay steady, even when everything else seems in flux. That grounding is more important this year than ever.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my mom, as is probably natural for a woman in her first pregnancy. Traditionally, I go visit her grave at Arlington Cemetery during this trip, which is an important moment of connection and catharsis for me. It surprises me every year, but I almost always cry when I’m there. Some years, it is the only time I cry all year long. This year, I’m looking forward to my visit, so that I can introduce her to the seven-month-old fetus that I’m carrying around. I think she would have been pleased beyond words by having a granddaughter. I have had a good deal of sorrow that this child will only know one of her four grandparents, since I am so close to mine. I know she will have other people that will fill those roles in her life, but I can’t help but be saddened by it all the same.
I always feel strange talking to a grave. My mom’s ashes are inserted in a cavity in a wall that holds the ashes of many other veterans of this country’s military. It is a courtyard, with granite nooks for ashes surrounding the visitor on all sides. When I put her ashes in the cavity, the nooks were mostly empty. Now, seven years later, the cavities have all filled. Our conversations grow ever less private. I look over the dates on the graves surrounding her and count the ages of her neighbors — I wonder how many other visitors come and see the forty-eight years between her birth and death and are moved to pity…and no small amount of curiosity.
Still, I am looking forward to talking with what remains of her. There are just some things your mother should know, even if she can no longer hear what you have to say.
When I walk into the house of my oldest friend, I notice that there are three wax elephants on her mantel. They’re in complimentary colors that I knew that she would like — dark and rich burgundy, maroon and gold. I don’t remember when I bought them or for what occasion. Christmas, perhaps? A birthday? But they have moved with her again and again, from Boston to her new home of Portland and, a decade later, they march across her mantel, as still as ever.
It makes me smile.
We are in Portland, Oregon, at the end of a short visit before we drive up to the San Juan Islands for a week with my family. This is a city that suits her perfectly and, although I miss being able to easily visit with her, I know she belongs here just by looking at the houses. My city is a city of apartment buildings, sophistication, grime and intensity. This city seems to be built of the American Craftsman style, with often eclectic paint jobs and overflowing rose bushes and azaleas, butterfly bushes and lilacs. It rains a lot here, which you can see in the fecundity of the suburban landscaping. Plants dominate, their growth seemingly unstoppable. It’s a beautiful place to walk around and watch the melt of nature and art. I have never been here on a rainy day, and everyone tells me how lucky I am, but I can easily imagine that this is still a beautiful place even when the skies are grey.
Yesterday, we sat on the banks of the Sandy River for most of the day. There are so many parks here that it’s easy to step into nature. We cleverly bought two large umbrellas at the local store, which meant that we spent a beautiful day with our heads in the shade and our feet in the sun, watching all the adventurous Portlanders willing to go rafting in an ice cold mountain stream. The comfort of old friends is that we slip back into each others’ lives so easily, the conversation quickly ranging from past to present to future. I love fitting into her life here and seeing her friends, some of whom have become my friends over the years, and watching as her community and her home grow into something even more beautiful every time that I visit. I am very proud of my friend and proud to be her friend. I feel this way about most of my friends, as I watch us all growing into older, wiser, slightly greyer versions of ourselves, but the geographical distance that makes our visits rare makes it so much more obvious when I do see her.
Last night, my Beloved said the most beautiful thing to me, which was that he liked Portland and would love to come back. I’m glad that he thinks so, because I miss this town already.
The suitcases that we have been living out of for the last two weeks are large and blue, made of the durable canvas that all suitcases seem to be constructed from. We bought them for our wedding two years ago, when I was stuffing dresses and suits and cuff links and fashion tape into them. It is like visiting with an old friend to pull them out again. We have gotten good at schlepping them from the backs of cars and onto conveyor belts at airports and very good at ignoring the comments of the airline personnel when they see the size of the larger one.
Just how much does that weigh?
Enough. It weighs enough.
We are in our third country since we left home and are once again walking on the left hand side of the sidewalk instead of the right, enjoying tea and biscuits instead of stroopwafel and frites. This has been a trip that has been jam packed with visiting friends and family, but we’ve managed to do a little touring with just the two of us, which is not something we’ve had much opportunity to do over the last six years. We never took a honeymoon, largely because we could never agree on where to go. This trip has been a good lesson in that it doesn’t really matter where we go — it is about the adventure, the unwrapping of new places. It is about being outside of our comfort zone, together, and exploring.
It has been a long time since traveling gave me this sense of freedom and playfulness. I bought a new bag, a Harris Tweed, which has just enough room for my notebooks and my camera — the essentials for making art on the go. It straps across my torso and just putting it on makes me feel like an adventurer. I have been taking time to take photographs, to stop and really look at the world around me, to see, to comment, to describe. When I made our arrangements, I was sure to book in extra time; a night here, a few hours there with no objectives, because I knew that what I needed most was hours without obligations.
We have been visiting with my in-laws, who have been very kindly hosting us and feeding us ridiculous quantities of food and tea. I have been basking in their company, in hearing the old family stories, in seeing the family traits that they share with my husband. My Beloved is a natural born storyteller and I have heard most of the stories before, but they’re good enough that you can listen to them again and again. With the others here, I’ve been hearing them from different angles, different perspectives, and there has been so much laughter and love. It has been a really great thing to be immersed in, this tapestry of history that weaves this family together.
Tomorrow we return to the real world, the busy city of skyscrapers and ambition, the place that hosts our lives. I am glad to be going home, because it is the place that has the cats, but I am also glad to be taking the memories of the last two weeks with me. I am coming home inspired and ready to go, with ideas and art on the forebrain, I’ll be glad to no longer be living out of our suitcases, but I’m so grateful to be reminded why it’s important that we do sometimes, because being out of the normal parameters of our lives puts them in context. And it might be a little while before we take to the skies again, but that doesn’t mean I can’t start dreaming about it.
We have taken advantage of the long weekend and have shot up to rural Vermont with some friends for a weekend of skiing. I say skiing with some hesitancy there, as I have not left the house since we arrived two days ago, but instead have been spending my time enjoying the glistening carpet of snow that covers everything with the nerve to be outside. I have never seen snow like this before and the triangular piles on top of every fence post just look like tiny wild snowmen to me. Outside, on a deck that we can’t access for the three feet of snow blocking the door, I can just see the tip of what looks like a vacuum cleaner that someone left outside. There is so much snow that it spills from the second story porches onto the ground until you cannot tell where one floor ends and the next begins.
This seems like a place where winter means waiting; it is a long deep breath where you must force yourself to rest. To do anything else, to fight through these insurmountable acres of snow, is unnatural.
There is a horse on the property, which I can see from the bedroom window, and I have risen from my seat every few hours to see if she has dared to stamp out more of the snow from her paddock, but she does not seem to want to move far from the comfort of roof and trough. I can empathize with this, as I have barely moved myself and have not been too sorry for the vertigo that pushes skiing out of my reach. I have been happy enough to sit in the farmhouse and admire the filet crochet curtains, the snowshoes on the walls, the hanging quilts that make you reach out and draw a finger along the curled white lines of the quilting. There are no fewer than four stuffed deer heads mounted low on the walls, which disturbed when we first arrived, but are now beginning to feel like old friends. With everyone out of the house and over at the mountain, there is a silence here that is deep and restful.
I have been taking care of writing obligations with deadlines on them, which is work that does not fill me with much joy. I have been pushing through so that I can get back to reading and editing and writing creatively, which has been difficult to find time for in the last month. A frustrating state of affairs. The deadlines have been met now, which means the next forty-eight hours are entirely mine to remind myself how to do the things that I love best to do. With the peace of the last two days, my brain is recharged and I am ready to go. I don’t think I will want to go home.
As it usually does, October flew by in a mad rush. I always want to do more for Halloween and, every single year, I find myself speculating at how everyone else manages to find the time. I’ve no idea how my time gets so filled up, but there’s something about the changing of the seasons that puts me into a flurry of writing and fiber arts and music that makes it difficult to keep up. Before I know it, Halloween is over and I haven’t done a thing but admire everyone else’s costumes.
One of the biggest events for me was my first time going to the Dutchess County Sheep & Wool Festival, more commonly known as Rhinebeck to the knitting community. It is a county fair that has been taken over by the fiber arts world and is largely considered the biggest fiber arts event in the country. My knitting circle went together. They convinced me to walk out on a very tall bridge:
I love these ladies.
I had mixed feelings about Rhinebeck as an event. This is because I’ve been to SOAR, which is a spinning retreat put on by Spin-Off magazine, which ran for the very last time this year. I am very sorry to have missed it, now that I know that it was the last one, because it was an event I deeply wanted to do again. SOAR is all about fiber arts mentorship and learning. There’s a market, but it doesn’t open until four days into the event, and it’s small enough that you can go through it a few times. Rhinebeck is the inverse of this; the focus is on the market, with a handful of offered classes. The market is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in the fiber world; barn upon barn upon barn upon building of fiber vendors. It is so overwhelming that people develop strategies on how to cover all of the vendors. It is very crowded, particularly among the more popular booths. And while I would like to say that it was crowded with my kind of people, that just wasn’t universally true.
I like to talk to people when I’m at fiber events, because it’s an occasion to gain knowledge on subjects that just aren’t all that common among the general population. I did a lot of that at Rhinebeck and I learned some interesting tips, particularly regarding weaving. If knitters are becoming more common, it’s very hard to meet a weaver, so I asked questions of everyone I could find that was behind a loom. That was really great. I also went with the goal of buying myself a nice spindle, which I did within the first few hours of being there. I picked a Forrester, largely because it was beautiful, and I thought having a beautiful tool would make me more interested in spindle spinning, which has the advantage of being much more portable than a wheel.
This has worked well. I also picked up a copy of Respect the Spindle, which has demystified some of the aspects of spindle spinning. That little ball of alpaca single there is my first real spindle spinning. I can’t wait to finish spinning all that alpaca behind it so that I can try my hand at plying.
It was also at the moment of this excellent purchase that I had my first meeting with The Other Kind of fiber artist. I had been chatting with her about spinning while waiting in line to purchase my spindle. She cheerfully declared that she had just spent her entire Rhinebeck budget in one place – pointing out that it was $300, repeatedly. Then she asked me, with some disdain, if that really was the size of the bag that I had brought *to Rhinebeck*, since it was just my purse and clearly not big enough for everything that I would want to take home. She also asked if New York had *any* good yarn stores, as she’d only ever seen one and it was in Ohio, but…she’d spent $500 there the first time she saw it! I suggested that Manhattan does, indeed, have several that are quite good, as it is the home of the fashion industry, and then I fled, feeling weirdly ashamed and disgusted at the same time.
There is a subset of people in the fiber arts community that are collectors. To some extent, we all are — we love the beauty of fiber. But there’s a certain set that seem to feel that the extent of one’s fiber and yarn stash is somehow corollary to how dedicated one is to the fiber arts. The point seems to be not the creation of art from beautiful materials but a sort of competitive commercialism. My stash is better than your stash. I have such an aversion to shopping and commercialism generally that I never quite know how to handle these people. It wasn’t the quality of what she had purchased – it was the dollar amount that she seemed to feel was important. For me, this is the opposite of what the fiber arts are about. Knitting or crochet or spinning or weaving connects us to a time when these were mandatory survival skills. I feel at peace when I’m doing these things. I feel connected to a slower time and the people that led to my existence. I feel a pride as my hands turn string into clothing and cloth and fleece into yarn. Having the modern “buy buy buy!” of mass consumerism shoved in my face throws me for a loop every time, even though I’ve been to enough shows to have expected to meet her. It’s just not what the fiber arts are about for me. It’s not what I think they shouldbe about.
Perhaps it is actually a comment on the fiber arts community that I only met one of her. I spent the rest of the weekend walking around, feeling inspired and meeting people whose work I admire. I had my books signed by Ann Budd and Gertie Hirsch. I had sightings of Ann Weaver and The Tsock Tsarina. I went to my first fleece sale and got to look at fleeces in person before buying them. (I brought home those pretty goat locks on the left there.) I learned from weavers and spinners and knitters alike. I spent the weekend with some excellent friends and drank way too much grappa and Domaine de Canton. I discovered that milk stout is delicious. If the crowds were overwhelming and occasionally peppered with people who were loudly missing the point, I think the benefits far outweighed the downsides. I left feeling inspired…and with plenty of fiber in my far-too-small bag. Now just to use it all up — maybe I’ll catch up by next October.