Forum Holitorium

Category: Books

Indecision in Blue


October is blue yarn month by personal decree. Look closely at bowl and you’ll see a silvery blue merino/silk cowl that shimmers in the light and spiral socks for a friend who looks radiant in teal. And then there is the indigo alpaca, a serendipitous find on the sale rack, which is earmarked for a cuddly warm sweater for me. Pullover or cardigan? That is the question. The gauge is no help because it is spot on for both of the patterns under consideration.

I have been trying but not always succeeding in buying yarn for specific patterns. Yet it’s not just about the pattern, and the luxurious texture and deep color of this yarn were irresistible. In my knitting file there is a pullover pattern saved from a magazine six years ago; I justified buying the yarn to knit the pattern. But then I found a pattern for a cardigan that would match nearly all my fall and winter long sleeved shirts. My hope was that by the time I settled down to start the sweater, a clear sign or intuition would have tipped the scales one way or the other. Well, last night I had a dream about yarn. It was about a skein of blue and white 100% Portuguese wool sock yarn spied in a yarn store a few doors down from where I recently took a shibori workshop. How should I interpret that?

Shibori is a Japanese technique for dyeing fabric by binding or tying it so that the dye does not penetrate the entire cloth. The result: an infinity of patterns. Though indigo is traditionally used, the workshop made use of synthetic dye. Still, it was interesting to try my hand at dyeing and see the patterns that emerged. The artist conducting the workshop complimented me on “my” patterns. This is odd, because what is there of “me” in the cloth samples that remain? The real work was done by the dye, wasn’t it?

I have had indigo on the brain since I read Catherine E. McKinley’s Indigo: In Search of the Color That Seduced the World this summer. McKinley spent time in Africa on the trail of cloth traditionally dyed with indigo. Along the way, she learned that a respectable woman has cloth, which is second only to children in importance and even more valuable than land. What most people don’t know is that indigo-dyed cotton cloth was part of the transatlantic slave trade, leading American abolitionists and Quakers to boycott indigo and cotton cloths.

Cotton still remains a controversial fiber today. Its cultivation has led to the disappearance of the Aral Sea, which I first learned about in Tom Bissell’s excellent Chasing the Sea. Buying organic cotton is better than buying conventionally produced cotton, but it is still a thirstier plant than linen or hemp. Like many people today, I am trying to be more deliberate in my choices of what clothes to buy and make, going for fewer, high quality items that I can mix and match. That is one reason my choice of pullover or cardigan is such a strategic decision. In the meantime, the spiral socks are finished and there is no danger of cold feet.

May it be easy to make any decisions you face!

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April Braid

A cold clouds my mind. I puzzled a few days over how to tie together pictures and thoughts into a coherent blog entry. How about braiding together three strands of my preoccupations in April: baking bread, knitting neck warmers, and walking in the woods?

The leftover wool wrap in brioche stitch is finally done and protecting my neck and shoulders as I write. It was a good exercise to improvise a pattern, to go through the steps of envisioning what I wanted, researching and learning a new technique (two color brioche), and bringing this vision to life. It had been months since I last made a garment for myself. This is one I will get a lot of use out of; I have already worn it every day since finishing it. Along with one blue sock, my knitting bowl now holds yarn for two cowls – one thick, one thin – that will match most of my spring wardrobe.

It is finally warm enough to open the windows and let in fresh air. Despite my cold, I have gotten out walking every day and can’t get enough of the sunshine and milder temperatures. Tuesday I visited St. Radegund again, my favorite forest near Graz. It has been weeks since I was last there. Fresh air, sunshine, a circling kestrel, eight deer. I am learning a lot about the forest in Germany and Austria from Peter Wohlleben‘s book Der Wald: Eine Entdeckungsreise (The Forest: A Journey of Discovery). Over the course of his career as a forester in Germany, Wohlleben has turned his back on practices he learned during his training and is attempting to forge a more sustainable forestry practice by moving away from the status quo of spruce and pine monoculture (spruce and pine being trees common to the taiga further north) to the restoration of the beech forests that originally covered Central Europe.

One great obstacle to the restoration of beech forests is the overpopulation of deer brought about by the absence of natural predators (wolves and lynx) and their protection by hunters. Yes, you read that correctly. Hunters want their hunting grounds to be full of deer, so they feed them. Yet they do not kill enough deer to keep the population in check. Instead of a sustainable density of one deer per square kilometer, the density today is more like 40 to 50 deer. The result: the deer eat up the young deciduous trees. More deer also means more ticks and thus more Lyme disease. Lots of questions about “my” forest in Radegund are forming as I read this book. Since it is in the Alps, I wonder to what extent the spruce and pine there are native – where the beech forest ended and the conifer forest of the Alps began. There is so much to learn about trees.

There is a lot to learn about baking bread too. Since I will soon be on the other side of the Atlantic for some time, I am putting off working with a sourdough starter. Inspired by Fanatic Cook’s recent no-knead whole wheat bread experiment, I have made two loaves with yeast and long fermentation (40 hours plus) that have turned out tasty. Since I don’t have a special pot for bread, I have just plopped the dough into a square cake pan and let it take on whatever shape it wanted. The elongated hexagon of the latest loaf is quite elegant.

May April bring you fresh air, fresh baked bread, and a warm neck!

The Long Winter Week

The long winter week started out last Saturday with dinner guests bearing tulips and a bottle of Rioja. Knowing that temps in Graz would drop to normal Wisconsin winter temperatures, I had made preparations, buying food to last five or six days. The grocery store is only a five minute walk, but a five minute walk at -4° F / -20° C is to be avoided if at all possible. Been there, done that enough in college. Working at home is a definite plus in winter. I was looking forward to a cozy week. The red-orange of the tulip blossoms were a wonderful companion at the kitchen table and provided a good contrast to the bright white of the moderate snowfall outside.

To get in the mood, I pulled Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter off the shelf. It tells the story of how she and her family survived an unusually harsh winter in the Dakota Territory. Though they lived in town, there were so many blizzards that the trains couldn’t run and bring supplies. By mid-February, most of the food was gone and only thanks to a risky run by two of the town’s young men to buy seed wheat at a distant farm is the town saved from starvation. How easy I have it today in comparison. No need to twist hay to burn because the coal ran out, no need to go to bed early because there is no more kerosene for light, no need to sleep in an unheated attic where the snow blows in. Though there are days where most of the calories I consume come from bread and potatoes, that is my choice and not because that is all that is left.

There is much talk of wool wraps, mufflers (in the older sense of the word as in something that covers the throat), and shawls in the book; making your own clothes and knitting were what everyone did. I started knitting a wrap for myself that will use up leftover blue and gray bulky yarn. Reversible patterns interest me because they look good regardless of what side faces forward. I decided on knitting three panels in brioche stitch. The end panels are single color while in the center panel, I am trying out two color brioche.

Pioneers need to be industrious, keeping things in good repair and being able to fix whatever needs fixing. This week I finally took time to mend clothes and hand wash scarves and wool socks. For the first time ever (and with the help of the internet), I actually darned socks. And they weren’t even my own. Since I have nearly knit through my yarn stash and thus the dream of a future in which not more than 10 skeins of yarn lay dormant looks like it will soon come true, I have started to think about What Next. A major in sock knitting and a minor in lace weight neck warmers are at the top of my list.

The cold spell has broken and above freezing temperatures are working their way in my direction. The snow will soon be gone and it is time for white to be replaced by green. I couldn’t resist a pot of basil at the grocery store. What a difference a few leaves make as a garnish. A shot of color in the kitchen is also very welcome.

May you find the patience and the right technique to repair what needs fixing!

Middle High Autumn

I find myself happier with less. I find I no longer need to seek things out; instead, the important things and ideas find me. I find myself listening. Looking. Observing. More. Not enough though, because I nearly stepped on a fire salamander, so engrossed I was in a conversation, my thoughts darting to possible futures instead of taking in the wonders in front of me.

Fall brings with it a quiet of its own. I am at a point where I am interested in seeking out new rhythms and focusing more on the silence between the beats. When I need to clear my head and breathe deeply, I head to the forest. Somehow the colors of the leaves – those on fire as well as those stalwartly green – seem more vibrant to me this year.

In September I read two books that found me, two books not on my reading list. The first was The Abundance of Less by Andy Couturier. Couturier interviewed ten people living in rural Japan who are treading softly on the earth by making do without money as much as possible. One of the people he interviewed said that we human beings want things because we have too much information, yet the changing weather and seasons are enough. Another says you need a life where you can be aware of nature and perceive it closely.

I stop to admire water drops on leaves and walk away carefully, leaving them for others to appreciate.

The second book was Being the Change by Peter Kalmus. One of the important messages is that although we cannot save the world, we can still change it, and every action counts. Kalmus is a climate scientist who has slashed his CO2 emissions by ninety percent. He writes eloquently about the change in perspective that is necessary to temper global warming and speaks from his own experiences with meditation about how practicing can lead to greater equanimity. What if more people cultivated equanimity?

What both books have in common is the ethic of choosing not to take everything we can take. Just because something is possible doesn’t mean it should be done. Opting out is often a very good option. I don’t need to climb a mountain to appreciate its beauty and be changed by its presence.

Snow has already fallen in the Alps. In the valley where I am typing these lines, freezing temperatures were predicted. Instead of a dusting of frost on the grass, my observations early this morning revealed two magpies in a linden tree nearly devoid of leaves. It is darker longer, and the silence of evenings is intoxicating. Apples are at their peak of crispness; wool begs to be knit into sweaters.

May you choose not to take everything you can!

 

Elemental Experiences

Last weekend I retreated into the green folds of the Alps and had the pleasure of meeting a writer whose work I admire. It was by chance that I discovered the work of Ulli Olvedi. While scanning the books on the shelf at a café last summer, I came across her book Wie in einem Traum (Like in a Dream), the story of a young Nepali girl who becomes a Buddhist nun in her quest to follow her own path through life and find answers to the fundamental questions we all ask. I was immediately impressed by the clarity of the Olvedi’s prose and the compassionate depiction of a strong female character. Since then, I have read several of her other books  – both fiction and non-fiction. And then I found out that she was going to be giving a seminar on Tibetan healing meditation at a center for Buddhist studies just a few hours away. How could I pass up the opportunity?

The seminar dealt with how to keep the energies of the five elements in the Tibetan tradition (earth, water, fire, air, and space) in balance so as to prevent illness from occurring. It is believed that illness starts at the level of subtle energy before it manifests itself physically in the body. A typical meditation exercise involved focusing our attention on an experience we had had with a specific element and observing the feelings that arise. When I meditate, I usually focus on my breath or on the sounds around me. Visualization is a bit of a challenge for me, but it helped that the subject of meditation was my own embodied experience and I could drawn on other sensory memories.

sun-and-moon-and-stars

At the end of the seminar, we received a kind of homework assignment: to reflect on our own unique relationship to the five elements. Which element is the strongest in me? Water. Which element am I striving for? Fire. Which element provides me with support? Earth. These are my initial responses, but I would like to explore this topic in greater depth.

May the constellation of elements in your life be in balance!

The Unbearable Heaviness of Books

Fragment from a recent dream: I discover two Vintage International paperbacks lying on a table, one of Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native and one of his Tess of the d’Urbervilles. I comment on how I enjoyed reading both in my 12th grade English literature course (which is true) then wake up.

I have been obsessed with books lately, yet not in the normal bibliophile way. An avid reader since the age of 4, I have always been drawn to the printed word, and the feel of a book in my hand is second nature. My first dollars were earned shelving books at the public library; my next job involved bibliography searching and cataloguing new books in a college campus library before I moved into retail and worked at a used bookstore while finishing my studies and deciding What Next.


This recent obsession with books, however, is different. Though I do not actively collect books, I am a book magnet – and the attraction is mutual. They appear in my wake, congregate on the coffee table, wait for me to pick them up, turn their pages, absorb the wisdom they have to offer.  When I visit a person’s home for the first time, I am inevitably drawn to the bookshelves, my eyes narrowing and shrewdly assessing the book situation. I read an interview with Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho in which he said that he keeps his books in closed cabinets so visitors do not know what he reads. A bit paranoid, perhaps, but the paper company we keep is indeed revealing.

For the past year or so, I have been trying to free myself of material and mental ballast. We need so much less than we think we do. I practice yoga because it helps me experience a feeling of lightness and spaciousness within my body, a sensation I associate with health and well-being. I have been trying to create a similarly unencumbered space in my home by removing excess things. Since books are the category of objects I have the most of, I have been working on radically reducing their number.

At one point in the past year, I decided to employ a different tactic than choosing what books to get rid of. Instead, I told myself I could keep one book for every year of my life. Out of the several hundred books on my shelves at that time, I only found 25 that I deemed important enough to carry close to me the rest of my life – with a comfortable margin for this core collection to grow! This exercise made me see how I view many of my books as temporary companions and has helped me loosen my grip on and let go of dozens of others.

I have come to realize that the books we place on our shelves represent projections of who we wish to be. It is a good practice to periodically reexamine what dreams are staring down at us from the shelves and potentially weighing us down with unrealistic expectations – and then take appropriate action. The shelf above, for example, constantly scolds me for doing nothing to make good on my wish of learning Polish and Russian well enough to read literature. Yet this wish was formulated in a past that no longer has much of a connection to my present. Isn’t it enough that I can already read books in three foreign languages, I plead with the Polish textbooks, who respond with stony silence and disappointment at my audacity to reject More and be satisfied with Enough.

May the books on your shelves be supportive and not reproachful!

The Summer of Unexpected Events

This summer has been marked by a number of unexpected events. A particularly momentous one was this week’s delivery of three monster zucchini that may have crossed with other squash in the vicinity: 7.25 kg / nearly 16 lbs. I sense that August’s menu will be green.

The Paul Robeson tomato plant I bought on a whim in April has produced exactly the same variety of tasty heirloom tomato that I normally buy at the market. I am not adept at matching name with appearance because most full grown tomatoes are not identified by variety at the market where I do my shopping. This surprise is a pleasant and tasty one.

There has been a severe drought in knitting this summer. The only project I have finished is a linen purse that matches everything and brings me joy whenever I look at its simple form. I wish I were skilled enough to put in a lining to help it keep its shape better. Maybe it’s not so bad after all – I am putting fewer things inside so as not to stretch it out, which is ultimately better for my shoulders!

If you had told me in May or June that this would be the summer that I finally started seriously reading poetry, I don’t think I would have believed you. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to devote more time to the lyric literary genre – this wish goes back to my teenage years. I just never seem to be able to break out of the mindset of prose and make time for poems.

There is a receipt in my copy of the Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke dated May 30, 2009. It reminds me of what I had forgotten: I bought it at Libreria Minerva in Trieste, less than an hour away from Duino Castle where Rilke was inspired to write the ten elegies. How fitting. While walking along the cliffs above the Adriatic Sea, he heard a voice say what became the first line of the poem: Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen? Who, if I cried out, would hear me from the orders of angels? Ten years, one world war, and several bouts of depression later, Rilke finished the work in 1922.

There have been moments when I wanted to cry out in frustration at the challenge of moving back and forth between the literal meaning of the words and the images Rilke uses in the hope of coming up with an interpretation of the verse. Poetry is truly another mode of using language to describe the world that is radically different from everyday speech and prose. As I learn to read poetry, I am practicing another way of deciphering the world.

Rose Ausländer, another poet I am reading intensively this summer, wrote the poem below that features the following insect spotted in my flowering savory. I had thought this would be the summer of feasting on all the herbs growing on my patio, but I have rarely taken the time to pick anything but a few leaves of mint here and there to put on top of bowls of strawberries. At least the bees are happy.

May the unexpected events you encounter be pleasant ones!

Dienen II

Ich habe Flügel und

viele Gestalten

 

bin Biene und Mensch

suche Blumen und Worte

 

Ich diene meiner Königin

der zärtlichen raubstarken

im fleißigen Spiel

 

Ich kann liebkosen

und stechen

taufrisch-himmlisches

Erdengeschöpf

 

Service II

I have wings and

many guises

 

am bee and human

seek flowers and words

 

I serve my queen

tender strong as a robber

in a busy game

 

I can caress

and sting

dew fresh heavenly

creature of earth

Giving Words Away

My American history teacher in high school was one of my favorites. He was a small-framed Greek-American man who rode his bike to work every day (very odd in my hometown) and wore short sleeve button-down shirts and a bow tie. He taught us as if we were college students already and refused to set the bar lower. The history of our country was important and you were expected to learn it. I can still remember my two term paper topics. The first was the Chicago race riot of 1919. At the time, I was incredibly disappointed that I had been assigned that topic, but in retrospect I am happy because it taught me something about an important event that had happened close to home. The second topic I chose myself: the Peace Corps. I interviewed my high school principal, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Iran, and my mother, who had served in Thailand. I remember my history teacher telling my class how important poetry is and that he always read poetry before he went to sleep at night. I have always been more of a prose person, but a part of me has always thought it would be good for me to devote more times to the lyric literary form.

Another of my favorite teachers in high school was my English composition teacher. One of his favorite quotes was by Kafka: “A book must be an axe for the frozen sea inside us.” (…ein Buch muß die Axt sein für das gefrorene Meer in uns.) This weekend I heard an axe of a poem by Rose Ausländer. Instead of violently chopping through the ice, it rapidly warmed up and melted something frozen within me. Here is the poem, first the original German and then my English translation.

 

Noch bist du da

 

Wirf deine Angst

in die Luft

 

Bald

ist deine Zeit um

bald

wächst der Himmel

unter dem Gras

fallen deine Träume

ins Nirgends

 

Noch

duftet die Nelke

singt die Drossel

noch darfst du lieben

Worte verschenken

Noch bist du da

 

Sei was du bist

Gib was du hast

 

You are still here

 

Throw your fear

into the air

 

Soon your time will be up

Soon

the heavens will grow

under the grass

your dreams will fall

into nowhere

 

Still

the carnation gives off its scent

the thrush is singing

You may still love

give words away

You are still here

 

Be who you are

Give what you have

 

The next step is to make more time for poetry, a type of writing I have always found challenging because it isn’t as linear and logical as prose. You can’t go directly from point A to point B; like an onion, you have to keep peeling away the layers to get at the meaning. You can’t gulp down poetry, you really have to savor it as it melts on your tongue like a piece of bitter dark chocolate. Since the pace is more relaxed, summer seems like a good time to get into the habit of reading poetry. This summer a friend and I are attempting to read through Rilke’s The Duino Elegies at a rate of one elegy per week. We are up to the third of ten elegies and I am confident we will finish by fall – unless I get too distracted by the two volumes of poetry by Rose Ausländer that I found at the public library.

Hope you find a good poem or give away some words of your own!

Musings on the Mur

This week I decided I would be better off spending less time bellyaching about not being where I would like to be and more time actively engaging with where I am. To use the language of the book I just finished by Karen Babine, Water and What We Know, it is time to stop regretting my not being in the homeplace, “where you return, no matter the occasion…where you go to remember who you are and where you will find those who will remind you of where you come from…where you go to remember what is really important and what is chaff.” It is time to start asking the two central questions of her book: “What does it mean to live in this place, on this particular day? What do we see when we look?”

The Mur River flows through the center of Graz, yet I have always felt the city is divorced from the Mur; it doesn’t feel like it is a true river city like Budapest or Paris or Ljubljana. Is it because the river is so much lower than the streets that you need to walk down a flight of stairs to get to its banks? The paucity of cafes and restaurants at river level? The strong current that makes you think twice about dipping your feet in it? Last summer a 15-year-old drowned in the river after he went in to cool off.

There was a time when I used to bike into the center every day on the riverside bike path. There was another time when I used to stroll along the path on the opposite bank. I do not spend much time in that part of the city anymore and forget that I can get close to wild (river) water whenever I like. This past week I took two walks along the Mur. As soon as I walked down the steps to the level of the river, the rush of water drowned out the traffic and city noise immediately.

The first walk was Friday evening. Even though the path was crawling with people of all ages out enjoying one of the first summery evenings this year, it was still possible to find a peaceful place where I could contemplate the river. The second walk was yesterday morning, when I was the only person out and about.

Babine makes a distinction between lake people and river people: as a lake is self-contained and complete, lake people don’t seek anything beyond the shore and have found what they need. River people are always looking for more and are compelled to keep walking. When I gaze at the Mur, I think of how all the water rushing by that started up in the Alps will ultimately reach the Black Sea. I imagine how it first flows into the Drava in Croatia, how the Drava then flows into Danube in that same country, how the Danube finally empties into the Black Sea. Rivers are the circulatory system of Europe, ensuring cultural and economic flow. Or at least they used to. When I look at rivers, this is what I see: source and confluence, past and future.

At heart, I am a lake person; maybe it is the influence of all these rivers I have lived near over the past 15 years that has kept me moving and looking for more: the Vistula, the Rhône, the Saône, the Moskva, the Mur. Crossing a river has always been an exciting experience, yet more exhilarating is how the wind off the lake sweeping down from the north whips my face, chilling me awake. But I digress.

What does it mean to live in Graz on this day? Summer has finally arrived, neatly coinciding with the solstice and full moon on Monday. Out with the summer dresses and skirts. What do I see? Sun warmed tiles that kiss my bare feet. Thriving strawberry plants that yield luscious berries. A linen bag taking shape quickly. A small lake in a glass of organic wine from the Penedès region in Catalonia. A fascinating new book on the history of women producing textiles.

 Enjoy seeing and being exactly where you are!

Silver Lining

Clouds generously sharing rain everywhere, every day, every time it starts to warm up and it seems like I am finally going to catch up with summer, who is still in the lead. The gap widens, so I tell myself stories to keep up my spirits. I pretend that I live in Scotland, where this would be normal summer weather. Or project into the future to autumn when I will wear an incredibly heavy cardigan I have nearly finished knitting, one that will keep me very warm. Or wrap myself up in a wool blanket and end up taking a nap. Or stuff myself silly with strawberries topped with a few grinds of black pepper and a splash of balsamic vinegar. Or ponder the allure of Minnesota and the north for Karen Babine, author of Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life. Nearly halfway through the book, I stop and catch my breath. Babine tackles topics that move me, that excite my interest. One’s relationship to the place we are from. The legacy of our grandparents. The power of water. The stories we tell ourselves about who we are, where we are from. The color green.

I have been to Minnesota four times. The first time was on a road trip with a friend while I was still in high school. What remains are memories of listening to a Nina Hagen mix tape on the drive up, of touring Minneapolis’s art galleries, of eating delicious Ethiopian food with my hands. The second time was a perfunctory visit to check out the University of Minnesota. The third time was an afternoon side trip from Superior to the delightful city of Duluth, a city lucky enough to be perched on Lake Superior that I hope to return to some day. The fourth time was to attend a seminar on posterior cortical atrophy at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. All urban experiences of Minnesota. I know nothing of the landscape Babine passionately describes. Reading this book is taking a journey to a real place filtered through her perception, and I am having a good time on this vacation. The name Minnesota comes from the Dakota language and means “somewhat clouded water.” It’s fitting to read these essays under a very clouded sky.

Yes, on a rainy day like today, I’m forced to accept the terms and conditions for living intimately and in harmony with this element. Babine writes: “We want to be surrounded by all the forms water can take because humanity is not predictable and constant. We want the ice, we want the snow, we want the rain, the hail, the flood-even when the presence of water is destructive, it still reminds us that water is a give and take, and we can’t always have it good. We want the humility that water brings. It reminds us that things can always be worse.” In another chapter, she narrates her experiences “on the fringes” of the major 1997 flooding of Fargo-Moorehead and Grand Forks-East Grand Forks by the Red River. We tell stories to make sense of events larger than ourselves and to put a finger on what has changed in us as a consequence. I think of what just happened in Orlando and how important it is for those who survived to tell their stories about what they experienced in the hope of making sense of it all.

Hope makes an appearance in this book as Babine seeks to understand the effect that the mythology of the American West had on her ancestors who lived in South Dakota. As I type this line, hope resurfaces with the sun, which has already started to dry the tiles on the patio. One day the tomatoes will ripen into a blushing red and it will be warm enough for me to wear this cotton sweater and and attempt to blend in with the sand.

Don’t lose hope as you wait for the sun to come out again!