Monday, January 29, 2007

a frig full of penguins

Freddi came for Sunday dinner of homemade chicken soup and cauliflower quiche, to show us her slideshow and videos of her recent trip to Antarctica. My children were working to make the visit special by bringing out the Penguin Pile-Up game, in which you try to keep your penguins on the iceberg. We would have held a dramatic reading of Antarctic Antics, a Book of Penguin Poetry, except we loaned out our copy to none other than Freddi, last week. "Where the weather is cold and dark-tica," is one of the favorite lines. After lunch I whipped up a batch of Edible Modeling Clay so we could each try our hands at professional penguin formation. I made Freddi solemnly swear she would tell no one that I found the penguin-making instructions on Martha Stewart's website-- Martha made hers of marzipan, living on an igloo cake, but ours are pure butter and sugar, with peppermint flavoring. So we can make thirty penguins, eat half of them, and there are still a pod of penguins enjoying a snowy day in our frig. Some look more penguin-like than others.

Edible Modeling Clay recipe is here

Kids ate their penguins with ice cream. Adults groaned at the thought of one more bite of sugar. Freddi's company was great, and we hated to see her go.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


Satchmo decided to make Madeleine's handmade creche scene his bed, right below the gold fimo star and the tiny angel in her pink mini-dress-- you can't see her behind the cat, but she's there in the handpainted blue sky. After a few days, we rescued Joseph, Mary and the baby, plus the fimo sheep and ironically a fimo cat (Madeleine made this scene two years ago.) When Satchmo seemed permanently installed on the bookshelf, I swapped the creche-box with a different shoe-box with a tiny bit more room, and a layer of warm wool.

He's hiding less, and is mighty playful. And very, very pretty.

ben's treasure bag

This recycled sweater cuff created a beautiful backdrop for needle-felting. It's about the size of an adult mitten. Benjamin, Brendan's birthday-boy classmate, was thrilled to have a "cool marble bag."

Remind me to get around to making my own kids treasure bags, while they still appreciate such things-- they do love the tiny treasure bags made from the toes of "widowed" hand-knit socks.

I'm allowing the writing muse a few days off, while working at a weaving project. Color-- winter seasonal depression is offset by handwork and COLOR. This week, anyway. Perhaps next week will be different.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

january falls the snow

My daughter created the most beautiful calendar for me, in school. I’ll try to get some scanned crayon drawings from it, soon—the illustrations are AMAZING. Here is the poem written in red crayon, in her best cursive writing, on the cover:

January falls the snow
February cold winds blow
In March peep out the early flowers
And April comes with sunny showers.
In May the roses bloom so gay
In June the farmer mows his hay.
In July brightly shines the sun
In August harvest is begun.
September turns the green leaves brown
October winds then shake them down.
November fills with bleak and drear,
December comes and ends the year.

January falls the snow-- one can only hope! Perhaps Friday, I hear, my children will have reason to play outside. It's a Waldorf school rhyme, so old no one knows it's source, recited every morning near the turning of the year.

Blessings on your year all of it, even the bleak and drear (my favorite line).

Saturday, January 13, 2007

personal descriptors

When I was growing up, my mother’s friends frequently referred to me as “interesting,” in the midwestern way of pronouncing the word, “inner-rest-in.” As far as I could tell, I simply was who I was, and I didn’t know any other way to be. “Quiet,” they would say, or “backward,” which meant shy, and “good,” which meant I was no real trouble, not in the way some children were trouble. I could be conniving and reclusive, but I looked angelic to parents other than my own: I’d like nothing better than to sit and draw or cut strings of paper dolls, or to open a book and read it, in another world.

People no longer refer to me as interesting, quiet, backward or good. Then again, people do not march straight up to me with the dictums my mother’s friends would announce: “Denise, you could be such a pretty girl, if you just did something with your hair!” By the time I was in junior high, I could recite, deadpan and dripping with sincerity, “Well, Mrs. Osgood, I woke up this morning and did something with my hair, and this is exactly what happened.” I would shrug my shoulders and walk away, rolling my eyes as any self-respecting human being would do. Other girls with wildly curling hair cut it so short it almost disappeared, and a few fought the good fight with the curling irons of the time, but after a few years of burns and torture, quickly undone by weather, I threw away anything with an electrical cord that supposedly related to my hair. The more I do nothing with my hair, the better it behaves. Go figure.

For many years, people described me as “colorful,” which I think was a way of saying that the world is awfully gray, and I was a contrast. It also made me think of the former “inner-resting,” perhaps meaning that the world is awfully dull, and I am not. Which is “inner-rest-ing,” when I think of it. I am prone to wear rich colors, too, it is true—that’s simply what looks best on me, looks best to me. It’s not a statement of anything other than taste, this color-filled style.

When I lived in Washington State, the highest cultural compliment was to be called “authentic,” which I loved, and I enjoyed that title when it was earnestly applied to me. I wanted to earn it, and be more authentic than ever. I miss the egalitarian nature of the Pacific Northwest, the pure absence of pretension and class divisions. My students, there, were fond of calling me “a stud,” which was the highest student-level compliment, and it always caught me off-guard. “And you are a male breeding horse, yourself,” I would answer, stammering to avoid blushing the color of a fire hydrant.

Recently I have been called a hippie, though I’ve never carried a protest sign, never comfortably flashed a peace sign. I was actually born too late for those things, and my college campus was nauseatingly preppy. I chose hippie fashions before there was any exotic hippie chic— thrift shop clothes were a fun and creative way of dressing, my favorite. I was fond of oversized men’s shirts and ties, too, which could never be mistaken as hippie clothes. But yes, I owned peasant skirts and flat shoes, all-cotton blouses and batiked silk scarves for my hair. I compost. I eat organic eggs and I like green vegetables. I wish I were a better hippie, truer to my ideals.

And recently, also, I have been called “honest.” Several people have gone so far as to name honesty their favorite trait of mine, which intrigues me. I was interesting in a fairly dull place, where people’s lives seemed scripted and choices were few. I was colorful (and I still am) in a place and time where most people seemed reduced to the gray color of the workaday world, and that period of my life felt vibrant and sparkling. And now, honest, which might well mean that people expect dishonesty, that honesty is disarming. And if honesty is disarming, that might explain a lot, as friends and neighbors here don’t always know what to do with me, how to take me.

One beloved supervisor compared my honesty to a four-year-olds inability to guage response in others—he was trying to be helpful in explaining work politics, and I appreciate that, and I appreciated him, at the time. “Politically naïve,” he called me, next, and I responded that the same was said of Jimmy Carter, one of my personal heroes—and that I was proud to be lumped with him. I was being a lovable smartass that day, but oddly enough I learned a great deal in that conversation, and the lesson stays with me.
I think I’ve become less “four-year-old” honest, less politically naïve, but the impulse remains the same, first to know the clear-headed truth about a situation, then to say it out loud.

The more I read about the childhoods of writers, the more I see similar themes, chronic honesty, inability to fit in easily. Perhaps “sticking out in a crowd” is a schooling for thick skin, so necessary if one is to continue writing.

Two former students visited me when I lived in the Pacific Northwest, and they discussed me as they traveled cross-country, they said. “We both agreed that you are the most articulate woman we’ve ever met.” Of all the descriptors ever applied to me, I’d say “articulate” was the one that made me dizzy with joy.

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll accept the honor of being the most articulate woman you’ve ever met. Oh, my—you called me articulate…”

Interesting, colorful, articulate, honest. What will I be named next? Fabulous, perhaps I’ll be named something absolutely fabulous, and interesting, and colorful.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

annual report

From December 2005 to May 2006, I experienced migraines at the alarming rate of 2-3 searing headaches per week. In May I found the correct specialist and plan of treatment, and I've had perhaps five migraines in half a year.

In March, my friend Suzanne convinced me to substitute for her, assisting a partially blind woman who is recovering from a stroke. Karen/Cassie has become a source of strength and inspiration.

In May my job ended, and I began considering graduate school options.

In June, kids' summer vacation began and I received a request for a formal proposal for my book.

In July I hosted my brother, who brought me a new computer "so you won't have to write on a piece of garbage." I visited an dear friend in DC, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor. I traveled by Chinatown bus, due to gas costs and time constraints-- an adventure in and of itself.

In July I also had A Big Talk with Monica about writing, getting published, and finding the best graduate program rather than the local one. My picture of "where writing fits" shifted-- it's a little of a relief to take my writing so seriously, and a little scary.

In August I began to research SPU's low-residency masters and I mailed the book proposal for The Absence of Reliable Transportation. In September my youngest child started first grade. I added one day a week working at Cassie's house.

In late September, my friend Eugene Tiller died of a brain tumor, and I drove to DC to read a piece at his funeral.

In October I applied for admission to the low-residency Master of Fine Arts program at SPU, which is perfect for my needs. Reference letters for my application were AMAZING, powerful, and I'm still carrying them around in my journal to inspire me. Our best friend Hank visited with the young family he is dating, and after dropping them at the airport, in a state of wonderful exhaustion, I drove straight to Connecticut to visit Diana and Greg's newborn Oliver, along with Tad and Katie's newborn Sam-- all friends from Washington State, from long ago, and people I wouldn't miss for the world.

In November I was offered a place in the MFA program ( I hope to attend in August, depending on scholarships), and I wrote a query letter to a literary agent, which I expected to be summarily dismissed. I also received my first rejection letter, from the independent publisher, and began applying for scholarship after scholarship for the masters program.

A delightful woman loaned me a spinning wheel, just because I said I might like to try one. Two friends and I attended a seminar on "how to get published" and realized quickly that any one of us could out-write the folks running that seminar, who were quite, quite dreadful. They were discussing ways around self-publishing, because obviously no one is going to publish their writing for them! I certainly wouldn't. (I don't say this lightly, forgive me-- it's just one of those moments when I said, okay, so I'm really a writer.) I knitted a hat for my son during the painful meeting, so it wasn't all wasted, and so I didn't make eye contact with Elizabeth or Pat, fearing we would all fall to pieces.

In December I received a warm and delightful phone call from the literary agent. who asked me to send her my proposal, for her to read in January. We celebrated M's first "friends" birthday party, happy tooth-losses, a new kitten and a delightful Christmas.

I can't replace the bathroom floor until I hear from the plumber about the broken dishwasher and the leak into our downstairs neighbor's ceiling.

It's January, feeling like April, feeling like it's been April for months already, rain, rain, and rain. Cassie's been in and out of the hospital. Kids are in their annual post-Christmas phase of cannibal-behavior-- they wake talking incessantly at the top of their beautiful lungs, they get on each other's nerves with a constant whistling/whining/bickering mania, and I search desperately for means of controlling volume. Brendan's recent bout with Pestilence has me experiencing nightmares of creeping things. Satchmo is fine, sleeping in the window instead of under the bed, couch, dresser, desk.

The tree is down, the spinning wheel returned, and the Christmas stuff is waiting to go to the attic. I am supposed to "nudge" the literary agent, and I'm gathering my wherewithall to do so-- but first I need to go to Cassie's for the day and shake off that "creeping things" set of the creeps.

2006 has been a big year. Sometimes I forget, I'm not at a standstill, even though it is January-going-on-April 107th. Stories written, challenges embraced, people loved. I still haven't earned a dime from my writing, but it's good, good work, and that time will come. Another scholarship essay to mail this week, and work on the next two.

Keep going. I keep going. It's only rain.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

the yarn party

The seven girls start by forming a circle on the floor, a small and shrinking circle as they crowd closer and closer to me. I place a pinkie-sized sliver of loose wool in each of their left hands, and mirror how I wanted each girl to hold her wool like a toothbrush. This left hand, I say, is your fiber source.

Take your empty hand and pinch a bit of the end of your piece of wool, and pull your hands slowly apart a few inches… now twirl the pinch of fibers between your fingers of your right hand, and pull a little farther apart. It’s an experiment: we’re just seeing what happens. Notice that the few fibers you hold, drag out a few more fibers. The only difference between loose wool and yarn is one word: twist. Our job is to add twist.

Look at yours! It’s a long triangle! That’s called The Drafting Triangle. Yours broke—that happens a lot in making yarn. A lot. Trust me. Pull out another pinch, slowly.

Next I want you to take your left hand-fiber source and your right hand-drafting hand, and put your pulled out fibers onto your right knee. Flatten your right hand and roll the fibers toward you, up your leg. Now let’s all pick it up again and look at it at eye-level. Congratulations! That’s your first piece of yarn! Without letting it untwist, place it on your right knee again and roll it up your leg with the flat of your hand. Now show it to me again as you lightly pull your hands apart. Yarn! How about that? Want to try again? Roll, and pull your hands apart. Watch carefully as the twist enters your drafting triangle, and moves toward your fiber source. Twist, triangle, fiber source. What do you think?

Two lucky girls had an immediate sense of drafting, pulling a long and even piece of yarn out of one pinky-sized fluff of wool. It’s not that easy for most of us.

Denise, how do I keep it from untwisting, Denise, mine broke again, Denise, can I have red next time and not blue? Denise, Denise, Denise. Education—it’s a beautiful thing, even when it’s like being picked apart by seagulls begging.

Take. One. Giant. Step. Back. And make a circle. No one sits on my lap. I look at them with mock sternness. This is a great bunch of girls. I believe I could teach these nine-year-olds engineering, if only I knew it. But we are engineering yarn.

When spinners make more yarn than they can hold, often they will wind it onto a stick, and eventually the stick evolved into something to put the spin into the wool, as well as a place to wind the wool. Brendan, can you bring me the basket of spindles? He proudly walks to the big basket full of shiny disks on sticks. The girls burst into happy ooh-ing and aah-ing. “I maked these myself, for Madeleine’s birthday party,” and it’s true: he drilled the holes with his hand-crank drill, into the ends of the dowels, then sanded the dowels and watched carefully as I threaded on the rubber grommet and the discarded CDs. (I'll get you a link to directions here.)

Do we get to take these home?!!!

Of course you do! It’s your party favor. Raucous cheers break out. Now, some of these spindles will spin better than others, so you have to tell me if you find one you like perfectly, and I’ll put your name on it. Brendan, can you bring me a Sharpie? I handed each girl a spindle with a tail of yellow yarn.

See this yellow yarn? A spindle needs a leader. The leader grabs your loose fiber so you can get started. Lay the leader alongside your tuft of yarn, in your left hand. Give the spindle a quick spin like a top, with your right hand…

And so the party went on, girls inching the circle into a crowded knot, girls exclaiming Denise-Denise-Denise, what’s next, what am I doing wrong, can you put my spindle back on because it fell off, laughter.

Guess how long it took me to learn to do this well? They name all kinds of numbers of minutes, hours, months. Three years. I just kept trying. You are already doing so well! Remember, it’s just an experiment. Your first yarn will look like an experiment—lumpy and funny. It takes time. But you—I can tell you are fast learners.

Two girls are ready for the next step, and Madeleine helps them get started plying, which in this case means folding the lengths of fiber in half so it twists back on itself. Two girls have asked for more colors of wool, and Brendan has already agreed in advance to be The Yarn Waiter—that’s how he got into this party, as the only boy and the only seven-year-old. He earned his way. Two girls are feeling quite challenged and I let them try a simpler-to-use “pencil roving,” which needs less coaxing to become yarn. Madeleine already knows how to spin, and she decides to be a hostess, like Brendan’s waiter-role. “This is what you do next. Let me help you ply.”

The same Denise-Denise-Denise’s happen, but each a little less urgent and a little better paced for one single Denise. No one says “I don’t get it” after the first few minutes, and looks of concentration are deeply furrowed. Slowly the girls make a wider circle, each moving to her own little piece of spinning space. We start by spinning and stopping the spindle between the knees, called the “park and spin” method. Soon all the girls are trying to spin without “parking,” simply watching to make sure the spindle doesn’t unspin the wool. Some yarn is just plain crazy with lumps and clumps—but some is quite, quite good for beginners.

We break for lunch after ninety straight minutes, and I truly thought we’d be lucky to get this far—but I look up and see that the girls have draped their heads and waists and necks with strands of “funky yarn” as they call it, in bright combinations. Elizabeth holds her spindle on her lap, sneaking spins between bites of lunch. They eat Madeleine’s favorite chili and cornbread, or not, and they eagerly jump to get back to their spindles. They barely break for cake and ice cream, and then I hand out tufts of hand-dyed roving with color combinations that charm and satisfy—they spin more, and all of the yarn is either passable for adorning Christmas packages, or truly beautiful. I demonstrate a spinning wheel, just so they can see, but the girls are absorbed in their own spindles. They show their moms, who spin a bit more.

Madeleine announces that it’s the best birthday party she’s ever been to, “and it’s MINE!” And each of her friends says the same “this is so cool!” They leave with yarn, with shiny spindles marked with the girls’ names, and more beautiful fiber, and everyone hates to see the party end.

I smile when the last one goes. The floor is filled to brimming with twenty colors of wool, mixed together in piles all over the floor. Two spindles fell apart, so there are CDs and double sided tape to contend with. And a sink and table full of dishes. But it’s not far from clean, either—we’ve done a lot of cleaning chores to prepare for the party and our house will be more ready for Christmas than it’s ever been. Beneath the dishes and wool tufts, it’s tidy. The tree is lit, the children lit up as well.

Scott drives Madeleine and Brendan to an art afternoon at church, still glowing from the excitement of the party. Only I know that I’m going to pick up a new kitten, who will be waiting at our house at the end of a very exciting day, along with a simple dinner. Scott tells them on the way home that there is a special guest waiting for them, and they name a dozen people they’d love to see—but they don’t guess. Somehow we’ve kept it secret. Brendan practically fell to his knees in kitty reverence, whispering, “oh, Mama, is this kitty ours?”

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such whole-hearted satisfaction as we experienced with our dinner and dessert. We took turns holding the new kitten—who hides much of the time but cuddles and purrs when he comes out. Brendan tells me he has been wishing for a baby brother, and a boy kitty counts. Madeleine tells me “Now all my wishes have come true—a birthday party and a kitten.” Two days before Christmas, and we are practically done, with everyone going to sleep happy and tired.

A party, a kitty, and wishes coming true. Sometimes it’s like being picked apart by seagulls. But sometimes parenting is really, really good.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Here is artwork by the acclaimed artist Brendan, as he interprets Isaiah's passage, "the people walking in darkness have seen a great light." The kids in our church spent four Friday afternoons in December meditating on verses related to Advent and waiting.

The photo function of my blog has been broken. My apologies for long streams of writing without visuals, and yippee that it works today.