Summer Pleasures: Making Simple Syrup with My Son

Simple-SyrupRoses are in bloom here in the East. My own New Dawn climbing rose, trained on an east-facing wall of my house, is spectacular. Beneath it, on the brick path, is a bed of pale pink fallen petals.

Now is the time to make simple syrup, a rose-petal colored syrup that I like to use in many different ways:

Drizzled over vanilla ice cream, a lovely sweetness to delicate ice teas, a refreshing addition to an icy cold glass of water . . . you can think of other ways to use it, I’m sure.

Making the syrup couldn’t be easier. I make it with my son (it’s a simple, fun project for adult-kid collaboration. All the collecting is fun, too) and we have a great time thinking up new syrups to make: lavender syrup, for example.

The syrup itself is easy to make:

All you need is a sauce pan, 1 cup of water and 1 cup of sugar. Increase the 1 to 1 ratio to make bigger batches.

To make rose syrup, collect a cup of rose petals right off the plant. The fresher the better. We just pull them from the flowers still on the stems.

Add the water and petals to a saucepan, boil until the water is the color of the petals, but softer. Scoop the petals from the water with a slotted spoon. Next, add the cup of water and bring to a boil. Boil until all of the sugar is dissolved.

Rose-PetalsWe like to pore the syrup into pretty class bottles. Cool, then put tops on. Refrigerate.  To save syrup, you will want to sterilize jars in hot water bath or dish washer (from which you remove them when they are still very hot), pour in syrup, and then put on sterile lids. Make sure they seal. Give as gifts or store as you would jams and jellies. We like to use our syrup right away, however, so we just refrigerate.

If you use it right away in a tall glass of icy water, you might even put in a rose petal or two – so beautiful. I’ve served this to dinner guests and it has always been a dinner favorite.

Simple-Syrup-in-Cold-BottlesTo make Lavender syrup, you collect the fresh purple blossoms, taking them carefully off of their stems. A tablespoon or two will do the trick. Boil as you would rose petals and follow the same procedure as above.

My grandmother used to do the same with violets. To this day, I can’t see violets without thinking of her. I have let them take over one side of the house and we call it violet valley. In Spring, it is magical.

Both Lavender and violet syrup have a pale purple color but Lavender syrup takes on the distinct flavor of lavender. It is very exotic and fantastic over ice cream.

Beguiling Gold Finches

I have a series of bird feeders that I can see from my kitchen window. This year, I am concentrating on luring Goldfinches to these feeders. I have, according to the FAQ I recently read about attracting them, done everything right: I have a feeder specifically for Goldfinches that has a bright yellow top and is full of nyjer, a feeder of black sunflower seeds, a feeder of “Finch Supreme” mix, a water source that I keep free of ice . . . but no Goldfinches.

likely-Goldfinch-AmericanThere was one the other morning and I was so excited, creeping toward the kitchen window to get a better look, no sudden moves to catch its attention and scare it away. It ignored the Nyjer (is the seed too old?). It lept from the fence to the big hook that holds the feeder. It tested the Finch Supreme mix but seemed unimpressed. It lept back to the fence and hopped down to the hardy Jasmine vine, worked its way along the vine toward the big ceramic pot that holds my mosquito fish and is heated to the point that it steams like a dragon’s nostril on cold mornings. There is even a water lily sending up leaves to the surface. Earlier in the season it held two frogs that would cool their backs in the frigid air. I hope they left for their soil cocoons when we turned off the heater during cool days that stayed above freezing.

The Goldfinch lept to the lip of the pot and looked down at the water as if to say, “How am I going to manage to drink from this?!” but it quickly figured things out and It worked its way around the lip of the pot to the place where the black cord goes into the pot and down into the water to the pond heater. It hopped to the cord and inched its way down to the surface of the water, took a drink. A second drink. Then off it flew with a thrum of its wings.

I whisper, “Bring your friends . . .”

But the feeders are lonely of Goldfinches. Throngs of sparrows fight over the Finch mix, Cardinals and Jays like the sunflower seeds. My Nyjer must be past its day. How do they know without tasting? “At least taste,” I think to myself. Maybe they do when I’m not looking.

My friend Beth say she has “mobs” of Goldfinches. Never has the word mob sounded so lovely to me. I want mobs of Goldfinches, too.

I think of those stacks of knitted yellow sunflowers I’ve got from the days of working on the book of knitted flowers, Noni Flowers.

I get to thinking. Would a Goldfinch be beguiled by a knitted sunflower? And in the middle of Winter?

Let’s see. . .

I’ve got my plan. Join me here next week for a plan update.

Best Apple Pie Ever, if I do say so myself . . .

Best-Pie-Donei don’t know what the weather is like where you live. . . but where I live it’s COOOOOLD! And when the weather gets cold, I make apple pie. The pie above is a picture of the Christmas apple pie I made with my Dad in Maine. It was . . . delicious!

You see, old fashioned apple pie has a rather legendary status in my family. And I have been perfecting my version for a long time now. In the last few years I’ve hit upon a pie everyone who tastes it loves, every-single-time.

If you want a step by step with precise measurements, I’m sorry I can’t do that, because, simply, that’s not how I make pie. What I can say is that I started with recipes (I have a whole shelf of books on pie) and then started to play around. My apple pie is never exactly the same and that’s what makes it an adventure. Here’s what I do:

 

Prepare the Pie Dough

I confess that I got my secret ingredient from a recipe in Cooks Illustrated. I won’t include their recipe here as I’m a great lover and ardent respecter of copyright law.  But their basic recipe is pretty much the same as every basic crust recipe I’ve ever made.

So, follow your favorite pie crust recipe to the letter and make it a double so you can make both the bottom crust and either a lattice or full top. I personally prefer an all butter crust, so I don’t mess around with lard or oil: only 100% sweet cream butter for me. Once you’ve got the butter cut until the flower and butter mixture resembles course corn meal, you can add the cold cold water like you always do and then, here’s the secret, add the same amount of vodka. It does not activate the gluten in the flour so you get the most amazing flake, almost like puff pastry. The extra liquid makes the dough more workable without over-activating the mechanism that holds the crust together. Too much water and crust is too tough, too little and the crust will shatter.

I put half the dough in one piece of plastic wrap and the other half in a second piece of plastic wrap. I shape the dough quickly into a rough ball and then flatten to a thick disc almost a personal pan pizza dough shape. Wrap tightly in the plastic wrap and put in the freezer to store for a while, or, at the very least, put in the fridge for a couple of hours before rolling out.

 

Prepare the Oven

Preheat the Oven to 425 degrees.

Put a metal cookie sheet in the oven with a big piece of parchment paper on it. I put the cookie sheet in at the start of the pre-heating process so the sheet will be really hot when the pie pan goes on it. The function here is to get the crust cooking from the bottom up so that the crust is beautifully crisp even on the bottom.

 

Prepare the Filling

While the oven is heating up, start preparing the filling.

What Kind of Apples?

I like sweet crispy apples. My favorites:  Honey Crisp. Pink Ladies are in close second.

How Many Apples?

I get out my pie pan. Fill the pie pan with Honey Crisp or Pink Ladies apples in a single layer for big apples and add just one extra apple if you want a really big pie. This plan works no matter how big or small the pie pan is.

Apples-in-pie-pansPeel and core. I use a peeler that also cores and slices the apple. I cut each slice into thirds. If you don’t have such a gadget, peel by hand, cut the entire apple into thirds or quarters (and core at the same time) and then cut each section into pieces that are about a quarter of an inch thick or slightly thinner. Next, I put a little citric acid over my cut apples to keep them looking pretty and fresh. A little lemon juice or Fruit Fresh does the trick.

And now the fun starts. Here’s my basic philosophy: If it tastes good in the bowl, it will taste good in the pie. Go for fabulous but a little less sweet than you want the finished product to be. Never fails.

What to Add to the Apples?

Sugar. I use a cup measure and start with about a cup and a half rough. Then I sweeten to taste (but not yet).

Mix-in-the-sugar-etcSpices. A shake or two of Cinnamon, a pinch of dried Ginger, Clove. A scrape of Nutmeg. I use a fresh Nutmeg with a tiny little scrapper. A generous splash of good, real Vanilla.

Fresh-Nutmeg-2Spirits. And now, drum roll please, add a shot or two of excellent Bourbon. I have been known to use delicious brandy or even just good ole Maker’s Mark Whiskey (welll, like the very last time I made pie).

MakersmarkMix until the sugar starts to pull the juice from the apples. Now taste and taste often! Not sweet enough? Add a bit more sugar a bit at a time until it is almost, but not quite, sweet enough . . . That means it’s perfect. Dust with a bit of flour or corn starch to thicken the juice during cooking. Maybe 3 or so tablespoons, roughly. Taste again. If you are smiling, and love it, it’s going to be amazing. Stir thoroughly and set aside with the big spoon just sitting there loving where it is because you’ll mix it one more time before pouring into the pie shell (don’t forget).

 

Prepare the Crust

If frozen, the dough will need to rest on the counter for a while until it is workable.
If in the fridge, it might still need a few minutes on the counter. I have hit upon the method of starting the rolling out process by rolling around the edge first–this works well to keep the edges from splitting too much.

If a full top crust, cut some slits to let the steam escape. I prefer a lattice top most of the time, so I score with the top side of a regular kitchen knife and then put together while it is on top of the pie. I then sprinkle the top with water and then drizzle granulated sugar all over the top – don’t go wild, of course. Just enough to make it glisten and add a bit more sweetness to the top crust.

Then the crimp. I have to say, this is possibly my favorite part. If you have not already done so, study crimps, pick one, and then make it your own. Here are some ideas from simple to fancy:

piecrusts

I am teaching my son to make pie (he is 7 right now) and he has not yet developed his own crimp, but definitely his own “look.” The little pie here is one he made all by himself! And it was delicious!

Crimp

More crimp ideas:

101144029.jpg.rendition.p rope-pie-crust-s3-medium_new BraidWhat you want is everyone who sees your pie to say is, “O, this must be one of your pies! I can tell from the crimp!”

Best-Pie-Before-PictureStart in the oven at 425 degrees for 20 minutes or more depending on the size of the pie and the amount of apples:  bigger pie full of apples, better make it 30 minutes.

Baking-in-a-325-ovenAfter that, turn the temperature down to 325 and bake the rest of the way. If the crust starts getting too brown, just put a piece of aluminum foil on top or just where it is getting too dark (sometimes on the outer crust/crimp) – this will protect the crust while it finishes cooking. The pie is done when a nice golden brown and the juices are thick, a bit darker, and at a slow bubble. This means the juice has boiled and activated that thickener you put in.

Almost-DoneRemove and let it cool on a rack.

Then, have at it!

Best-Pie-DoneHmmm. Delicious!

Knitting on Vacation: Unexpected Solutions for Common Problems

Sometimes when you are on vacation you forget some of your tools at home. . . sometimes this is a great opportunity to shop at the local yarn shop. Sometimes there is no local yarn shop!

Here are my most recent funny problems and my solutions:

Problem: No stitch markers, only fresh cherries . . .

Where there is a will there’s a way. Cherry stems twisted like pretzels make great stitch markers when your needles are a US size 8 or smaller. Who knew? Of course you can always used waste yarn but it isn’t as much fun, or as delicious.

 

Problem: Special Order single ply yarn seems to be overspun. . . swatch is slanting . . .

I swatched about 5 times, changed the needle size, made a large swatch, a small swatch. . .  The swatch was twisting. I wanted to make a coat from the 2,000 yards I had special ordered in a beautiful slate color. But if the yarn is overspun and causing even a small swatch to torque, then  coat could be a disaster.  What to do?

I am convinced there are at least 3 solutions to every problem:

Possible Solution NO. 1: Forget about the coat. Make something where the torque would not only not matter but might make the design more fabulous.  An infinity cowl or wrap. One of these swallowtail garments/wraps.

Possible Solution NO. 2: Forget about the coat. Make a wrap that has sleeves, even sleeves with big bells, asymmetrical, wraps around the body. . . say yes to the torque.

Possible Solution NO 3: Don’t forget about the coat! I was taking the end from the inside of the ball. . . I teased the end through the middle of the ball to the other side of the ball. Taking the end out of the other side of the ball actually changes the twist that is put on the yarn as a result simply of taking it out of the middle of the ball. [Don’t think that taking the end from the outside of the ball will change anything. If the ball is sitting on the floor and you are knitting from it, the strand will either be more twisted or less twisted depending on whether the ball is put down on one flat end or the other. . . This can make a BIG difference in the twist of the yarn.

When I teased the end through the ball to the other side, it was no longer over-twisted. I swatched again and the swatch was lovely. Perfectly straight! Whew. New coat on the needles soon!

 

Problem: Need Fingering Weight Yarn for Noni Flowers stamens but don’t have any . . .

Solution: Divide a 3-ply strand into a single strand and a 2-ply strand. Use either the 1-ply or 2-ply, depending on which better fits the bill.

 

Problem: Want to teach a child to knit on a Southwest Flight. . . No needles only yarn.

Solution: They have great coffee stirrers on Southwest, little red sticks with little hearts on the ends. The gauge is about a US size 7 and works perfectly with worsted weight yarn. I taught a little boy to knit on a flight to Texas once. He showed just about everyone his little swatch. . .

What innovative solution have you come up with for a knitting-away-from-home situation you didn’t expect?  I’d love to hear from you!

Gone Fishing . . . Official Talking Across the Pond Post Later . . . Happy 4th!

Truly.  We’ve gone fishing.

We left the house at 5:30 am this morning, July 4th, to go Walleye fishing on Lake Huron. Weather has been curious. Yesterday, the tide came in, went out (extremely), then in, then out. In the matter of 20 minutes. It was as if a giant was drinking the water out of Lake Huron with a straw and then pouring water back in. Of course it was a full moon, or nearly so. Solar wind coming at us, electromagnetic adventures. Might even have been Northern Lights in the UP and Canada as a result. Wish I could have stayed up late enough to see for myself if we could see the lights where we were midway down the mitten thumb. . . the neighbor was out by his campfire half the night hoping for a spectacular show.

As you read this, I am hoping to be reeling in some Walleye, or watching my Soma reel them in. He’s been looking forward to this since last year when he caught the first fish of the day and 7 pounder that beat the one other fish we brought in. We’re hoping to best that meagre number today.

More details later in my letters from and to Amanda!

Happy Independence Day, America!  Happy Celebrations, everyone!

At the Lakehouse, where I wrote the book

On Friday night there were spectacular storms that knocked out the power in our neighborhood and, according to some reports I’ve heard, in many neighborhoods all up and down the East Coast.

We had been busy preparing to leave for a Michigan holiday: soaking the gardens, tidying up house and garden . . . We first noticed the storm when the lights started flickering as I vacuumed floors house-wide. And then the roar of the wind that tossed the trees this way and this way. Leaves flying. Lilies whipping around. It rained buckets, though not enough to soak the parched soil.

The next morning revealed great tree limbs in the road, trees down (though none of ours, I am glad to say).

We continued our preparations all morning and left with a generator running our refrigerator and the neighbors with instructions about what to do to keep it going. At this writing, power is still out in our house. . . we’ll see what we come home to!

I am in the lakefront house my parents-in-law own. This is where I wrote most of the flower patterns in Noni Flowers. It is peaceful. Here is a collection of photos I took this morning from the back patio, panning from left to right.

I’m signing off now. It’s my husband’s birthday today and Soma and I need to get to the business of making it a special day for him.

The Fish Pond Summer Saga begins . . .

IT’S TUESDAY! You might have noticed my silence yesterday. . . I was in a quandary. About what to blog?  I wanted to tell you about my fish. . . but felt compelling to write about knitting. Knitting writers block. My friend Beth suggested I write what I want, without worry about Noni or knitting or some notion the readers of this blog only want to hear about knitting, so please forgive me if you have no interest in goldfish. . .but indulge me anyway. I like them. And I like them in big ceramic pots in my garden. They ground me. I go out every morning and afternoon and check on them. I train them to nibble at my fingers. I even dream about them sometimes.

I spent my Sunday in my garden.

I even got a little sunburned on my shoulders, which, if you know me, is positively scandalous. I am quite fair and burn easily. Ever since I read about the benefits of Vitamin D straight from the sun herself, I have stopped wearing sunscreen (the sciency man who wrote the article about such benefits said, might as well drink it! So much ends up in your blood stream doing who knows what to you). But I’m not nutty about a tan, so I just take my chances, go about my business, wear long sleeved linen shirts I’ve stolen from my husband’s closet and rolled up the sleeves. You get the idea. But Sunday, I was in garden bliss. It was hot. I had a tall glass of iced water. A little sundress. . .

I planted things, pulled dead leaves off the iris, used my kitchen scissors to cut all the spent buds off the Dianthus by the path. I watered the front garden, planted geraniums amongst my happy yellow pansies by the front door, pulled out plants that were diseased so they don’t spread their scourge to others. I found some beautiful exotic petunias that Soma and I both loved, so we found a place for them by the back door.

There was work everywhere and that was wonderful. I was no end of busy.

And Soma wanted to get some fish. Goldfish. I had promised this. We have three little water features. . .

One is a lotus pond and home to a full sized Lotus–a birthday gift from my sister. I can’t wait. She says the blossoms are hot pink! This pot does not have fish inhabitants. . .

The next pot we’ve had since Austin, Texas days. In other words, it is nearly 8 years old! It houses mosquito fish–hearty little fellas! and it also houses the few surviving tadpoles that Soma and I collected from a nearby pond. Nature creates multitudes because so few survive. . . But there are about 4 or 5 that look really great, so I hope to see frogs crawling out of the pot sometime later in the summer.

The final pot (the biggest) is a bit further down the path and has a little fountain in it. We did have one goldfish in it who had survived through such trials last summer. We grew her from tiny to healthy fish. She was about 5 inches long. But I oversalted the water (some pond salt is beneficial for keeping baddy micro-organisms to a minimum) but I overdid it and realized my fault too late.  The Ph spiked to around 8 or so. She tried to bear it but must have jumped out. We never found her. . .

So, I promised Soma we would get three 27cent fish. We went to the pet store. We looked at the fish and I was tempted by pretty tails and red and white markings. We came home with 4 fish: 3 that are white and red, and one classic gold fish with a beautiful tail. The longest in the tank. We were super selective!

They say–I know you’ve heard this–that you must acclimate the fish to the temperature of the water. To do this, you are advised to float the bag in the water until they are the same temperature. . . we floated the bag.

I tested the water in my pond. I was shocked (you see, this is how I figured out the cause of death for poor little red & white!): Ph way too high!

I began remedial measures: flooding the pond with new water. Water poured over the side and into the garden. This didn’t bother me as it was a hot day and the garden was suffering anyway, so the water was welcome by the plants all around. Tested the water.  Still too high.

I asked my husband to get something called Ph-Down. I thought later this was probably just distilled vinegar, but at the time I was worried. It was almost dusk and the poor fish had been in the bag for a long time now.

Ph-Down recommends you put a dose in and then wait for 20 minutes. Test the water again. We went through this process several times on our quest for the perfect goldfish Ph of 7.0 . . . but bringing down the Ph has side effects, like lowering the Kh [baking soda fixes the problem readily, so don’t go purchasing some $24 dollar container of Kh stuff (as I did) because you will probably just be purchasing the most expensive baking soda you ever have in your life!]. I added some baking soda and started seeing test results I liked better and better.

And then I wondered. . . and I had never ever wondered this before: WHAT is the water like inside that bag??

I tested the water and I was (again!) shocked! The water was way too acidic, high levels (even unsafe levels–why should this be a surprise with all the poor dying fish inside the tanks of 27cent goldfish in the pet store??) of nitrites and nitrates. . . No wonder the poor things don’t make it. The difference between my closer and closer to test-perfect water was SO DIFFERENT from the water in the bag, how could any fish not be physically challenged if not simply over come by the difference?

The remedy: pour a little bit of our pond water into the bag and wait 20 minutes. Then repeat. This would allow the Ph to rise within the bag and the dangerous levels of nitrites and nitrates to go down slowly. The fish would become more acclimated to the water they would enter. We did this, waited, repeated, waited, repeated. . .

But we literally ran out of time. It was dark, the poor fish had been in the bag for HOURS. we had been adding about a quarter cup of good water to bad every 20 minutes for some time.

Finally, we poured the 4 fish and their little frog friend into the pond (a tadpole/new frog still with gills was in the fish tank at the store. The store girl gave it to us when we asked–we were delighted!) Then we went to bed.

I can report, as the image here only partly attests, that all 4 fish and small, every-day-more-frog-like-frog survived! See the little orange sideways exclamation point in the upper left bit of the pond!?

If you liked this entry and would enjoy hearing more about the garden, it would be great to hear that from you. How many of you have fish? or fish in the past and wondered why the poor things seemed so fragile and died without seeming provocation? Tell me your story in the comments.

More garden stories to come if you’ll tolerate them. . . I’d love to tell you about the rusty foxglove I mistook for a weed, for example . . . and the lesson about faith from a Stephanotis vine and about perseverance from the ruby-throated hummingbirds. . .

 

How I learned to ski and why talking (back) to yourself is a good trick to know

I recently learned to downhill ski. I am even respectable on blue slopes at this point and can’t wait to get on a pair of skis again. It was, however, not easy to get to this moment.

For some, such a milestone would be just another pebble along a path of athletic success: there was a 15 year old girl in my skiing class, for example, who began the class because her mother made her and after 3 days of instruction was always the first one down the slope, waiting for everyone else to catch up and join her. She got to like it. Through chatting on lifts at various points, I learned she was a cheerleader, a member of the school soccer team, lacrosse team, field hockey team. Simply, by the age of 15 she already had a long history with learning and mastering such things. With such experience comes a certain physical confidence. She knows what she can do. She knows how to do it. And she said when she is afraid of something she does it anyway and doesn’t think too much about it.

But what do you do if you don’t have such a resume? While I liked to run for my own purposes when I was a teenager, spent years working out at the gym in my 20s, learned to Lindy Hop in my 30s (and loved it), have enjoyed hiking up mountains since I was a child–so, not a couch potato but not a tremendous athlete–I was, nevertheless, not ever really pushed to participate in and master anything sport-like. I was not part of any sports team as a child, was always one of the smallest children on the elementary school playground, picked last for the team . . . I didn’t have the best experiences with learning new things in the physical world. Most of my physical activity, aside from the dancing and to some degree the mountain hiking, has been solitary, self-taught, self-motivated. There is a certain amount of avoidance in these scenarios.

I had known for a year that we were going skiing in Vail. And every time I thought about it I felt some trepidation, an irrational fear, my heart pounding against my ribs at the thought (truly). I would console myself with the idea that I would be in a class; I would tell my self, I can do this. But evoking The Little Engine That Could, as I confess I have done many times in my life, only goes so far and then you need actually to chug up and down the mountain as the Little Engine does.

It was my turn to do something.

Whenever we learn new things we carry with us the freight of all that has come before, especially as it relates to learning new things. For me, as I have said, my experience and confidence is in the mountains, but at my own speed. I love to hike, to scrabble over boulders, to run down the trail skipping from rock to rock. I mastered this quick balancing act as a child and it feels comforting, comfortable, fabulous.

To move so quickly on fiber glass sticks down a steep mountain has no precedent in my life. This lack of experience and knowledge is like a dark cave. It can be filled with anything. So, what do you do when the cavern of unknowing becomes filled with fear, so much so that your heart starts beating hard in your chest just thinking about it?

The projection of what is unknown and most feared, or known but not helpful or comforting onto the unknown can happen with anything, with knitting, with the idea of holding a baby, with the idea (even for some) of leaving the house. . . I have taught people to knit for whom just the process of making the stitches was so filled with stress that the knitting itself became wet with anxiety, harder to slip from one place to another on the needles. I have heard some of my (now long ago) English students tell me they are lazy, selfish, can’t write, were never good students, could never write, are not creative . . . their own voices echoing the words of their parents? former teachers? siblings?

For those students, I wanted to supply them with new narratives about writing. Something more along the lines of the Little Engine’s script: “I think I can. . . I know I can.” I might even have mentioned her since she has helped me out so many times, and recommended her autobiography–it’s still in print, you see. And I often recalled for those students the time before language when they were learning to walk and no one would have dared say, when they fell down, that they were lazy or quitters or not creative enough to learn such a difficult thing (for it is, you know. . . a difficult thing to walk, really complicated and miraculous as anyone who has tried to learn it again as an adult will tell you. It is a precious precious thing). I might say, “What do you like to do in your spare time–one thing?” One boy loved basket ball and played often for his own pleasure. He was good at it. Confident. I could see him square his shoulders, straighten his body. I watched him gain more than an inch in stature, smile a little. “Were you always good at basketball?” I said and he laughed and tipped his body gracefully to the side as though there were a ball there that had just been bounced toward him and he would catch it. “No!” he said unabashed and it was plain that the memory of that early awkwardness was a wonder to him, as though he almost couldn’t believe the time before mastery. “Did you just instantly become good at it?” I asked him. “Of course not,” Looking straight into my eyes as though now he was having trouble believing I wouldn’t understand how much work it took. . . Maybe when he saw my own small smile he knows what I have been doing but he presses on. “No, I was terrible in the beginning. My brother wouldn’t let me play with him and his friends even, because no one wanted me on their team.” I could see him, small, his brother’s too-big, handed-down clothes getting in his way, leaping to make a basket on the big-boy basketball court. How many times he missed and raced after the ball. The excitement when the ball dropped in through the hoop, cradled by the net. Again. Again. Again he shoots. He looks a little too casual as he finishes his last sentence: “So I would play by myself,” his palms briefly forward in a gesture of, what? of the truth of hard work?

“Writing is like basketball,” I told him. “You have to practice to be good. You have to practice and practice to see how good you are, and be able to do with words what you can with that ball.” He was thoughtful and quiet. He took it in. He smiled a little as he looked down, inward. When he looked up, he says “Yeah, I see what you mean.” And he does better after that. He seems to have a different relationship to words, to writing. He’s in the shoot and miss, shoot and score, chugging up the mountain stage. He’s not the least bit scared or lazy and he seems to know he may not always shine . . . not yet.

I am standing at the top of Lost Boy, a middling to harder green slope and it looks so steep to me. As steep and daunting and terrifying as a blank page must be to a new writer but with physical consequences. The sky is huge, the land falls away to my left (this is the less steep part of the slope, too, which is counter-intuitive and unnerving). I am afraid I will tumble down the mountain. The earth ends there and I will fall forever if I get too close. I feel this in my bones. It feels like physical knowledge. Though I realize now it was all thinking and the thinking is paralyzing. My muscles are exhausted. The thinking is so terrible, because it is filled with such terrible things. My instructor is watching and says simply, “follow me. . .” And I can do that.

Everyone wants to ski Lost Boy again but I am so drained and suddenly so tired that I can’t even feel a sense of accomplishment. I just can’t go again. There is so much anxiety wrapped up in skiing at this point that I am drenched in it and I wake up at night to my very stomach clenching and unclenching. I take a day off. But then I try again.

And there I am standing at the top of Lost Boy. My instructor skies half way down the steepest part there at the top and looks up at us. With my heart pounding I am first and start down. I know how to go slowly even on a steep slope and I am employing this knowledge to the point that, again, I am frozen. . . when the instructor starts yelling at me “Down!” and I go down. “Turn!” and I turn. “Down!” I go down. “Turn!” I turn. She keeps yelling until I am through what has frozen me and I can ski again.

The next time I am standing at the top of Lost Boy I hear Joanne’s voice even though I am with a different instructor: Down! Turn! Down! Turn! and I listen, whispering commands to myself until I am skiing. It is quicker this time, and feels better.

We do Lost Boy again. This time, as Joanne speaks to me, as I speak to myself with her voice, she is just reminding me. . .

And the next time I just ski.

It is then that I see why people love it. I am flying, I don’t exist. It is just this moment and this one, the shush of the skis, white, sky, wind, silence.

There was only one path to the place of flight and dancing. Maybe it is always this way with things that we fear, with the unknown. We must go through that dark cave, made passable by our own voices in our ears, or the voices of those who have gone before us and know the way.

It is fear that says turn back. You can’t. You’re not good enough. You’re not creative. You never will. You’ll die. And this voice can sound in our ears at any time and for the slightest of reasons, reasons that may be buried in our past, or even deeper, in the histories of our parents and grandparents.

But like that young man who replaced the narrative of laziness with the narrative of dribble, shoot, try again, we can talk back to worry, fear, defeat, grief. My mother told me about a book she read that states we have some number of seconds (and it’s enough seconds, truly, to do this) to replace our buried and default speeches to ourselves with new ones. Replace I can’t do it, with I can. I’m terrified, with I know how.

And if we persist, we learn to knit, to write, to walk again, to ski, to dance.

Tatoos of Devotion: A Lesson About Love and Forgiveness

At this writing it is early on the morning of December 11, 2011.  My five-year-old son is standing in front of me as I type. He wears a sheep-skin aviator hat (as I do, actually) and a Mighty Mouse t-shirt, brown woven pants, white socks. He is happy. He is dancing. In his hand is an instrument made of blue webbing and large jangley bells which he shakes vigorously as he sings real and invented Christmas songs in an impromptu performance for which I am the only audience member.

I am still smarting from what happened last night, filled with a silence and sadness. If you have been following this blog, you know that I have been working on a new Ella Coat. This coat has been the devotion of my hands and creative thoughts for three months. I began it on a teaching trip to California in mid-October. There were a few false starts where I had the crazy idea to knit it more densely than the pattern and change all the math with that recalculation of gauge. This work kept me busy on the long flight to San Francisco but I then gave it up in favor of following my own pattern . . . with a few innovations.

By the time I was flying home from my whirlwind visit to four shops I had finished the bodice and nearly half way finished with the skirt, I finished the skirt (almost kissing my ankles but minus the ruffle) on a trip to Georgia in early November. The ruffles at the bottom and the front plackets were finished in Michigan a week later, the sleeves finished and ruffled after I came home . . . by then it was late November. Since then, I have been doing bits of finishing: knitting a pile of flowers for decoration (still many more to knit at this writing), seaming the sleeves so the stripes match perfectly, setting in the sleeves. All of this work is a pleasure to me, a measure of my devotion.

It has been a long time since I have given myself so fully to a project for the deliciousness of following my own fancy, writing nothing down. Knitting for pure pleasure, no care as to whether I could be followed or not.

Last night I decided to begin the task of weaving in the ends. This work will be the occupation of many hours, for I am deliberate about it and I will not rush. The original Footloose was playing and I alternated between watching it and turning my attention to the ends. Our son came in to join us when he woke up from a very long nap and snuggled next to me. I remember lifting up the sleeve I had began with and saying to my husband, “Look at all these ends!”

Later in the movie, I left the room during a commercial break and returned before it was over to find my son with the little orange handled scissors in his hand, a pile of cut ends next to him. He smiled up at me and said, “Look, Mama.” Written in his countenance was pure love, conviction that he had just saved me some time. Maybe even a bit of wonder that what seemed to take me so long had taken him only minutes.

He had been so careful, too: cutting down to the very fabric of the dress the ends that were so carefully knotted together in square knots as my own father taught me–they hold better than their cousin the granny knot. He had even cut off the knots so that the strands were scarcely visible where they had once wrapped around the neighboring color, like pinkie fingers crooked together as two people walk side by side.

When he saw my expression, he began to cry, whispering, “Mommy. . .  mommy . . .” I can only guess what he must have seen there: the color drained from my face, the look of anguish, disbelief. I said, as though asking him to point out the location of the toad he had spotted in the garden, I said, “Show me where you cut.” Along the inside of the very sleeve I had worked on, the ends were shorn to nothing for about three inches. And then a six inch swath where the left plackett meets the bodice. A hole was already forming in the placket where he had cut off some ends. The worst of it I will wear over my heart when I put it on.

I sat with my head in my hands breathing as he stood before me still whispering Mommy. . . mommy. . . I thought I was doing a good thing . . . his hands twisting around each other. The coat now lay on the floor between us, to me a beautiful wounded bird. I knelt down and showed him the hole in the placket, tried to explain about weaving in ends, that the strands of yarn now had nothing to hold onto. . . and he cried harder, pleading that I could fix it with glue, that I could sell it now. And even in their ludicrousness, his suggestions were so sweet and well meaning it even now puts aches in my heart. How do you explain these things to a little boy, even a little boy who seems so grown up sometimes he might understand? How do you explain three months of impassioned work? How do you explain what it’s like to make something from the sweetest part of your heart and see the possibility that it will fall to pieces in front of your eyes because of some efficient slices?

The coat, however well I save it, will never be whole again the way I had once wanted it to be. This both seems right and makes me yet ache with regret. It is right we not be too attached to our things, even our own creations. We must be able to, even willing, to let them go. Because clinging to the thing is, in a sense, really to try to cling to what is most ineffable and fleeting: the act of creation, the very place from whence ideas, and garments, and stories spring. It is like trying to hold sunlight in your hand, or to stop time because today was magical. We are doomed to fail. And we should fail.

After my son was quiet in his bed, the house quiet, and I was alone with my wounded bird, I confess I shook with sobbing, breathing out to my sister’s comforting words, “I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe it. . . I don’t know what to do. . .”

We remembered the day when I broke my mother’s dishes. I, like my child, was motivated to help my mother. I had, in the earnestness of this desire, taken all the dishes out of the cabinet in order to organize and arrange them. I knew how beautiful they would look when I was done, and how happy my mother would be so see my work. Because I didn’t want to put the dishes on the floor, a deep prohibition against such a thing unquestioned in my heart, I put them on a sturdy refrigerator box that my sister and I had made our plaything for days. Our parents had given in to our pleas to leave it in the kitchen for our pleasure. Stacks of blue and white dishes of all sorts–the entire set for 12 from Aunt Bessie, her good English patterned China. “Don’t get in the box,” I said to my sister. Why did she hear “Get in the box”? The slightness of her movements set the dishes in motion and I will never forget the cascade of crashing that followed, my horror, my love for my mother, my lovely intentions, my faulty thinking shattering with the dishes onto the floor. I couldn’t stop crying.

I repaired the hole in the placket as we talked, and through the blur of my own tears I was able, I think, to tie most of the tiny ends along the front placket back into tiny knots. I thought of Soma’s suggestion that I use glue like we did with the stamens in the flower book and maybe that will work . . . a tiny dot of glue on each knot. I might have to make another sleeve, but I’ll try a few things before I consider that. I always tell my students, use mistakes and the unexpected as a spur to your creativity. You can make it more beautiful. You just have to find a way. . . there are at least three ways . . . what are they?

As I worked, my sister said, “Now this coat is woven with your son’s love for you and your love and forgiveness for him in away that it would never have been. Before, this coat was only yours.”

And she is right. In spite of my wish that the coat be whole in its strange perfection again, every end woven in with my own fingers, no need for repairs, now there will be dots of glue covered up by red velvet ribbons, sewing machine stitches shoring up the seam of one sleeve, a flower sewn over the repair on the left placket, the tatoos of my son’s devotion right over my heart.