Monday, August 30, 2010


It was a long, long weekend here in my little 550 square feet. I’ve circled back to panic recently—my August guest, I suppose—and it’s been a tough few weeks without J around to rally my spirits and check my crazies. So I tend to take very, very long walks through the city, the dirty, smelly, sticky August city. When I'm not walking, or nervously noodling with my C.V., I'm trying to wrap up unfinished projects.

On Saturday, I blocked this sweet little number (I'm not sure why the photo is appearing fuzzy):

I’m spoiling the surprise, I suppose, but he won’t know the difference. It knit up in a couple of days and I kept giggling to myself about making a sleeveless sweater vest. A sleeveless sweater vest. It’s just funny in itself, but even more so because I spent years in the 1980’s teasing my mother about never knitting anything with sleeves. During car rides in Michigan, my mom would ride shotgun and knit with big needles and big yarn. Twack. Twack. Twack. She never seemed to ball her skeins and so they always ended up in a tangled mess at my feet in the back. I’d stubbornly root out the knots and feed her cotton mixes through my young fingers, letting the fibers tickle between my pinkie and my ring finger. And it seems that she was always knitting exactly the same thing: two rectangles that she’d seam together on the sides and neck. A sweater vest. I didn’t understand it then (and, to be honest, I came to believe that she actually couldn’t really knit sleeves and then I just sort of felt bad for her, but I’m sure I was quite wrong indeed)

I still don’t totally understand it. But I do get it’s charms, and I really shouldn’t speak because I certainly don the down winter vest and the autumnal fleece vest (that I’ve been wearing since 1992) with a relish. I like that vests keep the important parts toasty and they allow for maximum mobility. I think this little number might just do the trick.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

blocking board, wrap ups, and longing

I've needed a blocking board for knitting for a long time. Usually I just refuse to knit anything larger than an ironing board so that I can block on that lousy, but passable surface. But I've promised myself that I'll wrap up several lingering projects this fall, several of which just won't do on the ironing board. A fortuitous stack of boxes ready to go down the freight elevator at work reminded me that there was no time to lose. I'd just make one (after hauling 4 strapped-together boxes home on the train):

As you can see, I first taped the boxes together. I think you probably need the board to be at least four layers thick in order for the pins to sink in but not come out the other side. I then simply staple-gunned old towels to the surface. I used two, but you could probably get away with one or even go up to three. And that's it. The best part is that you get to use that staple gun that gathers dust on the shelf.

I did it mostly so that I could block this number, the ubiquitous "owls" pattern that every other knitter finished last year. It came together in less than a month: bulky wool and big needles. I'd model it for you but it's 85 degrees and I can't bear it. Also, my faithful photographer (well, perhaps not my faithful photographer, but my lovely pal) J has gone back to Kentucky and I can't very well balance the camera on the cabinet. I'd just end up with a lousy shot of my belly. But it does fit and quite nicely at that. It's also supremely warm.
The only problem is that the next project I need to wrap up this weekend or next is the "tea leaves" cardigan that I started last winter. I have no idea how this happened, but it's exactly--and I mean really, truly--the same color as the "owls." Apparently I only buy sage green wool when it comes to sweaters for myself. I don't know what that means.

I seem to have more time for knitting in the evenings now that J is gone and I'm starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel on my book project (which doesn't mean that there's a light at the end of the four other tunnels that come next). But anyway, I'd rather take J than the extra time for knitting (I'd rather take him, in fact, than just about anything right now).

But alas.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

a lingering question

In the late autumn of 1993, my Father took me on a series of college visits. We leapt from one small New England town to another in his wisp of a plane. The trip was scheduled not long after he had learned to fly, but enough time had passed for him to terrify several other family members with forgotten reserve gas tanks and reversed readings of apparently critical gauges and monitors. I approached with the trip with equal measures grave trepidation and pragmatic determination. I needed to get to these interviews and this was my ride.

It was the interviews, though, that I was thinking about last night, not the ride. Actually, it was just one interview that I’ve never forgotten. All the rest, at leafy colleges with big endowments, bad football teams, and scores of a cappella groups were the same. What did I hope to study? What had been my greatest challenge? How might my life look in ten years? They were big, lofty, silly questions. But one was different. It was at a place I never matriculated, but in some sense, it planted something that’s endured just as long as my “real” education at Middlebury.

Amidst all those other benign questions, this one interviewer—having picked up on something I can’t now recall but something I must have said—stopped and got this half-excited, half-confused look on his face (it’s a face I’ve been trying to do for more than a decade in the classroom). He blurted out, “Well then, what is the different between art and craft?”

I was quick with my tongue at 17. I made a habit of speaking first and thinking later, which got me in loads of trouble but also seemed to be quite a lot of fun for everyone else. So without really thinking, I gave an answer that today—17 years later—still kicks around in my head:

“Craft is about turning precise corners on a tea cozy and choosing suitably neutral colors for a needled-pointed seat cushion. It’s not about expression or idea.”

I still get a bit sour in stomach thinking about how obnoxious this response was, how quick I was to judge, how dismissive I was the entire history of craft. All I could think about were 1980s church bazaars with their cross-stitched slogans like “Home is where the Heart is” inside neatly tatted hearts.

But it’s not my obnoxious answer alone that keeps this memory so vivid. Instead, it has something to do my deception in that moment. Even as I curtly dismissed tea cozies in public, I knit hats for my ski team in my high school dorm room and I sewed patternless skirts during vacations in Michigan. I was simultaneously repulsed by the idea of craft—and what at 17 I thought it stood for—and totally engaged in it. In my turned-about world, I thought about the things I did with my hands as private, as almost shameful, as certainly not serious.

Even at Middlebury, I took studio art classes and studied line and perspective. I was a lousy drawer and could never really "commit to the line." But even as my daylight hours were spent in the respectable fine arts studio, I walked down the steep hill each wednesday night to take pottery classes at Frog Hollow, a meeting ground for local craftsmen and women. I was infinitely more happy there.

The rehabilitation, or rather the reappearance through the Internet, of really, rather exceptionally beautiful crafts in a moment of “new domesticity,” has been like a smart rejoinder to my earlier naïveté. And yet, I’m still thinking about that question. I still make excuses for the things I turn with my hands. Even as I admire them, I still dismiss them as silly or fussy. I do it less now, but I still search for ways to reconcile the work I do with my head with the work I do with my hands.

It’s job season now and I know that I’m thinking about these questions because the fractured, anxious prose of my job letter and dissertation description tell only part of the story of me and the rest of the story, the one about thinking about, looking at, making, and finishing things will remain hidden from view.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

saturday, the last one for a long while

Today was one of those perfectly balanced Saturdays. The kind when it feels like the day just divides itself into little parts that all make sense together. The kind that begins with a special sweet treat like this:
It has all the things that make me most happy at once: fruit, yogurt, bread. I should have included the steaming cup of orange pekoe that rounded it all out. This is the kind of breakfast that I used to eat with a bit too much regularity, the kind that leaves you blissed out on sugar for at least an hour.

But Saturdays have more to offer than contraband starches. They offer the promise of my beloved "kiddie bouquet," a $3.70 burst of botanical loveliness that's just a block away at the farmer's market. A pimply teenage Amish boy with braces--no, I'm not kidding, though the braces do seem a bit of a contradiction--hawks them at his family's stand. I buy one each week and it feels like just the right kind of indulgence.
Each week I cut the stems and put them in this little vase my mom gave me during a wedding shower this spring. The bouquet sits on the center of my table and each morning I gaze at it while I gulp down my usual fare: 3 egg whites and a cup of green tea. On Wednesdays, I daydream about the coming Saturday. I imagine a "kiddie" with feverfew and zinnias. I hope that they might be particularly full or tall or a bit different.

But back to the divisions. What makes Saturdays so lovely these days, so perfectly right is that they're the one day each week when J and I seem to share a routine. It's not an exciting routine, but it's something that kinda sorta resembles normalcy. It's a day when we're just really together doing life. Often it looks like this:
I sit and alternate between writing thank you notes, knitting a few rows for a swiftly growing lad, reading about teaching, and writing my job materials. J, as he's wont to do, reads. Occasionally he laughs to himself and sometime I can coax him into sharing the joke with me.

We go on this way until one of us needs to squirm (it's usually me) and I lace up my sneakers and head off for a slow Saturday ramble on the shores of the Schuylkill. I ran too many miles in my twenties, hundreds and thousands of miles chasing a yellow hound in the woods. I can't do that anymore, but I still convince my knees that one day a week they can let me go long and steady. I come back from my run wonderfully tired, all the tension and all the panic gone, if only for a moment. This Saturday was particularly sweet because we closed the afternoon with a long break in Fitler Square. As J read aloud, I kept knitting, aware that this was the last Saturday of our summer together, the last time, in fact, that we'd spend a lazy day together for a long time. He returns to Kentucky this week and we begin the all the missing, all the longing, all feeling like our lives are just a bit less full, a bit less lovely, a bit more harried and dull for missing one another. But there is, I suppose, the promise of more Saturdays ahead. We might just have to wait awhile.

Monday, August 9, 2010

the trickle in

Slowly but surely images from our wedding begin to trickle in from friends and family. With each set, I breathe a sigh of relief and crack an exuberant grin when I see photos of old friends laughing with our graduate school professors or my cousins whispering together in the background. These arrived this morning from my epistolary and poetic pal Emily, who read the Philip Larkin poem during the ceremony.
I wanted something that I kept calling a garden bouquet. It was light and airy, delicate but also vibrant. I was thrilled to find--and am pointing to--a few orange ranunculus woven in.
We had just two long tables. One of my favorite parts of the planning process was figuring out the seating chart. I day dreamed about the conversations people could have and took particular care in placing them, one by one down the line.
My dear friends Margaret and Tara led the flower arrangement effort. We used a combination of Margaret's antique coffee pot collection and standard-issue ball jars. She and my mom cut flowers at a woman's garden next to the barn where the wedding was held. I also did some last-minute clippings of Queen Anne's Lace right next to the tables.
So each place-setting ended up looking something like this:

I'm sure that there will be more to come. But for now, I'm just going to think about this perfect summer sky that hung over our celebration:

Friday, August 6, 2010

mass production

My sister and I always bemoan the way that it takes making something to figure out how to make it. This isn’t really a problem in general, but one of economy of scale, or economy of crafting energy. When you make something once, it takes a pretty spell to cut everything out, get comfortable with the directions, and then figure out the necessary techniques. The problem for me is that the first time I do something, I realize how lousy the directions are or how poorly I’m doing it. The first zipper is always the worst and the first seam is always the wonkiest (save, of course, for those 3 am seams when you just can’t go to sleep until you’ve finished the damn thing). We’re always saying, it’d be fine if I had just cut out 4 versions of it.

This time I cut out 8. I finished 7. One became the recipient of all the first technique attempts and thus headed straight for my stash of scraps. The pattern is Heather Ross’s, from Weekend Sewing, and it really isn’t half bad. The real bad was the oilcloth. Never again. It sticks. It pulls. It doesn’t care to do as commanded. Even after I started using the walking foot, I felt my beloved machine pumping and grinding a bit too hard. I almost thought it got winded at one point. After a particularly dispiriting spell of cranking through six layers of material, it demanded a vacation at the Collingwood, New Jersey hospital for sick sewing machines. It's copay was $136.00 and a subway ticket to the suburbs.

I did, however, come to like the feeling of running a little assembly line in my apartment. One day I did all of the cutting, the next all of the ironing, the next the zippers, etc., etc. I liked watching as my seams got straighter and my turns more efficient. I liked feeling—for just a moment—what it might feel like to have a little cottage industry. I liked being a worker bee.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

swearing to it

There hasn’t been much making here at 550. A move to a different apartment—still 550 sq. ft. and thus not a name wrecker—didn’t even garner a post. J cooks me delicious dinners each night that go unrecorded. Which reminds me, right now we’re on a Mario Batali kick after we received this cookbook for our wedding. An old friend of my mom’s—who is circuitously connected to Mario—had the Italian culinary wiz write the last stanza of the Larkin poem (below) in Molto Gusto and then he (the friend) gifted it to us for the wedding. It’s been terrifically fun to eat new food—lots of vegetables and even a few extra-special pizzas. So long wedding diets. Hello pepperoni. But all this, even this, has gone unrecorded.

But there’s one thing that I want to be sure to record. I want to remember it. It’s the moment when J and I exchanged vows at our recent wedding. I had to do a lot of sweet coaxing to get J to let me post these vows here. Frankly, it was so difficult to find any models of homemade vows that were worth emulating that I don’t mind adding a couple of our own to the dearth of samples out there. After the ceremony, a friend suggested we start a side business of personalized vow writing. I’m totally game. I think it would be loads of fun to get to know a couple and then craft vows for them. If you know anyone who’s looking, point her my way. I’ll give you a little kickback. Really, I will.

Without further ado (except to say that J’s are way better than mine and it was a real drag to have to follow his performance. oh and we also both ended with a stanza of good old Walt Whitman, from Song of the Open Road):

A___, my dearest friend.

When I first met you it was sunny and we got coffee and tea off of Franklin Street and you were wearing turquoise and I was maybe a little bit shorter than I had said I was and then we talked, we just talked, we talked for hours, it was so easy, and then we said goodbye and I went home and I couldn’t sleep.

You were so exciting. You fascinated me. You still do.

In those first months after we met when I didn’t get much sleep but it didn’t matter because I was with you, a lot of things that had commanded me or a lot of things that I had let command me -- certain fears, a stubborn solitude -- they retreated into the niches and corners of my life.

And you -- who made me laugh, who took me for hikes with Arlo, who read with me and to me, who wrote me notes that you hid in the books I was reading, who even wrote me postcards sent all the way from your house in Carrboro to my home nine miles away in Durham -- you commanded my attention in all good ways. You helped wake me up, A__.

It took a few months before the pace of everything slowed, before our lives settled into a routine of sorts. And several years later, we live with routine only part of the time, in great bursts of time, like the summers when we’re together in Philadelphia instead of separated by the Appalachian Mountains outside my back door. I love when we fall into routine, and I don’t mean that life becomes mundane (I don’t know how anything with you could be mundane.), but only that we are together, day folding into day, the two of us side by side.

And so yes to “to have and to hold,” yes to “in sickness and in health,” yes to “for richer or poorer” -- yes to all that. But yes, too, to our ordinary days together, to morning coffee, to fireworks over the Schuylkill and lazy afternoons in Filter Square, yes to rambling along Brushy Fork and standing knee-deep in Superior beneath those red rock cliffs, yes to me cooking dinners for you and you editing me, yes to the day-to-day, to our happy routine -- and yes -- yes with all my heart, all my devotion -- to you, to us, to our lives twined together.

Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? Will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

My vows to J:

I see you. I see you.

On our third date nearly three years ago, we sat in your little apartment’s one chair. That was the year you lived in Durham and had a single chair in a tiny duplex that I told you was aggressively made for one. One chair, one towel, one bedside table. I remember looking at that one chair and wondering how I was going to fit--quite literally--into your life.

It seemed so unlikely--you with one chair--and me with six chairs, two couches, a roommate and a hundred pound hound. But that one night on our third or maybe fourth date, I came over to your apartment and you offered me your chair, your beloved and terribly unattractive lazy-z-boy reclining chair. Though I never admitted it to you, I marveled at its comfort and then we made short work of our dilemma of one chair and two bodies. We squeezed in. And we sat like that--my hip pressed against your own, our arms forced into recliner-coordination--for the better part of a year. That year we figured out how to move through tight spaces and hurried time together.

Anyway, on that date three years ago, I sat in your chair and you told me to close my eyes. I sensed that you held something close to my ear. It was tingsha, those tiny brass cymbals that send vibrations through your whole body. I—someone whose ears had been less than refined and always out of tune—felt, finally felt, in that moment what it meant to listen. It meant slowing down and giving over my body to the experience of sound. It meant patiently lingering over the last quivering reverberations.

In that moment, when you held cymbals to my ears, I knew that it was you, that you were the one that made me want to recalibrate my senses. You showed me what it meant to listen and, maybe more importantly, what it meant to hear. But it wasn’t just sound or in that moment that I learned anew. With you I see differently. I certainly taste and smell flavors that before you I didn’t know exist. Even my touch—still a bit bullish—has softened ever so slightly. And so this is what I promise you: that I’ll remain open to the new. To new sounds, to new sights, to new feelings in my body and in my brain. I promise to always listen to you, to keep hearing you as long as we shall live.

Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? Will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

Sunday, August 1, 2010


(warning: photo bears no relation to post, but I'm still thinking about the U.P. and can't help but sharing a bit more of it)

J and I felt pretty strongly that our ceremony should be a reflection of us. I’m sure that most couples start out with this desire, but it’s easy to see why, in practice, the ceremony often becomes something else entirely. There are always competing interests to please—or at least satisfy—and personal desire can begin to seem, at least relatively, almost selfish. J and I faced interreligious challenges and opportunities, but as neither of us has what I might call an active religious life, we hoped to created a secular ceremony that conveyed some gravitas. We wanted a bit of heft without religious signifiers, and as it turns out, it’s not so easy to do. I should say that I also have a knee-jerk aversion to sappy or saccharine exclamations of love and its saving power. I also didn’t want anything in the ceremony that suggested merging or becoming one in some transcendental love sphere.

The readings, then, were an important part of our ceremony. We’re blessed to have friends that are writers and poets, discerning and particular in their tastes. They’re gifted readers and managed to make their readings electric in the mid-summer air. I imagine that I'll remember J's friend Eric's perfectly dry--and also stunningly engaged--reading of the Frank O'Hara's poem long after I forget everything else. I include them here because I loved them so much and because they seemed like blessed—though secular—gifts from people who have shaped our individual lives and who helped us make our way to the point of marriage.

It is clear that we must hold to what is difficult; everything alive
holds to it, everything in Nature grows and defends itself in its own
way and is characteristically and spontaneously itself, seeks at all
costs to be so and against all opposition.

To love is good, too: love being difficult. For one human being to
love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the
ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work
is but preparation.

Love is at first not anything that means merging, giving over and
uniting with another (for what would a union be of something
unclarified and unfinished, still subordinate?), it is a high
inducement to the individual to ripen, to become world, to become
world for himself for another’s sake. It is a great exacting claim
upon him, something that chooses him out and calls him to vast

– Rainer Maria Rilke

Having a Coke with You
is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne
or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona
partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian
partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt
partly because of the fluorescent orange tulips around the birches
partly because of the secrecy our smiles take on before people and statuary
it is hard to believe when I’m with you that there can be anything as still
as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of it
in the warm New York 4 o’clock light we are drifting back and forth
between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles

and the portrait show seems to have no faces in it at all, just paint
you suddenly wonder why in the world anyone ever did them
I look
at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world
except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it’s in the Frick
which thank heavens you haven’t gone to yet so we can go together the first time
and the fact that you move so beautifully more or less takes care of Futurism
just as at home I never think of the Nude Descending a Staircase or
at a rehearsal a single drawing of Leonardo or Michelangelo that used to wow me
and what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them
when they never got the right person to stand near the tree when the sun sank
or for that matter Marino Marini when he didn’t pick the rider as carefully
as the horse

it seems they were all cheated of some marvelous experience
which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I’m telling you about it

– Frank O’Hara

Is it for now or for always,
The world hangs on a stalk?
Is it a trick or a trysting-place,
The woods we have found to walk?

Is it a mirage or miracle,
Your lips that lift at mine:
And the suns like a juggler’s juggling-balls,
Are they a sham or a sign?

Shine out, my sudden angel,
Break fear with breast and brow,
I take you now and for always,
For always is always now.

– Philip Larkin