Study for Meditation Mat

Study for Meditation Mat
Handspun Tapestry Weaving

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Peaceful, Easy Feeling: Why I am Not a Warrior

Those who train wholeheartedly in awakening unconditional and relative bodhichitta are called bodhisattvas or warriors-not warriors who kill and harm but warriors of nonaggression who hear the cries of the world. These are men and women who are willing to train in the middle of the fire. Training in the middle of the fire can mean that warrior-bodhisattvas enter challenging situations in order to alleviate suffering.  It also refers to their willingness to cut through personal reactivity and self-deception, to their dedication to uncovering the basic undistorted energy of bodhichitta. (Pema Chodron, The Places That Scare You

This quote popped up on my Facebook feed this morning. I've read much of Pema Chodron's work; I found The Places That Scare You a most difficult challenge because I read it during a time of great personal struggle.  It's been a while since I've revisited Ms. Chodron, but her words carry over to much of my life. The quote was timely because I've been thinking a lot lately, about warriors and the healing process.

One of the most difficult things to teach beginning fibre artists is to let go, not to fight and wrestle with the wool, not to pick the stitches so fiercely that arms and fingers ache with effort, not to beat the weft into submission to the point where warp threads snap and fabric buckles.  We want things to behave, to be the way we want them to be, so despite all encouragement and evidence, we take up battle with our fibres.  We become fibre warriors.

It never works.  As we continue to struggle and struggle and struggle, everything-our string, our cloth and our bodies-tighten.  Our work doesn't improve; it gets worse. Those who refuse to trust the process, who can not be convinced that a lighter touch is required, are never quite satisfied with the work they do.  Sometimes, they give up altogether. Those who learn to let go, to bring trust and love to the yarn and string move on to discovering the yarns and fabrics they desire.

The same process applies to yoga.  While we may struggle in a pose, it is only the yielding which brings us to the point where we find stillness and a measure of grace. Students who are determined to subdue asana, to make them fit their own images of how poses should be are often frustrated.  They risk emotional and physical injury.

When you are introduced to cancer, when you are on that journey, whatever image or process works to get you through your adventures is the process you must follow. There is no right way to get through things, just as there is no one method of treatment.  Cancer is individual, so dealing with it must also be.

One of the most popular images about cancer is "The Fight Against."  Patients are encouraged to fight cancer, to wage war against cells recklessly dividing in the body, to take up the Battle Cry against cancer and all it entails.  Cancer means War.  Those going through it are presented as Great Warriors. That image has never worked for me. Practically speaking, if you are waging war against cancer, you are fighting your own body. Cancer cells represent your house, divided.  Cancer cells, your own cells, refuse to stop growing; they divide and continue to do so until the body, You, runs out of resources.  It seems to me that fighting your own body is not necessarily a productive approach because it leaves a sense of The Body being The Other.

And what if you do not Win the War on Cancer?  Nearly every day, we see obituaries stating that this person and that "lost her/his brave battle with cancer."  For me, having what may be the last record of your life speak of defeat is depressing.  After all, who among us gets out of Life alive?  Are we all to be thought of as fallen soldiers who lost a war?  Or is it only cancer which wins every time?

Last week, I spoke to the students in the Renew Yoga for Cancer class about the healing process. Although I recognized the struggles which cancer entails, I suggested that we turn our attention in class to another way of seeing cancer and its treatment.  Jon Kabat-Zinn talks about learning to heal, despite knowing that some of us may never be cured of what ails us.  He tells us that, "As long as you're breathing, there's more right than wrong with you."  He works to integrate body and breath, mind and body, to bring strength and determination into a time when we need it most.  In doing so, we may be able to view our bodies in a different light-not as something which has betrayed us, or the cells within it as something which need to be destroyed in battle, but rather as a vessel which can guide us through a journey which scares us, but through which we can pass, healed, if not cured, alive, even if the body might decide it must part from the spirit.

And so, in Renew, we laugh and we chat.  We breathe and we practice.  Sometimes, we get angry. Sometimes, we cry. We struggle, but we are not at war.  If we do see ourselves as warriors (and many do not), it is not as warriors against anything. Rather, we are healers, looking for and often finding, peace in times of anger and struggle.  We speak softly to ourselves, and to others. "Breathe Now.  Be gentle.  Give yourself time to heal." It's not easy. In some ways, it's likely harder than taking the Warrior Perspective, for that view of dealing with struggle is the prevailing perspective in the popular culture.  We fight against what we don't like.  We war against what is wrong.  But, what and who is Wrong, exactly?

In learning to become healers, we can soothe the Warrior whose instinct is to fight.  Think of what such an approach might mean for our Selves.  Think of what that same approach might mean Now, as we watch what is happening in the World which insists on War and Warriors. The world needs more Healers, not Warriors.  Or so it seems to me.

We can be like the mountains, strong, full of energy, sometimes destructive, but above all, healing places for the Earth.



Sunday, 27 July 2014

When Day is Done: A Fine End to Tour de Fleece 2014

The house is a mess.  The dust bunnies are once again overtaking the place; mercifully, they're kept in check by the piles of dyed fleece and yarn drying all over the house, waiting to be packed up, labelled and spun, some day.  I've taken over the barbeque; it not only services my more pungent dyepots, its lid makes a fine drying rack-there's a batch of Rambouillet locks drying on it now.  It's the final day of Tour de Fleece 2014 and it's been a productive cycle.

I've spun approximately 2000 metres, 2 kilometres of yarn.  That's slightly less than the distance covered by cyclists in the Tour de France, but, trust me, a fair bit of wheel spinning has gone on here. 1600 plus metres of that made this yarn, intended for a shawl:

The other 400 or so metres is still on the bobbin, organic cotton singles which may be a 3 ply yarn for a sweater, should I ever finish spinning the bags and bags of cotton sliver I have left to spin.  At least the bobbin is a little fuller, several spinning days after I posted this photo:

I love it all, but what gave me most joy was discovering the colours in my natural dyes.  The Corriedale and wool skeins kindly posed for a group shot:

The photograph doesn't do the wool or the colours justice.  Every bit of wool, even the stuff dyed with more subdued colours, in the iron pot, is vibrant, rich, soft and alive. Working with the wool inspires me, feeds my soul and makes me happy.

If only I could say the same thing about housecleaning.  I've set aside the day for scrubbing and scouring; this time my attention will be centered on the mess left behind when I'm busy doing what I love, instead of what I should.  It's high time to return to daily duties. I've scared myself coming around the corner into the living room and mistaking a dog/cat shed pile for an actual animal.  I've run out of clothes (not that anyone would notice) and Mr. DD has taken to reading outside on the deck in order to avoid disappearing under a cloud of Corriedale.  I'll try to bring the mindfulness I give to my favourite pursuits into shovelling out the house.  (Yes, David McM., I said, "try.")  We'll see how it goes.

Now, if I can just find my housecleaning shovel. . ..


Friday, 25 July 2014

Simply Red, Part II: Do What You Like

"I experience myself like the tip of a great iceberg of consciousness." (SLOMO, John Kitchin, via Colin Hall)

Colin posted a video yesterday.  SLOMO is a 16 minute documentary about someone who got away-away from cultural expectations, away from constant materialism, away and into a life of, well, simply Being.  You can watch the video here:

Despite the fact that I'm neither a 69 year old man nor any kind of skater, I discovered that I have more in common with John Kitchin than I would have expected.  I'm not there yet, but like Slomo, I'm working towards a practice of Being. Like all meditation practice, it's a simple one, but not that easy.

Long ago and not so far away, I was a person who drove a fancy car (a Corvette, which I loved) and wore silk dresses (which I also loved). It was silly of me, really, because both the car and the dresses were inappropriate for the job I was doing, but I was young and foolish, and believed in the importance of such stuff.  I'd like to say I made deliberate choices to move away from these things.  I'd like to say that, but it wouldn't be true.  Instead, time and circumstance determined much of my life's direction.  Unlike John Kitchin's conscious decision to walk away from a life of Stuff, I fell into my practice, which is still about Stuff, but it's at least different Stuff. I am rather like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, bumping and muttering along the way.  I don't always enjoy the journeys, but I have to say that both the journeys and the landings (of which there are and will be many) have been interesting and probably worthwhile. (There are days when I'm not convinced of that last bit.)

What on earth does this have to do with a post on natural dyeing, you ask?  Well, part of exploring that rabbit hole has been wandering about the natural world, not necessarily all that far from home, but I've attempted to explore what I was seeing around me, to discover what gifts were available in that world, away from what money could buy.  It began with testing plants around our farm, checking out what would happen if I dipped this and that plant, boiled up those leaves, drew on the bracken with charcoal after a fire burned down the old slaughterhouse.  What would happen if I explored what was There. Here. In front of me. Now.

It's been over thirty-five years since I looked down into the rabbit hole (Yikes!) and I'm not ready to surface yet. I spend my days playing with fibres and plants and string.  I practise yoga and meditation.  Like John, I'm not balanced yet, but I'm working on it.  (Mr. DD, the skater, pointed out the balance thing with Slomo.  I know nothing of skating, except how to land on my butt. Hard.) That means that I pretty much spend my time playing with the world like this:

Today's Cochineal pot with Corriedale fleece. The fleece was soaked in alum water and I added juice from a lemon to shift the colour to red.

The resulting fibre after rinsing.

Next in the pot, a skein of commercial wool, a gift for a fellow knitter.

None of this practice makes me a better person.  In fact, I agree with Slomo in that my goal is to avoid becoming an asshole, which seems to me a rather good thing.  I also recognize that I can do this practice because I live in a world of privilege not open to most of the world's peoples. Since this is where I am at the moment, I might as well use it to advantage.

Slomo was led to his life by an old man who told him the secret to old age was to "Do what you like." Sounds good to me.

"These are your good old days." (Slomo)


Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Simply Red: Another Dye Day for the Tour de Fleece 2014

It's a hot, sunny, breezy day here.  I thought I'd take advantage of the warm weather to start the next dye pot. I've finished my black walnut husk bath, from which I extracted two rich browns (no mordant except for the tannin in the husks) and a steel grey, from the exhaust bath cooked out in a cast iron pot:

White Corriedale fleece dyed in exhaust bath (iron pot): Note the vegetable matter in the wool.  I have some prepping to do!

I've decided to go for something brighter again, using one of my favourite dyes-cochineal. Cochineal, grown and harvested in Mexico, where the insect is raised on cactus pads, gives beautifully rich reds to luxurious purples, depending on the mordants used and whether the bath is acid or alkaline.  (I shift the pH of the bath by adding lemon juice or vinegar to make it acidic, or baking soda, if I want to move to purples. Cochineal is a substantive dye, requiring no mordants; however, adding different metallic salts will extend my range of colours.)  There are few natural dyes which give true reds; unfortunately for vegetarians or vegans, most of them are animal based, and the dyes are obtained by crushing and boiling the insect to release the dye.  Because of this and the fact that cochineal, lac and kermes are expensive, I limit my red dyeing to once or twice yearly and I use every bit of the bug to full advantage.  I honour what has been sacrificed so that I can experience Red.

I begin by weighing out a small amount of the dried insects.  (As little as 1% of cochineal to WOF (Weight of Fibre) can colour the fibres.)  I'm using 25 grams of insects, which I grind to a powder, using mortar and pestle.  A coffee grinder works well, too, but the one I used for grinding dyes bit the dust just before I left for Olds and I haven't yet replaced it. Besides, careful grinding with these old tools adds to the alchemic feel of the process.  

You wouldn't think that something which looks like this would do much to colour anything:

Place the powder in a section of pantyhose and soak it in a pot of warm water which has been left to stand overnight (to release the chlorine and other chemicals which can weaken the dye) and magic begins:

That rich colour appeared within five minutes of the cochineal hitting the water.  I'll allow it to stand covered in the hot sun for a day or two before I begin dyeing fibres.  You can read more about the process of raising, processing and using cochineal as dyes by clicking here, but be prepared to learn more than you might care to discover: cochineal extracts are often used to colour foods and drinks. That vegan-friendly consumable may not be as animal free as you think.

The cotton spinning is progressing, but my bobbin looks much the same as it did in my last post, so I'll spare you photos of that.  This afternoon, I'll be walking over to the studio to teach Renew for Cancer yoga.  Given the heat, I may arrive with a red tinge of my own!  (Not really-I'm that woman you see wandering the streets covered head to toe in hat, long-sleeved shirt, pants and a wrap around my neck.  "My Woman of Mystery Look," as Scott, one of the instructors at Bodhi Tree Yoga, referred to me when he saw me arrive in my garb. I cling desperately to the image that phrase planted in my mind.)


Saturday, 19 July 2014

Learning to Fly: Siddhis, Balance and Cotton Yarns

We had a gathering of the yoga teacher trainees (now officially teachers) the other night.  A few of us came together for drinks, snacks, chats and a practical application of the Yoga Sutras, in particular the section on siddhis/magical powers.  Things went pretty well:

Photo used with permission of Kathy R.

I'd like to say I stayed there for a long time.  It seemed like a long, long time before my balance shifted and I did a face plant.  There are no photos of that nor are there any of the equally impressive bum splat I did while trying to balance on the backs of my thighs. It was great fun and I have to say that I was impressed that I could balance at all in any direction. The secret to finding balance in this pose was to look up and let go.

Every summer, I haul out my stacks of fleeces and play for a few weeks.  The wool is fresh; I love sorting locks, spinning in the grease, flick carding and combing aligned locks into smooth, smooth yarns.  Around mid-July, I shift to cotton spinning, working once again on the enormous stash of organic cotton tops, sliver and rovings I have in my fibre room. Cotton behaves very differently than wool.  I've heard many spinners declare that they "are afraid of cotton and don't like spinning it," which, to a person who has met few fibres she doesn't like, seems strange. (Well, there's Merino fleece. The grease in that wool defeats me every time.) After all, cotton has a long and rich history.  It's been spun by people all over the world on simple spindles and wheels. It's the go-to fabric world wide for relatively inexpensive comfort, although synthetics are increasingly encroaching on that territory. I think the fear of spinning cotton fibres comes from the discovery that, no matter how experienced we may be, not all fibres behave as we expect. What works for wool spinning doesn't necessarily work for shorter fibres.  Wool will show a great tolerance for a spinner's tendency to clutch the fibres and watch for every small lump and bump in the yarn.  Cotton, not so much.

I enjoy that shift from warm, long-stapled wools to cool, short-fibred cottons, but the transition from one to the other requires a shift in perspective and spinning styles.  Wool fibres tend to be very forgiving, but cotton fibres, which may be as short as 1/4 to 1/2 inch, are more demanding of a spinner's attention to balance. Just as the slack line requires finding the sweet spot between effort and relaxation, so does cotton. In order to spin cotton well, I have to look up and let go.

I spin cotton on my Louet Victoria wheel using an unusual drafting style-for lack of a better term, let's call it, "long forward draw."  (I know, I know. The last thing the fibre world needs is yet another term for a drafting style.  I'm sure I didn't invent this one.  At the first available opportunity, I intend to have a few spinning buddies watch me spin cotton and tell me what drafting technique I'm using, but for now, long forward drafting is the way my mind explains my movements to my body. It's a style I use only when spinning on my upright, scotch tension wheels. With my tahklis or charkha, it's long draw all the way.) If you're familiar with long draw, you'll know the sensation of allowing twist to travel from the forward hand (or near the orifice) to the back hand holding the fibres, as the back hand draws away, against the building twist.  Now, imagine that same feeling, but with the forward hand pulling the fibres away from the back hand. My hands are a good 8 to 12 inches apart; my back hand is stationary and propped on a table to support that arm. Once enough twist is built up between forward drafting hand and the back hand to make a stable yarn, I add more twist as required and allow the yarn to feed into the orifice and onto the bobbin. I need to know and find the moment when I've added enough twist to make a stable yarn, but not so much that my yarn kinks. That's the point of balance. It requires both acute attention to awareness of the fibres and the fullness of letting go, of trusting that my hands know more about what my fibres need than my eyes may be telling me. That's where looking up enters into the picture-when I shift my gaze away from the twisting fibres and allow my body (in this case, my hands, fingers and feet) to do the work required, my cotton yarns find balance.

Although I found enough core strength to hold myself up on the slack line, I could not begin to come into balance until I trusted myself to let go.  Even then, letting go was not quite enough.  After several attempts at lifting my hands off the ground, someone watching me said softly, "Look up a bit." That's when it all came together.  My awareness changed from looking at to looking up and then seeing. My vision shifted up and away to what was not there-no ground, no heaviness.  Just me and my body, floating, balanced on a 2 inch wide piece of nylon strap. In that moment, I learned to fly.

Cotton spinning works the same way for me.  When I trust that my body knows the balance point between enough and too much, when I learn to let go and look away, away from the forming yarn, away from the twisting fibres to a point just beyond the place where it will either happen or things will fall apart completely, that's when twist and fibre and action come together. In that union of letting go and looking up, the yarn appears.  It's spinning siddhi, if you will, a magical moment attained by practical exercise.  For a time, all is perfection.  And I have yarn.

Easy to Spin Green Cotton.  Boiling will darken the colour.


Tuesday, 15 July 2014

With a Little Help From My Friend: More Tour de Fleece 2014 Action

I spent the day plying, plying, washing dyed fleece, plying, teasing dyed fleece, plying, washing the purple logwood dye off my hands from teasing dyed fleece, plying, then finally winding and washing this skein of yarn:

That's 836 metres/193 grams of 2 ply yarn spun from 2 braids of Blue-faced Leicester from The Wacky Windmill.  Susie G. had given me a 4 ounce braid of Superwash BFL some time ago; when Kim and Donna came to town to sell their fibres, I bought a coordinating braid of BFL top.  (Yes, you can combine superwash and regular wool. I did, anyway.)  I spun the superwash braid straight from the top and then split the second braid into four long strips for a kind of, sort of fractal spinning experiment. I spun this skein with more care than usual; I counted treadles, measured drafting lengths, plied to specific counts and sampled, sampled, sampled. This skein is actually sopping wet at the moment-I wound it for the photo and wound my 70 metre sample skein into the large one. If you look closely at the photo, you'll see bits of chain-plied yarn in the middle. I liked the chain-plied skein, too, but my plan is to knit this yarn into a Prairie Sunset Shawl, which is better suited for 2 ply yarns. (I was pleasantly surprised when I googled, "Prairie Sunset Shawl, " and images of my design appeared.  You can see them here (top and second row).  I'm calling this one, "Emerald Dream Meadow," a combination of the names of the two braids.

More wonders came out of the dyepot and are now drying on the front step:

The wool is washed, white Corriedale fleece, dyed with (from left to right): madder (exhaust bath), madder and alum, logwood and alum.  The purple logwood is to die/dye for, but it loves to bleed and crock.  I used as much alum mordant as I dared-too much will make the wool sticky-and I washed the fleeces in Power Scour to remove excess dye, but there's a pool of purple underneath the wool and my hands are stained from teasing the wet fleece. Logwood is one of those dyes which seem to fix to fibre over time, so I may have to hide the wool away for a bit (up to a year) before I attempt to use it.  It's impossibly pretty, though, and I haven't met a purple I didn't like, so I can't resist using it.

The lighter purple is the logwood exhaust bath, with the same problem of bleeding and crocking (rubbing off), but not to the extreme of the darker colour.

Who's that astonishingly handsome helper?  It's marvellous Mick, my 17 year old bundle of grumpy companionship.  Mick is taking his evening constitutional, which means he sits on our front step for a bit until the birds and squirrels scold him back inside.  He's annoyed because that blasted fluff has overrun his observation post.  He takes no interest in my fibre, unless it's alpaca, in which case he insists on rolling in it, eating it (no, he's not allowed) and batting it around the house, if he gets a chance. Mickey spends most of his time sleeping now (except when he's eating which is whenever he can).  He's slowing down, but for an abandoned, near feral mess of an injured cat when we brought him home over 15 years ago, he's done well for himself here.

Another lovely day is nearing its twilight.  I have a logwood and iron exhaust dyebath to cook out tomorrow and then I may take a break.  The prediction is for hot, hot weather for the rest of the week.  There's yoga tomorrow and a yoga workshop coming up on the weekend with David McAmmond, the teacher of my teachers. Yoga will balance out this body which has spent the day hunkered over a spinning wheel and hauling buckets of water back and forth in the yard.  Balance is good.

I hear clawing at the screen door.  The old cat has had enough of chittering squirrels.


Thursday, 10 July 2014

That Old Black Magic: Cycling Through Tour de Fleece Week One

"I look upon the dyepot and all is lost."
It's not really magic, certainly not a dark art of any kind, although once upon a time,  if you were a woman, especially a single, older one, your pots could land you in a world of trouble. I like to think of it as akin to alchemy, but it's not that, either. There's no mystery in it and it's not difficult-find a plant (or sometimes, an insect or a snail), cook it out in a pot of water, add a bit of this powder and that liquid to mordant the fibres.  Stir the pot gently, heat things up, then sit back and wait.  The mordants-substances such as alum, tin, chrome, copper and iron-allow the dyes to "bite" into the fibres, so that the colours are true and fast and bright. (Or not, as you wish. Mordanting in an iron pot darkens or "saddens" the colours; copper greens them.)  Wash the residual dye off the fibres, set them out to dry as you bask in the beauty of it all.

It's not magic, really, but there's a sense of magic involved when I use natural dyes. While it is possible to replicate colours from natural dyes, just as one does from synthetic dyes, I prefer to indulge in joyful play with my pots, as I dye small amounts of wool, adding a pinch of this, a dollop of that, in the hot, summer days while the sun is strong enough to do much of my work for me and I can cook out my dyes in the backyard on the barbeque, rather than steam up my kitchen. In the past few days, I've dyed Montadale wool fleece with yellow onion skin, dried marigold flowers from my brother-in-law's garden and madder root, an ancient dyestuff once used to produce Turkey Red:

Right side: White wool  dyed with onion skins; bottom: white wool dyed with dried marigold flowers and various mordants; top left: white wool in exhaust bath of marigolds in an iron pot.

Madder and alum on Montadale fleece prior to rinsing.

Dyeing this week has kept me from spinning as much as I planned, but I'm almost through my first braid of BFL (Blue-faced Leicester) from The Wacky Windmill. I have another, similar braid and plan to do some fractal spinning  for a shawl with this yarn.

No, it's not magic, really.  But it is really magical.