Study for Meditation Mat

Study for Meditation Mat
Handspun Tapestry Weaving

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Go Ask Alice: A Little Bit of Fibre and Quite a Bit of Life

Cheshire Cat Image from Google Public Domain Images

There are all sorts of silly quizzes going around the internet these days; quizzes to determine your link to favourite cartoon characters, historical figures and times, colours, personality traits and literary creatures. The one that caught my attention yesterday was "What 'Alice in Wonderland' Character are You?"

This quiz caught my eye because Lewis Carroll's great work, written in 1865, has been a favourite of mine since I was Alice's age.  I read it when I was the dreamy girl with her nose stuck in books, lost in her own thoughts and looking for adventure.  I read it as a teenager, when I had more than a passing interest in what are said to be references to mind-altering drugs. (Grace Slick knows.)  We read Alice and its companion piece, Through the Looking Glass in university English classes and in Logic 100, too.  I tried to teach myself chess from the game in Looking Glass, but that was a total failure, since I never figured out the moves in book nor actual game, even with the help of the annotated edition of the story.

My last analysis of Deacon Dodgson's Alice was a paper I wrote for yoga teacher training in which I compared the tales of Wonderland to the Bhagavad Gita.  I'm not sure that went over too well, but I was quite sincere.  The question for the paper was, "Does the message of the Gita have relevance for us today?" While I find the Gita interesting, I don't think that it has had an influence on my life.  Since it's tough to write about a negative, I decided to write instead about the book which did provide the most influence on me and Carroll's masterpiece (two, really, although I always think of Wonderland and Looking Glass as a single work) is the one.

Alice is one of the great feminists of all times.  She's intelligent, independent, assertive, yet kind.  She's not afraid of adventure; when the White Rabbit appears, down the Rabbit Hole goes Alice.  Although puzzled by inexplicable changes, she takes them in stride.  She becomes part of the action, smoothing over disputes, settling arguments and standing up to the Red Queen and her stacked jury at trial when justice is clearly not served. Unlike Arjuna, she does all this without resorting to violence, unless you consider shaking a chess piece into a kitten to be violent.  Unlike Arjuna, she solves her own problems; while Krishna the Blue explains it all to Arjuna in the Gita, the Blue Caterpillar is not much help to Alice, leaving her to figure out for herself the great existential question, "Who are you?"  There is no overriding, guiding hand for Alice.  (The Red Queen pretends she's in charge, but she's all bluster and noise; not even the flamingo mallets in the croquet game pay attention to her.)

If you're a fibre fan, there's something for you here, too.  Alice rescues the White Queen's shawl and helps her sort it, only to have the White Queen turn into a Sheep in a shop who knits with 14 pair of needles at once and expects Alice to give it a go (Through the Looking Glass, Wool Into Water).  The Mad Hatter is mad because of the chemicals-mercury, lead and arsenic, among others-used to turn beaver pelts into that hat he wears.

In short, the Alice books have a little bit of everything-mysteries, puzzles, political commentary (the Caucus Race and pokes at the Monarchy) and sympathy for the unfortunate and downtrodden. (You'll find the infamous, "Why is a raven like a writing desk?' riddle here at the Tea Party where Alice worries about the unfortunate Dormouse, among other things.) Most importantly, you'll find a young girl who sets out on her own and navigates all kinds of strange events without being punished for her independent nature and high spirits.  Alice rescues; there is no Handsome Prince to the rescue here.  That in itself is a rare find.

If you haven't read Lewis Carroll's Alice works, I urge you to find them.  You can download them for free to your devices; I have a copy on my iPad through iBooks.  Better yet, visit a bookstore and look for an annotated edition or the complete works of Lewis Carroll and give those a read. You're in for a treat. (Don't let the movie versions of these stories confuse you, Disney, Johnny Depp,Tim Burton and Helena Bonham Carter notwithstanding.)

If you'd like to discover your Alice character, you can take the quiz here: What 'Alice in Wonderland' Character Are You?  By the way, I'm the Cheshire Cat.  (Of course, I am.)  I would have loved to be the Caterpillar, but Cheshire is one pretty cool cat.  Besides, I don't smoke a hookah. Or anything else.  Not any more.  Ask Alice.


Sunday, 27 April 2014

Singing in the Rain: Walking With Ducks

Anyone who knows me will know that I'm very fond of ducks of any kind, but there's a special place in my heart for mallards, which are very common around here.  Mallards have a hidden beauty-at first glance, they're rather plain, especially the females.  Look more closely and you'll see the range of stunning colours as the birds' feathers catch the light. Ducks seem stoic to me, wandering about in sunshine and rain, never complaining about the weather (at least as far as we know), accepting of the human and canine presence near their nests, as long as those creatures don't get too close.  If you do venture near their nests or ducklings, watch out-both male and female ducks will have something to say about that. They're also smart-years ago, I worked at a local arts centre where, each spring, the same Mama duck would nest in the enclosed courtyard.  As soon as her eggs hatched, she'd lead her ducklings to the courtyard door, waiting for us to prop open the inside and outside doors.  She'd usher her babies through them and march them off to the nearby creek for their first swim.  She knew a good thing when she saw one.

Ducks from another day.

We had two days of warm, almost normal spring temperatures last week before the weather turned cold and damp once again.  The last two days brought hide-in-the-house rain and winds; the problem is that, if we stayed in for all these days of watery cold, we might never get outside.  After a long walk with Morris and Mr. DD through the park and around the lake this week, I discovered I was so out of shape from reducing my jaunts this winter that I had to hit the couch as soon as I arrived home.  Enough is enough-I resolved to resume my usual strolls no matter what was going on outside.  If ducks can withstand a little rain without much complaint, surely I can do the same.

I made a date today to deliver a book to a friend at the Art Market at the Cathedral Arts Centre, so that I would have to venture out into a gray day of 3C, rain mixed with snow.  I wasn't thrilled about the prospect, especially since I was forced to bundle up in a winter hat and layers of clothing.  A strange thing happened as I set my pace-rather than bemoaning the cold, wind and rain soaking through everything, I began to enjoy the experience.  I was dressed warmly enough; it wasn't bitterly cold.  What could have been a time for complaining turned into such a pleasant walk that I found myself humming and then singing in the rain. (The streets were fairly quiet, thank goodness.  My apologies to anyone who might have had to suffer through my squawks, er, songs.)

Jess was at the Art Market.  We made a date to meet after class tomorrow, as we used to during yoga teacher training.  Lindsay R., the recipient of the book, brought me a gorgeous blue glazed pot she had made as thanks for the pottery text I had found at a book sale. That pot now holds my aloe plant. During a brief stop at a drug store on the way home, I was greeted by the sound of Pharrell Williams's "Happy" over the loudspeaker-guess which song stuck in my head on the way home?  The final treat of the journey was an encounter with a neighbourhood rabbit, hopping from yard to yard and, yes, duck sightings in the park.

If I had followed my first instinct and stayed home, warm and dry, the day would have been a fine one. I would have read, worked on an art project or two, chatted with Mr. DD about this and that.  By deciding instead to venture out in weather that refuses to relax into spring, I had a wonderful day filled with friends, art, song, wild life and, yes, ducks, things that make my heart sing. Maybe those ducks stroll about in the rain for a reason.


Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Selfie: A Meditation on the "I" in Fibre Work

Coptic Tapestry from Google Images 

I'm not a big fan of  "selfies," those ubiquitous candid photo shots of everyone and everywhere which fill up Facebook, Instagram, snapchat or any other social media site.  It's not that I don't understand the urge to leave one's mark; before cave paintings, before carvings chipped in stone, before "Kilroy was here," people have been noting their presence on Earth in all ways possible.  It's the thoughtless (as in "no planning required"), endless posting of images to which I object.  If I have a device which will take a picture, it must mean that everyone wants to see me and what I am doing Now.  The irony is, of course, that the instant selfie means that I have missed the very moment I am documenting.

Digital media make selfies very different from the self portraits of the past.  Recording one's presence used to require a set of materials, which could include anything from blood, feces and urine, to paint, ink or film.  It took time to make or collect these media.  Materials were often scarce, so planning was required and records were reserved for the wealthy or for times of great social significance, such as battles won or lost, births, marriages and deaths. While I'm all in favour of the democracy of instant media, I do wish there was a little more depth to the records we seem to cast about everywhere.

There's a long tradition of self-portraiture in fibre, too.  Look at the astonishing Coptic tapestry weaving from around 7 AD, at the top of the page.  A quick Google search of images turns up hundreds of woven portraits (click on the link to see them), from many countries and cultures, demonstrating the great human need to record our images and actions. Each of these portraits embody what the selfie lacks-by its very nature, weaving requires specific materials, some degree of planning, time and effort on the part of the weaver.  Where the modern selfie begs for thoughtlessness, the woven version is an homage to mindfulness. Time stops and there is only the steady over and under of the weft threads as they cover the warps.  There is rhythm and ritual, attention to each moment. Once the weaver engages with her work, she becomes the weaving.

I've been weaving a set of tapestry samples for an upcoming workshop I'm teaching next month.  I've been experimenting with a variety of setts, from 10 epi down to 4 epi, which is about the bottom range for weaving any kind of stable cloth.  My latest weaving is a sample of the bags my students will make.  Sett at 4 epi, there isn't much opportunity for detail. This sett works better for looser interpretations of images or free form; however, I wanted the challenge of weaving a self-portrait which could only incorporate the simplest of details. This meant that I had to carefully select what went into that selfie. Here's the result:

Handspun, natural dyed wool weft on cotton warp.
Compared to ancient tapestry images or modern weavings worked in finer threads with closer setts, my little piece is simple and crude.  Technically, the work is successful in that there's enough detail to convey the sense of portrait; we can see that this is not an image of a fish or a bicycle. Most importantly, once I took on the challenge of weaving this selfie, I quickly became absorbed in the work.  My breath deepened and my heart rate slowed, bringing peace into the moment. Each weft threaded through the warp threads and beaten into place became part of a larger meditation.  My hands not only controlled the medium, they became the work itself as I submerged into the rhythm of the cloth forming, pick by pick.

Like the digital selfie, I now have an historical object and image of the process.  Unlike my experience of the digital selfie, there was no instant gratification, but neither did I miss the moment as I was recording it.  Weaving kept me aware and present. I suspect more of these selfies will be the subjects of other tapestries.  Right now, I'm pleased with the current undertaking.

If you're looking for a bit of a weaving challenge, one which will draw you in and fill your creative spirit, put down that phone, tablet or camera.  Draw an image of your self, preferably of that hidden, inner self.  Gather your materials and weave, slowly, mindfully. See if the results are more fulfilling than the endless photos you see or display.  I'm willing to bet that one simple, woven selfie will bring you more joy than a thousand quick photo shots.


Friday, 18 April 2014

Oh, The Weather Outside is Frightful!: Weaving April's Diary

I've been working on a Tapestry Diary Weave Along project the last while. I joined the Ravelry group in February. This group inspired me to finish Raven, but the last push to complete yoga teacher training put everything on hold for March. After a couple of weeks' rest, I was looking for a way to celebrate both the end of training and a return to tapestry weaving.  I'm still unable to work on my larger piece due to physical constraints, so I warped up my small Forsyth frame loom and wove on it.  I love this little loom-it fits in a large makeup bag (which wouldn't know what to do if it actually encountered makeup), along with the tools and yarns I need, plus a spindle in case I run out of yarn. (Unlikely, I know, but one must be prepared.)  I carried this project to and from Coleen's house, as we met to work on our weaving projects.

I've been so happy getting back to fibre work that everything else around the house has been neglected. Not only are the dust bunnies breeding, both Morris and Mickey excel at tracking mud and leaves throughout the house.  Our living and kitchen floors look as if I've stencilled paw prints on them. So, I had a plan for today. I was going to open up the house and do some long overdue spring cleaning.  That plan went down the tubes this morning when I woke up to snow, sleet, rain and howling winds.Time for Plan B, which meant weaving.

Armed with coffee and a cat perched beside me, I spent seven hours pushing to complete "April."  Here she is on the loom:

Here's a detail-the colour is more accurate in this photo.  I was not going outside today to take photographs:

Off loom, from the front and the back:

The size off loom is 17.5 cm x 20.6 cm.  I used a singles commercial wool warp (which was too fine for this yarn and sett) and hand spun, hand dyed wool singles for the weft.  I worked from a cartoon and wove sideways.

Tapestry weavers and designers will quickly spot the flaws in this piece.  One of the few rules I have for weaving tapestry diaries is "No un-weaving." I do this because these pieces are meditation/concentration tools. They remind me to consider consequences before I act. They demonstrate that although I will forever make mistakes, the end result can contain sparks of beauty. They show me a path to the next step on the journey.

It was a day well spent, much more fun than cleaning house.  As for those dust bunnies and paw prints-I'm sure they will wait until tomorrow.


Wednesday, 16 April 2014

You Spin Me Right Round: A Bit of Spinning Spring Cleaning

In theory, Spring has arrived.  By mid-April, it's reasonable, even in this cold region, to expect a run of warm days in which we can begin to tidy up yards, flowerbeds and gardens. This year has caught us once again, with a long, bitterly cold Winter which refuses to let go and which, last night and this morning, brings snow and well below seasonable temperatures once again.

Yesterday evening's meditation practice was about "Waiting."  Heather drew our attention to the time we spend waiting for things to happen-we wait in coffee shops; we wait for people to change so we can be happy (haha to that!); we wait for the snow to stop and the weather to warm up, all in anticipation of something better around the corner.  As a result, we fail to enjoy Now.  "What would happen," she asked, "If instead of filling the time, we decided to accept Now, stop waiting and be happy with what is?"

It's an interesting question and timely, too, because, as I shift back into fibre mode, I've turned my attention to using fibres and yarns I have on hand, rather than buying more in anticipation of a nicer yarn, a perfect project which awaits me in the future.  I started by hauling out my cotton yarn samples.  A while back, I emptied my bobbins by plying cotton singles together at random, which resulted in a small stash of nice, if knotty, cotton yarns and blends.  This week, I knit a couple of washcloths and a long, long sideways scarf from these scraps.  I promised myself I would use only what was on hand and resist the urge to spin more yarn.  As it happens, I had just enough yarn for two washcloths, but ran out on the bind off for the scarf on the last few stitches.  I decided to take a note from weavers, who often weave Spirit Lines or obvious mistakes into their work, in order to let the weaving spirit move from one project to another or to acknowledge that not one of us is perfect. As a result, if you look closely, you'll see a shift in the edge of the scarf at one end, but I'm betting that no one will notice unless I point out that shift.

My next step is to use up a batch of hemp and linen yarns, some of which have been sitting in my stash since-get this-1989.  Talk about waiting!  I've cast on with the hemp and am sampling another washcloth, which is likely to be a super scrubber and exfoliating piece of fabric, judging from the hand of the sample.  You can see it on the needles in the photo below, along with the linen yarns above it:

The linen yarns are at the top; the skein on the right dates back to 1989.

What I discovered while using up the stash was that, rather than being bored with what was available, focusing on what was here stimulated all manner of possibilities.  That pile of hand dyed, thick and thin wool yarns I made while playing with colour and plying may be a blanket; there's another wrap in the huge skein of purple wool and silk yarn.  I'm not waiting for that to happen, though.  I'm happy with what is on my needles now.


Sunday, 13 April 2014

Footloose: On the Value of Cutting Loose and Letting Go

Yesterday was a good day.  I overhauled the fibre room, clearing out extra yarns, art supplies and assorted things belonging to the category, Things Which No Longer Serve Me. There was a point where, when Mr. DD invited me out to The Church of Robin's, I was not quite sure I'd be able to exit the room, so surrounded was I by Stuff.  (I found a path. Nothing gets between me and my coffee for very long.)

By late afternoon, I had reorganized the area so that there was actual bare space on the floor-not much, but enough that I could walk around my yoga mat if I wished.  In celebration, I spent the evening practising meditation painting, which involves putting on loud music and laying down watercolour brush strokes to the beat of whatever is playing.  No purpose, no goal, just me, my paints and pens and the music. In this case, it was Harry Manx and Friends Live at the Glenn Gould Studio, which was perfect, because that particular album contains a lot of Indian teental beats, which are perfect for  random, but mindful, brush and ink strokes. (There was a time when I danced kathak. Badly. Very badly. My dance career ended abruptly, when my skirt fell off on stage during a group performance. I was in my 40's at the time; the display was neither cute nor charming.)  Later, after an encounter with The Tedeschi Trucks Band's Everybody's Talkin', in which Susan Tedeschi sings the best cover of John Sebastian's Darling Be Home Soon I have ever heard, I had a fit of nostalgia, which may or may not have involved listening to Crosby, Stills and Nash's Greatest Hits while sipping an entire half glass of wine wine and working on a neglected pair of hand knit socks.

I danced.  I sang.  I pranced around my room (as best I could, given the limited space) like a kid in high school.  In kindness to Mr. DD, I did shut the door, but my antics were lively enough that Mick the Cat abandoned his post and sulked off to sleep on our bed.  When things got really wild, Morris barked from the living room in a kind of "Hey, you!  Settle down!" tone. It was silly and fun and exactly what I needed, after a long winter of bitter cold and hard studies.  

Why do I think this is worth a mention?  Well, here's the thing: when's the last time you let loose and let yourself Be?  How often do you practise the saying, "Dance as if no one is watching."?  I know it's been far too long for me.  Most of the time, I live in self-consciousness, wondering and sometimes worrying about what friends and family think, what people think, what I think of myself.  From what I observe, I'm not alone.  As we move more and more into long hours of work, ever at the beck and call of social media, always aware that one slight slip might be enshrined in the public arena, we lose our sense of play. Perhaps if we spent less time immersed in the external world of Selfies and more time in the world of humans, Being, we'd all be better and happier for the shift.



Monday, 7 April 2014

Riffin' the Night Away: Random Thoughts on Chris Grasso's "Indie Spiritualist"

"Say 'Nevermore,'" said Shadow.  "Fuck You," said Raven. (Neil Gaiman, American Gods)  
I laughed when I read this quote. I wish I’d written these words.  I’d have them on my tombstone, except that there won’t be a tombstone, because there won’t be a grave.  There’s a jar, with a large dragonfly on the lid.  I hope all of me fits in that jar, but if not, no matter.  There are more jars and I won’t be in any of them for very long.

I digress.  I’ve never read Gaiman, but I think it’s time.  I suspect he might have something to say to me.  I came across this quote by him while reading Chris Grasso’s, Indie Spiritualist, a hallelujah to rebels and misfits and independent travellers on the spiritual path. (Click on Grasso's name to link to his website.) I know little about Grasso, although I know more now, but I couldn’t resist someone who counts Pema Chodron, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Hunter S. Thompson and William S. Burroughs among his treasured authors and who has high praise for Sigur Ros (or as Mr. DD calls them, “The Band of the Endless Chord”), a favourite of my son. Gaiman I don’t know at all, except that he’s a well-rounded, popular British author, mostly of fiction, which may explain why I have read nothing by him. I will now.

About that quote: Grasso opens a chapter, “Ignition,” with it, a chapter about sitting in sorrow, with loving kindness and full attention.  Grasso has spent his life refusing to be what others expect him to be, often in very destructive ways.  That’s left him with a pile of baggage to sort and much healing to do.  These days, he channels his energy into spiritual matters, but never takes the easy, well-travelled path.  Where once his response to convention may have been reactionary, now it’s considered, because he believes that each being’s journey must be his/her own, not bound by the expectations of others.

Grasso points out that we prefer our heroes and our rebels neat, clean, pretty, young (or at least, well preserved) and nicely packaged, because, among other reasons, it’s safer that way.  Rebel-in-a-box fits our capitalist, consumer society; step too far outside that box and you’re something to be feared, dismissed or scorned.

Consider this: that guy who hangs out downtown, sitting on a grate, rocking back and forth while holding a coffee cup for change-while we may feel compassion for him, do we ever think of him as a rebel?  Surely, he is one, no matter what has led him to his present condition, no matter whether he suffers for it or-the unthinkable-whether he’s content to be as he is. As we ignore him, or throw something in his cup, do we consider the possibility that he has something to teach us and that something might not be just about charity and loving kindness?  As Grasso reminds us, that being is just that, a Being, One of Us and We are One.  While it may be easy to see our connections, our humanity with others like us, it’s not so easy to connect with the Unlike, the Unpleasant, The Whatever-Label-We-Give-to-Others, let alone see them as part of ourselves, or as teachers who might guide us on our own journeys. It takes a lot of work.  It may take many lifetimes.

That’s what Indie Spiritualist is about, a guide to finding the unique path which only we can walk, that path which leads us back to All. That guide shines light on ugliness, despair and death, as well as joy and delight and transcendence, for they're all part of our spiritual travels. It’s not an easy trip, and it would often be more comfortable for everyone if  Rebel or Raven would just give in and say, “Nevermore.” To do so, though, might mean she/he is sacrificing a Truth, the honesty of Raven’s own flight.  For Ravens, and Indie Spiritualists everywhere, that sacrifice is not worth the risk of losing one’s way.

Sometimes, Raven has a story to tell. Sometimes, Raven laughs.  Sometimes, Raven just squawks.  How would we have it otherwise?