Study for Meditation Mat

Study for Meditation Mat
Handspun Tapestry Weaving

Friday, 23 January 2015

Lyin' Eyes: Of Sticks and Snakes and What the Mind Sees

Once upon a time, a man who was terribly afraid of snakes was walking along a dusty road beside a river. When the man came to the next town, the villagers warned him, "Be careful of the road beyond. There are venomous snakes along that path. They come up out of the river." The man continued his journey, but looked for snakes everywhere he thought they might be - behind him, in front of him, along the banks of the river. All his previous encounters with snakes came back to haunt him. He planned his escape from these snakes: would it be better to run away from the snakes on the road or should he jump in the river and take his chances at out-swimming them? As his mind raced, he came around a bend in the road and there it was - the largest, most fearsome looking snake he had ever seen. Down the man went, dead of a heart attack. When the villagers found him, they noticed a large branch from a tree had fallen across the road, near where the man's body was lying. (Buddhist Tale)
I've been catching up on medical appointments this month. Yesterday, I was in my optometrist's office for a long delayed check up. My doctor has dubbed my eyes, "Designer Eyes," a clever euphemism for eyes which don't work well. (The dear doctor prefers to think of them as "interesting challenges.") Although my optometrist is kind, and very skilled, the thought of all the tests required at each visit makes the appointments stressful. I worry about what might happen days before I'm in the office. I feel my body tighten up as I wait for my turn in the chair. It's a struggle to remain calm.

By the time I was called into the doctor's office, my mind was racing. "What will be wrong this time?" was the continual thought loop. We began the first test - "Read the rows of numbers." The vision in my right eye wasn't too bad and I felt some relief. Then we switched to my left eye and the fun began. I could not read a single line of numbers on the chart. The best I could do was read the large "6" at the top and that was more of a guess than a certainty. It took about 10 seconds for full blown panic to arise. This was a new experience. I had done poorly on charts before, but nothing like this. "How will I weave? Spin? Knit?" "Shit. More appointments." "What will it be like to be totally blind?" "Don't be stupid. You won't be blind today." All these thoughts and more spun wildly through my mind. They sickened my body. Forcing myself to see made matters worse. Those numbers melted into pools of characters in a foreign, unrecognizable language.

This optometrist is one of the calmest people I know. I've been with him since he opened his practice. His children went to school with mine. He knows me, knows my temperament. His response to my panic is to become calmer: "We have a lot more tests to do before we talk about what's going on. Let's take it step by step." He checked this and that. He put those dreaded dilating drops in my eyes and we chatted about our kids, my yoga practice, his outside the office routine. His assistants took photo after photo of the interior of my eyes. After 45 minutes of testing and waiting, I was called back into the room. Doctor R. pulled up the photos on his computer. He compared prior test results to the current results. He pointed out areas of previous concern. The evidence was clear: my eyes were fine, or at least as well as my eyes can be. In fact, problem areas showed some improvements. There was no change in my eye wear prescription. I needed new contact lenses, but that was it.

While my loss of vision could have been caused by medication I'm taking, the most likely cause was stress. Despite my meditation practice, although I know how thoughts can run away with me, my mind had taken over and wreaked havoc. A slightly less than pleasant experience became a nightmare. This particular imaginary snake in the road hadn't killed me, but it made me temporarily blind. Literally.

Mind is like that. Despite our best efforts and intentions, we can be quickly swept away on the swirling river of thoughts, flailing at imaginary snakes as we go. Discomfort turns into suffering. An inconvenience becomes pain. Once we recognize what has occurred, we can continue being swept along that river, or tiptoeing around sticks-as-snakes, imagining what could have happened, beating ourselves up for being so foolish or we can recognize that we've had an experience in our perfectly imperfect human way. We can haul ourselves out of the river of thought, back up on the river bank, and continue our journey, while noticing that sometimes, snakes are just sticks. We can smile at the Mind which carried us away. We can decide to be gentle with ourselves and remind ourselves that next time (and there will be next times), we might make an effort to know whether it's a snake or a stick we're confronting, before we panic.

How we see the stick is up to us.

Even if it really is a snake, will it harm us?
My eye sight is back to normal this morning. I'm ready for the next stick/snake in the road.


Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Moving On Up: Progress on "Chakra Roots"

The tapestry weaving progresses. I've made it to the half way mark and, while there are still problems with tension, I'm able to control most of them. This piece is teaching me many things. I will not use this warp again on anything larger than 10 cm x 10 cm. I'm curious as to the sheep breed content in it because this yarn stretches every time I touch it, not a good thing in a warp. Despite the frustration of knowing that I could have managed problems more effectively if I'd taken care at the beginning of the process, I've grown fonder of this small work. I love working with hand spun singles weft yarns. They have a vibrant tactile quality that adds to the pleasure of weaving. Hand spun yarns provide texture and a fabric surface that no commercial yarns can duplicate. 

The composition in "Chakra Roots" is translating well from painting to weaving, as are the colours. I don't "paint with yarn," a description used by some tapestry weavers. Yarn is yarn; paint is paint. When we paint, we apply pigment to an existing surface, our ground. Tapestry builds images where there is no ground or existing structure; the warp is a skeleton, the bones of a piece. The weft provides both flesh and adornment to that skeleton. I usually weave from a loose painting or drawing specifically intended for tapestry. Sometimes, I will begin with a photo, but this is my first attempt at copying a painting to fibre and, while I'm happy with the results so far, I'm not convinced that this is the process for me.

My values are balanced. I'm all about colour, so it's easy for me to forget that if values are skewed, there will be something "off" with the work, even if the viewer can't quite tell what it is. Technology is a help here - taking black and white photos of the tapestry as it progresses allows me to catch problems with value before I've woven too far:

Next up, more circles. Ah, circles. I have a bit of a love/hate thing going with woven circles, but that is a much larger discussion for another day!


Monday, 12 January 2015

The More Things Stay the Same: Monochromatic Weaving

Like everyone else, I can be a mass of contradictions. I love spending huge blocks of time alone, especially when I'm weaving or writing. Crowds are not my thing, but once I'm out at an event, I enjoy people watching and participating in whatever is happening. I absorb myself in what I love and am good at self-direction, but tend to let things slide unless I'm part of a group of like-minded people sharing goals and habits. If I don't attend a yoga class at least once a week, I may not practise at all. The same applies to tapestry weaving - if I don't have someone with which to share my ideas and progress (or lack thereof), I might never sit at my loom.

Last winter, a friend and I met on a regular basis to weave. She wove miniature cut pile rugs using her hand spun and dyed silk yarns while I wove tapestries using hand spun and dyed wool wefts. We're planning to do this again, when she returns from a trip, but for now, I'm left to my own devices. I do not know of another person who weaves tapestry in this city. I'm sure there must be someone, but I haven't tracked them down, yet. (Perhaps they're hiding from me, although I can't imagine why - I'm nothing but delightful.) In order to keep weaving, I've turned to online groups for inspiration.

The Tapestry Weaving group on Ravelry started a Weave-a-Long in 2014. I wasn't sure I'd join because such groups usually have a theme and I like to weave whatever calls to me. The 2014 WAL theme was "Tapestry Diaries." These diaries involve weaving every day, using any technique one chooses to track the passage of time. I have woven several of these pieces and found joy in the work. There was also the matter of a tapestry which had been sitting unfinished for years, because certain events had brought weaving to a halt. That tapestry was calling to me and I thought a WAL might get me going on the Weaver's Path. So I signed on for the year. As a result, I completed that unfinished piece ("The Garden"), along with several other small works.

This year's WAL theme is "The Colour Wheel." I balked at that one; I do not like to restrict my colour choices, because I am never sure what colours a tapestry will require. The group doesn't dictate what one weaves and the moderator was fine with me doing as I pleased, so I'm in again. The next two months will focus on "Monochromatic."

By any definition,  "Chakra Roots" is not monochromatic, but sections of it are. The sky/background is woven with indigo dyed wool and mohair and it's a trick to keep it all from looking flat (as in "boring"). I'm maintaining interest by weaving with various shades of blues, adding random lines of soumak and patches of textured mohair yarns. The overall effect is one of blue sky, but the eye should follow the changes in colour and texture:

"Chakra Roots" Detail
"Chakra Roots" Detail
I tend to become so enamoured with colour that I forget to stay within a Value range (the degrees of light and dark). If your values are not aligned, the effect can be jarring (just as in the rest of your life); one way to check Value in a piece is to copy a photograph into black and white. You can see in these photos that the values align nicely. The "Moon" circles stand out, which is what you'd expect in a night scene:

Despite the fact that this weaving is still kicking my butt, I'm discovering more and more things to like about it. The contradictions within the piece are what bring it to life for me and inspire me to keep going. I may have to be dragged kicking and screaming into something, but once I'm there, I love to embrace the changes.


Thursday, 8 January 2015

It's Just Like Starting Over: Broken Bones, Tapestry and Mindfulness

Long, long ago, on a bitterly cold Boxing Day, I slipped on a patch of ice in our backyard as our family headed out to a family gathering. The result was spectacular: I flew into the air, managed a half somersault on my return to earth and landed, full force, on the palm of my right hand. Crack. I snapped both the radius and the ulna clean through. The aftermath meant that I spent 8 weeks with my right arm in a cast - 4 in heavy plaster and the rest in a lovely purple fibreglass enclosure.

Saying that I'm right-hand dominant is akin to saying that Morris the Bull Terror likes truck rides. In the next 8 weeks, I came to know just how much my right hand meant to me. I also realized that, if I didn't want to spend that time waiting for my bones to grow and relying on the kindness of family and strangers, I had better learn to engage my left arm and hand. Slowly, pinch by clumsy pinch, I trained my left hand to take over until it became nearly as adept as the right. Once I regained the use of that dominant hand and arm, I slid back into usual behaviours. My left hand retreated into the background. Old habits live hard.

There's a little book I carry in my bag these days, Mindfulness on the Go, by Jan Chozen Bays. In it, are 25 mindfulness exercises to take you through a year of practice. To my amusement, the first exercise is "Use Your Nondominant Hand." Over the course of two weeks, you practice using your non-dominant hand for various tasks. You record the results and reflect on the experience. The practice is intended to develop appreciation of the skills we are given, to remind us of others who do not have the same abilities and to reveal our habits and impatience. Bays's practice focuses on the hand, but I've discovered that breaking patterns in other areas can teach me much about my habitual assumptions and behaviours.

My "Chakra Roots" tapestry is teaching me a lot these days. I might say that it's schooling me. The less than precisely wound warp on a frame that I haven't used in years is behaving in unexpected ways. The plied wool warp which I bought years ago but hadn't sampled doesn't like inconsistency. The tension problems I thought I'd repaired are reappearing and, just to add to the fun, the warp is stretching like no other warp I've used. I discovered these problems after I'd reached the point of no return, which, for me means I'd have to cut off the warp and wind again. I can't stand wasting yarns, especially expensive warp yarns, and my Ego doesn't like being bested. Once I've woven a few inches, I tend to keep going. It's not much different this time, but an attitude adjustment is in order if there is to be any hope of satisfaction in weaving this piece. I've decided that I'll accept this tapestry the way I've learned to accept my sketches - they're not all good; in fact, most of them will be awful, but they will all have something to teach me, if I stay out of judgement and in observation. My dominant Ego, which would like you to believe that I always know exactly what I'm doing, must give way to the playful Me which says, "Okay, what happens if. . .?"

In that spirit, I invite you to notice the flecks of white warp yarn showing through the fabric below. Traditionally, tapestry is woven as a discontinuous weft-faced plain weave, which means that the warp threads should be completely covered by the weft yarns. Those specks of warp are known as "lice" and they're considered flaws in the weaving. In this piece, my initial warping problems are aggravated by the stretching warp threads. As they grow, they pull together, which changes the sett and leaves loops of warp showing. If you're weaving traditional tapestry and this happens, you're pretty much screwed, especially if it repeats throughout the piece. That's the dominant perspective, but when I expanded my view to include other possibilities, I noticed something.

In the original painting, some of the white paint shows through the blue sky to mimic stars. Weaving in tiny stars is a possibility, but it's tedious and the image tends to be cliched. I had decided to ignore the stars in the tapestry, but as I attempted to solve the lice problem, I turned the tapestry sideways and those lice became the very stars that come easily in paint, but are difficult to achieve in tapestry.

With a small change in my perspective, the problem became a potential solution:

When I allowed my nondominant brain to take charge, the question shifted from, "How do I get rid of those lice?" to "Can I use these flaws to my advantage?" I think I can. Maybe. Perhaps. Time will tell.

All of this blither-blather may be an excuse, of course, a rationale to justify the poor weaving skills on display in this small tapestry. I won't know until she's done and that's what keeps me engaged with the work - the constant shift between my dominant beliefs in what I know to be true about tapestry and what is actually occurring. It can be mind-boggling, but, as a practice in shaking habits, it sure beats a broken arm.


Saturday, 3 January 2015

Dream a Little Dream: Thoughts on a Snowy Winter's Evening

Once upon a time, I dreamed of running an artists' studio. It would be intimate, friendly, filled with music and visual art, open to anyone who wished to explore her/his creative spirit. There would be a little coffee, beer and wine bar, where artists and others could discuss deep thoughts and explore grand ideas. This dream simmered in the back of my mind, in the world of Some Day.

I graduated from university, went to work in various libraries and pursued my fibre work in the evenings when I came home. Every night, from 7 until midnight, I explored weaving and spinning. I'd sleep for a few hours, sometimes weaving a bit in the morning before I went to work and began the daily cycle once more. Mr. DD and I bought a tiny house. I had a child, and quit my job to stay home with her. I practised my art when she napped. When she was 3 months old, I took her with me to Vancouver where I was one of the guest artists in the Saskatchewan Pavilion at Expo '86. She slept on the floor in front of my spinning wheel as I spun for people passing through the pavilion. Visitors to the site thought Ms. DD was a doll and were thrilled to discover that she was not. There are probably many photos out there of me on a stage, spinning, with a tiny baby being admired by hundreds. (If I was trying to educate the public about fibre arts, her presence was probably counterproductive, since everyone ignored me to fuss over her. And who would not?)

When we returned home, I was offered a residency at our local arts centre. The hours were flexible. I could quit selling my work, which I did not enjoy, and teach people of all ages, doing what I loved. Ms. DD could come to work with me. Eventually, Young Mr. DD arrived and he, too, grew up in the fibre studio at the arts centre. The studio was a busy place. Weaving and spinning classes were always full. People came from everywhere, even driving up from the United States to take weekend courses. Groups of fibre artists met on a weekly drop-in basis, as did artists working in other media. Every year, some of us piled into vans and travelled to conferences in far away places. Mr. DD and I bought a slightly bigger house. He built bedrooms for the children so that I could have a fibre room upstairs. I lived, breathed and dreamed of arts and crafts. My children thought everyone's house was filled with looms, spinning wheels and weird drawings, built of ink, cloth and string.

I stayed at the arts centre for 23 years. A few years after I left, the fibre studio was dismantled, the equipment sold off and classes dropped. The weavers' and spinners' guild meets there still, but there are no looms producing cloth, nor wheels humming away making yarn. Fibre artists meet on the internet, in Facebook groups, on Ravelry. An artist in any medium can chat and share information with millions of others, which is both a good and bad thing.

In the back of my mind, the idea of running an artists' studio sits. A lot of time has passed and I have neither the financial resources nor energy to manage such a feat. There are other gathering spots for artists now, several of them doing a much better job than I ever could. Dreams come and go, something you realize when you stop to notice the passage of time. Old dreams bring pangs of nostalgia, but not sorrow. I don't regret the paths I've chosen.

And, yet....

There is something happening here. Young Mr. DD has returned home. One of his band mates has joined him. Mornings begin with rousing discussions of books, movies, the current music scene and the state of the world in general. (None of us lacks opinions.) As I sit in my fibre room, weaving away on this small tapestry or spinning that yarn, the sound of guitars and voices drifts up from downstairs, as young men rehearse for an upcoming show. Evenings are spent watching music documentaries; the past two nights, it's been "The History of the Eagles,"  and "Searching for Sugarman."  Tonight, we'll be listening to blues and jazz on CBC radio. People come and go at odd hours. The coffee pot is always on. Beer flows freely.

Sometimes you wonder where your dreams have gone, how time has moved so swiftly that it seems as if you can't catch your breath. In that moment, if you stop wishing for old dreams and start to pay attention, you might catch something else. Our dreams may not come true in the way we expect, but perhaps they come true all the same. Here, right Now, in the dead cold of a northern winter, in my cozy house, a dog on the sofa and an old cat draped wherever he pleases, are rooms filled with artists, each one absorbed in the work she/he was born to do - a couple of musicians, writing songs, playing guitar and singing in the basement, a skillful builder doing carpentry upstairs, and me, tapping the threads into place on my loom, weaving my yarns in and out, breath by breath, dream by precious dream. For Now, dreams have become reality. I think I'll go have some wine.

'Chakra Roots," the current piece