There Is Not Just One Way

Last week, I was watching the online graduation ceremony of one of the Offspring. The university did a lovely job, complete with cheesy “photo op” with the university president (he paused for a minute, smiling at the camera, with an empty space beside him so the graduates could stand in front of the screen and take a selfie).

One of the things that stuck with me was the speech of one of the valedictorians. He talked about how weird it was to address his talk to a camera rather than an auditorium of smiling faces; how different from what he had expected. He had expected one thing, but had to do it quite differently. And then he issued a challenge:

“Let us dispose of this idea that there is one way of doing things.”

One way of doing things. The only way. The right way. And if we can’t do it this way, we might as well not do it at all. Isn’t that’s the way it works?

I learned how to knit when I was in Grade 3, or maybe 4, in needlework class in school. Well, actually, I think I already knew some of it before we got to it in class; my mother had shown me. But that was all right, because she knew the right way to do it, so I didn’t have to unlearn anything.

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There is, of course, only one way to knit. You feed the yarn through the fingers of your left hand, hold the index finger up with the yarn looped around it, grasp the left knitting needle with the remaining fingers, take the other needle in your right hand, insert it into the stitch, and scoop the yarn through. That is the way to knit, the right way. Everybody does it that way – my mother, my grandmother, my teacher, all my friends… That’s how I learned to do it. That’s how knitting works.

And then I came to Canada.

I still remember the first time I saw a Canadian knitting. At least she said it was knitting, and she had knitting needles and yarn. But what she was doing seemed really weird. Awkward. She was somehow trailing the yarn from her right hand, poking the needle into the stitch, then picking up that trailing yarn, looping it around the needle, and pulling it through. With every stitch she did that loop-around thing. So odd, so slow. She’d obviously never been taught how to knit properly, poor thing…

But you know what?

That very weird and awkward style of holding yarn in your right hand and looping it around the needle with every stitch – which, incidentally, is called “English knitting” or “throwing” – is not only a perfectly legal method of knitting, but it produces a piece of knitwear that is indistinguishable from one done the “right” way. Honest to goodness! Take any handmade sweater, toque, mitten, sock, or scarf, and I defy you to tell just by looking at the stitches whether the knitter held the yarn in her right hand or left hand, whether she was “throwing” her stitches or “picking” them in “continental style”.

Furthermore, English-style knitters are just as capable of producing vast quantities of knitwear with just as many variants in patterns and colours and fancy stitches as us continental-style knitters. True, continental knitting seems to be faster, on average, and, once you learn it, run more automatically. But really, what it comes down to is how you learned to do it, and what style you prefer. Left hand knitting or right hand, it’s your choice.

But wait! There’s more! Yes, there’s English (or American or French) knitting, and Continental (or German) knitting. But then there’s Western style (needle inserted in the front of the stitch) and Eastern style (needle inserted in the back)! Needle held under the hand (standard American) or above the hand (British English or Parlour style)! Portuguese! Norwegian! Russian! Shetland! Combination style! Picking, flicking, throwing! Looping your working yarn through your fingers; wrapping it once, twice, three times; just letting it hang loose!

I had no idea. I was taught how to knit one way, and a very good way it is, too. I can make sweaters and socks and mittens and even little hats to put on boiled eggs to keep them warm*. But, contrary to what I used to think, it is, by no stretch of the imagination, the only way.

“Let us dispose of this idea that there is one way of doing things.”

Life is better when you like more things – and life is better when you can think of more than one way to do things.

I recently taught myself to knit and purl the “awkward” English way. I still prefer continental style – I’m literally twice as fast at it; I timed it – but now, when my shoulder starts to ache from knitting with the yarn in my left hand or I get bored, I can just switch to the right and fall into another rhythm for a little while. The slower pace and slight awkwardness that still remains makes the process that much more meditative, and at the end, I can’t tell which parts I knit continental and which parts English.

“Let us dispose of this idea that there is one way of doing things.”

The students to whom this valedictorian’s speech was addressed via a Youtube livestream are just as graduated now as they would have been if they had listened to it in a big auditorium, shoulder to shoulder with their fellow graduants. The times required that the graduation was held differently – with the yarn in the right hand, as it were. But it’s just as valid this way.

Life, the Universe, Graduations and Knitting. There is not just one way of doing things.

img_20200622_141949754 *This is an egg hat. In case you were wondering.

It’s Been a While

It’s been a while, hasn’t it. More than three months, to be precise. Steve and My Man and I went to Europe at the end of February for another family-event-with-stopover-in-London-on-the-way. While we were there, Covid-19 started ramping up, which did spoil the fun a bit, so when we came home in early March, we hunkered down with the family and pretty much stayed put.

I’ve been spending a lot of time ever since making things. Getting my hands into clay and garden dirt and bread dough (not all at once, silly! I do wash my hands in between) helps my soul stay grounded and cope with this very, very strange and disconcerting time.

Here’s a few pictures:

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The British Museum,
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where I saw 5000-year-old spindle whorls from Troy. (Five! Thousand! Years! Old!)
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At the Tower of You-know-where. (The Yeoman Warder was hilarious.)
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Random kettle on London sidewalk. Because you never know when you’ll need a cuppa.
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Seven Dials
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Way Out
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In Germany it was spring.
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Then we came home.
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I made pots
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and I spun yarn
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and I grew seedlings
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and I made bread
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and I had glaze failures
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and I drew wonky pictures
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and I delighted in birds
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and I made weird poetry.
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Steve was there, too.

And now it’s almost summer; the garden is growing and so are the dust bunnies in the corners of the house; I’ve almost run out of good clay and need to reconstitute the dried-up stuff I’ve been saving up for several years; I’m part-way through editing a novel I wrote during NaNoWriMo a few years ago; and Steve is telling me I ought to get back to writing some stories with bears in them (he’s a stuffed animal of a one-track-mind).

So now you know. How’s things been with you?

Life, the Universe, and Coping in the Time of Covid-19. Making things helps.

#CreateDaily

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It’s Kevan‘s fault. He just sent around a newsletter announcing a new project of his that began with a determination to “Create Daily” – in his case, write a blog post every day for the next year.

For some reason, that really struck me – “Create Daily”. Lends itself so well to hashtaggery. I had a lot of fun with #inktober this year, and of course right now it’s #NaNoWriMo, which you absolutely can’t get done unless you work on it every day or nearly every day while it lasts.

Having a motivation to do something every day is a good thing. So, Create Daily … something. Something small. YOU’RE ON, KEVAN!

But being an inveterate overthinker, I started ruminating about it. Do I really want to commit myself, in public, to do something like this? Every day? For a whole year? It’ll just create pressure again, performance tension. Which I need more of like I need a hole in the head.

And then I read something in Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly*: There’s one bit where she calls herself “a recovering perfectionist and an aspiring good-enough-ist” (p.128). And a couple of pages later, she says that “one of the most effective ways to start recovering from perfectionism is to start creating” (p.135).

Put those two together, and you’ve got the perfect (haha) recipe for how to approach this #CreateDaily thing.

Because creating can itself very easily fall prey to perfectionism. If I say I’m going to create daily for a whole year, the first day that I don’t, I’ve blown it. Aaaack! Perfectionism trigger! But, if you apply good-enough-ism to it, you’ve nipped perfectionism in the bud.

So, I’m going to approach the #CreateDaily thing in the spirit of Good-enough-ism. Start here, right now. With small (very small) acts of creation; maybe every day, maybe not; for a while (I’m not going to give it a specific time limit). I’m not even going to call it a “project” – more of a “practice”.

I’m defining “creating” as “intentionally making something that wasn’t there before“. So here’s some things that might count:

-writing a small, not-very-polished blog post

-writing a fiction fragment of three sentences

-knitting a few stitches on my current project

-playing half a song on the guitar or recorder

-taking a photo with my phone

-taking a photo with my big camera

-writing two-and-a-quarter lines of a poem

-cooking a pot of soup

-spinning half a metre’s worth of yarn

-making something in clay

-doing a five-minute sketch or doodle

-baking a batch of brownies

-growing a seedling, or a tray of sprouts

-writing a letter…

Of course, there are also the “big” creative things, like working on a novel (I’m still in the throes of NaNoWriMo at the moment), organising an event, completing a knitting project, baking a fancy cake, etc. And there are a hundred other small creative things one could do (Making ink! From walnuts! Or making soap! Or writing a song! Or arranging pebbles in the backyard in a spiral! Or learning a new cat’s cradle pattern! Or…).

All of that counts. And perhaps, even, what might tie into it is the celebration of other people’s creativity, like going to an art show or a stage play, or listening to a wonderful piece of music, or applauding someone else’s short story, or appreciating a lovely piece of homemade cake accompanied by tea in a handmade pottery mug. Because almost invariably, when I see other people’s creativity, I’m inspired and propelled towards my own.

Which is exactly what happened when I read Kevan’s post. “Go ye and do likewise.” Create Daily.

Life, the Universe, and Creating Daily. Thanks, Kevan, I will.

*Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. New York: Penguin Random House, 2012.

**Another book that very much ties into this is Craftfulness: Mend Yourself By Making Things, by Arzu Tahsin and Rosemary Davidson, which I impulse-purchased this spring in the gift shop on the Vancouver Island ferry and have been living on ever since.

#Inktober and the Myth of Talent

I let myself be inspired by some friends on Instagram to participate in #Inktober: an ink drawing every day for the month of October, prompts provided. (What is it with October that lends itself so well to this “hashtag-something-tober” thing? #socktober, #inktober… For some reason we never do that with April or June. #sockril – hmm, yeah, maybe that’s why.)

I’m already late starting on #Inktober, so I definitely won’t do the “every day” thing, but regardless, it’s just for fun anyway. I do a little sketch, with a fountain pen with royal blue ink (i.e. ordinary German elementary school kids’ writing ink), and use my newly impulse-purchased waterbrush to blend it. And then I post it. 

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And boy, am I glad I didn’t actually look up the hashtag before I posted! Some people on there are ridiculously talented (like this, or this, or this). My little five- or ten-minute sketches look – urgh, so amateurish (I did a drawing of a wonky Lego brick for the prompt “build”, for crying out loud!). I don’t have that kind of talent, obviously. Had I looked at those highly accomplished drawings before I started, I never would have dared.

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But then – “talent”. What is talent, anyway?

The standard interpretation of the word is usually something like “ability”. “You’re so talented” means “You’re so good at this.” And I, for one, used to think that “talent” is inborn – you’ve either got it or you don’t. People like Mozart and Van Gogh and Goethe have it, and people like me don’t.

But I’m starting to think that that idea is nothing short of a myth.

I’m sure you know the story that Jesus tells of a man who goes travelling. He calls his employees and hands out some talents to them – five to one, two to another, one to the third. The first one does business with his five talents and earns five more; the second one makes two more talents; but the third guy just takes his talent, digs a hole in the ground and buries it. When the boss comes back, the first two guys give him back the talents with all the extra they earned, and he’s pleased with them, but when the third guy comes along with his freshly dug up dirt-covered bundle of unused talent, the boss is not impressed. “You could at least have put it in the bank,” he says, “then it would have earned some interest!”

Of course, the “talent” this story talks about was something a bit different than what we think of when we hear the word – it was a measure of weight and therefore of currency, i.e. weight of silver; Jesus is talking about money (and a great big whack of it, by all accounts). But as with any good story, there is more than one way to look at it. And in this case, you can take the word “talent” literally in its modern sense, and come to some interesting conclusions.

The worker who was given five talents went and used them, and at the end he’s got five more talents. The guy that only got one and was miffed because he got shortchanged never used his talent – he stuck it in the ground, left it to tarnish, didn’t do anything with it, and in the end, nothing came of it.

And that’s the thing about “talent” – yes, some are given more of it than others (some a lot more – see above re. Mozart, Van Gogh, Goethe etc.), but in the end, what matters is whether you use what you’ve got. I’ve heard it said that ability is 10% talent, 90% effort. Even the ones with big talent – the five lumps of silver – still need to put in the time practising it for the talent to grow. And even the ones with small talent can grow their gift by using it.

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Back to #Inktober, if I had seen the “talented” people’s posts first, I might have let myself be scared off. But that’s nonsense – it’s exactly contrary to what this event is meant for. It’s not a venue for showing off your gifts, but your efforts, which is meant to help you grow what you have. Whether that’s big or small doesn’t matter; what matters is doing it.

And anybody can do it. Well, okay, most people. You don’t think you’re one of them, at least where art is concerned? All right, there’s actually a test to see if you have what it takes. You didn’t know that? There is! You want to take it? Okay, here goes: 

First you need some equipment. Find a pencil and a piece of paper. Any paper will do – the back of an envelope or a grocery receipt, if you can’t find anything else. If you don’t have a pencil, use a pen or a marker.

Put the paper on a flat surface. Take the pencil in your dominant hand.

Put the tip of the pencil to the paper.

Now write your name.

Got that? Done it? 

Take a close look. Did you write your name? Yes? Not your next door neighbour’s name? Or your first-grade teacher’s poodle’s grandmother’s name?

Fantastic! Congratulations!

You have made purposeful marks on paper. Therefore, I can now tell you without a shadow of a doubt that you can learn to draw, and you are qualified to practise your gifts. You can even join #Inktober if you wish. 

Yes, okay, I’m being just a tad tongue-in-cheek here. But only a tad. You see, people have told me I’m talented. They’ve even said it about my #Inktober posts (yeah, I know). But it’s really a learned skill. Some twenty-five years ago, I started taking art lessons, after someone told me that you don’t go to art school because you’re good at art, but because you want to become good at art. That comment revolutionised my thinking, and allowed me to go after the dream I had of being able to paint. I took lessons, read library books*, watched videos, spent countless hours hanging out on sites like wetcanvas.com, generally obsessed on art, and this is where I ended up.

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And that’s why I’m being somewhat facetious about this “talent” thing. Don’t let yourself be scared off by the myth of “talent”. Do you want to draw, paint, write**, play the tin whistle, dance ballet in a tutu? Go for it!

It doesn’t matter how big the talent is that we’ve been handed, what matters is what we do with it. That way, even a small talent can grow into something big. And when it does – when a talent of any size grows up into something – it’s a joy to behold. Even if that “something” is only someone having fun with pen and ink on an October morning.

Life, the Universe, Inktober and Talent. What could you be having fun with today?

*My two favourite books for learning art were Betty Edwards’ Drawing on the Right Side of the Brainand Rudy De Reyna’s How to Draw What You See. I’m glad to see they’re both still in print; they’re well worth it.

**If drawing isn’t your thing, and you’re more into, say, writing, I have one word for you: NaNoWriMoIt’s coming up – just three more weeks!

#WordlessWednesday: Untitled, or: What’s She Got Into Now?

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