Tuesday, December 22, 2009

What's It All About?

Christmas Week has begun. Or Solstice Week. Or whatever it is for me. I am never sure, exactly. I have never really placed a religious significance on Christmas. It has never been about the birth of a baby, though it's kind of a nice story. It is not about celebrating the return of the light, because I don't celebrate it. I dread the coming of spring and summer. I get depressed in the spring and I have to grit my teeth and get through summer. I hate it. I love winter. So maybe it's a celebration of winter for me, then. I don't know really what it is. But I do know that this is the best couple of weeks of the year. The air feels different. Everything seems more quiet. I realize that if I was caught up in the consumer christmas culture, I would experience things very differently, but I left that behind long ago. For me it is all about being quiet and just being with my family.
Yesterday we went grocery shopping for the last time in 2009. I was thrilled when we got home! It was done. And I was home. And I plan to be home for the next several days. I will be listening to Christmas music as I bake mocha muffins, oatmeal rolls, cinnamon rolls, and cookies (muffins today and the rest Thursday). I will listen to various audio versions of A Christmas Carol while I knit and crochet hats and scarves for our tree at UU. I will read when I feel like it. I will drink many cups of coffee and tea, sitting here with Bill. I will not have to watch a clock and schedule certain things for certain times so I can be somewhere. I can get up in the morning and just exist. And I can create. I think that is the real essence of this time of the year for me. I can create for other people. I do that all year anyway, when I make a shawl for someone or bake cookies and share them. But it feels different at this time of the year. Maybe that's the meaning of the season for me. It is a time when the reason for my creativity changes a bit from creating because an idea won't leave me alone, or because I want dessert, or I want to feel the yarn and my wooden crochet hooks in my hands, to creating because I want to share my creations with specific people. Maybe there is also a bit of honoring all of the women in countless generations who came before me, because my creative life is very much tied to women's history—I work with thread, yarn, and food. I crochet. I knit. I cook. I bake. I know that once the latter three got mechanized and commercialized, women no longer did them. But I am not working on that scale. I am working on a domestic scale as women have done through the centuries. Part of what I am saying, I think, when I give someone something that I have made is, “Look at this. It did not come from a store or as a result of someone's slave labor. I made this. I made this for you. And throughout history, women have been creating things for the people they love. Women have done this. Honor this work—not because I have done it, but because without it, none of us would be here.” The truth is, whether women have done this work out of necessity or because they needed it done but also loved doing it, it is necessary work. It is not just art for art's sake. It is creativity with a practical purpose. I am not against art for art's sake, but I find it amusing that we have privileged that world in the way that we have. It is, of course, primarily male, though that is changing. There's nothing wrong with thinking great thoughts and then chipping away at stone or throwing paint on a canvas or whatever else you need to do to express those thoughts. It's important. We need that. But we also need the kind of creativity that women have been quietly doing in homes everywhere for all of these generations. We need that kind of creativity at a very basic level. Without it, we don't survive. Without women expressing themselves in the kitchen, for example, by creating healthy meals, how would we live? We can see today when that task has been largely outsourced to food processors and fast food chains that we are not surviving well at all. We are eating ourselves to death. We need more people—men and women—to get back into the kitchen and start creating food again. Real, nourishing, life-giving food, not pseudofood. Not chemicals and cardboard dressed up to look like food. But we have devalued this work and so no one wants to do it. It is seen as unimportant. Our society is increasingly not set up to accommodate such activities. If we honored this work, if we understood that our very survival depends on it, maybe we would organize things differently. So maybe that is what Christmas is to me—a way to say that we can choose again. None of this is working. Our gluttony, our imprisonment in a consumer culture that is out of control, our unconsciousness about who we are and how we want to live are all highlighted at this time of year. And yet we are invited by the story of the birth of this baby and by the pagan celebrations that we can do things differently. We can recognize that there is a simpler way to live. We can accept that we need the dark time for contemplation and growth. We can use it to prepare for the work that is ahead. We can discover who we are—who we really are and not who we are told we should be—and we can build a life on that. When I bake and crochet, I am being true to who I am and what I value. And maybe that is a little easier at this time of year. Maybe that's why it all feels different to me somehow. By dropping out of the consumer culture christmas and dropping in to the creative culture christmas, I have discovered more of myself and a way to share that with other people. Merry Christmas, Happy Solstice, Festive Holidays.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Yesterday a friend was musing about how she gives to others at Christmastime. She was talking about making ornaments and baking cookies and giving them out to the people in her 55 and over neighborhood. It got me thinking about how I engage in service. I usually don't have much money, because I choose to live simply. When I have had money to give, I have given it, but usually service for me takes the form of time and creation.
I have volunteered my time to various organizations through the years. I worked in the women's centers at two different universities. I have spent time working in art galleries and with arts organizations in two different states. I have been active in the peace and social justice committees in churches I have attended over the past 5 years. I have worked with the Oregon State University Extension Program in food pantries helping to educate people about food preparation and safety, and nutrition. I got training and certification in literacy education. All of these areas of life are important to me and I felt good about giving my time to support them.
I also feel that it is important to give to individual people. That is a form of community service, too. There are many ways to do this, of course—being a friend, providing a shoulder to cry on or an ear to listen, helping someone around the house, and countless other things provide us with ways to build community and support each other. For me there is also the fact that using my talents in the service of others feels spiritual to me. Like my friend, I bake a lot. It is a good feeling to give someone a tin of homemade cookies and see their face light up. I also crochet (and sometimes knit, tat, or cross-stitch). Most of what I have made over the past 25 years has gone to other people. In the last 7 years or so, I have made countless prayer/blessing shawls. It all started when my mother-in-law's mother died. I had heard about prayer shawls and thought it would be a good thing to do, so I made one and mailed it to her. She called me on the phone and cried as she told me that it was the nicest gift anyone had ever given her. This was quite a moment for me because this is a woman who was not at all happy that I was marrying her son (she probably had good reasons for this, mainly the fact that I was 18, he was 28 and we had only known each other for a couple of months, but after 29 years, I can say it's worked out). Our relationship was fine by then, but it was still a powerful moment for me. It has all snowballed from there. I can be talking to someone and my inner voice will suddenly tell me that I need to make them a prayer shawl. Sometimes it seems obvious to me why this is so, but sometimes it really doesn't. I have tried to talk myself out of it at times, but it never works and the thought hounds me until I make the shawl. I am always glad I did. For me, this exemplifies many things that I think are important—the power of creating things with my own hands, the connection between people, and the shawl itself is important, because it symbolizes for me a comforting embrace. When I give someone a shawl, I am giving them a hug that they can feel even when I am not there. I find shawls very comforting and have several of them that I wear regularly. So this is an important form of service for me.
One less tangible way that I engage in community service is by living a conscious, thoughtful, simple life. I am respectful of the earth, of people, and of the material resources provided by the earth. I do not waste. I do not engage in overconsumption. I rarely shop and when I do, I buy secondhand. I use the library. I do not own a TV. A life of creativity, thinking, and experience is what is meaningful to me, and not one of mindless shopping. I see this as a way to not only set an example, but to use less, thus helping in a tiny way to make the planet more habitable for others. This is a form of service to my fellow humans and to the earth and all of her others creatures as well. All of these ways of serving others and the planet are expressions of my spiritual path. I am not a religious person, and I consider myself a humanist, so it's not a god thing. It's a being a human being thing.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


For the past several months, I have been obsessed with crocheting lace. And playing with color at the same time. It started when a friend asked me before we left Klamath Falls if I would be able to make her a very large rectangular lace shawl out of crochet thread. She knew it would take a long time and was quite willing to wait months for it. I said I would love to do such a project and so off we went to get the supplies. She wanted a neutral color, so I suggested ecru, but also I thought that some sewing thread carried along would add interest and depth. She agreed and so I crocheted across the country all summer. Mostly I worked on the shawl, but I also made some lace socks. By the time we arrived here, I needed to look at something else for a while, so I got out my bag of odd balls of sock yarn and made a lace scarf with lots of fringe and many colors. Then Bill said he liked it and wanted one, so I did another one. I made Christmas ornaments and bookmarks out of thread, putting various weights of different colors together to see what happened with the colors. I did a lot of dreaming--”what would happen if I...?” And then I went to the library and found an old copy of a crochet magazine full of lace projects for thirty cents. It came home with me. And as I flipped through it, I started thinking about all of my friends in Klamath Falls who have a hard time with winter. They are the complete opposites of me—where I feel energized and alive in winter, they live for summer. Where I get depressed in spring and summer, they feel alive. I was looking at all the lace done in floral themes and I decided to send them bits of spring done up in thread. I enjoyed myself immensely. And the more I crocheted, the more ideas I got. The obsession has not quite run its course yet. The ideas are still coming and I still find myself eager to try them out.
I find lace fascinating. It can be beautiful, no question about that. And it is highly versatile in terms of how it can be created—by hand or machine, with a crochet hook, tatting needles or shuttles, knitting needles, bobbins, and countless other ways. The very fact that there are so many ways to create it shows you how important it has been throughout history. That's kind of weird, because it's only purpose is decorative. There is no useful reason for lace. It is there to be pretty and be looked at, and therein lies its importance, of course. It's a class thing. Always has been. The wealthy had lots of it and even men had clothing decorated with ruffles and cuffs of lace. That made it desirable for all people, so cheaper ways to produce it were developed. And of course, countless people survived famine and poverty in various parts of the world by making the lace that would adorn the clothing of the wealthy. Machine made laces put a damper on this at some point, but even today in places like India and China, women and children labor for very small wages to create lace. There is no machine that can produce crocheted fabric, so when you see crocheted doilies in the dollar store you know that somewhere someone spent a good amount of time creating that. That dollar that you pay at the store had to pay not only for their wages—as tiny as that amount is—but also for the materials and the cost to ship the item.
And there is a gender issue. Today lace is seen as feminine, even though upper class men used to wear a great deal of it to show they were upper class. But today it is considered a woman's item. And it has been women who have labored for low wages to produce it. Once the machines took over, that changed, but when the lace is handmade for money, it is usually women who do the work and get paid a pittance. Today I have the luxury of using the creation of lace as a way to express my creativity. I can play with color and design and put things together in new ways. I can use lace in ways that go beyond decoration by making lace socks, shawls, and other useful items. I suppose I do so as a way of making a statement, though. Yes, it is beautiful to look at. But there is a whole history here—a history of women and of poor people—a history that does not usually get told. But it's all there within the lace.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

5 Years and 2 Weeks

I am still recovering from the hellish 5 years and 2 weeks I spent in Klamath Falls, Oregon. I am grateful every day to not be there anymore, though there are several people I miss a great deal. below is a poem I wrote about the experience.

5 Years and 2 Weeks Spent in Klamath Falls, Oregon

5 years and 2 weeks
is how long it takes
to be dragged to
the edge
and forced
to contemplate
the nothing
that lies below.

5 years and 2 weeks
is how long it takes
to consider
whether one more
tiny movement
over that edge
might just be quicker
and less painful
than this.

5 years and 2 weeks
is how long it takes
to decide otherwise.
To stand up.
To walk away
from nothing
and toward something
that might--
turn into
a life.

Shari Burke


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Storm in Winter

There's a storm coming. Or so they tell us. Buffalo has already gotten some snow. We have rain, which is supposed to continue through the day and turn to snow later. That is supposed to be with us for a couple of days along with high winds. I know this is a real problem for people who have to be out in it. Driving won't be fun. I feel for them. But for me, it is a joy. We went grocery shopping yesterday. We've been to the library. We have what we need. We don't have to be anywhere. It is what I have been waiting for. The sky is grey. The rain is falling. It's so quiet. I know that I have these couple of days before me where it is best to stay home. I have plenty of crocheting to do, Christmas music to listen to, tea to brew, books to read. It feels like winter. It feels sacred. It feels like I can stop and just be for a couple of days. Soon it will be the winter solstice. The days will get incrementally longer. I will begin to dread the season that is to come. I will start to mentally prepare myself to get through it. No matter how much I try to accept and even enjoy spring and summer, I always feel out of sorts then. I get depressed every spring. I enter survival mode in summer. There are good moments, but overall, the feeling is one of wanting it to be over. I am a winter person. That is where I truly live. Spring will come. Summer will arrive. I will get through it. But for this day, I can feel winter and be at home and at peace.

Friday, December 4, 2009


It snowed! Finally! Ok, it was only a few flurries and it has stopped now. But I got to see the few flakes falling from the sky. And I had the Christmas music on the radio as I beaked a loaf of oatmeal bread and a batch of chocolate chip cookies. So I had my moment. Even if this is all we get for the rest of the holiday season, I have had my one brief, shining moment with Christmas music, baking, and snow!

Poisoning the Planet

I can't believe it's Friday already. I have lost 3 days in the twilight zone of headaches. I started things off with a migraine and nausea, so lost Tuesday in and out of it as I lay on the couch. Felt OK at night and then managed to get some work done on a large crochet project I was working on. Got up the next day and felt a bit of a twinge in my head and a slight upset stomach. Since we had things to do, we ended up driving by the chemical plant, where the smokestack was spewing and these gigantic vats were steaming. The smell was nasty and my stomach got worse. We did what we needed to do, including the laundry, came home, hung up the wet clothes on the drying rack and I made lunch. Bill went out for a walk and I sat there feeling like crap. In a little while, it felt like someone was behind my right eye stabbing it with an ice pick, while at the same time trying to push it out of my head! Nonetheless, I managed to read a novel that was next up on my pile. It's a good thing it wasn't anything more than that, because I wouldn't have been able to comprehend it anyway. Felt somewhat better after dinner, but by the time I went to bed it was coming back. Woke up yesterday with it again and lost most of the day just sitting here trying not to move. I could barely open my eyes and they were watering. Nothing really helped until I just lay back down on the couch and dozed. I have come to expect my once-a-month migraines. It's a great deal better than the awful ones I used to get every 10 days or so. Changing my diet really helped with that. But ever since I have been exposed to the kinds of pollution that hang in the air, first in Klamath Falls and now here, I have been really laid low at times. Last year at this time I was coughing and choking because of the temperature inversion that lasted for weeks over Klamath Falls and trapped all of the pollution in the Basin. Now I am here with all of the industrial pollution—who knows what's leftover from when there was all that heavy industry here—and the chemical plant. This morning I have my usual clogged ear, draining head, and chest congestion. This is not the first time I have lost several days to this kind of thing and we have only been here for 2 months. The first day we moved into this apartment, I got a headache that lasted for the next 4 days. I marvel at the fact that we seem to be so carefree about the destruction we are doing to this precious environment of ours. I now have to used filtered water for cooking, drinking, tea, etc. The first time I had a sip of water from the tap, I thought it was coming right back up. The chemical taste is horrible. So drinking the water is out unless it's filtered first and apparently breathing the air isn't too healthy either. It's a very sad state of affairs.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Snowpeople and Santa

It is December. I am in western New York. Shouldn't there be some hint that it's winter or that winter is coming? But as of yet, there is none. This morning I was out in shirtsleeves. It's in the 50s. The sun is shining. I am trying to feel Christmasy. But something was missing. I had to go through much of my Christmas stuff before we left Oregon and give it away. I allowed myself one box and I kept enough to fill that. That left over 2 boxes more that went to someone else, but I still had my one box. Problem is, I am in western New York and my box is in south-central Oregon. So I made a bunch of ornaments as I do every year. The day after Thanksgiving, I hung them up, as I do every year. And even though I am doing Christmas crocheting and listening to Christmas music, it still hasn't felt like Christmas. So this morning we headed over to the thrift store where I spent $3 and got a snowman figurine, a snowman snow globe, a stand-alone thing that says "JOY" with Santa and a reindeer and snowgirl, Santa, and Rudolph magnets, and a ball ornament. i placed them where I can look at them from my perch on the couch. Now it seems more like Christmas! I just needed a dose of Santa and some snowpeople!!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Hooks, Too

Yesterday I mentioned my book problem. Today I will confess to also having a hook problem! I am an avid crocheter. I do many yarny/ thready things on occasion. In fact, at one time, it was my primary interest. I had grown up fascinated by my grandmother who could sew anything. I still marvel at the fact that she would go to rummage sales, buy drapes, and turn them into slipcovers. By the time I knew her, she didn't have to do this out of financial necessity, but frugality was just a part of her, given her past life, which included 8 children and a depression. So when I grew up, I was going to be like Nana. I bought a low end sewing machine and gave it a try. And I kept trying. And I didn't like it at all. I consoled myself with latch hook kits and crewel embroidery, which were OK but not something that inspired passion in my soul. My other grandmother was a knitter. I would always see her with her thin yarn and aluminum needles clicking away. So maybe I could try yarn. I sat down with yarn, magazines, books, knitting needles, and crochet hooks. Stitch by stitch I taught myself both techniques. Knitting was OK. I could get into it. Sometimes I could get excited about it. Ah, but crocheting—there was a different story! I found my creative passion when I picked up a crochet hook and started pulling those loops of yarn through one another and a blanket or a sweater or a stuffed animal appeared. Use thin yarn or small thread and I could make lace and Christmas ornaments. It's been 25 years since then and I haven't stopped. I have cut way back at times, but crocheting has always served to excite me, comfort me, and provide me with a way to express myself creatively. I usually listen to podcasts or music when I crochet and sometimes I get lost in my own world when I get into a project. I still knit sometimes. I needle tat—or I did. My needles are currently residing in a box in a friend's shed in Oregon, so I won't be doing that anytime soon. I do these other things. I have even taught classes in these other techniques. But I never get as excited about them as I do about crocheting. I think in crochet. I will suddenly have an idea and begin playing around with texture or color or whatever. So when a woman at church said that they were going to put a tree in the narthex and decorate it with hats, scarves, and mittens, and she wanted to know if I could make some, I happily said I would. That was a few weeks ago and I walked in Sunday to see the tree up. I had been planning to finish the thread work I have been doing for the past several weeks—got into playing with color by mixing different colors and weights of thread (some of the results can be seen at http://www.flickr.com/photos/burkejunior/sets/72157622850008540/ )—and then start on stuff for the tree. On Sunday night, though, my elbow began hurting after I'd crocheted for a few hours. So I reluctantly put my hook away and turned to weaving in ends. I decided that the next day I would knit a hat for the tree and give my hands and elbow a break by making different movements with the knitting needles than the usual crochet. So after supper and a bit of time spent finishing the book I was reading, I dug out some knitting needles and started in on a hat. Halfway through, I decided that one knitted hat would be enough. So when the hat was done, I put away the needles and got out one of my favorite hooks, my wooden J. And I started crocheting a hat, hoping that the fact that the hook was wood and quite a bit larger than the small thread hooks I'd been using would be enough of a change to prevent pain and soreness. It was. I made another hat. I enjoyed the process much more and I find the hat itself to be more interesting. I will dig out the knitting needles again at some point. Maybe I will even feel like knitting more than doing anything else one day. But I will always be addicted to my hooks first. It's good to know this about myself. There is much that I am interested in. But I discovered that I have a tendency to want to immerse myself in everything and then I burn out. It's good to follow interests and passions, but also good to know what can be skimmed over or left alone in favor of the things that are really important. And living the way I do, without a lot of possessions, it is good to know that I can let go of stuff that I probably will not use—fabric, sewing machine, embroidery floss, etc. But my hooks will always be with me!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Books and Libraries

OK, I will admit it. I have a big problem with books. There are too many of them I want to read and not enough hours to read them in. I tell myself that I came to terms a long time ago with the fact that I will never live long enough to read every book I want to read, but if I am honest, I have to say that this still pains me! As I type this, I am sitting here looking at the rows of books we have along two walls in our living room. These are just the books we could fit in the truck! There are 3 boxes more in a friend's garage in Oregon! A few of these are ones we picked up here at the thrift shop or the used book sale at the library. There are a couple of additional bags in the landing where we come into our apartment that are waiting to sent to their new home. And then there are the piles of library books. I love the library! This summer was quite something as we were on our trip and using libraries for wireless internet connections. Sometimes if I was done before Bill, I would go find a book and sit and read it there, but I felt so sad that I couldn't take others with me! All those books and I couldn't check them out!!! I would listen to book podcasts or read a review in a newspaper and really want to read that particular book. But instead, I wrote down the title and the author and waited—not my best thing! Then we got here and got our library cards! I got books that I had been waiting for all summer. Some were worth the wait and some were just OK. But still, it was like Christmas morning—and it still is. The library is the gift that keeps on giving. I can find unexpected treasures there when I look at the used books and magazines. I found a great crochet magazine there a few weeks ago and got some ideas that I used for Christmas ornaments this year. But best of all is just wandering around the stacks—rows and rows of books just waiting to be discovered. I usually have a list when I go in there and often something on hold. This library only holds things for two days when they come in, so I have to get in there fast when something comes in. If I have great will power on a given day, I might just run in, go right to the circulation desk and get my hold, leaving without venturing into the other part of the building. Usually, though, I save that for last and head into the maze of books, looking for what is on my list and then of course looking at what's around it and picking up an extra unexpected book or two. Then I stop at the new book shelves on my way to check out. I have learned to bring a bag because I always leave with more than I planned to carry out of there. And now with technology allowing us to look at the catalogs of all libraries in the system and place holds as well, I can even do this in the middle of the night or whenever it strikes my fancy to look something up. Of course, then I get so excited about the potential that all these books represent, that I could easily end up spending entire days with my nose in one book or another. Sometimes I spend a day doing mostly that. And it's usually a good day when that happens! And if it turns out to be an awful book, I can close it, place it back in my bag and bring it back to the library where it can wait to be read by someone who will love it!

Thursday, November 26, 2009


This morning I was thinking about the millions of women across the country who were getting out of bed, maybe making time for a quick cup of coffee and then getting busy in the kitchen creating the feast that people expect to have for Thanksgiving. All of us making food to feed families and friends. And it's not easy to do. Because for many, this day of labor comes on top of the regular labor they engage in on a regular basis. We were in the Save-a-Lot yesterday picking up bananas for cream pie and a box of tea. As we were checking out, the woman at the register was saying that her arm and shoulder were sore from lifting turkeys all the time. She had many elderly customers and she didn't want them to have to lift a heavy frozen turkey, so she was lifting them onto the seat part of the shopping cart for them. Then there was trouble with the scale when she tried to weigh our bananas, so she called another woman over from the pallet of boxes she was emptying. She was saying how much cooking and baking she had to do that night when she went home. Fortunately, they closed early at 5 last evening. I could relate. I was remembering a couple of years ago when I was working at the library in Klamath Falls. The director decided not to close early on Wednesday, so I had to work until 8 that night and then go back Friday morning. Since Thanksgiving week is my busiest cooking and baking time of the year, and we would normally spend hours on Friday putting up Christmas decorations, this schedule was problematic. Nevertheless, I started baking a couple of days early and got up on Wednesday to cook squash and sweet potatoes—a job Bill finished after I had left for work. I walked there, was there for 9 hours, and got out at 8. In the meantime, Bill had picked up Heather at the airport as she was visiting for the weekend. On Thanksgiving Day, I was up early again, though I felt exhausted, and I did what needed to be done to get dinner underway. While things were cooking I had a little time to sort of melt into the chair. Then there was the last minute stuff to do. Then we ate, cleaned up, and put away leftovers. Then it was into the closet to drag out boxes of Christmas decorations and I spent an additional few hours putting those up, saving some for the following afternoon. I was aching by the time I went to bed at midnight. And the next day, I was up and walking to the library once again, this time for a shorter shift. I was out at 2, walked home, and finished putting up the Christmas decorations. Only then could I relax. It felt good to put my feet up and finally enjoy some quiet time. So I was feeling that exhaustion again yesterday when I told the woman at the store to have a Happy Thanksgiving and to enjoy her day off. She breathed a big sigh as she looked at me and nodded. I hope that she is having a great day today. I hope that she will find some time to sit down and put her feet up. I hope someone else hauls around her turkey. And I hope that she will have fun with people she cares about.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The World in a Pumpkin

I was cutting and peeling a pumpkin this morning so I could cook it. I froze part of it and saved the rest to use in muffins later. As I was doing this, I was filled with a sense of wonder at this incredible creation we inhabit and are a part of and at the same time I felt a deep sadness at the ways in which we seem to be determined to destroy this wondrous earth. We pollute consciously and unconsciously. We use far more than we need to and create too much waste. The air, ground and water are filled with toxins and so are our bodies. A couple of months ago, I watched a movie at a library in Vermont called Garbage. It followed one family's garbage to see how much they collected and what happened to it after it was taken away in the truck. One person the filmmaker spoke to said that our bodies are taking longer to decompose now when we die! They are apparently so full of preservatives and other chemicals that tissues take longer to break down. The doctor thought that it was not inconceivable that some day human bodies will have to be buried as hazardous waste!
Cutting my pumpkin, I thought about how miraculous it is that we have so many different kinds of food that grow from this amazing earth—not processed and created in an industrial factory somewhere. I bought this pumpkin from the local farmer's market where it grew somewhere not far from here. It was available in the early autumn, after a long procession of foods that were available earlier in the year. We are provided, most of us, with food that comes along when the time is right. Some of it is extremely perishable and hard to preserve, so we eat it right away. Some, like my pumpkin, keep for a long time and are easy to cook and preserve, so they can be enjoyed throughout the winter, when nothing much is growing. My pumpkin was probably grown in soil that was full of whatever crud is floating in the air around here. How long will it be before the air, the ground, the water are so polluted that things will not grow? What lab will create a pumpkin? Why can't we see this earth for the miraculous and wonderful planet that it is? If we did this, how would we change our behavior in ways that honor the earth and take care of it? We will kill the planet without ever stopping to consider that when this ship sinks, we're going down with it.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Stinky Air

Woke up today with a completely clogged left ear—not an unusual occurrence, unfortunately. As I got up and went about my day, the congestion got worse until my head felt like it would explode and my eyes were behaving strangely. This appears to be the result of the pollution in the air. I began experiencing symptoms like this in earnest when we moved to Klamath Falls. Bill would cut the grass and my throat would burn and my eyes would water. In winter, I would usually feel better, so I assumed it was plant life—we didn't live near grass in Alaska. The second summer we were there, things got worse, as they did every year we were there, until I would go through the entire summer feeling congested to varying degrees and often—on days that were sunny, still, and warm, which was most every day—I would have trouble taking deep breaths. Then last winter, we had weeks of air stagnation and inversions, which trapped the pollutants in the basin. And I had the worst symptoms yet. The congestion and difficulty breathing morphed into coughing that kept me awake for nights in a row—and since we lived in an 800 square-foot house, Bill was up, too. When the constant coughing subsided, I would still have sudden attacks that sounded quite awful, even to me. Bill did some checking and discovered that we actually were in a very polluted area. So I began joking (or maybe not quite joking) that Klamath Falls really was a toxic town and that I was allergic to it. While we were traveling across the country this summer, I had some weeks of relief when we were in the middle of the country. Then we got here.
You really would think that Niagara Falls would be completely focused on tourism. Not so. It is basically a crumbling town that is feeling the pain of losing a good many of the chemical plants that used to make up the industrial base of the city. There are still a few of these left and when you drive by them, the air smells noticeably different. Not to say that it smells great the rest of the time. Most days we are greeted by the smell of rotten eggs when we head outside. On a few days this has been absent. Coincidentally or not, these are also the days when I am the least congested and when the wind is blowing. Warm, sunny, still days here are worse than Klamath Falls for me. The air stinks, my head gets very clogged, like today, my throat sometimes burns, and my eyes might burn and water as well, if it is really bad. I understand that Niagara University has brought in some expert to help the community find ways to shift from an industrial base to tourism as a focus. The city itself seems to be trying to clean things up on the ground by tearing down some of the many abandoned and condemned buildings and fixing the pothole-filled streets. On one street, the pavement is so worn away that you can see the brick street that underlies the pavement! In any case, it seems that people recognize the problem and are trying to fix it. But having stinky air isn't going to help things along and I am sure there are plenty more people like me who find breathing in the toxins to be a physically difficult task. I am not sure what they plan to do about those things, but I would think they will have to try to do something. When people drive from the strip of motels and stores that are located in an area a few miles away from the Falls themselves, they drive right by a chemical plant that is always spewing some kind of smoke. The smell is very noticeable. It is not what people come here to see. Potholes are relatively easy to fix. Abandoned buildings can be torn down. Fixing the air itself will be a far more daunting challenge.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Box

Last night, we went to a meeting at a church that was about an hour's drive from here. We rode with a wonderful woman from our new UU church. She was telling us family stories on the ride down. She talked about how her parents fled Poland as the German military was invading. They escaped and eventually wound up in Scotland, where she was born. I was thinking about how remarkable it would have seemed to people back then that 70 years in the future, their daughter would be in a car driving to a church meeting with the granddaughter of a member of the military force that was invading their country—me. It is funny and tragic how we split apart along these arbitrary lines that we create—national boundaries, religious differences, political parties. These are fluid and change over time, so people that were enemies become allies and allies become enemies. Kind of like divorce, I guess. The person you loved enough to think you would want to spend the rest of your life with them can sometimes become the person you hate more than anyone in the world. The sad thing is that when we erase one line, we seem to replace it with another one. The dividing lines are always there, we just redraw them from time to time. I suppose that in some way when we draw these lines, we are setting a boundary for ourselves—creating the box in which we will live. Too bad we can't seem to escape from the box.

Monday, November 9, 2009


We were walking down the main street in Little Italy yesterday and I noticed several storefronts and restaurants that had Thanksgiving decorations in the windows. I was thrilled to see it. I love Christmas, make no mistake about that. And I sat last night listening to Christmas music and making ornaments. But even if I had my Christmas stuff with me, I would not be putting up the decorations just yet. I am a big believer in Thanksgiving. I have tried to cultivate an attitude of conscious gratitude in my own life and I think it's a good thing to have a day set aside specifically for us all to do so as a society. Unfortunately, it has become lost in the gluttony of consumption. We stuff ourselves on food, fill our time by watching too much sports coverage, and now we are exhorted to start the holiday shopping season a few hours early. Now instead of getting up early and being at the store well before sunrise, some stores start their sales on Thanksgiving Day itself. So the day in which we should sit down with people we care about and give thanks for all of the good things in our lives becomes yet another day to sit around and overconsume. It's a shame, really. It's sad. And it's not healthy. We have to consume in order to survive, but we have tipped the scales too far towards consumption and away from creativity. We can consume too many calories without lifting a finger creating fresh meals. All we have to do is drive through and fork over some cash, or buy stuff prepackaged and ready made, filled with too much fat, sweetener, and salt—just pop it in the microwave. It's killing us. Feel crummy? Need a lift? Then you will want to go shopping, no doubt. Buy some more crap that you don't really need. Who cares about the waste in terms of packaging, fuel use and human potential as some person halfway around the world has to work for slave wages so you can have a cheap doo-dad to make you feel better for a few hours. It always used to amaze me that whenever the newspaper or some other organization in Klamath Falls would ask people what they saw as the problems faced by the community, the need for more shopping was always mentioned by more than one person. Believe me, Klamath Falls has many serious problems. Having a place to shop is not among them. You may wonder as economists and analysts lament the fact that consumers are just not spending loike they used to. The recovery, they tell us, will really not even happen in practical terms until people are out there buying again. How exactly is this supposed to happen, I wonder? Unemployment is growing, easy credit no longer exists, people can't use their houses like ATMs anymore. Where are people supposed to get the money to engage in this festival of consumption? It seems a very logical question to ask, but I've not heard anyone ask it. Maybe I am not paying attention in the right places. I just don't get it. Now is the perfect opportunity to rethink the way we do things. But we resist doing it. So maybe, as Thanksgiving approaches, we can remember “the reason for the season,” to mix up my holiday cliches. Instead of thinking about how much food we can stuff ourselves with or how we can beat out our neighbor to the bargains at the store in the predawn darkness, maybe we can think about who and what is important to us and find ways to get more of that in our lives. And then we can enjoy a nice piece of pumpkin pie.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Nesting in November

Yesterday I got an email from a friend in which she commented that she was glad I was able to do my nesting stuff—bake cookies and bread, make soup, and that kind of stuff. These were things that I was looking forward to doing once we settled back down after our summer on the road. Reading her email, I was struck by the thought that I am really a seasonal creature. This is the time of year when my nesting self comes vaulting to the forefront and I eagerly look forward to days spent doing that kind of domestic stuff. This fall I am aided in these activities by the great farmers that appear at the market not far from our house three times a week. They offer great and varied produce at good prices and the opportunity to talk to the people that grow the food. There is something very satisfying about smelling a crock pot full of soup and bread in the oven. And beyond that, there is nothing more wonderful to me than sitting in a comfortable spot on a winter day with a big mug of hot, strong, black tea, a good book, and a crochet project. I live for those times. And every year sometime in September, I feel myself starting to crave those days. The leaves turn and my attention turns with them.
I am not really sure what exactly makes it so different. The fact is, whether it is December or April, I can be found with a big mug of hot, strong, black tea, a book and a crochet hook. But it's different. It feels different. By April, I getting restless. I usually get depressed in April because I know what's coming—summer. I feel lethargic instead of energized as I do in winter. Cooking and baking sometimes seem like chores I would rather not have to do. I feel myself getting agitated. The whole vibe of my life is completely different.
As I think back on our summer on the road, I can see how this works. It was a good summer. I usually do not use the words “good” and “summer” in the same sentence. Usually summer is a season to be endured. I grit my teeth in April and start counting down the days until it is over. Literally. Oh, I would do stuff, of course, but underlying everything was a sense of unease. I found it hard to ever feel relaxed or peaceful. That's part of the reason why the fall and winter months are so important to me—that is when I relax and try to save as much of it as I can for summer when I would typically feel the constant hum of agitation vibrating under everything. But this summer, that wasn't really there. I can't honestly say that I love summer. But I was on the road, exploring new places, living outside, and, as I see now, generally doing summerish things.
I always feel restless starting in the spring in the same way I start feeling the need to nest in the winter. I feel like I will jump out of my skin. And this summer, instead of enduring, I moved. I was often uncomfortable because it was too hot. There was no fan or air conditioner to take the edge off the heat when it was close to 100 degrees in Spokane and we had a tent site at a campground with no shade. It was not pleasant. I didn't like it. But I was not humming with agitation. It simply was what it was. It was summer. It was not my favorite time of the year. But summer is hot and sunny and that's the way it is. I had reached a place of acceptance. Maybe I would have felt it anyway, even if I had not left Klamath Falls and embarked on this trip, for no other reason than I am not the same person I used to be. I have worked hard at maintaining an attitude of acceptance and non-attachment. But I really think that a big part of it was me paying attention to what I needed. I was restless and I moved instead of hunkering down in front of a fan and waiting for the misery to pass. By the end of the trip, I was looking forward to settling in and making soup. In April, I expect I will be jumpy again. So I need to pay attention to that and live with the seasons. Whatever the reason, I was very grateful to be having a different kind of summer. And now I am grateful to be making soup.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Post Election

The day after the election. First off, I send my sympathy to the people of Maine for the way the vote went there. It is unfortunate that those who hate freedom were able to prevail in this case. Someday people will look back in amazement at this time when people were not free to marry who they wish. That doesn't help people today, though. I was hopeful that the vote would go the other way and I am sad that it did not.

It is interesting to see the spin and analysis about the other high profile races. The gubernatorial contests in VA and NJ are getting the most coverage, of course, and everyone is quick to say what it means. I didn't really care as much about those races because I don't live in VA or NJ and they have to live with their decisions. The fact is, the Democratic candidates were both pretty weak and the Republican candidates are not ultraconservative, right wing people. They would not have gotten elected if they were. I was really interested in NY 23. That's not my district, but I was really hoping that the voters there would have enough sense to not vote for some guy who swooped in out of nowhere and was endorsed by the lunatics from Fox News and talk radio, and crazy politicians pandering to the base from other parts of the country. And I was relieved to see that most voters in that district decided to vote for the other guy. So taken together, I think that—with the exception of the Maine vote to do away with marriage equality in their state—it was a good night for sanity. The right wing lost. The one place where they all descended was in upstate NY and that guy lost. In VA and NJ, they were asked to stay away. They would only have hurt the Republicans. And so what does this mean for Republicans going forward? All of those who are in favor of taking away our personal liberties were pretty vocal in support of the losing candidate. Mike Huckabee was the only probable 2012 presidential nominee to stay out of it. That looks like a pretty smart move right about now.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Election Day!

Election day has arrived once again! What a difference a year makes. Not quite as much excitement this year as last. But there are some things I am interested in nonetheless. I will be watching to see whether people in Maine can be the first in the country to vote for equal protection for gay people when so many others have voted for discrimination. I know that eventually all of these terrified people who vote against gay marriage will have to just put up with it, because in the future it will be legal and people will look back at the silly folks who fought so hard against it. Still, it is always nice to see progress. And the special election in the 23rd district of NY has turned into quite a sideshow. Now that the Republican candidate has dropped out, voters have a choice between a carpetbagger who has no clue about any local issues and has yet to actually move to the district he wants to represent and the Democrat. I find it rather amusing that this guy can run for Congress without ever having lived in the district while in some places in the state (including Niagara Falls) people who work for the school district can and will get fired for living outside the district. The guy got angry when asked about local issues by the editorial board of the local newspaper. And he had brought a Republican guy from Texas to the interview with him—Dick Armey—who called the issues parochial. There you have it. All of those Republicans who are always screaming about local control and keeping big “guvmint” out of people's private lives (except of course when it comes to deciding who you can love, whether or not you will become a parent, or whether you have a right to end your own life in the case of serious illness), decided that those parochial locals in upstate NY can't figure things out well enough for themselves to provide a good candidate. If I were a Republican (perish the thought) or a voter in the 23rd district, that kind of disrespect would really piss me off. But I am not either of those things, so I can just watch and analyze. I am left to observe and wonder at the insane rhetoric that keeps flowing from the mouths of some of these people and the fact that so many people buy it. It seems to me we are in some of the messes we are flailing around in because people listen to the hysterical and calculated ramblings of the (admittedly sometimes skillful) Republican fear machine instead of educating themselves on issues. Their mouthpieces spout off a bunch of crap that is factually inaccurate, call it truth, and people believe it. You get what you deserve. I just wish the rest of us didn't have to pay for that kind of ignorance.

I was listening to a local law enforcement official on the radio yesterday and I was reminded again how surprised I am by how much this area seems to fit in regionally with the midwest. The dialect is more like a midwestern one than a Philly/NJ/NYC one. Interesting. It just seems very midwestern here in some intangible ways.

I was reminded last night of how important music is to my mood and how I feel about my day. Last night, after an afternoon of running around, I was sitting here listening to The Chieftains Silent Night: A Christmas in Rome on my mp3 player. A few notes in and it felt like Christmas. It's funny—when I first got the CD, I wasn't wild about it. Then a couple of years ago I listened to it and I couldn't hear it enough! There are others like that. So I am grateful that I have all of my music because several years ago Bill took the time to digitize all of our CDs. So this year I will do without my holiday DVDs, my Christmas earrings, my collection of stockings—all of it given to me by people I care about. They are not gone for good, only absent for this year. I can make some new ornaments. But at least I have my music. YIPPEE!!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Bring on the Holidays

It's finally starting to feel like Christmas—or at least Christmas as it looks to me. I was starting to think the whole thing would pass me by this year. Usually I am well into end-of-year-holiday mode in October, but this year, having ended a 99-day cross-country research trip and landed unexpectedly in Niagara Falls, NY, it felt nothing like usual. We moved into this apartment and tried to get settled. We had a week of fall-like weather and then it got warm again. But somehow, yesterday morning, I woke up and felt Christmas coming on. Now, I should be clear that what I mean by “Christmas” is not really what other people mean. I am not a Christian and Christmas has nothing to do with the birth of Jesus for me. It is more about taking time to get quiet and go within myself. I love the darkness—it's my time of year when the daylight hours are short and the weather is cold. Long, sunny, warm days are days I hate. So in winter, I can relax and enjoy the peace and quiet that seems to come along with the cold and dark. I find it refreshing and necessary for my own well-being. I find that I really have to have this time of year in order to recharge myself and get ready for the year to come. The last three months of the year are when I reconnect with myself. For other people, spring seems to be associated with rebirth, but for me it is definitely December. I always end up feeling reborn then. So it is certainly an important time of year for me. I spend a great deal of time listening to music and creating things for the holidays. I like to make ornaments and gifts. I give some to people I care about and spend a lot of time thinking about them as I am making things for them. I make some stuff to just give away to people I don't know very well, if at all. It's just part of the season. There's a different vibe in the air. And I find that I crave it. I look for it. And when I wasn't finding it on schedule, I was feeling a bit of panic about it.
The past few years have seen me sort of not have much of a holiday season. I had a bad reaction to pollutants in the Klamath Falls air last year and then when that was over, Bill got sick. The year before I had a bad work schedule and was exhausted trying to work long shifts and do the usual holiday stuff. I didn't get to do some of it and that really made a difference in how I experienced the season. This year, I had to give away most of my Christmas stuff because we were making this trip. I got it down to one box, but that box is sitting in a friend's garage and won't be here for Christmas, so I am starting from scratch. I won't be able to watch my many versions of A Christmas Carol. I won't hang up all of the ornaments I have made over the years. It won't be usual. And I am thinking that maybe this will be a good thing. It will force me to do things in a new way instead of just kind of doing things as I have always done them. So I have lots of new ornaments planned. I can stitch them, hang them up, listen to my winter music, and have my special time of the year. Since I was flooded with ideas yesterday, I have no shortage of projects lined up. So it's beginning to feel a lot like pre-Christmas. What a relief!