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!