Go, go, go, said the bird

This week’s prompt for the Love Your Blog challenge is “Ugly”. I have to admit that I struggled with this one. Ugly is not a word I use very often. I don’t like its harsh judgementalism. I wouldn’t ever call a person ugly, and as for things, one person’s ugly is another person’s beautiful. A prime example here is shoes; personally my taste runs to clumpy and utilitarian, and I don’t find glittery, strappy high-heeled things (think Jimmy Choos) aesthetically pleasing at all, yet received wisdom is that those are objects of beauty and Doc Martens are ugly. Most people agree that 1960s office blocks are ugly, and yet even they can have their moments of beauty.

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But really, there’s a lot of ugliness in the world. There are wars and repressive regimes, and people so desperate to escape them they crowd onto small boats to attempt dangerous voyages to countries which don’t welcome them even if they get there. There are people who live in safe, wealthy countries who show no sympathy or compassion for those less fortunate than they are. There’s homophobia, racism and sexism. There are people dying after their benefits are stopped, terminally ill people being declared fit to work. There’s the cancer that recently took a former colleague’s wife; she was only a few months older than me and their children are 8 and 6 years old. There are so many awful, ugly things in this world. (Please imagine this last paragraph as a film montage with “What a Wonderful World” playing ironically in the background.)

And there’s not a lot I can do about it. I do what I can; I vote, I donate to charities, I sign petitions (not that I’m entirely convinced that does much). But realistically, my life isn’t going to make a great deal of difference to anyone apart from the other generally comfortable citizens of a wealthy western country who I come into day to day contact with. And human kind cannot bear very much reality. Which is why I spend my time collecting and making beautiful things, as a distraction from my own powerlessness in the face of all the horrors of life. And why this blog, like so many others, may seem unrealistic in its narrow focus on crafting, its insistence on making the best of things (even when I was blogging my way through the depths of depression, I tried to keep my posts here focused on the positive; learning, growing, recovering or even just coping). It’s not that I don’t know there’s a big bad world out there; it’s just that this is my refuge from it.

A Playful Day

(To read more posts on today’s theme, see the links here.)

FO: Leyburn

Getting back into the swing of actually finishing things, after a slow start to the year, my latest socks:

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The pattern is Leyburn, though I modified it to knit top-down as I’m not a fan of toe-up socks (I always end up making the feet slightly too long, and I find a flap and gusset heel gives a much better fit in any case).

I picked the pattern to suit the yarn, a skein of Laughing Yaffle sock yarn that was the yarn that demanded to be knitted when I went stash-diving for sock yarn on a grey February day. The slipped stitches work well with the variegation, and the pattern was fun to knit; if it seems to have taken me a long time to finish them that’s just a reflection of the amount of bus-time I have these days (less than I used to, because on swimming mornings I end up with two 10-minute journeys rather than one 25-minute journey, and it hardly seems worth getting my knitting out, and I often end up using the homeward journey to catch up on the day’s activity on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram rather than knitting). The slipped stitches do make for a tighter fabric, and the tops of the legs are quite tight around my calves despite being worked over considerably more stitches than I’d normally use, but they do fit, and they’re lovely bright socks for spring.

Everything Changes But Ewe

They say life begins at 40*. Certainly, since I turned 40 last year my life has changed so much it really feels like a new beginning. A year ago, I was chronically depressed, working in a job I hated, surrounded by people I didn’t get on with, in a field I more or less fell into in my early 20s and which I had never really been enthusiastic about. I was already heading full-tilt for the breakdown that came a couple of months later.

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Now, as I approach 41, I seem to have managed to bid the black dog goodbye, for now at least. I’ve just started a new job, in a different field which I hope I will continue to find as interesting and fulfilling as I have done so far. I have built strong working relationships with my new colleagues. It feels very much like the beginning of a new life. It’s exciting, and wonderful, and also scary and overwhelming at times.

So I’m glad, when it all gets too scary and overwhelming, that not everything is new. I can still reach for my needles and yarn and make one stitch after another, steadying me, grounding me, reminding me that every project is just a series of individual stitches, and every life is a series of steps, and even when it all seems new and strange it’s based on the same techniques I’ve known for years. It’s just a case of putting them in a slightly different order; deep down, the knowledge is all there already.

*In fact, the phrase appears to have been popularised by a self-help book published in the 1930s to help people deal with the rapid increase in life expectancy at the start of the twentieth century.

A Playful Day

(Posted in response to this week’s Love Your Blog theme of “Beginnings”; to read other posts on the theme, go here.)

A handbag!

I am somewhat obsessed with bags. Not designer bags – I hate blingy bags, prefer lightweight fabric or nylon to leather, and will always rank practical considerations over aesthetic ones – but I’m always looking for the perfect bag, the one that will be both pretty and practical and will be just the right size to fit all the things I want to carry. (Actually, I have probably already found the most perfect bag I’m ever going to find, my purple Kipling New Raisin, but I keep looking just in case I come across one that’s even more perfect.) I hate all the bags in the shops at the moment (bling is definitely in, as are straps so short you can only carry the bags in your hands), so I thought maybe I’d try my hand at making my own. I really like the look of this convertible bag, but for my first attempt I decided to use a kit from U-Handbag, to make their Simply Stylish Bag.

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I wasn’t entirely impressed with the kit; it arrived without the printed pattern, though a pdf version was emailed promptly in response to my query about this, and when I came to make the bag I found there was barely enough fleece included and definitely not enough interfacing (I ended up having to piece together scraps to interface one of the bag pieces, as I was making it on Easter Sunday and none of the shops were open). Also, there were some small errors in the instructions, where RS and WS were mixed up and if I hadn’t used common sense and looked at the photos I would have ended up with the pocket and the tab back to front, and there was also a step where it said “do this to prepare for topstitching” and then didn’t actually tell you to topstitch, but it wasn’t too tricky for an intermediate sewer to make.

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The kit came with a short leather strap (about 60cm) but I much prefer bags to have longer straps that I can wear across my body (shoulder straps always slide off my shoulder unless I hold them there), so I ordered some webbing and a metal slider and ring to make a cross-body strap for the bag, which I like a lot better.

It’s come out very nicely, though I’m not actually sure I’ll use it; the open top, with only the flap as closure, seems rather insecure, and the bag is wider and shallower than I prefer. It’s certainly not right for my everyday stuff, though I might find a use for it on weekends; then again, the main point of making it was to learn how to make a bag, not to have a new bag, so that’s fine.

Finding my people

A Playful Day

I grew up as a geek before the internet. Which was pretty miserable, as I moved from one deep obsession to the next (Narnia, Swallows and Amazons, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Tolkein, Katherine Kurtz, the Chalet School, Doctor Who, Asimov, Anne McCaffery, Ursula Le Guin) in a world where no-one else even knew what I was talking about. Sometimes I managed to convince my friends to read the books I was obsessed with, but even when they liked them they never seemed to fall in love with them as I did. I discovered Doctor Who Magazine when I was about 12, so I knew that there were other Doctor Who fans out there, but I was pretty sure they were all grown up, and I was only 12. There were half a dozen other geeks in my year at school, and by fourth year, when the whole school year started being taught together for GCSEs, we found each other in the top sets for every subject and became friends, but although they were also geeks they weren’t necessarily geeky about the same things as I was; they tended to be more into epic fantasy and role-playing games, whereas for me it was Doctor Who and hard SF and history and Jane Austen and E M Forster. So, while it was nice to have people to sit with at break and lunchtime, they were fellow-travellers rather than soulmates. And then I went to university and concentrated on being an English literature and feminism geek. This worked quite well and I did meet a lot of like-minded people, but then when I left university I lost touch with everyone as people went travelling, moved to different cities, got caught up in building careers and adult lives and couldn’t find the time to answer letters. And I was back to being a geek alone, working in places where absolutely no-one understood the things I was interested in.

I’d discovered the internet in my last year at university, or what passed for the internet in 1995. I’d found Usenet, so I knew that the internet was full of people who were interested in the things I was interested in and wanted to discuss them, but I didn’t own a computer, let alone an internet connection. It wasn’t until a few years later, after I’d met T, that we finally got an internet connection in his flat. I didn’t have a lot of time online; we had a dialup connection on a single PC, and I was only there on the weekends anyway. I signed up to alt.fan.pratchett and mostly lurked, but unsubscribed after a few months because I was overwhelmed by new messages. I did better with uk.media.radio.archers, and was disappointed that by the time I got there alt.wesley.crusher.die.die.die was pretty much dead.

Where it really took off, though, was Buffy. I started watching the series mid-way through season 2, because I read an article about it in the Guardian that made it sound like exactly my kind of thing, and I was hooked. And by then, Usenet was being superseded by bulletin boards, which I found much easier to deal with, and I joined the Buffy UK board (which was subsequently replaced by Tangent 21). I met one of my best and oldest friends through those boards, and there are other people I still see around the internet fairly regularly. I even conquered my shyness and my fear of London and went to a couple of meetups. And then, in 2002, I decided to try out the new thing lots of people were talking about, called LiveJournal.

Livejournal is a blogging site, but it’s also a community site. It has the best commenting function of any blog site I’ve ever seen, making it really easy to have in depth discussions of posts, while the customisable security settings make it possible to talk about sensitive subjects without necessarily making them visible to the entire internet. And the “friending” functionality made it possible not only to find and read the blogs of interesting and like-minded people, but to show your interest by adding them to your friends list, hopefully prompting them to check out your journal and starting a dialogue that could lead to friendship. I met most of my friends through LJ. I started knitting because other people on LJ were knitting. I discovered SF fandom, which I would have adored if I’d found it when I was 15 but which, in my late 20s, didn’t quite suit the person I’d become. I felt like I really belonged, in a way I never had before.

I set up this blog in 2009, mostly to avoid boring the non-knitters on my LJ friends list with knitting posts. I’d set up other specialised blogs before, but somehow this one stuck. LJ has got very quiet now, though there are still people there and I value it as a space to discuss more private issues with my friends, but my social life has moved away from my space there on the fringes of SF fandom; thanks in a large part to Ravelry, the social space I now inhabit is made up of crafters: knitters, crocheters, spinners, weavers, sewers, jewellery makers, dyers. Fibre festivals, especially the independently organised ones like Glasgow School of Yarn or Unwind Brighton, are our equivalent of the fan-run conventions in SF circles; our chance to meet and talk nineteen to the dozen sharing our passions, to put faces to names, to admire each other’s handiwork.

Of course, just sharing a hobby isn’t enough. Our interest in making things was what brought us together, but what holds us is our shared interests in other things. My favourite Ravelry group is the Archers Listeners, where we discuss all manner of things only tangentially (if that!) related to The Archers; they were the people who inspired me to start running. Discussions at my knitting group often turn to SF books. There are knitting patterns inspired by Doctor Who, by Buffy, by Star Trek, by Terry Pratchett. We aren’t just crafters, we are people who craft.

I’m so glad I came back to my blog. I’m loving writing again (you might have worked this out from the sheer number of posts!). I enjoy talking about the things that interest me, wherever those conversations take place, but what I’ve missed since the LJ days is the chance to do what I’m doing here, now: to work out my thoughts at length, to put them up here and say to everyone out there, this is what I think. How about you?

(This post was written in reponse to Kate at A Playful Day‘s “Love Your Blog” challenge, on this week’s theme of community and interactions. To read other posts on this week’s theme, check out the links here.)

FO: Byatt

When Karie Westermann released her Byatt shawl pattern in January, I was instantly smitten. I loved the unusual shape of the shawl, and the way it transitions from plain garter stitch to stripes to lace. At the time I’d just cast on for Ysolda’s mystery KAL in some blue and orange Falkland merino from The Yarn Yard, and I couldn’t help thinking how nice those colours would look as a Byatt. When I decided that the mystery shawl really wasn’t working for me, the answer was obvious: frog it, and cast on for a Byatt instead. So that’s what I did.

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I really enjoyed knitting this. I love garter stitch anyway, and by the time I started to feel a little bored of going backwards and forwards I was almost at the slip-stitch striped section, which was interesting to knit without being complicated, and then the lace section was similarly easy to memorise. I didn’t have enough of the blue yarn to do the three repeats of the slip-stitch section specified in the pattern, and had to make do with two; on the other hand, I could actually have done another repeat of the lace, but I think it’s fine as it is. It’s blocked out to a good size to wear wrapped round me, and the merino is lovely and squishy and very cosy.

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The only A.S. Byatt I’ve read was Possession, which I read while I was in sixth form and loved. I’ve always meant to read more, so I thought I’d co-ordinate my knitting and my reading material by reading The Children’s Book. Unfortunately, this was less successful than I’d hoped; the book was beautifully written, but unlike Possession‘s compelling literary detective story it didn’t really seem to have much of a plot, and there were so many characters I couldn’t manage to care much about any of them. I’m disappointed, as I really wanted to like the book, but I spent six weeks on it and still wasn’t quite halfway through, and having put it aside to read some Terry Pratchett in tribute to the great man I really have no desire to pick it up again.

This Girl Can

If you live in England, you may have come across Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign to encourage women of all ages to take more exercise. I’ve been very impressed with the campaign, with its focus on “ordinary” women rather than elite athletes (however inspirational Olympic gold medal winners may be, their achievements are so far out of the league most of us are in that it’s hard to translate them into practical motivation) and on exercising for all kinds of reasons, not just as a complement to dieting or even for its health benefits.

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I’ve never been keen on exercise. PE at school was far and away my least favourite subject. I was slow and uncoordinated; being short-sighted and having double vision almost certainly affected my performance in ball games (somehow it never occured to me to wear my glasses for PE; glasses were something you took off, like your watch) and I never quite managed to understand the rules (spending two years in another country and not being there when everyone else learnt the rules of netball probably didn’t help), while as an early developer the discomfort and embarrassment of breast movement was yet another reason to hate the lessons (for years I’ve said “why weren’t we encouraged to wear sports bras?”, but Wikipedia tells me that the first sports bra wasn’t invented until 1977 and wasn’t sold to a major manufacturer until 1990, so maybe sports bras just weren’t widely available when I was at secondary school in the 1980s. I wonder if girls at school now wear sports bras for PE?). My favourite thing about leaving school was not having to do PE any more.

Since leaving school, while I’ve never been a massively fit person, I have found physical activities that I enjoy. I’ve always liked walking, and when I was at university I learned to enjoy swimming. I belonged to a gym for a while, and even ran a 5k race some years ago. Last summer, after having done very little apart from walking for several years, getting less brisk and more ambly all the time, I started running again using the Get Running app and was very happily running for 30 minutes three times a week when I managed to badly strain a calf muscle just before Christmas. I haven’t been able to run since then (though I’m hoping to start again soon) but by that point I was enjoying exercise so much that I wanted something to replace it and have rediscovered my love of swimming and also started doing yoga to build up my strength and flexibility in the hope that that will help minimise injuries when I start running again. And it’s brilliant. I love the way I feel when I’m exercising regularly.

Now, I’m not suggesting for a minute that “exercise cures depression”, as some people (including medical professionals, who should jolly well know better) would have us believe. It doesn’t. Exercise makes me happy, and makes me feel good, but apart from anything happiness and feeling good don’t actually preclude depression; depression isn’t the same as sadness, and for me at least it’s absolutely possible to have moments of happiness within the overall gloom of depression. They just don’t happen very often, and don’t have any lasting benefit. And depression makes everything so hard that telling a depressed person to try going for a run and blaming them for their depression if they don’t is pretty much the same as telling them their depression would get better if they only went to the Moon, so why aren’t they there already.

On the other hand, I find that exercise-induced endorphins are very good at dispelling temporary gloom, and exercising can pull my brain out of grooves it’s got stuck in, so it does help me deal with stress and anxiety. And the real magic is the physical confidence exercise gives me. I’ve never been particularly comfortable in my own body and for a very long time all my self-esteem was based on my intellectual abilities. Which was OK when I was the cleverest person (or one of a very small number of cleverest people) in my class at school, less good when I was achieving a solidly average high 2.1 at university and getting good but not great marks in my accountancy exams, and no good at all in the world of work where people skills count for at least as much as pure intelligence (yes, even in finance) and I had to spend 20 years working my way up from the very bottom. And exercise changes all that. Suddenly I feel secure and confident in my own body. I’m more than just my brain. When my arms and legs will keep me going up and down the pool for a full 20 lengths, when my muscles will twist and stretch through half an hour of yoga, when I run just that little bit further every time, then I know I exist in my body, that it will do what I ask it to, and although it may never win prizes it can already do more than I ever thought possible. And it’s helped me to attain a kind of balance that I hope will help me to maintain mental stability in the longer term; another weapon in the armoury I’ve built up to fight the black dog when he comes calling.