Post #3177: Handmade life

I find when talking to non-meditators that I really can’t explain the appeal of a zen meditation retreat. They can be tedious, painful (emotionally and physically), and often cold (or too hot – really there’s no perfect temperature when you are sitting on the floor for hours at a time). There are weird rituals around everything, and all that empty time allows one to pick apart whatever the mind latches onto (the food, the teacher, the person you are sitting beside, your life choices).

And yet. Our retreats fill up year after year with people who “get it”, who understand the power of sitting with other people in stillness and how that has to unfold over hours, days, and sometimes weeks to really penetrate the noise of everyday life. 

As I wrote in my last post, I am still working on my samue set with a goal of having it finished and in the wash by tomorrow. I got the jacket done on Monday and it turned out beautifully. Now I’m working on the pants which I feel confident about, having made the pattern twice already in test versions. This is the second set of meditation-specific clothes I have made, which is still not enough sets for a 7-day retreat, but really, only one more set to go and I will have a full “wardrobe”. That third set might be practice robes, but I have a bit of an aversion to wearing those, and they take 8 yards of fabric, so it might just be another samue set. We’ll see.

This retreat I will also be sitting on a meditation bench that I made a couple of years ago. I’m not a woodworker, so the finish on it isn’t very good, but it’s become the only bench I can sit on for any length of time so it’s coming with me to this retreat. 

This process of making things for daily and ritual use, is like the retreat experience in which I have a hard time explaining to non-makers the satisfaction of building one’s own material life. Sewing, weaving, woodwork are all sources of great aggravation to me. I get frustrated and make frequent mistakes, turning out items that are far from perfect. I am not always graceful in accepting the learning curve that each skill takes (just ask Brian about my sourdough bread meltdown on the weekend).

And yet. Each time I reach into my wardrobe, kitchen towel drawer, or quilt chest and pull out an item I’ve made, no matter how imperfect, I experience a small pleasure in the object I am holding. In the mornings, when I tuck my meditation bench underneath me, I feel supported by the product of my own hands as well as my daily practice. The home-canned goods in my pantry feed our household, and our community.      

I’m not going to gloss over the fact that there is a tremendous amount of privilege in being able to devote time and resources to my life in this way. I have a job that only requires 37.5 hours a week and remunerates me properly, I don’t have kids at home, I have stable housing and live in a place with clean food and water.  All of this is true.

But what’s also true is that there is room out there for many of us to make small choices towards a life that we understand through the lens of our own labour. It is as simple as canning our own pasta sauce or sewing a tote bag out of an old pair of blue jeans or fabric from the thrift store. To be fair, this won’t change the world one bit, but it will change your life. In ways I can’t really explain, but that penetrate deeply. 

I have work to do, pants to sew, and a walking date later this afternoon. There’s such a bigger conversation here I want to have – about the future of the planet, about how we don’t see the truth of how we live  – but I’m thinking about all of this as I sew. Thinking about the world I would rather live in and breaking my consumer impulses in favour of making my own life one small item at a time. 

Post 3176: Making a samue set

I’m off to meditation retreat in nine days, which was a bit unexpected. I waitlisted for this retreat back in July, but didn’t think a spot would open up since I need a single room and there aren’t that many available at this particular Zen retreat. Turns out, one opened up a few days ago and I’ve been asked to be the attendant (jisha) to one of the teachers.

For a long time now I’ve wanted to make a samue set for retreats. I have some other retreat-specific clothes that I’ve made, but I’ve never tried to make any of the more traditional wear.

The samue set is traditional Japanese clothing, originally worn as work clothes by Zen monks, but now in wide circulation as casual, or at-home wear. In the North American Zen meditation circles, lay practitioners wear samue as a more formal kind of meditation clothing than street wear. The outfit is very basic (as you can see – loose jacket and pants) – but quite expensive to buy a good quality version of in Canada and the US. They seem to run about $200 online.

As with all my clothing, I prefer to make my own anyways – so that’s what I am in the process of right now. I don’t have a traditional samue pattern (I couldn’t get a PDF pattern of one and anything else would take too long to receive in the mail) – so instead I am using the Assembly Line Wrap Jacket Pattern and the Sew House Seven Free Range Slacks Pattern. I have now made muslins (practice garments) of both pieces.

The image at the head of this blog post is the Wrap Jacket muslin. Though I rarely make a muslin from start to finish, I did in this case because I wanted to make sure I had a good fit and that I understood all the instructions. Turns out, this is an excellent pattern, and besides a few tiny missteps, it went together flawlessly. The three alterations I will be making on the final garment are to shorten the arms by two inches, increase the length of the inside strap to fit my bust better, and to change the closure so it ties on the “correct” side (to the wearer’s right).

Similarly, the Free Range Slacks pattern is fantastic and easy to follow, with all finishing steps included. Before cutting out the pattern, I made the initial adjustments I always make to trouser patterns: crotch rise and below-the-knee length. Turns out that even with these adjustments, the muslin version of these pants (made in a washed linen) are a bit baggy. Totally wearable and I’m happy with them, but I probably could have started with a smaller size. Instead I made some specific alterations and am mid-way through my second muslin pair (in a crinkle linen this time).

After I finish this second pair of practice pants – I will be ready to cut into the beautiful black Japanese twill fabric that I purchased from Blackbird Fabric. I was hoping to use stash fabric for this project but I just didn’t have enough for a full set, and so I splurged and spent $92 on 5 metres of textile. It arrived in the post last night, and all washed up, it is stunning – soft to the hand and eye, yet mid-weight and not at all flimsy.

The good thing about making meditation wear is that outside of retreats, it doesn’t really get worn, so a set of well-made temple garments can last a lifetime. Getting the fit and form right allows me to make an additional set should I want some lighter weight, or even make garments for other Zen friends.

Now, fingers crossed I get it sewn in time for the upcoming retreat!

Post #3175: Election exhaustion

Elections don’t exactly bring out the best in me. I wish I could say otherwise, that I could approach the whole thing from the zen perspective that tells me the time is endless and all sides are reflections of one whole, but I don’t. Instead I pick my team (always orange) and dig in. Even on the days when I manage to refrain from posting to Facebook discussions, I find myself choosing “snooze for 30 days” an awful lot right now. My intensity of feeling is too distracting otherwise and I’ve got other stuff to get done. 

In Canada we have a four year election cycle at the federal and provincial levels – so in every four year period there are at least two of these elections which consume about 60 days of emotional energy. That’s 120 days of energy every four years that would be better spent somewhere else. But as bad as that is – it doesn’t come close to touching the never-ending election cycle in the United States. Election, mid-term election, Democratic and Republican nomination races (that take up to a year to complete). It’s as though they never stop campaigning down there, and I think that a lot of good people’s efforts are wasted as a result, not to mention the ever entrenched division right down the middle of the country. If you never take a break from the choosing of sides required to win an election, then you never get a chance to heal from it either. 

I’ve always been a voter, ever since I first could when I was eighteen, but when I was younger I didn’t get all that wrapped up in it. I was (and am) a believer in revolution for real change, something I don’t believe electoralism can deliver in the timeframes for destruction we are facing. On the question of revolution however, I have become more confused. Not about the need for it, but about the how of it in the face of a globally distributed ruling class with access to world-destroying technology and an information wing perpetuated by the very people who are oppressed by it. When it comes to electoralism, I feel like it can’t hurt to vote, and I’d rather see the marginally better people win out while I’m at it. 

But do I believe, for example, that the Greens can enact policies to halt climate change in Canada? No. Do I believe the NDP are really going to institute the kind of redistribution of wealth I think is necessary? No to that also. Even a party that wins power in Canada rarely has more than 35% of the popular vote, which means there a whole lot of people out there ready to criticize, challenge, and take down whatever you try to do. So even if, by some miracle, the Greens could get that 35% and take power, they wouldn’t have enough popular support to move much forward before they were un-elected in the next election cycle. And that’s not their fault. Humanity is messy and often confused about what is in their best interest, governance periods are short, bureaucracies are convoluted and hard to shift.

Interestingly enough, you don’t need 35% of the population to make a revolution. Historical studies have shown that in many cases, only 20% of the population (or less, this speaker suggests it’s 3.5%)  has to be willing to go out on the streets for change in order to make it happen. Of course that 20% has to show up every day, for weeks, for months. And they have to unite around a few very concrete demands that they can stick to. And they need to dispense with individualism, with fringe theories, and with tangents. It may be that our current North American culture doesn’t have the homogeneity required to hold that kind of resolve together – the Occupy movement being a striking example of that, whereas what is happening in Hong Kong right now looks like paradigm-changing civil disobedience

In any event, I find myself at a loss as to why I care so much about elections, why they create such an internal discord for me. It’s not like when my party actually gets elected they do much of what I would like. For sure, the NDP are better than the Conservatives who are horrible at governing the public sector and the public purse sure, but provincially I’ve watched them do crappy stuff in addition to the things I’ve liked. In the case of the current federal election, my team will never form power (and has never really even come close), at best hoping to be a balancer of power in a minority situation or the official opposition (once in my lifetime). But for whatever reason I do care, and I’m not very good at holding back the snark sometimes as a result. It’s a train I would like to get off in the final days of this election campaign.

To be fair (to me) – I haven’t engaged in any negative posts other than to (once) make fun of the Greens calling the NDP liars. I haven’t told anyone (or shared any memes that suggest that) their vote was splitting, negative, fear-based, or that their understanding of the facts was disappointing or wrong (all of those things have been said to me, or implied in the messages friends are sending around). I have called no candidate a liar, or suggested that they were lying. I have said good things about three of the parties that I think there are good things to say about, I have also been critical of specific aspects of party platforms that I don’t like. In short, I have tried very hard to remember that either way, come Tuesday morning we will have a new configuration of power, no matter what arguments I do or don’t have.

And still. I hate this election like all elections because no matter the outcome, we still have the system that breeds itself, can’t advance beyond its limitations, and alienates us from the real work that needs to get done. As much as I don’t want to see a bad outcome, Tuesday can’t get here fast enough for me.

Post #3174: Landmarks of middle age

I’ve been reading Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks over the last few weeks, dipping into it here and there. Each essay stands on its own as an example of landscape and language, followed by a glossary of place that reaches far back into the tribal and regional languages of the United Kingdom. I’m taken by his form, the exploration of linguistic roots, the desire to name the natural world with specificity. I am in particular influenced by this last point and have worked his thoughts in with mine in a long essay I am currently working on – the need to anchor places with descriptive language in order to save them.

But more than anything I am taken by his hikes, rambles, and climbs in the mountains which root his stories in the physicality of place. I recognize these types of places and what propels us to them, having done many such excursions in my own life (he even briefly touches on hiking the West Coast of Vancouver Island), and he brings them to a page in clean prose that is a pleasure to read. But if I’m honest, his stories are also making me insanely jealous, and not of his writing.

Jealous instead because for the last several months I’ve had a foot problem that has increasingly made walking and hiking a misery, and am now at the point where even a 5 kilometre walk puts my body at odds with itself. It started about a year ago, with an intermittent pain in the ball of my foot for which I could find no source, and has progressed to the point where I wonder whether I will ever walk pain-free again.

The problem I have is apparently quite common – a Morton’s neuroma – and the first treatment recommended by my doctor is shoe insoles (which aren’t working as intended, I think they are making the pain worse). After trying insoles for a few months, then I could get a steroid shot, or even surgery – but I do want to try the least invasive option first. From reading on the Internet, it might also be the case that calf stretches and foot massage could help as well – which makes some sense. Up until recently I’ve been doing daily yoga, and a lot of foot rolling – but the last couple of weeks I haven’t, and the problem in my foot has increased in that same period of time.

My research (and my doctor) tell me that this is pretty common among middle-aged women, of which I am one at 46 years old. This doesn’t make me feel better, though I suppose I am off the hook in the sense that it wasn’t something I did to myself other than get older. But the foot problem goes along with the shoulder problem (an old injury likely causing arthritis) and suddenly I have a new understanding of my aging future.

What I see, and need to ward against, is the tendency to shy away from discomfort by decreasing my activity in the world. It hurts to walk, and so I don’t go to the gym. My shoulder is tight when I wake up in the morning, and so I don’t want to work on shoulder or arm balancing postures. If I don’t counteract these tendencies, then it’s obvious what happens next: range of motion is lost, vitality is drained, and aging comes on faster. This is how injury adds up. It’s not the single point of fracture that’s the problem, so much as how that accumulates, builds into something much greater than its originating moment.

One good thing about reading Macfarlane’s work right now, when I’m feeling sorry for the foot I have to nurse when even walking across my own living room, is that it’s been reminding me how much I have loved to hike, and how since moving I’ve really set that aside. Partly because overland backpacking trips were replaced by trips to the cabin, and partly because while Gabriola has many lovely walks, it has no real hikes. Either way, I’m missing a part of my life that I used to really enjoy and set time aside for, and that started long before this “neuroma” arrived on the scene.

I’m heading east tomorrow for ten days – first to Montebello, Quebec (for a union conference), then to Hudson-on-Croton, NY (to visit a friend), then to Ottawa (for work). This is a time of year made for walking in that part of the world, and so I am considering the right clothing and footwear for my trip. I don’t want to let any more days go by where I sit on the sidelines of the living world, where I eschew yoga or hiking because I am afraid of my aging body. Instead of feeling constrained in my physicality I want to simply regard this body as one just as capable but requiring different care.

I did sign up for yoga class with my teacher this morning, and will shortly be off to the studio for some much-needed stretching and body positivity. It’s so easy to get stuck in oneself, and stop looking around at the world; at least a little bit of my day will be spent re-orienting that vision. Finding new landmarks, as it were, to signpost my middle-aged life.

Post #3173: Autumn food thoughts

Photograph of Willows Inn cookbook, small loaf of sourdough wrapped in paper and a jar of stone fruit jam.

For the last few years, Brian and I have put aside $100 a month so that for our anniversary at the end of September we can purchase a piece of artwork for our home. This year we decided that instead of artwork, we would put our anniversary money towards a dinner at Willows Inn, on Lummi Island. This is a place we love, having been two times before (once shortly after Blaine Wetzel joined the establishment in 2011, and another time with friends about six years ago). The food is always an artwork, and though it is too twee for everyday nourishment, I find myself coming away inspired to do more with local and foraged foods. I bought the new Willows Inn cookbook this time, which is full of techniques I’ve never tried but have access to the ingredients for (aging venison, making sea salt, cold smoking salmon).

We drove from Willows Inn to our cabin outside of Princeton yesterday, and I’m writing from the loft while Brian wanders the hills above for sign of deer. It’s four-point buck only at the moment, so doubtful that he will get anything this week, but we have a freezer at home waiting to be filled so I’m crossing my fingers. When I finally leave the coziness of this bed I’m tucked into, I will dress and go for a walk around the lake looking for rosehips and juniper berries which should both be ready for picking. It might be late for the rosehips and early for the berries, but I know this is the approximate time of year junipers ripen. While tedious to pick, they dry into a flavouring agent for game and other meats like nothing else.

I’ve also decided I’m going to hunt mushrooms again on this trip, something I have done in the past but not for a couple of years now. Given the rain up here this fall, I figure it’s worth another shot. We have harvested morels here a couple of times in the spring, but what I’m really hoping for is oyster mushrooms or even chanterelles. I have no idea if those species grow here, though the conditions are right for both.

One small project we have been thinking of for after Thanksgiving, is to build a little smokehouse at home. This has been on the radar for awhile, but now I have an island friend who wants to make Ukrainian sausage because she misses it from her childhood. Also – I’m inspired to try cold smoking salmon, and curing venison (a la Willows Inn). I’m interested in a design that allows for both hot and cold smoking and I think this can be combined fairly easily. We have a lot of the materials to make it happen on hand (or can get them from the local recycle/reuse depot).

I also have plans, once I return from my travels east in mid-October to get the sourdough starter out of the fridge and start making bread and other sourdough goodies. I shelved the starter sometime in late winter, but I know that it will only take a couple of weeks to get going again. I’ve been eating pretty low carb since mid-summer, so baking has been off the agenda, but I’m comfortable with a bit of whole grain sourdough here and there and I can’t really imagine a winter without bread. I look forward to pulling Sarah Owens’ book Sourdough: Recipes for Rustic Fermented Breads, Sweets, Savories, and more off my shelf and trying some new things this season. Hers is the best baking book for sourdough I have found.

Earlier this month I was at work filling the pantry with staples for the winter including soups, stews, pickles, and stewed tomatoes. I also finally got around to bottling the hard cider that I collected the apples for in fall 2018. It’s been sitting in the carboy since October of last year, though I did rack it twice so it came out nice and clear.

30 bottles of apple cider: Windfall apples free from the neighbour, steam juiced. Nottingham ale yeast for the brewing, dextrose to carbonate. These will be ready for drinking in early October.

There is no doubt that I am definitely in the food storage, food planning part of the annual cycle! The trip to Willows Inn was a nice reminder of what else we can do to enrich our food gathering and sustenance experiences, though I am glad that we already participate in local food cycles that sustain us and our community in an ongoing relationship. Moving to Gabriola has enhanced that a thousand percent, though my cycle of food prep was this way even when I lived in the city – I just have more access to free fruit and veg, and locally raised meat. I’ve been thinking lately about how to pay that out to the community in the form of a processing collective, but that is a project for winter, when I have time to plan and have meetings with folks. When I’m done with getting ready for the long nights and cloudy days.

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