Post #3179: Quietly frustrated, a little bit low.

We’re putting together a sauna kit at Birdsong this week, or I should say, I have some guys putting it together for me. Fingers crossed that they show up today to keep working on it. What you see above are the inside walls, after which a waterproof membrane and exterior cladding go on before I can get my electrician to come over and wire the heater. If all goes well I’ll have a sauna by the weekend, if not, then I have to talk to my friend who I hired to do the job again. He’s been delinquent on the whole project – a two day job stretched to seven and counting. We’ll see what happens next.

Given the cold snap the last few days I am really looking forward to a winter with a dedicated warm room! (And summers, coming back from ocean swims to a heated sauna also). We decided to go with an electric heater rather than wood due to the convenience factor, and also because in the summer, burning wood is really frowned up here. Even though it would be technically legal, the smell of woodsmoke upsets people out during drought and fire season (for good reason). The heater we chose is a traditional (not infrared) sauna heater, which handles water so we can sauna wet or dry.

Besides this, things have been a bit low key here lately. My husband, Brian has been away longer than normal – he usually goes to the city for work Tuesday to Thursday, but because of a work trip in between he’s away for eleven days straight. I’m okay with the time apart until about day five, when I feel like it’s time for him to be home. As a result I’ve been in a subdued, weird headspace since the weekend. When we are apart for too long I start to think about what my life would be like without him – and that just freaks me right out. I don’t write a lot about my marriage here, but my partner is one of the greatest things about my life, an unexpected fluke of a meeting in my mid-thirties that has resulted in entirely different pathways in my life and my brain. And so. Brian comes home on Thursday, and then things around here will feel right again.

We’re hitting that time on the island when things slow down, even with the Christmas fairs and so on. A lot of people leave around now to go south, and all the summer people are gone by mid-October. If it wasn’t for the neighbour blowing leaves next door my ‘hood would be utterly silent right now. I suspect that’s also part of my weird feelings these last few days – as much as I love this time of hibernation, it’s also a shift to darker, quieter days. I’m feeling the weight of that today for some reason, wanting to curl up and skip my early evening yoga class even though it’s probably best that I don’t. Probably best I do the things that get me out of my house a little bit every day so I don’t get too alone in all of this wintry space.

12:50 and the guys have not come back to work on the sauna today. So typical of workers here (to not show up, to show up late, to botch half a job and then walk away from it). I’ll cross my fingers that they come back and finish it tomorrow!

Post #3178: The unfinished, the untidy, the end of the year purge

One thing I haven’t written about here lately is the fact that I’ve been on a bit of a journey to lose some weight/get back to the gym. This is a lifelong struggle for me and thus, not so interesting to write about, but some recent moves (intermittent fasting, lower-carb eating, weight lifting) seem to be taking effect and I’ve shed about twelve pounds since late summer. At 46, I have no expectations to lose weight quickly, and my motivations are about not developing type-2 diabetes in my fifties (a pattern in my family) so anything feels like a small victory right now.

I’m at the stage of feeling like some of my clothes are a tiny bit too big, and items made earlier in my handmade wardrobe journey are starting to fit a bit better – which is awesome. I have a particularly rad dress that I haven’t been able to wear for the last twenty pounds and I look forward to having it back in circulation next summer. On the other hand, I was all prepped to work on a new winter coat that I have fabric and pattern for, but earlier this week decided to shelve it for the year. While skirts and dresses are pretty straight forward to take in, lined winter coats are not, so I’m going to wait and see if this body shape continues to change before committing all that fabric and time.

This has brought me to reconsider sewing garments for a bit. I have one dress cut out, underlined, and ready for the machine so I’ll go ahead with it (adding half an inch to the seam allowance to make it a bit smaller), but otherwise I feel like it might be time to put away the plans for jeans, Persephone pants, and anything else hard to alter downward. It’s time to make do with what’s in my closet until we see where this whole fitness thing lands.

This would feel a bit depressing (I do love making new clothes), except that I have a 3/4-finished quilt, a cross-stitch xmas table runner I started six years ago, a loom that needs dressing, a blanket half-woven, and numerous other unfinished items that could use my attention. Earlier this week I went through the studio and picked out all the “quick hits” I could spy – finishing off four items in less than two hours. That’s right, some of my projects only required 2 minutes of weaving in ends, but still they languished for months.

It’s not unusual for me to focus on the unfinished near the end of November – heading towards the new year and all that – so the next few weeks will be spent on “old” projects and cleaning out the build up of stuff in the studio. I got rid of some upholstery foam that was taking up room this week, and I have a box of fabric that will find its way to the thrift shop at some point in the near future.

Now – if you do want to see a finished garment:

This is the finished samue set that I made for last week’s meditation retreat. It turned out to be a dream of a garment – and I wore either whole set or just the jacket every day. I think it’s a bit too heavyweight for a summer retreat, but it was perfect (and comfy and warm) for late fall. I would like to make a spring jacket (for regular wear) out of this same pattern I love it so much – but again, nothing new for awhile so we’ll see what happens in the new year.

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.

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