Monday, October 22, 2012

Adventures at Rhinebeck Sheep and Wool Festival

So what is a sheep and wool festival and what makes it wonderful? It's the gathering of hundreds of vendors of yarn and wool and related products and animals and people come and buy yarn. One can also come to buy spinning wheels and wool to spin, or drop spindles and dyes or the animals themselves. There is sheep shearing and there are sheep dog events (like in the movie Babe!) and there are textile weavers and basket weavers and leather workers and potters and so many people who work with their hands. And though there are many things which made this weekend at rhinebeck wonderful, I think I can scoop up most of my delight into three big straggly categories.

The weekend was wonderful because it was one enormous sensory overload. If all we had done that weekend was travel to Rheinbeck and go hiking we would have had a beautiful weekend. It could not have been more beautiful weather, out in the countryside of the northeast, through rolling hills and valleys covered with trees at their peak of color. But once we got into the festival we went through shop after shop of yarns in the most beautiful colors. Every time I thought I'd found a favorite ship I'd find another with even more beautiful combinations of colors. The picture above is from Briar Rose Fibers, a wonderful shop with staggeringly beautiful yarn. You might be able to get an idea from the pictures, but it is not the same as being there in person because in person you can touch the yarn. My hands are still happy from the memory of running my hands through baby Alpaca and Cashmere, though merino wool and silk and bamboo, and through lambswool. It's such a treat to just touch these things, but even more of a treat to be able to buy some and take it home with me.

The second great joy of the weekend was just the exposure to such a high concentration of skill. Last year at a yarn shop in Princeton I overheard a conversation between the store owner and a pattern designer about what sort of patterns she should be producing. They decided the safe choice was to stick with very simple patterns because so few people have the skill to do anything more complex. It made me sad to think that the level of skill in textile arts is falling, that maybe we're loosing the skills our grandmothers might have had and that maybe we won't be able to get them back. A weekend at Rheinbeck was the sweetest antidote to these thoughts. Not only did I see people everywhere wearing gorgeous, complex hand knits, I got to see people exhibiting phenomenal skills in all areas of textile design and production. At a stall selling lace weight yarns and threads, I saw a whole display of wedding ring shawls, lacework knit with such fine thread and so airy a design that you could pull the whole shawl through a wedding band. They were for sale, at about $700 a piece, which seems like a steal when you start counting the hours that went into that piece of artistry. I found a picture of a wedding ring shawl online to give you an idea, but the ones on display were even more lovely than the one above.

The part of the weekend making my the most grateful right now is that people I went with. Owen insisted I come with him and his mom, aunt and cousin even though I had been scheduled for work, so I asked and got Saturday off. So I got to meet my aunt and cousin-to-be, and got to spend more time with my soon to be mother-in-law, and it was wonderful. It made me think what a familial thing knitting is. Lots of people learn from their mothers or grandmothers, and when people buy yarn they buy it to make hats or sweaters for their children or husbands or girlfriends as much as for themselves. Over meals Owen's mom and aunt kept talking about their mom, the sweaters she would knit (with the tight neckbands) and how much she would have enjoyed a festival like this. And yet again I was humbled and glad to get to wear the ring she left for "Owen's bride." One of the sweetest moments of the weekend was over breakfast when Owen's aunt said how nice it was to see her mom's ring on my hand. All weekend I was just showered with generosity, some financial ("it would make me very happy to buy that yarn for you") some knowledgeable (as I asked many questions about gauge and planning for patterns) and lots of generosity of heart as women I'd never met continued to exclaim how glad they were to meet me or would just announce to each other, "I like Clara so much" and it is a joy to be so welcomed into a family.

I am realizing how much I could be networking online over textile arts and over books, and these seem like worthwhile things, but I'm not sure. Right now I'm selling a lot of my time at $10/hour, and the time I have left over is a little precious to me, and though in the long run I think I would appreciate being connected to all the people I know who knit over Ravelry and I would like to be able to use GoodReads as a way of sharing my thoughts and recommendations about books,  I also like to just be with my housemates in the evenings, or communicate more directly with friends I love.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Reflections from Working in a Bookstore

I work in a bookstore. It wasn't my first choice of a job out of gradschool with degrees in music, English and Shakespeare, but as I've worked the last month and a half, I have been finding this job an increasing joy and privilege. Labyrinth Books is an independent academic and community bookstore in Princeton NJ, one of the nicest bookstores I think I've ever visited. We sell new, like new, used and bargain books, so if you're coming in hoping to find a pile of books for less than $10, you can do that. If you want the new releases discussed on NPR, we have them too. If you just want to browse some really well stocked shelves or need to pick out some books for your grandchildren we can provide a quiet, calm and focused environment for that. This is all stuff that one expects from most bookstores, what I think makes Labyrinth individual is the seriousness with which the staff approach their work. The manager and owner of the store both speak of this work as a duty, as a way of curating the knowledge contained in all these books. So Labyrinth also hosts many events, poetry readings, lectures and discussions with authors.

I think I first knew I was working in an exceptional bookstore when I came back to work after my shift to come to the first event of the season. It was a poetry reading, and I knew there would be three poets reading who's new work were carry, and the finalists for some highschool poetry contest were going to read as well. In my mind I imagined a number of local highschool kids reading middling breakup poetry and a few nice new poems by some relatively obscure poets, and there would be perhaps 10 people in the audience? Mostly the high school kids' parents and a few elderly couples. What I found myself attending instead was a large gathering (perhaps 70 guests?) listening to three exceptional poets (Tracy K. Smith won the Pulitzer in Poetry for her new collection, Life on Mars) and the secondary school poetry prize winners were not a few local kids. They were young poets from all over the country, whose voices rang clear and strong, and whose words startled me out of any expectations of mediocrity. I was humbled, and grateful to learn (once again) how much I have to learn.

Even "coursebook rush" a time of high stress and intensity in the shop as we sell all of Princeton their books for the semester left me impressed. I hadn't really thought too much about the fact that every semester college students spend hundreds of dollars in books so that they can learn. They're already paying tuition, right? It made me think perhaps in my new life post-academic studies that every fall and spring, I should budget out a fair amount of income to buy books specifically so that I can learn. The courses these students were taking made me drool a little too. There was a course on Women and Theater in which they were reading Paula Vogel, Gurira, I am an Emotional Creature, and a book written by the professor titled, Feminist Spectator as Critic. Another course, this one a religion course about fairy tales and good and evil narratives? They were all reading Ursula Le Guin and Tolkien and Susan Cooper, 100 Years of Solitude, and The Once and Future King. I would pack up the students' books for these classes and wish I were still in school, or I would make plans for reading them myself. But there were other classes which just made me glad for the future of humanity. In one class, (a Sociology class or Econ perhaps?) all of the books were about entrepreneurship and small business models and imagining a future without poverty. I don't have delusions about fifty people from this undergrad class at Princeton ending world hunger, but knowing that privileged, intelligent students choose to take this class gives me hope.

There is something rather tender about working at a bookstore at this point in the history of the world. I know the age of print is giving way to digital mediums (despite all the fervent ardor of book titles on the literature new release table), and one of the things making me so grateful to work in a bookstore is the knowledge that my grandchildren won't be able to. So as I shelve, or gather books for an order to the UK, or repair display copies of pop-up books, I am warm with gratitude. For the books, (their smell, their touch, their physical presence in the room) and all they hold for everyone who reads them.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Hexaflexigons - because I miss PEG.

For those of you who don't know Vihart on YouTube, now is a good time to learn. She's a mathmusician and if you ever thought math was boring she's the one to show you that it wasn't math. It was lack of a good teacher. In her videos she explores Fibonacci numbers by drawing on cauliflower, explains mobius strips with charming stories or points out the ways you didn't realize that the world is beautiful.

This video is a video about a little paper toy I learned to make in PEG, the Mary Baldwin College Program for the Exceptionally Gifted. While working there I learned a lot, sometimes from lectures during staff training (about effective listening or conflict resolution), sometimes I learned from the other wonderful staff or their resources, such as learning to be okay with myself doing Zumba, or reading about the psychological and sociological challenges facing the gifted and talented. But most of the time I learned from the girls. I learned whatever they thought was cool, and whenever I stumbled upon something I thought was cool, they were eager to learn about it, or had already known about it for a long time and so could tell me all sorts of things I wouldn't have known. So here is a Vihart video for any of you who don't have a double math and art major in your lives. Enjoy.