Friday, May 31, 2013

Making A Newfoundland Burial Shroud

One of the most important activities that we have undertaken since arriving back in Newfoundland has been to visit with our dear friend Colette, who was diagnosed with late stage cancer about six months ago.  Colette has been more than a friend - I think of her as my art world older sister.  She is an inspiration in how to Think Big, and then, Make It Happen.  Truly, were it not for Colette, I would not be sitting in this house right now.  I dared to buy the house and make my project (are you nuts?  buy a house in Newfoundland?) when you could still do such things for the price of a used car.   Still, it felt like taking a step off the cliff into the emptiness of the unknown.  When I would feel lost and have doubts, there was Colette, doing her thing with an easy laugh and some generous words of encouragement.  She has always been the perfect example of how to live the dream, with her grand vision and her ability to make stuff happen in a way that is simultaneously totally outrageous and modestly self-effacing.

Now, Colette is surrounded by a lot of love and support so my ability to contribute to her care has been small.  She and her sister did ask me if I would make a burial shroud for her.  It is a Newfoundland tradition to have a plain cotton burial shroud with a pattern of cut-work on it.  I have seen only one photograph of one (here is a photo in the middle of a blog post - scroll down a bit).  I think the fact that they were buried with the person they were made for is part of why there are not a lot images or examples of them.  Colette will not be buried - she wishes to be cremated - but she will have a wake and she wants this shroud for her wake.

I am speaking of it matter-of-factly because that is how Colette speaks of it, but of course the process of making it has been fraught with a lot of emotions.  I thought I would share some images of the process here, in part, because of the lack of information about Newfoundland shrouds.  But also, it is a beautiful thing that has been made for a beautiful person who is approaching her death with a grace and fearlessness that we all should aspire to have.  She is teaching us a lot.

Colette and her sister started with a drawing:

The flowers would be made with the cut-work.  They found a piece of off-white raw silk to be the main shroud and a simple cotton sheer will go underneath.

I did some sample cuts in a scrap fabric to get the hang of it.  Er.....not so easy!  Every petal was a different size and it felt totally out of control.  I decided that a stencil was the only way I could make the pattern look (relatively) uniform.

It seemed a little brazen to write on the fabric, but I forged ahead.

I had some assistance in laying out the pattern.

The first cuts were a bit tentative but I soon got the hang of it.  Borrowing from my experience of making my rakusu recently, I tried to bring my love and caring for Colette into each cut of the scissors.  I tried to only work on it when I was not rushed or distracted and to catch myself when I got into a how-many-more-to-go mindset.

Each snip = sending love to Colette.

Yes.  Sending much, much love to Colette.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

For Carol

Yesterday evening, the light was quite stunning so I pulled out my camera after mowing the lawn.  Aside: why does lawn mowing give me such satisfaction?  I am almost ashamed of much I love it because I know lawns are Evil and should be replaced by productive gardens and believe me when I tell you that I am doing my best to make that happen.  Yet, every time I finish mowing, I feel some deep pride that must go back to when the first humans hacked the first small plot out of the jungle.  So there you go.

Anyhoo - the light, the camera, the freshly trimmed grass.  I though of Carol, who lives in Santa Fe, where it is spectacularly beautiful in its own way but not this way.  Carol misses damp, grey weather and I must say that I can't blame her.  So, for you, Carol, a small selection of what it was looking like last night.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Water, Water, Everywhere

Let the rain kiss you.
Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops.
Let the rain sing you a lullaby.
The rain makes still pools on the sidewalk.
The rain makes running pools in the gutter.
The rain plays a little sleep-song on our roof at night -
And I love the rain.

Langston Hughes

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Opportunity Knocks?

The almost full moon rising over the hills behind Gillams.

This is the Meadows Point Guest House.  It currently belongs to Colette, but it is for sale.

It is one of the oldest houses on the North Shore of the Bay of Islands and it is beautiful in every way.  It is in a beautiful spot (and includes land that goes right down to the bay).

The outside is beautiful.

And the inside is beautiful.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Cleansing the Sins of Our Forefathers and Washing Our Fears Away

My project for Saskatoon, Transcending Potash: Cleansing the Sins of Our Forefathers and Washing Our Fears Away, has been simmering in the old noggin for weeks now. As dedicated readers may remember, I had a deadline for creating a project description and it took me a good while to be able to pull together a cohesive idea, largely because I am not very familiar with Saskatoon.  I did manage to meet my deadline but that does not mean the idea stopped its simmering.  No, not at all!  It has continued to bubble and steam and overflow the pot now and then.  Fortunately, the main organizer of the festival - a patient and kind woman named Keeley - has been there to mop up the excess and turn down the heat when necessary.  So it is that I feel like the project has reached a reasonable state of doneness, at least in idea form.  And thank goodness because I am not sure that I could keep this metaphor going much longer.

So, here it is.  The idea began, as you may remember, with the interesting fact that Saskatoon was created as a prairie outpost of the Temperance Colonization Society of Toronto.  I have long been interested in communities built on utopian ideals, so naturally this perked up my ears.  One of the things I love about utopian communities is that they are bound for failure but people try again and again to make them work anyway.  They are so optimistic but the fact remains that human nature is complex and contains both light and darkness and it is very difficult to keep the darkness out of the picture for very long.  So, even a place that is built on the relatively simple idea of not allowing any sale or ingestion of beverage alcohol is likely to harbour someone with a bottle stashed here or there.  As a person far wiser than me once said, when you create a rule, you also create a criminal.  It is just human nature.

This interests me very much!  Thus my project will consist of a kind of walking tour/treasure hunt of sites around Saskatoon related to this history of temperance and colonization.  At each site, there will be a little explanation of the history as well as a clue to get you to the next site.  The final site will be a white tent and foot washing station using water from the river that runs through the city.  Using soap (made from potash, of course!) that has text imbedded in it - words related to both sides of human nature, the good and the ugly - people will be invited to pick a soap to wash their feet.  They can cleanse something away or draw something in.  Then they can enter the tent and sit for a spell.  My hope is that they will use that time to reflect on history, human nature, their nature, the aspect they chose with the soap and whatever else comes up.  Maybe there will be conversation or maybe it will be silent.  Both the tent and the cushions for sitting will be embroidered with text (still working on collecting that).

Should you find yourself in Saskatoon from July 5 − 7, 2013, please come and participate!  I will be there at the tent awaiting your arrival.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Stephenville Special

The artist Sonya Schonberger is visiting from Berlin, Germany.  While she is here mainly to be with Colette, I have been able to spend some time with her also.  Yesterday we ventured to the Port aux Port peninsula, which is about an hour south of Corner Brook and, I hope I can be forgiven for saying so, one of the more oddball places in Newfoundland.  I say that with the utmost affection.

Our first stop was the Our Lady of Mercy museum and church.  Sadly, neither were open.  Too early in the season, I guess.  The museum, especially, is one of my all-time favourites and a huge inspiration for my own project, The House Museum.  I knew Sonya would love it too, but alas, we could only peer in the windows while Lucy and I tried to describe the wonders that lay within.  The church is wooden, beautiful and huge, with a seating capacity for 1,000.  But, as my former mother-in-law so aptly observed about so many things undertaken in Newfoundland, "it just didn't work out".  The town never quite reached its goal as an economic hub, the people never came and the pews sat, largely, empty.  But the church remains and is impressive no matter that it is now an historic site rather than a going concern.

Nearby (and the reason for such hopeful church-building) is an abandoned limestone quarry in Aguathuna.  Over the years I have collected a lot of video and photographic documentation of this strange and wonderful and desolate place.  It was fun to see it fresh through Sonya's eyes.

Iron springs from an old mattress.

The water from the quarry site.
From the quarry, we moved on to a short visit with the alpacas - a must on any trip to the Port aux Port.  We didn't linger too long with our fibre-y friends, however, because our stomachs were beginning to rumble and we wanted to head to Stephenville, the home of the original Domino Pizza.  And by this, I mean the very first place called Domino Pizza.  They were later sued by the pizza chain over the name and, remarkably, the chain lost!  They tell their story on their menu, along with the claim that they are "...the cheapest on the island.  Some would venture to say all of Canada.  You be the judge."

We spent many moments contemplating what they meant by this exactly but then our pizza arrived and we were too busy eating it to judge its cheapness.

Stephenville, as you may recall, was the site of an American Air Force base in WWII and a good deal of evidence of that remains around town.  Much of the housing is still intact and in use.  The airport was functional until not so long ago.  Yet, there is a good bit of abandoned stuff to stir the emotions of anyone who ever found mystery and romance in a rusty, weed covered bit of equipment or crumbling warehouse.

You be the judge.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Certified Lye

The snow has stopped and today promises to include some sunshine and temperatures above 5C/40F.  Apparently, Gander had 52cm of snow yesterday - that's over 20 inches for the metrically challenged.  We do not live in Gander and for that we are grateful.

No, today we have sun.  The lawn shall be mowed.  The basement shall be cleaned up.  And a book review shall be committed to paper, or screen, as the case may be.

An old friend has come to call.

The novelty of light and shadow.

I have begun my work on Transcending Potash (full title:  Transcending Potash:  Cleansing the Sins of Our Forefathers and Washing Our Fears Away).  It started with a thorough search of Corner Brook for potash.  I assumed the place would be awash in the stuff but apparently not.  The man at Humber Nurseries told me he stocked it for ten years without a customer for it so he took it off the shelves.  A beacon of patience, I think you will agree!   Returning home empty-handed, I turned to the internets.  I found a site and company called "Certified Lye".  With a name like that, how can you go wrong?  My potash is on its way.

Saturday, May 18, 2013


One of my favourite things about returning to Newfoundland is how my neighbors always say "Welcome home!" to me.  Because it does feel like home in that deep-in-your-bones kind of way, if not so much in the filling-out-permanent-residency-paperwork kind of way.  This year, it was hard to leave New York: art stuff was happening, teaching yoga was hitting a stride, and with my newly-minted rakusu, I wanted to hang out with my Dharma brothers and sisters.  I was having a little petulant teenage moment of my own, like "do I really have to go?"  Hey, when you run with wolves...

Even the drive up felt ever so slightly lackluster, muted by my attitude of having left something behind.  Thank goodness that the physicality of the landscape is so powerful and strong that it was able to knock me upside the head as soon as we rolled off the ferry and hit the Trans-Canada.

We're here!

The air, the smell, the fact that it was snowing - snowing! - yesterday.  Why did I doubt it?

The view from here.

My new BFF

Greeted by cheese scones made by Olive.  When I tell you they are worth the 2.5 day trip alone, I am not lying.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

And Now: Everything Else

Photo credit: JL Aronson
We are on the road to Newfoundland - scheduled to arrive on Friday morning.  It was a little kooky to plan to leave only three days after spending a week away but that is what happened.  Somehow things got done and we are away!

As soon as we arrive we will check in on dear Colette and I need to start making soap for my Transcending Potash project.  We will have our second springtime, plant a garden, paint the house, and drive to Saskatoon and back.  The coming weeks feel full in the best way.

Monday, May 06, 2013

Stepping Forward

This week, I will be living at the Temple in Brooklyn as part of preparation for jukai, the public ceremony of receiving the 16 Buddhist Precepts.  It is taken very seriously in the Mountains and Rivers Order, which I think is a good thing because it ensures that it really means something to the person receiving them.  We spend years reflecting on the precepts and working with them in our lives before taking this vow of commitment.

One part of the week's work will be sewing a rakusu.  It is a bib-like garment that represents the Buddha's robe.  It is hand stitched and each stitch is filled with one's intention and aspiration.  I will be receiving the precepts with three other people - all men.  They have each expressed a little anxiety about the sewing part - and I have heard tell of people sewing into the wee hours of the morning in order to finish the rakusu in time.  I would like to think that, for once, this might be something that comes easily for me in this practice.  But I am well aware that pride cometh before a fall and I am not getting too cocky.  There is a lot of measuring that needs to be exact, and that is not really my strong point.  I am certain there will be plenty of opportunities for humility.

At the end of the week, on Sunday, there will be the actual jukai ceremony.  It is really a beautiful thing.  I have been moved to tears watching others participate.  In some ways, it is A Big Deal.  And yet, it is just our regular life too.  We have been given this opportunity to make a choice about what kind of life we want to live and, for me, this is one way of saying yes to it all.

To see the secular as a hindrance to practice is to only know that in the secular nothing is sacred; it is not yet realizing that in sacredness, nothing is secular. Realize the Precepts as your own body and mind and realize sacredness.
— John Daido Loori, Roshi

Saturday, May 04, 2013

An Unschooling Case in Point

There are moments in the life of an unschooling parent that inspire deep dread.  And there are moments when I realize that it is all going to be ok.  For me, unschooling is about giving my children the tools and guidance they need to be able to learn whatever they want or need to learn.  It isn't about specific content at all because that is really their choice, as it is for anyone.  I have faith that they can master any topic of their choosing - they are certainly intelligent enough - the thing they need from me is to help them learn how to figure out the best way of doing that.    Also, I hope I am modeling good daily life skills - good hygiene, adequate (or better) cooking skills, strong work habits, and an appreciation of why it is good to serve others.  I want to give them some ways of taking on challenges that are productive and positive.  I want to encourage them to think and question and really see what is in front of them.  But this is all fairly abstract stuff.  In daily life, it feels a little different.  

Now that F&L are both teenagers, the stakes feel higher and the moments of dread (two words: video games) can feel utterly horrifying in the most helpless, hopeless way.  It does always come down to faith, or maybe trust is a better term.  I do trust that these two people want to learn and want to be useful in the world.  We need useful people in the world.  We need useful people who have a strong, confident sense of themselves in the world.  

Although I am criticized on a daily basis for being a terrible parent, a lousy cook and a terrible yoga teacher (that one feels especially gratuitous), I try to keep the faith that this big experiment has not been a disaster, ruining not one, but two, young lives.  Every once in a while, I get a little bone thrown my way that allows me to stay the course.  Sometimes it is a very tiny, meatless bone and sometimes it is a nice, big juicy one.

Last night was a nice, big, juicy one.

Lucy played two pieces at her guitar recital last night.  They were both difficult for her and, up until about a day ago, I was not so sure that she was at all ready to be playing them anywhere outside of our living room.  She managed to cram a lot of practicing in the 24-hours prior to the recital and she played them as well as she ever had for the performance.  They are both pieces that take her out of the Beginner category and place her solidly in the Intermediate category, so it was an important step to master them.  Is she going to be a fantastic player, win competitions and be hailed as the world's greatest gift to guitar playing?  Probably not.  But who cares?  Her love of playing is genuine and it comes from within herself.

When Lucy decided to learn to play guitar, she came to me and accused me of "never allowing" her to learn an instrument.  Since I had strong memories of years of begging her and her brother to learn an instrument, I found this accusation a little surprising but I went with it and found her a teacher, who has been wonderful.  She has taken it up with enthusiasm and almost always practices with no or little reminding.  She reads music now and is just beginning to explore learning songs outside of what her teacher gives her.  Without question, the guitar is coming to Newfoundland with us.  Other than the administrative tasks associated with setting up her instruction, I do very little towards making any of this happen.  It comes from Lucy and the achievement is all hers.

Lucy also recently decided that she needed to "learn math".  Again, my memory of years of math tutoring caused me to be a little surprised by this announcement since I sincerely believed that she has been learning math for quite some time now.  The thing is, her math tutor (I have the equivalent of a Grade 5 math education so I am useless as a math instructor) is someone who really teaches math - he teaches how the relationship between numbers can be a way of seeing the world.  He has worksheets but they are very visual and are story-based and they do not look like any math worksheet I have ever seen.  Lucy has begun to doubt this approach a little.  

A couple of years ago, she took a standardized test and did not really recognize the set-up of the problems.  She actually knew how to do them all but she had never seen them set up in such a bare bones (and boring) format.  She has been stewing about this ever since and she asked me to get her more "normal" math workbooks.  Yes, my teenaged daughter actually had to hound me to order her math workbooks.  

Last night, her uncle asked her about her summer plans and Lucy responded that she planned to learn math, read, and play guitar.  This same uncle then gave her a book that proposes to teach her to learn Esperanto.  This was immediately added to the list.

It is evenings like that when I can back away from the edge of the cliff.  It's going to be ok.