And now for someone completely disconnected, part II

Continuing from where we left off in  our last post, I’ve had to do a lot of thinking recently about life, in general, and in terms of how I’m going to live myself. Of course, it is impossible to plan anything out very far, but 1 compiled some general principles, or observe patterns.

The most important thing to remember is that none of this is a competition. (Sorry, Olivia.) A consistent pro-life ethic means all humans are equally valuable and beloved. You’re not more valuable if you are able-bodied, or if you are profoundly disabled. If a perfectly healthy person exists and should happen to be reading this blog post by some chance, you don’t have to feel bad because you have no struggles worthy of beautifying. For one thing, life is hard for everyone, and everyone has struggles, whether those are physical, mental, or spiritual. I mean, look at the state of the world right now. Look at the state of the world in the year 600. Life is pain, highness, and anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something — that goes for everyone, whatever the precise nature of that pain. For another, illness or disability or grief can come upon anyone at any moment: your health is largely out of your control. We don’t get to pick and choose our genetics (and shouldn’t) and there’s only so much we can do for our immune systems, and anyone can fall and splinter a leg, and so on and so on.

Another supremely important thing to remember is the goodness of the body. You won’t find Manichaeism here any more than you’ll find Pelagianism: God created the material world good. Anything bad in it, like atomic bombs, is the result of human sin, and not a part of its essential nature. The human body is good, and we know it will be resurrected and live eternally. It is possible that the animal and vegetable worlds will be renewed as well, since the new heavens and new earth are spoken about broadly enough to allow for that interpretation. (That is kind of another subject, although one about which I have many thoughts.) So it is highly theologically inaccurate to speak of disabled bodies as bad. Our experience of disability is hardly ever fun, but that does not make our existence or the existence of our bodies a bad thing. When being an icon of God is one of the most fundamental facts of your existence, anything bad about you comes from what you choose to do, not from what you are. (I’ll get more into this idea in the third part of this impromptu series; also, I highly recommend Heather Lanier’s Raising A Rare Girl for an excellent presentation of a consistent pro-life ethic applied to this idea. If you take away only one thing from all this, it should be that.)

Another thing that follows from the basic pro-life belief outlined above, that this is not a competition for worth 

[I had to stop writing here for a moment, because although I was sitting on the couch with the cat on my lap and both of us in positions we regularly adopt when snuggling like this, one of the large muscles in the bottom of my left foot, toward the inside edge, sort of running along the length of the arch right at the side of the foot there, chose that moment to painfully and tangibly move out of place. As you can imagine, this is a very absorbing experience, as it takes a great deal of concentration to move the muscle back into place again, because moving out of place has gotten it all tightened up and stressed, not to mention how much it hurts. I’ve done this on occasion before, but not for a long time, and it just now occurs to me that this too may find its explanation in my new diagnosis. It wasn’t too long, maybe two minutes by the clock from beginning to end, and now my foot and leg are only a little bit sore and I can take up my train of thought again. This has been A Moment (albeit, this exact sort, a rather rare one) In Life and the Writing Process with me.] 

Anyway, none of this is a competition for worth. Similarly, none of this is a competition for who is worst off. Other people have it worse than me, of which I am well aware, but this does not mean my struggles matter less because they, for instance, affect my life less. For all but one of the suffering people in the world, it is true that someone else has it worse. That does not mean that only one person in the entire world is allowed to struggle, seek medical attention, have a bad day, or anything else. That would be clearly ridiculous. In the same vein, the fact that I appear healthy to the untrained eye, except during the rare moments when I am, you know, losing consciousness, does not mean that my struggles are made up. Surely, in this enlightened scientific age, we know that things can exist even when we don’t see them. Invisible illnesses and disabilities are just as real as the ones with consequences visible to outsiders: this does not mean that the visible ones are worse, or that being invisibly disabled means you are less disabled. There is actually something of a consensus on this in the disabled community.  

And in a world after the fall, no one is too young to be sick or injured, because that is not how the effects of the curse operate. Especially when we consider genetic things, which have been part of the people they affect literally since the moment of their conception, even if they became visible to the general public only many years later. However, these wrong ideas have spread even into the Church at large, and though I haven’t personally had to deal with many of them so far, I would like to say just one thing in their general direction. The consequence of these ideas is the same thing: your struggles are tolerated only when you have an official diagnosis. It serves as a permission slip, in this way. However, the struggles predate the diagnosis. I struggled just as much in the years before I met my wonderful doctor, when no one was listening to me, as I do now —  if I had not already been struggling, I would not have gotten my diagnosis. My condition is the same now as it was before. The only difference is that now I have an official word from a medical professional. Requiring a diagnosis before we believe that a person is struggling, in whatever way, shuts out the many many people who are in pain without knowing why, often 4 years before getting any answers, and only makes things harder for them. Surely we know now that everyone struggles in some way. Surely the solution is to be kind to everyone, and to give people the benefit of the doubt, and to try to help people and not be a problem on top of problems to them, rather than to guard a hoard of possible assistance which we judge is to be given out only to those with official medical recognition.

When I was a child, growing up undiagnosed autistic, I had a lot of meltdowns. We didn’t know what my sensory needs were at the time, and I was continually being forced into situations where I would go past my limits and then crash. Once I learned about autism, I began to assert myself and live within my limits, defending as it were the edges of my territory. People began to see that I had a low tolerance for certain things, like crowds. To them it looked as if a perfectly normal kid had grown up and suddenly developed an allergic reaction to large loud groups of people. I had always had limited noise tolerance: the only difference was that now it was visible. Similarly, now, I know that when people say to push through pain and discomfort to grow your strength, they don’t mean the kind of pain I feel after pushing myself through a physically grueling work day. Now, I have permission, in a sense, to defend the edges of my territory when it comes to what I can do in a work day. From the outside, it looks as if a fairly normal, although somewhat weak, person had suddenly lost a great deal of ability to do stuff. I can testify that from the inside it mostly looks like the same person as before, who now doesn’t push herself into painful situations, and so spends less time recovering from pushing herself too hard and injuring herself. People see the work shifts I miss; they don’t see me spending less time lying down on the floor first thing after coming home from work, or hobbling around on aching legs that evening and the next morning.

I do say “mostly”, because some of the issues which have been gradually increasing over the last ten years began to get dramatically worse last fall (stress may have had something to do with it), and the whole lactose-intolerance thing is new, and taking quite a bit of adjusting to. Otherwise, for now, things continue fairly levelly. 

Another factor in the visibility of all this is the number of things I have to divide my energy out to. When I was in school (an example I pick because it’s the only comparably ‘public’ stage of my life so far), which meant long days and a lot of driving and so many people, orchestra days being especially draining (if also rewarding), I could afford to pour all my energy into school-related stuff. I didn’t have many responsibilities at home, as it’s hard to do those when you’re not there, and until my last semester, I wasn’t working at a paid job off-campus either. Now, by contrast, I have two and a half paid jobs, no one does the household work besides me unless I call someone in to help, I need to do everything every day to take care of my body and mind, and every once in a while I like to write or sit down and sew. 

Suppose I had a full gallon jug of milk labeled Energy. (I think about milk a lot these days.) Suppose I had a one-gallon jug labeled School. I could easily pour all my milk from one jug into the other and adequately fill it. Suppose I have the same full gallon jug of milk labeled Energy, only now I have a one-gallon jug labeled Paid Work, a one-gallon jug labeled House Work, a one-gallon jug labeled “care for oneself and the cat”, a one-gallon jug labeled Church, and a one-gallon jug labeled Life Stuff. I can’t fill all of these jugs adequately. I can fill all of them some of the way, or a few of them most of the way and neglect the others and hope for the best — maybe I can get to those later when my original jug is refilled — but now I have more demands on my energy, and I don’t have more energy with which to answer them. Indeed, at times, I have less. The church split especially took it out of me, and then being so sick this Spring and taking a long time to bounce back from that —  if the phrase “bounce back” can even be used of anything I do. At times I have poured all my energy into paid work and left mere drops for taking care of myself and the cat, and had nothing left over for the others. At times I have given less to paid work, and people notice then because it’s public and visible, and I’ve been able to catch up on filling the housework or the care of the body jugs. This too will play into how visible a person’s struggles are at a given time.

One note to my currently-abled readers: I’m sure it’s very fun and easy to have a body and a mind that do what you want them to do without breaking down over the littlest things. If you are one of those people, and I’m sure you have your own struggles because life is hard for everyone, remember to enjoy your working body and mind. You haven’t always been able to look after yourself, and if you have the good fortune to get old you will lose that ability, which need not be something to be afraid of if you have good people to take care of you. You matter! Also, have fun. Enjoy rock climbing or running down hills without having to worry about your trick ankle or your trick knee or your trick ribs or — I mean, enjoy being able to stand up whenever you like, at whatever speed you like, without getting dizzy (though honestly, is it possible for anyone to be so healthy?). 

What I get is the fun of being a living (if not exactly walking) memento mori. I know some of my readers are familiar with the hymn Remember O Thou Man (and its beautiful tune), and most of you will have at least a passing acquaintance with the fact that we are all dust, and to dust we will return. There are old tombstones that say something to the effect of “Don’t laugh, you who read this today, for as you are now, I once was, and as I am now, you will be”. It’s very important to remember these things: that we will die, and that we are not dead yet. (A host of Chesterton quotes rushes into the forefront of my mind at this thought, and you should consider yourselves lucky that I didn’t go and hunt up all of them to post here.) Read Manalive, remember that you are made of dust, a material not known for its durability, and think about how you will live when confronted with the limitations I have (if only through old age), while you can.

A final thought, for now. I have been slowly losing things: Milk, yogurt, cheese, butter, eggs; the ability to type for hours without taking a break, just letting the words flow; the ability to mop a floor without pain; some days, the ability to wear clothes without them hurting me (I came thisclose to not making it to work last Thursday because of this exact thing). Last year one of the things I was able to consistently take joy in was walking to church, which is about half a mile from where I live. I’m looking at the prospect of losing that too. I’m sure there are other things I’m forgetting right now, some of them because I’m now completely adjusted to their absence, but the thought of losing which might shock my abled readers. Some things I have simply never had. 

I don’t entirely know why, in spiritual terms, God is asking for these particular things from me, why I’m having to practice giving them each to him as a free sacrifice. It’s really boring to be in pain for a long time. But for some reason, God decided structural integrity wasn’t a thing my body needed, and that I could have good bones and good skin with everything else in between them a wreck, so here we are. 

To be continued in our next, which will be all about the best thing (in my opinion) to come out of this whole. . . I don’t even know what to call All This. As before, I did this through voice typing, so you might find occasional instances of the wrong word or something.

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And Now For Someone Completely Disconnected, part I

(Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but it fit so neatly with the previous post in what is becoming a series.) 

A whole new world of puns has opened up to me, and I shall be taking full advantage of that, you may be sure.

I’m beginning to wonder if I’m going to make a habit of this whole ‘discover something new about yourself that completely revolutionises the way you see your life’ thing every couple of years. The post linked above is my explanation of my discovery of autism and how much of myself that explained and made sense of and assured me, very often for the first time ever, that existing this way was okay. Today, quite unexpectedly, I bring you another.

Those of you who know me in real life will know that I have always been a bit bendy, a bit delicate, and for the last 10 years or so, a bit prone to fainting for apparently insufficient reasons. I never entirely outgrew the all-arms-and-legs stage, I am double-jointed in numerous places, last year I dislocated a rib ridiculously easily and my rib cage has never been the same since, the clearness and health of my skin despite the fact that I’d never do anything to take care of it is the despair of my sister, who shares my genes yet has to work hard to keep her face up to modern beauty standards. The one surgeon who’s ever seen my bones pronounced them excellent, and medical people who see my surgery scar regularly give me good grades in scarring. Those of you who have read this blog for a long time will know that I have old repetitive strain injuries in my arms which tend to flare up for a couple of weeks at the end of summer, as well as other times at which I have noticeably over-worked them. At more or less regular intervals my innards seem to try to kill me: this is the main medical mystery which has haunted me for the last decade, and just last year I met a doctor who finally took my concerns seriously.

This year we began to try to find out what was wrong down there in earnest. Approximately 50 million different conditions could turn up the exact symptoms that were plaguing my insides so much,  But then in my research I encountered one which explained many other things which have been going wrong in me over time, and even answered some questions I had never thought to ask. It’s not all gloom and doom either — it also explains some of my ‘good’ physical qualities, like the good skin I mentioned earlier. It’s also a highly common comorbidity with autism.

Armed with a truly wonderful cumulative case argument, I went back to my doctor and said excitedly Look! Now, what I had discovered is a group of connective tissue disorders under the heading Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, and these are not widely known about outside their circle of specialists in the medical field. so I carefully explained to her, trying to avoid the most convoluted technical jargon, each instance where what it is overlapped so strikingly with one of my qualities. And then something happened which resulted in me side-eying God very hard the rest of the day, because she said “I know what EDS is. It runs in my family.”

To precisely determine which of this broad range of conditions I have, we will have to do a genetic test, which will be a long process. Mostly of waiting. But my doctor agreed that it seems quite likely enough to be worth referring me.

Now at this point, you would be quite justified in wanting to reach through the screen and console me for this terrible news of an incurable genetic condition which frequently results in debilitating pain, quite apart from the more specialized symptoms of versions including heart problems, prolapses, and even more strange and dreadful happenings. I mean, it’s the reason my repetitive strain injury will never heal and I’m using voice typing to write this post to you today, after all.

But I want to stress that none of these new developments are bad news. I have had whichever condition I have since I was conceived (just like autism). I have been having gut issues, pain, unhealing injuries, and all the rest of it, for at least a decade. A decade, I remind you, chiefly characterized by not knowing why any of this was happening, suspecting the worst because of the particular timing of the height of my symptoms, and doctors who regularly dismissed me because ibuprofen still controlled the pain — eventually. Now, I have a doctor who advocates for me. I have a concrete thing to chase down and research and learn about and learn how to better take care of. I have answers, I have reasons, I know why so many things are the way they are — once again, I (seemingly randomly) came across / read a thing which entirely changed the way I view myself, and gives me the vocabulary, tools, and permission even, to take better care of my body.

Once we thought, because it was how things worked for ordinary healthy people, that yes, I was weak and lacked muscle and struggled to do a lot of ordinary things, but if I worked hard and exercised and pushed through I would get stronger —because that’s the way it works for ordinary healthy people, who for better or worse are our default paradigm. (The more I learn about these things the more I think that Ordinary Healthy Person must be a myth.) Now we know that that is not the case. Pushing myself results in new injuries or worsens old ones. Connective tissue is found in almost every part of your body, right down to blood cells, and I could take all the protein supplements in the world and my body would still not be able to absorb them, or turn them into anything stiff once they had. So none of my old issues are going away, and I have to move through the world very carefully so as not to introduce new ones. 

I hope you are all familiar with the wonderful story of Miss Rumphius, and the one thing she had to do to make the world more beautiful. I always found her story comforting when I was younger, because I never knew what I wanted to do when I grew up, which is the one thing grown-ups always seem to expect you to know even when you were seven, but Miss Rumphius didn’t know either for a long time, and yet everything turned out all right for her. I ate my oatmeal and I did my studies and I grew up, and like her, I became a librarian. And then last year, simply standing and tensing up, I dislocated a rib.

Now perhaps it is time for me to find my metaphorical house by the sea, and at least metaphorically spend a couple of winters in bed because my back is bothering me, and then hopefully more than metaphorically jump in to the one thing I must do to make the world more beautiful, which I still don’t have figured out yet.

I don’t at all mind a quiet life. My finances don’t quite stretch to building a Last Homely House to preserve art and literature, and peace and safety, even, for whoever comes there, and I have quite enough trouble keeping myself and the cat alive as it is, but even in this slightly odd new chapter of my life Miss Rumphius’ story is still very comforting.

***

N. B.: voice typing does strange things sometimes. If I’ve overlooked something, sorry. Post not right-justified because WordPress makes you do that manually with each paragraph separately and I don’t have the spoons for that today. If there’s a spot I put in a link or italicized something and it didn’t carry over from the document I typed this in, so that you’re finding something seems weird, let me know, I can probably fix it, some things are fixable.

A great deal more to come anon.

Posted in Non-fiction, Ordinary life, Research | Tagged | 5 Comments

Beautiful and playful and robust and strong

‘. . . bello et iucundo et robustoso et forte’ — St Francis of Assisi

One of the brightest spots in all of last year, for me, was getting to take a small bug-loving adopted cousin out to the wilderness area behind my place and geek out about creepy-crawlies together. During the winter, Olivia and I tossed around ideas for getting Abby and me to a butterfly house and aquarium a couple of hours from where we live; Olivia’s presence as the responsible adult in this endeavour would be essential. Beginning in May we began to hatch plans in earnest.

For three months we tried without success. The endless disappointment got to me, and I finally declared that if one more try failed too, I would maybe try again next year, but not before.

This weekend the usual obstacles did not arise. The now standard tentative rising of hope inside us was not crushed at the last minute as usual. “I won’t believe it’s actually happening until we’ve been and gone and come back,” I said stubbornly, wary again of my bubble being blown up only to be popped.

We collected Abby and her younger sister Hannah (a recent addition to the plans — she’s not particularly fond of bugs, but she did greatly enjoy the bug-themed snacks from last year, and I still think that was her main reason for wanting to come along) early in the morning, and Abby presented us with two clay spiders, which Olivia set on the dashboard to keep her rubber turtle company.

I was squished between the girls in the back seat, charged with keeping the two of them entertained for the two-hour drive. We began with the Bug Book. I have an Audubon Guide To North American Insects and Spiders, with a colour plate and short section of information about every separate kind of creature in it, which I thought we might want to bring along for reference. Abby and I enjoyed going through most of the sections and looking up particularly intriguing ones in the back of the book. Hannah declared strongly that the spiders grossed her out.

“What!” I said, and turned to the Jumping Spider page. “How is this one not cute?” Jumpies are so indisputably charming that she had to agree.

She admitted that the Bola Spider (who lassoes its prey) was kind of cute too. Later, when we were looking for another section, the book opened to the page with the Lynx Spider on it, and she pointed it out as a little bit cute.

(I pulled the book out again on our drive home, and she exclaimed, “Sophia! You are always looking at that book!”)

We got to the butterfly house and aquarium a little after noon. Olivia drove to a nearby park where she thought we could have lunch (and the first of our long-awaited bug snacks), but it was definitely a park for grown-ups whose idea of fun is soccer or some such: nothing but uniform lawns with sprinklers all over them, and a couple of parking lots for variety. The girls hooted with mingled disappointment and derision.

In the end there turned out to be a park right next to our destination, with not one but four playgrounds in it. Hannah immediately made a friend. Abby inadvertently wandered into the middle of a pirate fight. It rained a bit and cooled us down. We ate lunch under a big hexagonal wooden pavilion inhabited by swallows and sparrows: sandwiches and chips for the girls, tomato salad and fried sausage and zucchini for us, and grape caterpillars and teddy graham butterflies for all of us. (The sausage and zucchini was remarkably tasty for being what you get when we remember the night before that we need lunch too, after more than a week of me being just about equal to working and sleeping and then losing even that. For the same reason, no recipe exists.)

We finally tore them away from the playgrounds to go inside. On our way, a stranger tried to give us bags full of unspecified ‘swag’. For some reason I was the only one with any caution about taking unknown things from strangers. But as she addressed Olivia as the adult in our group, and Olivia’s record of saying no to people is almost nonexistent, we were saddled with four bags of unknown contents.

After going back to the car to store them, because bags aren’t allowed inside the building, we got to go see the creatures!

“One adult and three children?” assumed the man at the counter.

We went in the aquarium wing first and saw horseshoe crabs, jellyfish, seahorses sleeping, lion fish, anemones, snails, and where the stingrays would be if their exhibit wasn’t temporarily closed (this and the lack of cephalopods, I found disappointing).

The butterfly house had species from everywhere else on the planet, and we got to take fake flowers with nectar sprayed on them to tempt them closer to us (one in particular then wouldn’t stop eating and fly away when we needed to leave): “Owls” who each looked like half of an owl’s face when their wings were closed, but when flying revealed sudden blue stripes; big, brilliant blue morphos; ones with orange or pink stripes, and one with a pattern like piano keys; and a green and black kind called malachite, which was my favourite. Also in evidence were turtles and some rescued quail (we were told it was a long story), all living together in the greenhouse, in a combination of man-made streams and gardens.

“Other exhibits” included a snake (labelled with twice the usual injunctions to neither touch nor bang on her glass), various cockroaches, giant millipedes, and a tarantula. Abby and I looked at these while Olivia and Hannah were occupied elsewhere.

Before leaving, we went back to the starfish-you-could-touch, whose exhibit hadn’t been open when we got there. They were open now, and we got to touch three different kinds, in three different colours and three different textures: knobbly; soft and sort of feathery, as with algae; and leathery “bat stars”. The big green anemones and the odd sea cucumber or urchin in the same tank were off limits for touching, however.

I can list the creatures we saw all day long, and even describe them, but that won’t convey what it’s like to stare at a creature of such incredible complexity, knowing that there are a hundred others with different designs in the same room just as wonderful, and a thousand million more where those came from, and myriads more than that on this whole globe, and that without even getting into the intricacy of the globe itself, and all the other planets, moons, asteroids, and other roughly spherical objects in the heavens — about which we know about as much as we know the depths of the ocean, which is to say, just the tiniest bit. And each separate tiny thing, every jelly that thrives in heavily polluted parts of the ocean and every fragile fish forced out of its habitat because of the same pollution — each snail and fish that eats gunk off things, and each thing that is thrown into the ocean to contribute to the gunk — each giant leatherback turtle and each tiny green agapostemon bee — each fiercely loving mama wolf spider and each burning star — even each human, strange as that is to imagine — completely cherished and loved, if not by the humans whose job it is to take care of it, at least by the highly playful and creative Love that moves the sun and other stars. And not only that, but each thing being given to every other thing as a love letter from their Creator.

And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed, and it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘It is all that is made.’ I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so all things have their beginning by the love of God.

(If you haven’t been around me long enough to instinctively know the source: Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, 1373, and go read it.)

After an interval in the gift shop, where Hannah categorically forbade me to get a tarantula magnet, we returned to the park to let the girls run their energy off before we piled in the car for two hours again. I yielded to the temptation to join them this time, and was inching my way through one obstacle course that required good balance when Hannah suddenly chirped behind me, “You can do it, Sophia! If I can do it you can do it too!”

“Thanks for the enc —” I began, just as she added, “Hurry up, Sophia, I’m waiting on you!”

Back in the car, we made caterpillars out of big fuzzy beads and pipecleaners before everyone but Olivia fell asleep. Abby was the first to go, curled up against the door gazing at her new butterfly stuffy until her eyes slowly drifted shut. Hannah leaned against my shoulder, announced that I was Very Comfortable, and then spent the next half hour shifting around to get positioned just right. Olivia put on a playlist of sleepy music (she’s working at a Montessori school this summer and does this professionally), and Hannah clicked her pen in time to the chords in “Farewell To Stromness” as she ever so slightly fought sleep. I even fell asleep, but woke up again when Olivia changed the music to some lively Beethoven piano pieces. The girls stayed asleep almost until we were back at my place.

Then it only remained to run up to my apartment and say hi to the cat, grab a tray of spiders (made from crackers and pretzel sticks and peanut butter and chocolate-flavoured almond bark) and a stack of books for the girls’ siblings, and take them home.

There they told everyone all about it, and we stayed to supper, and some people enjoyed having spiders for dessert more than others.

I went to bed that night and dreamed I was at a chiropractor.

Posted in Ordinary life, Short story | 2 Comments

Looking at Life

So I said the next post would be in the In Which Everything Goes Downhill series, but I’ve been having some thoughts today while I stay home sick, and another topic has taken over my mind. I mean taken over consciously, it’s been stewing for a while; now that I recognize it it just wanted my memory being jogged this morning for the different parts of it to come into focus.

For a few years, about from the time I joined Ravelry to halfway or so through my college years, I read a lot of blogs belonging to other writers, other aspiring authors, the Go Teen Writers community, most of us quite young, and took a lot of my encouragement and companionship and learning about the craft from those circles. It was hard to get the same quality of any of these things from my classmates in the creative writing program, as a secular outlook on life does things to your presupposition about any art, but especially, I think, the word, which made it hard for us to even look in the same direction, let alone look in the same way, at our work.

There are many beautiful things about the old blogging circles. The camaraderie: the flurry of  Realm Makers wrap-up posts which would come out for a couple of weeks after the conference each year, through diligent reading of which one could almost feel one had been there, meeting the various people known beforehand only from their blogs; the glorious chaos of the Silmarillion awards; the thriving beta-reading system; and the Beautiful People series, in which a whole lot of us would answer the same questions for our wildly varying cast of characters. People’s writing styles varied widely, depending a lot on what they’d grown up reading, so you could often tell from looking at the About pages with its obligatory list of favourite authours whether this one would tend toward the sermonizing clean Christian fiction end of the scale, or the deliberately shocking hard-boiled modern rebellious edge. Or whether they’d been influenced by Rosemary Sutcliff and you could look forward to jewel-bright, hard-edged writing snippets at the end of the month; or a fixation on archery for some, or the Ancient Romans for others. Or dragons. There were quite a lot of dragons. 

Most of the blogs seem to have gone defunct between 2016 and now, people either deleting them outright, with an official final post about how Life Moves You On and then closing them down; or simply silence with six months since the last post and then a year and then four years, and you wonder where they are now and whether they’re all right.

All of us were quite a bit younger than we are now, most of us home-schooled, possessing a certain naivete but also a glowy-eyed love for beauty and honour and redemption: things which will stand us in good stead in all areas of life if we can hang on to that — even as we get forcibly better acquainted with life as a more nuanced thing, to be met with slightly less judgement than of old; losing some of our innocence, perhaps, or having the vocabulary now for things that were going on at the time which we couldn’t then address, resulting in some blogs now looking quite a bit more grown-up and cynical, when the change is really due to our acquiring the language and boldness for confessing it.

I myself have stopped being active in reading or commenting on them for quite some time. In the span of years I described above, writing was the main thing in my life; lately Life has taken over me. It would not be the first time I had outgrown a group I had formerly been very involved in, but one does feel that loss especially when one has no solid writing group to replace it (the writers’ group in our church felt the same stresses of life and slowly dissolved, and then beyond all restoration in the split last year). This was less an outgrowing as a growing in a different direction. It’s hard to be quite so close to a group when everyone else is writing fantasy novels and pursuing publication in an ever-increasing market, and you’re buried in 80,000 words about suicide and a few medieval theologians. Advice doesn’t cross very well both ways; it’s harder to get beta readers, very understandably; some people may be of the opinion that you shouldn’t write it at all, that the situation you describe could never have happened, or, on the opposite end of things, that you should go into detail about the moment of death. And that’s without touching how hard it is to get excited about the little things other people are still able to see the joy in when your world has become mostly about death. 

There was another reason for the pace of my writing slowing down over all these last few years. I have mentioned before that I write partially as processing, and my usual way is of writing my way through things, the appeal of a certain story at a particular time being that the characters are grappling with things similar to my own at the time; also that for me the process of writing functions partly as escape, and not needing that escape much during ‘20 and not finding it sufficient during ‘21, writing took a secondary place to other immediate things in life then (for the first time, I think, since I started writing). I have now embarked on the first writing project I look likely to finish since the fall of 2019 and it’s nonfiction. (And a very complicated one at that, so while I expect to introduce it properly on the blog eventually, it may be some while.) And even that one is not an escape for me; it keeps putting out tentacles to the past and the present and even farther into the past and hinting darkly at my future, and while a good and glorious story, and even beautiful in the telling, it is not a particularly easy one to simply dump on an audience without a careful explanation. 

Also, as to the blog, I am much older and tireder now, with more responsibilities to juggle and more difficulty juggling them. During a good period, where I’m healthy in every way and don’t have more than one life-changing event going on, I can do justice to my job of the day and do something of all my other duties, or all of some of the duties and put off those which can be put off, in one day. But if I take on anything extra, the resources for that have to come out of what I’ve rationed out to other things, and something necessarily slips. As neglected as this blog has been, many of my in-person friends and relations have been just as neglected. (I don’t know if that’s much of a consolation.) The direct and dreadful consequences of not going to work or not remembering to pay the bills are sharper than the consequences of telling people “I’m sorry, I can’t get together this week” or never sending e-mails — directly, anyway; so one prioritises them in the moment, which turns into a whole week, which turns into a month, which turns into a life. The slow atrophying of relationships can be just as catastrophic in the long run, and that is a heartbreaking burden to carry. But my world has been shrinking for lack of consistent ability to hold it wide open, and I don’t have a solution for everything right now.

I always hated to think of being the person who says “unlike other people, I’m not going to let Life get in the way and render this blog inactive” and yet look at my very spotty record over the last few years. I still don’t intend to admit defeat even now, because I would hate for it to end up this way; but you might see the focus (as far as there has ever been one) shift a little as I move into still more of the terra incognita of life. There are dragons on these maps. More dragon than map, I often think. Still, some of them are unexpectedly friendly dragons.

Posted in Non-fiction, Ordinary life, Writing | 8 Comments

In Which Everything Goes Downhill, part I

   Ahead of me the line of cars and plows stretched off into an invisible distance. “Would it surprise you,” I said, when my sister answered the phone, “to hear that this is not going according to plan?”

   “No,” she chirped, “the power just came back on ten minutes ago here!”

   As those of you who have read this blog for at least two years will know, my sister goes to college on the other side of the state, and I try to visit her at least once a semester — as much because I like the school (and associated Chapel of St Mary of the Angels) as for her own company, really. On the weekend of which I write, my main purpose in going was to attend her choir concert. Two days before I left, rumours began of a snowstorm forecast for the Friday I was travelling. The day before, our dad sent us an e-mail suggesting I leave much closer to the crack of dawn than I’d planned to, so as to miss what promised to be a proper blizzard that afternoon. Instead of leaving so that I arrived when she was getting out of class for the day, I should arrive closer to lunchtime. 

   I had been on the road for about an hour, on a rural highway between two towns and no other vehicles in sight, when a State Patrol pulled me over.

   So the licence plate light has finally gone, I thought, watching him approach. The lightbulbs back there have been failing for a while, and my dad and I tried to pry them out without crushing them over Thanksgiving weekend but had no success.

   So I was a little surprised when he said, “I’ve pulled you over for weaving back and forth across the fog line.”

   Don’t ask which one’s the fog line, don’t ask which one’s the fog line, don’t ask which one’s the fog line — I thought wildly at myself.

   Why might I not be paying attention to the road, he wanted to know. 

   Perhaps because I was keeping a close eye on my directions, as I didn’t want to miss my turn? I suggested, feeling foolish. I didn’t want to have to explain that I’ve driven this route (more or less) five times and am no less nervous on this trip than I was the first time. That’s not how you convince people you belong behind the steering apparatus of a giant vehicle capable of going a hundred miles an hour. 

   Did I not have a GPS? A smartphone?

   I wanted to laugh. What part of me (at the time wound around with shawls the way a Christmas tree is with lights) suggested that I was the kind of person who had a smartphone? I didn’t say this either. 

   He delivered a written warning and a spoken lecture on Why We Must Stay In Our Lanes And Not Go Off The Road, and departed. (When I told this story at work the next week, commenting that I wasn’t sure what good he thought that was going to do, Linda said “He thought you were sixteen, of course!” “He had my licence,” I said. “He thought you were sixteen!” was all she would say. It is a possible explanation.)

   This annoyed me greatly, mainly because I wasn’t endangering anyone even if anyone had been there to be endangered, and I was trying to make good time and beat the storm and all of that. But things went all right for another hour or so after that, until just at the farther edge of a town I always hate driving through.

   I shouldn’t, I really shouldn’t, have started to form the thought that the city limits were in sight and I had almost made it through.

   A train was stopped on the tracks.

   Neither end was visible.

   I sat there for a while, in the company of several semis and something hauling hazardous materials, wishing these sorts of things had timers to tell you how much longer you had to wait.

   When it finally did get moving again, it was a very long train quite close to the beginning. We waited some more.

   Just when I reached the highway intersection on the other side, and turned and left that city behind, the first snowflake fell.

   Fifteen minutes later everything was a darkened slushy mess. For the first while I was behind a lovely delivery truck who drove carefully and didn’t mind me sticking behind him; then we met the plows. 

   I don’t know how I managed it — for a part of the drive which takes two hours at the usual speed limit of 65 miles per hour, I was stuck behind numerous plows going 25, or, with luck, 30, yet I didn’t arrive on campus at suppertime.  Fortunately, unlike last time, my windshield wipers could be described as in good working order. (By the end of the trip they were decidedly frayed.)

   Somewhere in this stage I called Olivia. She was having her own Bit Of A Day, having begun it without electricity. Someone had cut something or flipped something which resulted in a loss of power to about half of campus for about ten minutes, and then in trying to fix things had knocked out all of the power to her building for another couple of hours. The indomitable choir had finished class in the hallway, where there was still some light. 

   On the other side of the biggest city I go through, one whose terrible intersections do actually haunt my dreams, the snow let up and the plows were fewer and I was able to pick up speed.

   I slid down the bluffs not quite an hour later than I should have, tired out and having not missed the first storm at all, and Olivia came to meet me in the nearest parking lot. We transferred my stuff to her car there, as it’s a good ten-minute walk from there to her dorm even without luggage. 

   One of the hills next to the music building, part of which is also the dorm where she lives, is a good sledding hill. Several guys were using it then, while we were unloading her car, and we paid them little heed until one stood up and shouted across at us (it had to be at us, as no one else was around) “WOULD YOU LIKE TO GO SLEDDING?”

   This was a surprise. After a moment I shouted back, “IT’S AWFULLY KIND OF YOU, BUT WE’RE A BIT BUSY JUST NOW.”

  “OKAY,” he replied.

   We did keep an eye out for them at other times during the weekend, in case they were to repeat the invitation while we were free.

   With the luggage moved, I collapsed in Olivia’s bed and took a long nap. Even before the snowstorm became part of our plans, Olivia had deliberately kept the evening open, so the only thing she had scheduled was having supper with her closest girlfriends. We had some spare time before then, so she took me on a tour of the art building and showed me the friendly skeleton in the corner, and her final project, and the peculiar paint stains high on a random patch of wall. I also spent some time sitting on her floor whip-stitching the hem of her choir robe, as fully half of it had come undone, thus confirming my hatred for polyester. After supper we went to the lower floor of her building and she showed me the progress of her piano recording for another final project, this one about the sounds of her childhood.

  I really wanted to go to night prayer with her all three nights I was in town, but the blizzard had begun about the time I woke up from my nap. Olivia warned me that most likely no one else would be there, but all the same, a little before nine o’clock we bundled up in many socks and scarves and things and faced the wind and snow. Did I mention it was a ten-minute walk from her dorm to the nearest other building on campus? And that building was not the chapel.

   I left a wet slug trail from the back of my skirt all along the carpet in the one building we went through halfway. We finally arrived at the chapel to find it deserted; waited twenty minutes, slowly melting, while the only other person to come in became more and more obviously involved in their own prayer which it would be rude to interrupt; and finally, with regret, faced the outdoors once more. After which, it being now quite late, I vanished from the haunts of men.

To be continued in our next, whenever that is.

Posted in Ordinary life, Short story, Writing | 1 Comment

*Crawls out from under a pile of fabric*

What a year this month has been already! But I had a couple of extra days off, and I’ve been having energy for things again, so some of the chaos has been the kind that, when it settles down, actually leaves things tidier than they were before. I mopped my kitchen floor on Monday, can you believe it?

Last year was a disaster and I’m glad it’s over, though the various disasters are not done with yet. The occasional bursts of energy I’ve had so far this month, I’ve mainly used to catch up on things I let slip for lack of energy to take care of. Still, I got no end of joy from how easy it was to do dishes this week. It’s been ages since that last happened.

I have several sewing projects going on at once, and the pile I threw them into, in the corner of the living room, before haring off to visit family a couple of weeks ago, is truly monstrous. But when you’re hanging onto that particular combination of tactile things as a hook to snag your sanity on, it’s a small price to pay. Amazing how much you can accomplish quickly when sitting on the floor is your main activity outside of work (five or six days a week), church (an entire day every week), and what house chores you can cram into the little energy you have left over, which you require about eleven hours of sleep per night to maintain. I didn’t realize how bad it had gotten until my mind cleared enough for me to see that now things are better. For now, at least. And thanks to a couple of recent developments, I need to go through my projects in progress, and the list of ones to make after them, and re-order their priority.

For the brain-fog has lifted, and I may soon have less time for sewing as I turn myself to writing once again. (At least for as long as this wave of energy lasts.)

Yes, writing.

That thing I haven’t done with nearly my usual enthusiasm for any length of time since I finished the Two-Legged League.

To be sure, I’ve picked up a few projects since then, and I dropped them all again within three weeks, but I did make a little progress every time. This is something I’ll have to write more about at another time, but the thing that keeps me motivated to work on my fiction is that (consciously or not) one of the main things the characters will be working through or wondering about in a given work is also one of the main things I’m working through or wondering about in my own life. I do a fair bit of processing the current things in my life through my fiction, thus. The TLL followed this pattern: for most of the time I was working on it, I was asking questions about how to keep people alive long enough to be able to think about the bigger questions of life: the place that the little things like crocuses or really good sandwiches have in tethering us to life, so that we can still be alive to think about transcendentals and things.

About the time I finished its first draft I also finished the first draft of STOML, and, being in a better mental place by then, went on to other questions. The latter work left me completely drained, even burnt out, when it came to writing, and I gave myself time to rest. Then in 2020 I was busy learning with joy about Divine Love, and life was being gentle to me (if to no one else), and I was soaking up good and beautiful things and having one good day after another after another after another, and storing up those things in myself as strength against the inevitable day when things were not so good. Not that the year was perfect, but I was learning to be hopeful. The day came, of course, when things went bad. Most of the following year, as you know, was a continual struggle. What little fiction writing I did in 2020 lacked urgency compared to the business of actually living: I mostly didn’t need the shelter of escaping into another world. What little fiction writing I did in 2021 lacked urgency compared to the way my life was actively getting blown to pieces: I needed a more bomb-proof shelter (the door to which proved to be the Litany of Trust).

With the lifting of the brain-fog this week came a flood of thoughts, busy activity upstairs, and a new idea for the TLL.

Make it a three-book series.

When I was starting to make a few revisions, shortly after finishing the first draft, one of my beta-readers said it needed a later ending than what I gave it (in 1921 or thereabouts). We needed to see just how much healing all of our protagonists had done. She wasn’t wrong about that, but lengthening the book didn’t feel right, and stuffing it into an epilogue at the end without showing their growth (something I thought important) wasn’t quite right either. And there I left things until this week.

To do their growth and healing justice, writing more books where they can take as long as they need to makes perfect sense. And one of the things that made the epilogue idea not quite right was actually an advantage to the idea of a series: that you can do all the healing you like from the horrors of the Great War, but what have you to look forward to (though only the readers know it) but a worldwide economic depression and another war, culminating in an atomic bomb? But if you look at it in terms of extra books it makes a lot more sense.

Book one will remain mostly as it now stands: the aftermath of WWI, our four protagonists discovering Chesterton, and figuring out how to hang onto being alive long enough to then be able to ask the big questions; learning what the value of the small things truly is. The world needs a Two-Legged League to go around telling people that they are not dead yet.

Book two: the Great Depression (yes, it affected Britain too), the world really needs a Two-Legged League; and the League is now stable enough to start asking the big questions. In book one they learn the value of the little things, but also that ultimately the activities of the League are not quite enough: so what is? What’s enough to hold people together? And other transcendental questions, of course, but these I have just named are some of the ones I’m grappling with myself at the moment: hence this period of inspiration and motivation. Thew and Rosamund will probably be the main p. o. v. characters in this book, as they’re the ones already grappling most with these kinds of things.

Book three: Chesterton dies, WWII, the world really needs a TLL, Tolkien publishes the Hobbit, we ponder big questions about living in the age of the atomic bomb. The main p. o. v. characters will probably be Poppy and Blair, because their main struggles are very related to the kinds of things an atomic bomb brings up. (I have a feeling Lewis’ essay “On Living In An Atomic Age” will feature prominently.)

Shenanigans throughout, of course, and plots and things, and tons more research. Do I really have spare time to take on another book’s load of research? Not really; but the thing is, if I postpone all this till a convenient time, I’ll have lost the motivation too.

So. I bet no one was expecting quite that twist, but then, neither was I. Which is normal, really.

Posted in Fiction, Historical fiction, So That Others May Live, The Two-Legged League, Writing | Tagged | Leave a comment

Best I love September’s yellow, part III

Funny, isn’t it, how the first to get made are the last to get a post? November came in like a lion and and continued like a lion and went out like a lion and things keep being wild around here, but now that the trip to visit my sister, preparing for which took up a lot of my concentration lately, is over (and you’ll hear about it later), I’m back again. Probably for a limited time only, but we’ll see.

I forget how intensely yellow it is.

Removable sleeves of some kind (whether pinned or basted or tied on) have had fashionable periods in women’s clothing since about the 14th century (as far as I can tell; we’re out of my main areas here, so if any outliers cropped up earlier I might have missed them). They’re fun because you can get the look of several different outfits by switching out just the sleeves, or mimic the look of layers (which says something about your relative wealth) without having to use lots of fabric, or just have sleeves on your arms without having to struggle with armscyes.

These are loosely based on some of the images around the early 16th century, but very loosely, because I was starting with modern knitted stretchy polyester velvet, which is about as far from a pre-20th-century fabric as you can get. When I first took it into my head to make velvet pin-on sleeves, about this time last year, I went to the thrift store and got a jumper which was mostly made of this lovely patterned velvet, but oriented so that it read as black and the pattern barely showed. It’s a lovely complex motif and I thought it was a shame for it to be that way, so I turned the fabric the other way when I cut my pieces out. Things About Sewing Velvet, no. 1: Grain matters. I had to be extra-careful in making sure everything faced the same way.

The skirt I cut them from (the bodice of the jumper was in a solid blue velvet) was kind of narrow to start with, so though I’d hoped to be able to cut each sleeve out in one piece it proved impossible to do that and get anything like a reasonable amount of fullness. So I cut one piece which flared beginning at the elbow, as much as the narrow skirt would allow, then cut a gore for more fullness and added that in. The back of the skirt had a seam down the middle, so one main sleeve piece and one gore each have a pre-existing seam down the middle. These were finished in the modern machine way that takes a lot of messy thread, and I liked my open felling so much from a purely tactile consideration that I ripped out the original finishing (but not the seam — I didn’t want to have to do more of that than I had to, by the end of the project) and felled down those edges to match the others.

Putting them on is easy — you just slide your arm in and then stab around with a pin. For this particular fabric a straight pin like in this picture is adequate as long as you’re not wildly waving your arms about — it’s slippery and the pins tend to creep a little. But then, in sleeves like this you’re hardly prepared to do the kinds of things that have you waving your arms about. For instance, you really shouldn’t wash dishes in them. (Was I a fool and thought if I pinned them back they’d be fine? They were not fine. Learn from my mistakes.)

The seam pictured here is one of the ones I mentioned two paragraphs ago.

Part of my prize for winning in one of the categories of Northshield’s Arts and Sciences competition two years ago was a bunch of silk threads, and I used two of them in this project: black silk for the construction seams, where you don’t see the stitches; and the light blue which nearly matched one of the shades in the fabric, for finishing the seams. This was a lovely tactile experience (and looks good) but also meant that when I got back from washing dishes in them, I couldn’t just throw them in the washing machine to get the grease-and-dish-soap smell out, oh no, I had to wait till I had time and energy to gently handwash them instead.

Things About Sewing Velvet, no. 2: Velvet creeps. It squidges. It moves if you don’t pinch it in place, and it moves if you do. All the bad things people say about the way velvet behaves are true. For this reason I did no backstitching at all on these sleeves, but running stitches on everything constructive and whip stitches on the felling, and even so I had to rip out half a hem once because I did that part during a church history reading group, and apparently too much laughing while sewing velvet makes your seam go all puckery, even if you haven’t stopped being deliberate about every single stitch. And even part of the re-done hem is wonky.

Speaking of hems, I started these sleeves halfway through Lent, with the idea of wearing them on Easter. Naturally I did not finish in time, so the first time I wore them they were all put together but almost all the edges were left raw. I hemmed them later and wore them for almost every Sunday in Easter, and later for extra-special occasions, like dressing to match an angel at my sister’s choir concert in St Mary of the Angels last weekend.

Even with the hassle they were at times, I love the finished product. They might even be among my favourite completed projects, come to think of it.

Posted in History, SCA | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Best I love September’s yellow (part II)

Again, all photos by Ariana Streblow

Continuing from the last post, let’s talk about layers.

Never let anyone tell you it’s impossible to run while wearing a pair of bodies, bumroll, three skirts, and sleeves of doom. I did.

We were doing pictures right after we both got off work, so I had a limited amount of time to get ready for it, and earlier in the day I had packed or laid out all the things I would need. One of the things I needed to do when changing was put the shirt I had worn to work in a plastic bag so that after the photoshoot, when we went and had supper, I could take off the kirtle and put the shirt over my bodies (the petticoats would resume their usual role of normal skirts) and not have to worry about getting tomato sauce on it, or something. Well, I did put the shirt in said bag, and put it on the floor where I’d have to step over it to leave again, so that I would have to remember to take it with us. We were in the car all ready to go, and I was mentally going over my list and assuring myself that I had all of it, when I remembered — I had stepped over a plastic bag as we were going out, and the nagging thought that it was there to remind me of something finally surfaced. So, fully dressed, I dashed across the parking lot, up the stairs, unlocked my door, got the shirt, and dashed down the stairs and back again, losing only the pin from my left sleeve in the process. It Can Be Done.

(Note: Extensive discussion of various historical undergarments, and my approximations thereof, follows, although in a strictly scientific tone; if that’s not your thing, feel free to go somewhere else, but do come back next time for Sleeves.)

So what were all these layers? Ordinarily, in period, you’d start with a long-sleeved smock or shift under everything, with your supportive upper-body garment on over that, which might or might not have an attached petticoat, and the number and kind of petticoats you wore would depend on what you were doing, what you could afford, etc. Because I was going to be at work immediately before this, I didn’t want to have to undress entirely and re-dress entirely, because taking bodies off and putting them on again — mainly the putting on — takes some time, so my bodies and whatever was under them wouldn’t get changed. It was a bakery day, which means my clothes and I get fairly sweaty and dirty, so I didn’t want to wear my nice smock, which has long sleeves and a low hemline. So, what I referred to as my undershirt in the previous post is in fact a short-sleeved t-shirt I’ve got on as my smock-analogous layer. Then bodies, of course. Then I’ve got two petticoats, which is a bit more than strictly necessary. The outer is cotton, tiered and a-line, and it helped hold out the kirtle’s skirt to the lovely fullness you can see in the full-length photos. In period you might have starched it to get it to hold its shape like that, but our water is very hard here, so all I did was let it air-dry hanging up after its last wash. The calcium deposits made it a bit scratchy, though, so next to my skin I wore a softer cotton skirt, which I wouldn’t have needed otherwise.

A view of the underlayers, minus — what probably would have been useful to see! — the bumroll.

Over the petticoats, tied around the outside of the bodies at the petticoats’ waistband level, I wore a makeshift bumroll, which isn’t as scandalous as it sounds. People of many previous eras have known that to get a dramatic shape with a narrow-looking waist, you don’t always need to cinch anything in, just pad out the other places. The padding of this era eventually sort of evolved into the farthingale: think Queen Elizabeth 1’s portraits, the way her skirts shoot straight out at the sides of her waist — nobody thought her body was actually shaped like that; that wasn’t the point. (It’s also interesting to see the change in sleeve shape as this century goes on; women start to take up a lot of physical space. Even tiny me could be quite a presence in a room full of people if I put a farthingale and padded sleeves on.) Only very recently has the ideal changed from an ideal set of proportions, with an understanding that you can achieve them by any number of means that have nothing to do with changing Your Actual Body, to an ideal size, which you can’t fake except with Photoshop or surgery or any number of unhealthy diets. Food, as they say, for thought.

When I say makeshift, though — a proper one would be a bit like a crescent-shaped pillow, and probably a bit smaller than mine ended up being. What I came up with is less than ideal and gives a squarish form more characteristic of the early 17th century, but I wasn’t going to make one which I would, in all probability, only wear for this photoshoot. I made myself a slip out of a pillowcase once, with a drawstring added and one gore for fullness: this I laid out flat on the floor, pulled the drawstring shut and laid out the now long ends in a straight line heading away from each other, rolled the slip up around them, tied it around my waist, and squished the ends of this very lumpy croissant together until the bulk was all gathered up at the back of my waist a little below actual waist level. I felt clever for having figured out a way to make it work, but it needed to be less bulky over all to be just right. As you can see in the picture below, where the two parts of the skirt meet and are supposed to overlap below the lacing — the pleated parts of both the front and back stick out beyond the edges of the bodice pieces they’re attached to — the bumroll keeps them from overlapping entirely, and you can see bits of underthings and the pocket tie in the gaps.

Also the top end of the lacing sticking out. Oops. Forgot to mention earlier, I twisted the lacing myself from more of that gold silk yarn also featured in the Entwife’s pocket/reliquary bag.

The Almighty Pocket

Also tied around my waist, as you saw above, was my pocket! Pockets have not always been sewn into people’s garments, but started life as tied-on pouches accessible through slits in the clothing above. The first surviving sewn-in pocket does date from about the end of the 16th century, or early 17th, I believe, but it’s in a pair of men’s hose, which at the time were cut very full between hip and knee, and you could fit some very large pockets in one of them. Women’s pockets stay mostly of the tie-on variety for a lot longer. One of the advantages of this kind of pocket is that if you have a lot of outfits without pockets, you can solve all of them by making just one and switching it out each time you wear a different thing, saving on both time and materials. I’ve been wanting to do just that for a while, and as I was coming to the end of this kirtle, and it looked like I would have some time before the deadline, I decided now was the time. The main fabric is cotton, and the binding is more of the velvet I used for the kirtle’s hem guards. Though they look nice together, I made a mistake using that velvet for the whole length of the ties — it’s not as stretchy as the other velvet, but it is stretchy enough that the first few times I wore it, it would start to slide down and down and I would have to stop working and discreetly re-tie it. It’s finished stretching out now, but learn from my mistakes and save yourself that trouble.

If you want to make your own tie-on pocket, I highly recommend Bernadette Banner’s tutorial here, and if you want to add sewn-in pockets to your existing clothes (which is not a bad option! Harder to lose your whole pocket containing all your important things that way, and correspondingly harder for people to steal them from you), she has a relevant tutorial here.

Pair of Bodies; or, The Murder Project, Completed (ish)

I got tired of scrolling up and back to reference this and losing and finding my place in the text, so I figured, you probably would too. Let’s have it again.

Speaking of silhouettes achieved with strategic padding and not at all with constriction, let’s talk about this early supportive undergarment again. It’s not terribly clear in the photo above, but the lower edge of the bodies is at or just above my natural waist everywhere except, of course, the point at the front, making it impossible that this should be a waist-puller-inner. Its job is to keep the upper curves docilely in place (and after months of wearing it — and I’m fairly curvy — I may say it does its job remarkably well and without that uncomfortable constant shifting around and sliding upward that all my modern equivalents do. To be perfectly frank, if it were not for the occasions where I cannot handle even the slightest pressure on my abdomen, I would never go back to modern ‘supportive’ underwear. There. I said it.

Paste buckram, which is the stiffening material for these bodies, as you may remember, bends with your body to a certain degree, and indeed after all this time my bodies don’t lie flat on the floor when I take them off. As long as you haven’t made them uncomfortably tight over the bust, it is perfectly possible to slouch while wearing bodies — only, because it’s you inside a relatively stiff ‘casing’ doing the slouching, and not the casing itself, people can’t necessarily tell. When you’re wearing clothes that move right with you, like my eleventh or thirteenth-century garb or modern clothes with modern underpinnings, and you slouch, the clothes slouch with you too, and it becomes obvious. In bodies it becomes slightly uncomfortable to slouch, but if you’re me, the discomfort may not register right away, or you might notice it but not connect it to its cause (Fun fact! there’s a word for being aware of what your body is up to, inside and out: interoception. Autistic people are notoriously bad at it. That was free, continuing on —) so I might keep doing it despite their gentle encouragement to not. When we were doing pictures I tried to consciously straighten up and take proper breaths, and Ariana got two pictures which neatly show the difference between postures, one taken while I was standing there oblivious to all that, and one after I had deliberately straightened out.

Not that the first one is bad by any means. My posture in the second is just better. That’s what we call discernment, or something.

I only did one post detailing the first half of the process of making the bodies, before everything derailed; obviously they’ve progressed a lot since then. Originally I ordered a lace for the front from the Tudor Tailor, the kind with an aiglet on each end to making lacing up easier; that aiglet turned out to be too big for the eyelets, so I twisted my own cord from still more of that silk yarn, silk being a very strong fibre and inelastic; wool is also very strong, but stretchy, and with that you might find that after a couple of hours of work you have a gap in the front that wasn’t there before, or something unfortunate like that. I keep having to twist up more, and thicker, cords, because I keep breaking them; it’s something to do with bending over using the wrong part of your back, so it puts too much strain on the top edge, I think. I haven’t broken the cord quite enough times to have corroborated this hypothesis.

The lining, which you don’t see, is undyed cotton, and the busk pocket is all of a piece with it. I put in the lining with big whip stitches, which supposedly is so you can take it off easily if you need to wash it, which I may not need to do, but just in case, I’ll save myself some work. A busk is a straight piece of wood which goes down the centre front of bodies and survives into the era of corsets in a modified form; often presents from people in a close relationship with the wearer, given where it’s worn, such as siblings or lovers; they say one survives which is inscribed from a woman to her sister and adds “Don’t break this one like you did the last!” Mine is a paint stir-stick with one end whittled off and rounded, to be the right length. It sits in a pocket in the centre front behind the eyelets, which took me forever to figure out how to make because the extant I was going off of was back-lacing, the one in the video I was more or less following didn’t have a busk at all, and finding images of anything that was both front-lacing and had a busk was practically impossible. It turned out to be absurdly simple, like most riddles when you know the answer. I never actually sewed it in place; it’s still just pinned shut, but I’ve worn it that way for months now and, let’s be honest, it’s probably going to stay that way. The busk is necessary to keep the point at the front, which has nothing around the sides to hold it down, from curling up, as I spend a lot of time bending over.

Now nicely broken in, they’re very comfortable; I have continued wearing them pretty nearly every time I get fully dressed, even though my rib is now back where it should be (for the present).

I really thought I was going to be able to fit everything in a second post, but I guess not. Come back another time for Sleeves of Doom (also known as Easter Sleeves, for reasons I will explain). For now, let’s have a quick word about the veil.

At the time, the most fashionable women were wearing the gable, or English, hood. Ruth Goodman mentions somewhere in the Tudor Monastery Farm series that even if you couldn’t afford one, you could still imitate the fashionable shape with a fabric veil and not much extra effort by starching or pinning it and leaving it overnight. I didn’t starch mine, but, as with the petticoat above, soaked it in water, then pinned the centre point and left it to air-dry while I was at work. It held its shape quite nicely, and the gable shape it has at the side too — visible in the above photo — occurred perfectly naturally.

Well, sleeves in our next. Until then!

Posted in History, SCA | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

Best I love September’s yellow (part I)

Of course, it’s not September anymore. These pictures were all taken during September, though.

I finished several projects at about the same time, and on September 22nd (only coincidentally on that very important day in the Lord of the Rings calendar) Ariana and I went out to take pictures of them.

The Very Yellow Kirtle

When I say Very Yellow Kirtle I mean it. We were on a usually-deserted gravel road and someone drove by me looking like this. There was no hope of remaining invisible.

I started this one sort of on a whim with the leftover yellow fabric from the lining of my still-unfinished gardecorps from last year’s Entwife project. I didn’t have quite enough, so had to order another yard. The velvet guards (which tend to look black in most lights) are either the same patterned blue velvet as the Easter Sleeves (about which more in our next) or, in the case of the two near the hem, a very plushy solid blue velvet from a different thrift store. I used white nylon thread for everything except the eyelets. The hem is something like seven and a half feet around and I actually finished it in time for the photoshoot! No part of that garment is still waiting for finishing touches, unlike, I think, all the other ones I’ve made. (Even including my very old green cyrtel/sideless, the hem of which still wants levelling.)

I had begun to slide sixteenth-century-ward with the pin-on sleeves, and then the bodies, and then looking at the pile of leftover yellow linen and thinking kirtle to go with bodies instead of any of the other things which usually come to mind. However, my goal with it was not to be as persnickety about historical accuracy as usual. First, because unlined linen kirtles aren’t a thing in Europe during the Little Ice Age, as far as I know, so even if I tried for accuracy in everything else, the base of the whole thing would always be off. Second, because the sleeves to go with it (even before I toyed with the idea of adding contrasting guards I knew the pin-on sleeves would be part of the outfit) are such modern polyester knitted velvet. So I was comfortable with the nylon thread and didn’t stress myself out about accuracy of cut — though that turned out pretty close on its own, simply because the thing I did want to keep close to was the silhouette, and how you cut things affects that a lot.

(I also didn’t want to have to stress out about this, in general, because I had enough of that going on in the entire rest of my life — I did the first cutting-out on June 12th and put in the last eyelets on September 22nd, which was just about the span in which the church split business was most intense, at least as it affected me.)

The kirtle is cut in only four pieces plus shoulder straps, so as far as that went it was very simple. The bodice has one piece for the front and one for the back and closes along the side backs (sides back?) and a nice square neckline and so far is very simple. (I took inspiration from the extant shown in Morgan Donner’s video, here, at about 6:45.) The skirt is a wide rectangle for the front piece and a narrower rectangle (pretty much just the one yard I had to order) for the back, and so far is very simple.

Where they meet is where things get complicated.

That pointed waistline so characteristic of the early to mid sixteenth-century was a PAIN. I knew I wanted to do it, partly because it would work perfectly with the pointed bodies underneath in a way that none of my other clothes would do, but for someone who had never done pleats or a pointed bodice before, combining them was often really frustrating.

I wasn’t at all scientific about the pleats, just laid my fabric out and found the centre of what would be the top, and made a pleat that looked about right and pinned it in, and then did first one side and then the other eyeballing the widths. They get wider when you take out the pins (because the pins keep them from going as flat as they will when sewn), and when I found that out I had to re-do them, all two levels of pins, both up at the top of the fabric and then down where the bottom of the point would come to once I cut it.

For yes, you then have to cut the point out of your skirt. Pleats. On a curve. I don’t know what they were thinking. I measured and measured and measured and measured and cut and then turned the edge down twice and backstitched it all the way across. (The back piece of the skirt is cut straight across, thankfully, so the pleats were much easier there, and so was the folding and sewing.) I had finished all the edges of the bodice pieces before attaching them to anything (which was even easier), by the same method of folding the edge under twice and backstitching. Then I whip-stitched the front bodice to the front skirt and the back to the back, and then for extra security whip-stitched some twill tape over that so the seam was completely covered and won’t be getting snagged or worn out any time soon!

A lot of the shaping around the waist comes from pleating the wide skirt pieces down to about the width of the bottom of their corresponding body pieces, along with another invisible trick I’ll tell about later. The lacing is there mainly as a closure or to help the garment fluctuate with a wearer’s weight over time, and not at all to squeeze you in. (There’s no waist-squeezing whatsoever in this, as I’ll also tell you about later.)

I did one side seam (leaving about six inches at the top open), and folded the seam allowances toward each other and running-stitched them together, a practice I know is period for earlier garments. Then I had to fiddle with the shoulder straps and how to get them to lie flat on me when the back body piece is narrower than the front, which resulted in sort of a curved piece of fabric. Then when I finished their edges I had to make sure I didn’t end up with two rights or two lefts before attaching them. This bit was often clumsy, but fortunately the guards cover the obviously wonky spots, though putting those on — narrow bits of stretchy knitted velvet — was probably the second-trickiest part of the whole thing. At times I thought I had gone mad, or would if I hadn’t already.

I took inspiration for the guards from the same bodice in the video linked above, though sort of done back to front. One of the things I most wanted from this when designing it early on was the one guard at the straight neckline and then a smooth yellow bodice all the way down.

Another limit on the guards was that I had only scraps of the patterned velvet left. I had just one bit that fit a completely symmetrical bit of the motif, and I wanted that to be the centre back one, and I stitched it in slightly tilted, which bothers me still.

You get to see my undershirt sticking out, which you’ll learn more about later.
I’ll explain about the slightly wonky things going on around the waistline in the next post.

It was unquestionably impossible that I would get enough of that same velvet out of my scraps to go twice around the hem, and equally impossible that we would find another dress in the same velvet anywhere (that dress was from a thrift store, ages ago when the idea to torture myself making velvet sleeves first came to me). My mother hunted through the thrift stores and eventually found about a yard of very plushy velvet in a similar shade of blue. Good enough. Three strips, selvedge to selvedge, provided the hem guards, which I put on over the course of about a week in early September as the deadline began to loom.

(I was visiting family over that weekend, and had this whole thing bundled up on my lap whip-stitching for all I was worth, when a small cousin plopped herself down beside me and demanded to know whether I was making a bee dress! No, I said, but now I want to.)

The hem is nice and deep, because I didn’t have to squeeze by with a single inch for seam allowance down there, and you can definitely tell by the way it moves even if you aren’t close enough to see yet more whip-stitching.

Then I did the other side seam, finishing touches here and there, and the eyelets in alternating blue and green silk, which I was convinced I was going to run out of before I finished, only I didn’t. The blue is left over from the sleeves, and the green from the bodies.

I think the only thing we forgot to do was get a picture of me twirling in it, which is a shame, because then you can really see the skirt whoosh out.

This is definitely a for-very-best-occasions dress. I made it for the fun of it, and if it had all faded away to nothing afterwards it would have been worth it, I think, but since it didn’t I do have to consider when I will ever wear it. Easter, maybe, with some slight adjustments to tone down the sixteenth-century-ness of it. Or, if I can ever get to an SCA event again, something big like a Coronation — it is just over the end date of our period, but sometimes people go a little late and that’s okay.

I certainly feel magnificent in it, but for construction, give me a good old t-tunic any day. The whole time I was making it I was wondering how lower-class women got by with having to get enough material to make stuff with pleats in it, let alone the time pleats take, not that they were necessarily being as complicated as everyone else, but pleating seems to become pretty ubiquitous and I don’t get it.

I was going to put the other projects, and the explanation of how the layers you don’t see build up under the visible kirtle to achieve that sometimes very dramatic shape, in this post, but I think it will be too long if I do that, so I’ll go off and schedule that so you don’t have to wait another month and a half for a post.

The Road went ever on and on

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Still not dead

Life goes on, it really does. Even when that may not be a comforting thought.

I haven’t really been writing story things; it’s all been private nonfiction as I try to work through things. I miss that, but I don’t always have enough free space in my head to miss it very much.

Come Tuesday I’ll have lived in my hobbit hole for two years. I still haven’t been found dead, and I still like it, even though the neighbours have been more than usually noisy and Dramatic this summer. True to form, of all the places inside the house, I like the outside best. I’ve gone on several long walks and hikes this summer — only one of them after dark — and discovered several spots right out of Tolkien. I do miss the quiet nights that come with living out in the country, though. You don’t have to know right away if your neighbour is in a bad mood. I’ve had two bug-hunting expeditions with my small cousin now; the second got thunderstormed on but we redeemed the time by making cookies and looking at books instead and it was still loads of fun.

Work got hard for a few weeks there, with Everything Else stealing my energy. The library schedule got switched around recently, to a much easier order, so that’s helping. The bakery seems to be entering the holiday frenzy a couple of months early, which is not exactly.

My living room floor is a mess right now, though not as messy as the kitchen table, or really any of the spots in the kitchen. The cat is asleep on the couch snuggling a half-finished apron, which I started in July or thereabouts, I think. It would be finished by now except I had to add stripes to the fabric by doing a row of running stitches in green thread every three-quarters of an inch (taking inspiration from Miss Maple’s Seeds). For a while there I was having lots of long, deep discussions with people and needed something fairly mindless to do, so doing those stripes was useful. That seems to be over, right about the time those stripes got really tedious.

The yellow kirtle is substantially finished. The last few velvet guards were a pain to put on but the overall effect is good. I have only to add eyelets now, before the photoshoot for it next week, and finish the tie-on pocket to go with it. Somehow it only took about three and a half months to do despite being by far the most complicated thing I’ve attempted yet. (I say “somehow” like I don’t know I was using it as a distraction from all the stressful things going on.) The bodies are also nearly finished; everything except the pocket for the busk, which has been doing just fine with pins to hold it together for the last few months, and might just continue that way. “Good enough” is also a documentable historical attitude.

And now for the elephant in the room, the shadow darkly hinted at throughout this post, the reason for my harried silence on this blog, and the reason I’m writing this while procrastinating typing up seven pages of business-meeting minutes from two weeks ago: My church split.

Yep. Covid was brutal to a lot of churches; we weren’t the first, and probably won’t be the last, to split under the attendant pressures. It is heartbreaking and complicated and every time we think it’s over something else happens. Between a third and half of the members have remained; our pastor, and my parents and sister, are among those who left. My two families don’t talk to each other now, and it’s been hard to concentrate on anything else. The Litany of Trust has helped.

Wednesday, being September 22nd, is a good day to start reading The Lord of the Rings if you haven’t in a while. “September came in with golden days and silver nights. . .”

Posted in Ordinary life | Tagged , | 6 Comments