On Sports Metaphors and the It Factor

It’s all over.

The dash to the finish line was a crazy one, and I want to tell you all about it after we have a proper photo shoot. While BrownSands is blocking, though, let’s talk about sports.

Because I have been watching a lot of sports.

I caught medal events in athletics, badminton, basketball, canoe slalom and sprint, BMX biking, mountain biking, road race cycling, track cycling, diving, horsies jumping, football, golf, gymnastics, trampoline, handball, rowing, swimming (ugh so much swimming), synchronized swimming, taekwondo, table tennis, triathlon, volleyball, water polo, and freestyle wrestling. I also caught plenty of beach volleyball, boxing, fencing, field hockey, judo, rugby, tennis, greco-roman wrestling and a few short recaps of archery, race walking, marathon swimming, sailing, shooting, and rhythmic gymnastics. The only sports I missed entirely were the marathon, time trial cycling, dressage, modern pentathlon, and weightlifting.

My sport-spotting table. At least I didn't make my own spreadsheet.

My sport-spotting table. At least I didn’t make my own spreadsheet.

I watched athletes throwing, lifting, jumping, running, working together in teams, working alone as individuals, competing head to head, competing side by side, strategizing, freezing up, faltering, pushing ahead, falling behind.

As I watched, I noticed that one thing all these athletes had in common was not only excelling in physical achievement, but dealing with pressure. It’s one thing to be the best, but it’s another thing to deliver on the Olympic stage – which is very much a stage. Just to make it there, most of them have to have a certain something about them. An “it factor,” if you will. This is especially noticeable among those young things who achieve the unimaginable, because they aren’t old enough to believe the old codgers who tell them what’s not possible. But it’s also true among the old guard who come back to their third or fourth Olympics, even if they never place. And of course, among the greats, who become legends across nations, points of connection as we behold what is possible.

So how do they do it? How do they deal with the pressure? Here is my speculative analysis: This “it factor” consists in two main things: practice and confidence.

The practice part is obvious. You can only rely on being as good as your worst day. And no matter how much raw talent you have, it’s repetition of the basics that creates the soundness you can fall back on. It’s physical development, with a touch of the psychological, because then you can trust your body to know what to do.

The confidence is interesting, though, because that’s purely psychological. In order to hold up under the enormous pressure to perform, you need some kind of sense of your own value which is outside your performance.

A solid sense of self can come from a solid upbringing, but it can also come from a relationship with Jesus. I think that’s why we see a few Christian athletes showing their maturity in how they speak about faith and sport, like swimmer Maya DiRado and wrestler Helen Maroulis. (You should totally go read their stories as they are way more interesting than me. But I’ll wait up if you decide to come back. You back? Great! As I was saying,) If we see strong believers doing well at sport, it’s not because God gives them special prayer-answering bonuses. It’s that being a child of God gives them peace in who they are, that they are loved no matter what, and that their future is secure in his hands. That’s what makes the grace of God so powerful: you don’t earn God’s love by performing; God’s love gives you the freedom to do good, to do all that you were meant to do. The fact that this allows some athletes to compete with confidence is, to them, a sort of side perk.

The reason this is all so fascinating to me is that, as a young athlete (ice skating), I most definitely did not have this “it factor.” I had a serious propensity to crumple under pressure, and I did not handle well the anxiety of competing – I just happened to also enjoy it, which is why I kept doing it. I did not have a strong commitment to practice; I didn’t understand why it was important, so I did the minimum and relied on talent and enjoyment to keep me improving at a modest rate. After all, I was mostly trying to have fun. And I did not have that confidence in myself outside my performance; I had parents who loved me and did not pressure me at all, but I crumpled under the criticism of my coaches. (I’m sure they were frustrated with me at times, which I can understand.)

Therefore, when it came to performing in competitions, I ended up feeling like my success was riding on luck. If I landed the first jump or two, I was elated, which sometimes gave me the confidence to land the rest. But if I missed one, I could rarely gather myself enough to execute the remainder.

So I have these intense memories of what it was like to be the bullet in the gun, for hundreds of hours to come down to 4 minutes on the ice, and for it to all fall apart. Sometimes it was great (and I loved performing outside of competition), but mostly it was really hard, and I didn’t have the maturity, either of understanding or commitment or emotion or faith, to make it into satisfying work.

That’s why it’s so incredible for me to watch these athletes, especially the young teens who just seem to get it. Yeah, the ones who make it happen so young must also have massive amounts of pure talent that is rare in itself, but they also worked their little buns off. But they still couldn’t succeed without the confidence. Canadian swimming phenom Penny Oleksiak seems like she barely takes the competition seriously, and I love that about her. Maybe part of why she’s so amazing is because she has no interest in deeply comprehending the massiveness of her achievement. Young things like her used to drive me crazy, because I was so jealous that they could do what I couldn’t, and I didn’t understand why. Now I just admire them, since I’m old enough to be willing to learn from them.

I have a lot more solidarity with the athletes who are still coming back to the games in their 30s. They’re Olympic athletes, of course, while I feel good if I walk for fifteen minutes once a week, so my identification with them is largely metaphorical. But it’s only now, starting my fourth decade, that my confidence is leaving the theoretical and accompanying me into action. I’m not on a world stage, but I do have to stand and speak almost every week, so maybe that’s why this feels significant to me. And even if I weren’t in ministry, everyone has opportunities to put themselves out there, to take risks, to do great things that demand emotional maturity and calm confidence in who we are.

The confidence needs no metaphor; it’s the same across fields. The grace of Christ sets us free.

But the practice is a question. A practice routine when you’re training for a marathon is pretty well established. But what does practice look like for a Christian mom or dad? For a priest? For an engineer? For a poet? For a construction worker? Any ordinary churchgoer wanting to tell his co-workers about Jesus?

As for me, I identify pretty strongly with the multi-eventers: all the different races of housework and administration, the leaps of loving my children and husband and friends and neighbors and congregation, and the throwing of teaching in the pulpit and classroom and living room floor. I’d like to look into how they train, to see if I can learn anything about competence in several areas.

I’ll probably learn a lot from the cursory google I have going on in another window. But if I had to guess, most of their work is just being physically fit. Probably a fair amount of jogging, eating right, and getting enough sleep, then some division of time in running hurdles, throwing javelins, etc.

Paul dug this metaphor pretty hard. If you’re a Bible reader, the relevant passages have probably already leapt to your mind:
Hebrews* 12:1-2: Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
1 Corinthians 9:24-25: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wealth, but we an imperishable.”
2 Timothy 4:7-8: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.”

This isn’t a sermon,** but here’s a brief summary of what I’m seeing in these passages:

  • Laying aside weight/Repentance from sin
  • Endurance
  • Self-control
  • Love
  • Eyes on Christ, who did it first

Hm. Some of that looks pretty familiar.

We read Galatians 5 in morning prayer today. I just skimmed it again, and found this lesser known running reference in v. 7: “You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth?” If you’re familiar with Galatians, you know it’s the book where Paul is most cheesed off (which is saying something). The Galatians are getting distracted by those “weights” and “sin that so easily entangles” mentioned in Hebrews 12. So Paul straight up lists what he’s talking about in vv. 19-21: “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” I.e. will lose the race. Then, in contrast, we get the very familiar list of fruits of the spirit, which also coincides with some of my bullet points above from some of the other race passages: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”

I want to note this for a second. The fruits of the spirit passage is very, very familiar to many of us. But if you just look at the list, that list of virtues looks a little… wimpy. Doesn’t it? I once went to a talk by Dr. Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen in which she noted that most of those Christian virtues have been stereotyped as feminine. You know, soft. If you read the list in isolation, you might think, yay, a Christian’s supposed to be a nice person, but GAWD how boring.

But, um, no. The context of this chapter shows that this is about the most freaking hardcore thing you could chose to do. (And, humorously, this is also the chapter in which Paul gets so frustrated with the folks arguing for circumcision that he says they’d wish they’d castrate themselves! Which would decidedly not be “masculine.”) Look at the list of crazy sins you have to throw off! If you’ve ever tried, you know how hard they cling to you! And the list is followed immediately by, “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Crucifying the flesh is a metaphor for holiness right up there with hill repeats, or back-to-back 90km bike rides. “Keeping in step with the Spirit,” which is the subject the chapter concludes on, isn’t just a floaty feeling thing, it’s keeping up with a training coach who is pure love and knows exactly what is good for you, and will push you well past your limits to make you into the person who can win this race.

So we have something in common with Mo Farra when he said he was “putting my body through hell every day to do myself proud in Rio.” Paul pretty much said the same thing when he said, “I discipline my body and keep it under control,” literally “I pummel my body and make it a slave,” “lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27).

I don’t know about you, but I was inspired by watching all these athletes push their bodies to the limit. No, it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference to the greater good if you can throw a 4 kilo ball past 20 meters. But a painting doesn’t make a lot of practical difference either. A body at the peak of health, pushed to do extraordinary things, is a beautiful thing. It might even be called a glimpse of heaven, when our new bodies will be able to fly in the new heaven on earth, with no more sickness or pain.

If you’re like me, participating in that image directly is not in the cards right now. (Health and fitness are well and good, but they are NOT the idol that our culture is completely fixated on right now.) But we are not only able, but called, to participate in the race set before us, and run it in such a way as to win the prize.

So here are the questions I’ve been journaling about. If you want to do the same, be my guest. Everything’s better with running buddies.

What is my race?
-What am I trying to win?
-Big picture and small picture?
-Long term and short term?
-Combined score and events?
What entanglement do I need to throw off?
-Where am I running with my sweatpants still on?
-What sin am I still prone to?
-What is one thing on that list of weights do I need to work on throwing off this year?
What is my practice?
-What is one thing on that list of virtues do I need to work on this year?
-What is one way I can shift my daily practice to walk in step with Christ?
Where is my confidence?
-Do I believe God wants this for me?
-Do I believe God loves me no matter what?
-Have I embraced the gospel deeply enough to run with freedom from fear?

*Yeah ok Paul probably didn’t write Hebrews. But whoever wrote Hebrews definitely read a lot of Paul. And a good metaphor is a good metaphor, shown to be even better for being embraced by multiple Biblical authors.

**Well, it wasn’t meant to be a sermon, but it totally went there. But unlike a sermon, you don’t have to shake my hand afterwards; you can let me know in the comments how you think I’m full of it.

No Time, Must Knit

Just a quick progress update, no time to comment, ‘cuz it’s day 15 and I’ve still got a fair clip to go.

The long, placid, enjoyable slog through the body was my weekdays this week.

I had finished the body and divided off for the pockets in what seemed like good time, but for whatever, reason, the five inches of lightly patterned hem seemed to take forever.

I was only through 2 of the 5 inches last night, and knew that would not do.

By 1:30 this morning, having watched a few badminton games and a painfully streamed synchronized swimming final, I had remedied the hem situation. (Ain’t it great that Jared’s preaching all month?!)

As of naptime’s conclusion, I finished one of the two cheeky striped pocket linings.

I still have the the other pocket lining, the entire shawl collar (which may undergo a bit of a redesign on the fly as I run out of yarn), and about a hundred miles of i-cord around the whole thing.

Ironic, or perhaps just appropriate, that my last post was about the importance of closing a race well! See you on the other side of the finish line…

Hitting My Stride

Day 8 of the Olympics, and we’re nearly though what I think of as the “swimming/gymnastics” half of the games, getting into the “athletics/whatever else TV decides to cover [generally not the stuff I want]” half of it. We’ve seen Ledeckey, Phelps, and Oleksiak smash their competition with confidence, and watched a ridiculously powerful American gymnastics team and a star Canadian trampolinist master their disciplines.

As I’ve watched so many hours of sports over this week, I’ve enjoyed learning the little details of technique and strategy about these disciplines that I’ve never tried. I’m finding myself enjoying watching soccer and basketball, much to my shock. I’ve seen kayakers paddling upstream through gates on an artificial whitewater course, which I couldn’t even imagine before I saw it. I’m having throwbacks to childhood visits to my grandparents’ house, watching golf and tennis. And I find different kinds of qualifying brackets fascinating, though I’ve somehow resisted the temptation to make my own spreadsheets.

One area that’s surprised me is the various racing sports. There’s swimming and running, of course, but I’ve also gotten up early several mornings and caught most of the rowing. I’ve only ever been into artistic and combative sports myself, so I assumed that with races, you just sort of go as fast as you can in as straight a line as is required. I mean, how complicated can it be to run/swim/paddle as fast as you can?

But I have learned that this is pure ignorance. There is a ton of strategy and pattern, which varies broadly based on the distance and the technique and the size of team and all the rest of it. To say nothing of the emotional piece, which deserves a reflection of its own.

The ones that seem to keep winning are the closers. There are a few athletes that start in front and finish in front, like Ledeckey, who is just wildly stronger than everyone else in the pool. But Phelps, Oleksiak, and that excellent Canadian women’s double sculls rowing team, are all closers. They make a race awfully exciting, coming back from behind, finding that power to go faster when everyone else is petering out.

A fast start is important; the rowing commentators must have said at the start of every race, “you can’t win a race at the start, but you can lose it.” But what you have left, in body, mind, and heart, at the end of the race, appears to separate the greats from the greatest.

Quite unintentionally, I seem to have followed this pattern with my Ravellenic marathon piece. My start was fast, furious, and complicated, and despite some row gauge problems, I think I’ve managed to create a yoke that’s more or less shaped like my shoulders. Having spent the first weekend sprinting out of the gate, I settled into a nice stride for the workweek.

Tuesday through Thursday were all about sleeves. I wanted to get through them by the end of Friday, leaving the second week to body and collar, and I was concerned it wouldn’t happen, what with actually having a job and children. But, every now and again, I have a day with a fair bit of reading, and the odd meeting with the sort of person I can knit with. This happened on my long work day, Thursday, and I was able to crank right through.

Now, for the body, I’ll really hit cruise control. I’ve worked out my stripe pattern based on how much dark brown I have left, and I’ve rejiggered the body increases based on my ridiculously short row gauge.

Four inches down from the armholes now, with over 200 stitches on the needle. I’ll get to nearly 250 by the end of the body increases, and just have to keep the pace for another 16 inches or so, with the only hiccups being some short row shaping.

Then comes the final sprint: pockets. Shaped collar. Weaving in ends. Blocking. Those bits when you feel like you should be done, but there’s not only more to do, there’s fiddly bits to do.

Watching me knit in boucle the color of mulch isn’t nearly as exciting as watching honed, powerful, beautiful athletes strive to the best in the world on a global stage, and reach goals they’ve been devoted to for a large chunk of their lives. So go watch them. But I’m feeling inspired, so I’ll share my inspiration. How about you?

Colour Commentary

And now we give you a recap of the first three days of the Sweater Triathlon here at the Ravellenic Games. With us are star commentators Meg Swanson and Stephanie Pearl-McPhee. They’ll be following the progress of one of Team Canada’s newest members. Over to you, Meg.

M: Thanks Ron. We’re here following Rebecca Osborn, new to Team Canada, but entering the Sweater Triathlon with a lot of experience. She chose a challenging pattern with some unusual shaping, and an unforgiving yarn, so she must have a lot of confidence going into this year’s competition.

S: She had a promising start during the opening ceremonies, hesitated a little bit on those initial increases, but found a groove that put her in good shape for a stellar first day.

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M: I would agree with that, Steph. Her goal was to power through that complicated yoke over the weekend, and it looked like she was going to make it before she ran into that first snag.

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M: This is supposed to be the finished yoke after day 1. Looks a little short, don’t you think Steph?

S: Definitely short, Meg. There’s no way that’s deep enough to install the armholes. See, in training, knitters are supposed to swatch carefully – meaning knit a test piece – to make sure their number of stitches per inch, which is the width of their stitches, and rows per inch, which is the height of their stitches, perfectly match what’s designated in the pattern. That’s the only way to make sure the finished garment fits right. That advance swatching is supposed to make sure they don’t run into problems like this.

M: I was sure Osborn swatched last week, Steph.

S: She did, but my only guess is that she either didn’t measure or discounted her row gauge. We’ve seen trouble in her row gauge before, Meg, so it was a big mistake to ignore that measurement this time around.

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M: Well, Osborn formulated a plan of recovery. She pulled back just four rows of that delicate, bumpy boucle yarn, then adjusted the pattern for a much more gradual rate of increases, so she could add in two more inches of yoke without making the whole garment too big. That was a smart move. You can see from her pattern just how complicated the original is, and how difficult it would have been to factor her different row gauge into the whole pattern.

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S: I’m not so sure, Meg. That complicated shaping is there for a reason, and the row gauge error means the shaping will be too sharp on the top two thirds of the yoke. She’s playing fast and lose with design right now, which is very dangerous with a garment. Finishing on time is one thing, but is it worth it if she ends up with a garment that bunches up on her shoulders?

M: It’s daring, I’ll give her that, Steph. But as we were saying, she powered through late last night, making a fully 8.75″ yoke –

S: -that’s 22 cm for us Canadians, Meg-

M: -before splitting the piece, putting the two sleeves on separate needles, and joining the back and fronts under the arms into one piece. Now tell us about what she’s doing next, Steph.

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S: Sure, Meg. Osborn has made the decision, on this top-down sweater, to work the sleeves before the body. This is an unusual move, and the reason is that she wants to make sure she has enough yarn to make it to the finish line. It’s a long-body sweater, but she’s decided she definitely wants long sleeves, so she’ll get those sleeves done first, then shorten the body if she has to on the way down. She also has this color issue we’ve talked about; she hasn’t decided yet how she wants to change the stripes in the body. She feels more secure on the choice of sleeve colors and length, so she’s going to tie those up first.

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M: This is defying convention, but I don’t see how it’ll hurt anything. Creative thinking under pressure is what will get her through these games.

S: The real question is, can she keep up this pace she’s started, Meg?

M: You’re right, Steph. She’s been up early mornings and staying up late nights, because she wanted to get through that complex yoke over the weekend. She can’t sustain that pace, but she doesn’t need to. Now that she’s through that, she can settle in over the long work week, just picking it up and doing rows here and there, still making progress even though she has to continue being a wife and mom this week. Because, and we should mention this, she’s coming back to the Ravellenics after having not just one but her second baby, Steph.

S: And as we know, competing on a used uterus is always worth commenting on in the Olympics.

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M: Now she’s all set to cruise down her first sleeve, and after a busy morning she’s already made a dent in the textured portion of the sleeve.

S: We’ll be watching her closely this year. She’s made this strong start this first weekend, but we know her attention span can be weak, and nothing’s in the bag until it’s bound off.

M: This is Meg Swanson and Stephanie Pearl-MacPhee reporting from the Triathlon Dome. Back to you, Ron.

[With apologies to two of my favorite knitter/author/designers. If you’ve never checked out Schoolhouse Press or the Yarn Harlot, they’re very different, but two of the greats.]

Rio, Here We Come

The Olympics are coming! The Olympics are coming!

Okay, that was a fairly American reference for Canada’s latest fan.

As you may know, I get kind of excited about the Olympics, and its companion knitting event. Originally the “Knitting Olympics,” evolved to the “Ravelympics,” now due to copyright issues, the title is officially the “Ravellenic Games.”

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The purpose? Challenge yourself. Pursue excellence in your craft, alongside crafters around the world, while celebrating athletes at the top of their skills from around the world.

If you’re not into Ravelry, it’s sort of a facebook for knitters [and crocheters and weavers and spinners]. It’s really not, but if you’re not a crafter, you won’t care about the nuance. Over the years, the Ravellenic games has evolved into this huge event on the site, complete with special forums, teams… it’s sort of a big online party while we’re all watching the Olympics on TV. To be honest I’m not sure how we all have time to knit, since typing and knitting are sort of mutually exclusive. Which is why, as soon as an affordable foot keyboard is invented, knitters will be all over it. But this is what they call, a digression.

As I was saying, teams. For the first time, I’ll be a ravthlete for Team Canada.

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Our official team graphic. Made by a Raveler. Dedication, that is.

Our TeeVee is all set up with cable and everything. Part of the magic of Canada? You can get cable without a subscription. I love this country.

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This will be my first time watching the games on CBC. How different will it be? What will it be like watching the whole half of a game without commercials? Will they still have all those special interest stories? Will the commentators be super-nice? So far I can confirm that they still play those Tide/PPG commercials, and now that I have kids they totally make me cry.

What events are you looking forward to this Olympics? I always want to watch it all, but I most enjoy the gymnastics, synchronized swimming… the girly stuff, I guess. Though I’ve gotten accustomed to watching lots of soccer – ehem, sorry, football – hanging out at my in-laws this summer during the Americas cup.

And what’s my event this year? I’m going whole hog: it’s the Sweater Triathlon for me. Meaning: between the opening theme of the Olympic games tomorrow night, and midnight after the closing ceremonies, I plan to knit a whole sweater.

I only brought up one sweater-quantity of yarn for myself last year year. Most of my stuff is still at my mom’s, and I tried to only send up a year’s worth of knitting (and of course, way overestimated. I have more coming on the boat for this year, but it won’t get here for another few weeks).

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This yarn is another piece of Mother Martha’s legacy. It’s pretty old-school, called “Knop-Scotch”, by the quite defunct “Templeton” yarn company. I’m guessing it was in Martha’s stash for two or more decades before it even came to me. As we’ve discovered, one of Martha’s miraculous qualities was having a taste for earthy colors and natural fibres back before it was cool. It’s three marled colorways, each consisting in one smooth ply and one boucle ply: Brown+Black, Brown+White, and Green+White. It knits up to something like a DK gauge.

It’s definitely enough for a sweater, but what to make? About a year ago, I ran across this:

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It’s called the BlueSand Cardigan, and I fell in love. Having bought the pattern, it’s more complicated than it looks; apparently, getting that shoulder slope just right takes some intricate shaping. This should be interesting.

So I found a pattern with three yarn colors, and my gauge swatch looks perfect. But my proportions of yarn are not quite the same as what’s called for. A total of nearly 1700 yards seems like it should be enough, but I have as much green as dark brown, and not enough of either to fully take the job of the main color. That means I have to do something to rejigger the stripes. Behold my planning attempts (you can see I had some help):

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Mostly, I’m undecided whether to put extra green in the body so that both the bottom border and shawl collar can both be dark brown, or keep the brown in the body and make the bottom border green. I’m leaning towards the former, but the decision will partly be made for me by how quickly my yarn is being used up. Because, really, I’m not sure I have enough at all. I’m playing a little fast and loose. I’m going to knit the sleeves before the body and… try to keep an open mind. After all, I might already be completely mental just to think I can complete this sweater in 17 days.

What will you be doing while you have one eye on Rio? Any great Brazilian foods you can recommend for an opening ceremonies party?

Trees

Hello friends. I let all of July slip past me without blogging, didn’t I?* In truth, it’s been a doozy of a transition back to life in Iqaluit. It’s been a time to focus on family, resting, re-visioning, processing recent events, preaching a series of children’s sermons, and enjoying being outside as much as possible. The knitting has continued, even though the blogging paused. But now, it’s August: the Olympics (and therefore, the Ravellenic games) are coming post-haste, so it’s time to flex the blogging muscles, because I’m diving right in. And I have a couple projects I want to show you in the meantime!

Vacation was about family and friends, reconnecting, relaxing, recuperating, recharging for another year of ministry. But physically being in Pennsylvania and Maryland, as a region, was about one thing: trees. Trees, glorious trees. It was, therefore, good and right that the next Lord of the Rings project to be cast on was none other than Lothlorien: a cabled cape to represent the most beautiful forest in middle-earth.

I have written at length about the yarn I spun for this project. To summarize: my mother dyed it, 4+ years ago, and I took three years to spin it into a 4-ply cabled yarn with one slow color change through green, yellow, red, and brown. It’s a leaf’s lifespan in wool.

I had a fairly major issue, though: instead of 1000 yards of DK, I ended up with 800 yards of worsted. Also, the colors were unbalanced in quantity (intentionally): there was very little green and yellow, a good bit of red, and nearly half the yarn was brown. And the cape pattern was written to be bottom up.

So I made two changes to the pattern, one major and one minor: The minor one is that I cast on enough stitches for seven repeated panels instead of eight. Simple enough after a bit of calculating at the beginning. The major one? I flipped the whole kit and caboodle to be top down instead of bottom up. I’d at least maximize the colors, and running out of yarn… I would solve that problem when I came to it.

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I was still at home in Iqaluit when I cast on because I wanted to be stable and focused during the initial calculations, trials, and errors. I saved myself a little green by doing the inside of the collar in a different yarn (also handspun, dyed the same way, but a 3-ply DK). It took a few tries to get the increases right for the sort of losenge-shaped area at the first cable, as it’s difficult to get sharp increases to look as good as sharp increases. But I found something good enough, so I was good to go.

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I picked up the pace properly on the long drive to Pennsylvania from Ottawa. There were some lovely long hours of watching TV with the kids at the house we were staying (Netflix! Oh, the infinite choices at one’s fingertips!) that brought me quickly through the green and yellow. Not to mention watching the Stanley Cup finals when our friends whose house we stayed in got back to town (Go Penguins!).

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Then there were the many hours driving to and fro in Maryland. Green, green Maryland.

I was surprised how much I enjoyed all the driving. I hadn’t realized before what a break from life it can be to just be in the car for twenty, forty, sixty minutes. Maryland is such a terrifyingly, compulsively, viciously busy place, but the commute is the common meditation. I’m sure we mostly fill it up with yet more noise, and are always looking for ways to make that time productive – what a horrid word to overtake one’s life. But for us, it was an excuse to just sit. We tried listening to NPR, but it was overwhelming. So we talked. We were quiet. I read a book.** And looked at all the trees.

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Single-stitch cables expanded and became more and more complicated. By the time we got back home I was nearly through the second of the four skeins.

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My native land is an explosion of green life, overwhelming, almost oppressive in its humid botanical fertility. But we left it behind for the Arctic summer, with a very different explosion of life, one you have to get up close to appreciate. Now, the only tree in my life is the creeping Arctic willow, with its feathery catkins and soft leaves, its roots a two-dimensional bonsai across the tundra. Two dimensional – not unlike these crossing cables. Everywhere around it are flowers, with so much variety that I can’t seem to go on one hike without finding more, and so much delicacy I can’t seem to examine them closely enough. It was hard, at first, leaving home and family, but I’m falling in love with this place again.

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I’m through the third skein now, and just added the fourth: time to face the music on the issue of running out of yarn. Some math on my part showed that I wasn’t going to make it to the finish line. I had debated whether to cut the whole thing short, just cast off when I ran out of yarn and accept that it might be a dress-up cape for Naomi or an odd shoulderette for myself. But while in Maryland, Mom and I discovered this last skein of sock yarn that I dyed ages ago, and was never sold. We brought it back, and yesterday I pulled it out. It’s a pretty great color match, no?

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Different yarn, different construction, dyed by different people, in different years. But here they are together (the fingering yarn held double), and I know the lighting in this picture is horrible, but it looks pretty good.

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So I brought my trees with me. The mallorns of Lorien and the tulip poplars, dogwoods, oaks, and maples of Maryland, meet the Arctic willow in this pile of wool on my lap. I am content.

*Don’t mind that password-protected post you saw for a while – that was something I had to work out privately, and shared with a couple people. It’s become evident to me that it would not be helpful to share it publicly, so I made it fully private. Trust me, you didn’t miss anything.

**The book: Edwin Friedman’s Failure of Nerve, which is so incredible I haven’t yet had the nerve to get even halfway through it. And lest you believe this portrait of our unplugged virtue, we also got through those eight-hour car rides by setting up a laptop in front of the kid’s car seats and playing the same two episodes of Daniel Tiger over and over again.

Keep Calm and Don’t Blink

The third or so episode of Doctor Who (new Doctor Who that started in 2005, mind), the Doctor takes Rose back home for a quick visit, change of clothes, say hello, that sort of thing. Except there’s a calculation error somewhere, and they accidentally come back a year later. So Rose has been missing for a year, her family and friends all think she’s missing or dead, while to her she’s only seen them a few weeks ago.

That’s what I feel like visiting Pittsburgh. It was summer when I left, and it’s summer now. Suddenly being in all the same places I was a year ago, my brain thinks no time has passed at all.

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The Ambridge Bridge.

But has time ever passed. Everything feels mostly the same, but here and there are differences everywhere. Some are little, just enough to make the familiar feel uncanny. Like the finished hotel behind Trinity, with its parking lot surrounded with new grass. A new dishwasher or updated washing machine in a house I’ve visited a hundred times. Other changes are more natural, if naturally shocking. Like our friends’ kids being a foot taller. Our home church growing, with many new faces.

The biggest and very best changes, though, are the babies. No less than four babies have appeared in our closest friends and family. There’s no denying or explaining or second-guessing babies. Like my friend Carrie says, who’s the mom of one of said babies: there’s a whole person here that wasn’t there before! Wiggling, smiling, existing as if they always have, because they have just as much right to do so as I have.

And those four families have a different shape, as each one bends into make a different polygon with room for one more point. My brain is disoriented to rejoin their circle – don’t I know these people? Why is there another one? – But five seconds of smiles or cuddles or coos and just like that, they were always there. That’s the miracle of life: the entrance into time of a new immortal.

One of these dear ones was promised a sweater before I left town. I wanted to make sure I could make good, so I bought yarn up in Iqaluit – nothing very fancy, as I wanted his mom to be able to wash the thing – but special for having come so far. (I may have spent more on the buttons than the yarn. They were really cute buttons.) Said little sweater accompanied me in three cities, and was completed in traffic on the way home from the Pittsburgh Zoo.

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On a coffee table in Iqaluit. (Started with 2 sleeves at a time for no reason at all. 2 socks at a time never appealed to me, but doing sleeves flat at the same time was very fun. Didn’t have to look up the shaping twice, and when I made mistakes, at least they were the same on both!)

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Knit the body in Ottawa, and joined on the sleeves in the car in Canada.

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Finished the yoke by the time we got to Pittsburgh.

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Finished sewing on buttons somewhere on Parkway West (which, while we were there, quite earned its reputation as Parking Lot West).

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I was so excited to meet him that it was silly to care about a sweater. But his mom was a sport and let him try it on for me. He’s more cheerful and energetic and happy than I could have imagined, and just right for his parents.

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(Pattern: “Oscar” by Julie Partie – exactly the little old man sweater I wanted. Yarn: Bernat Satin Solids in “Admiral.” It’s amazing how much less objectionable acrylic is to work with in the Arctic; i.e. when it’s dry and not-hot.)

The hardest part of all this is how short all these visits were. Each visit with friends was so precious, and every time someone shared with me it made me feel so cared for to be allowed to connect again, to allowed to be a part of their life, even though they knew how quickly we’d be leaving again. It’s hard, but so worth it, but so hard.

I suppose this is how every expat feels who comes back for a visit, but it’s all new to us, and who knows if we’re doing it right. It just seems important to connect, and to be grateful for what we have.

And, as is always right and good, to hug these littles while we can.

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Love you, Pittsburgh. See you next year.