Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Maidens of the Northern Sky - And The Christmas Kitten

We went up to Tromso recently. As far back as I can remember, to see the Northern Lights was a dream - as indeed it probably is for most people. There were enough vague attempts on different occasions - in the wilds of Canada, remote corners of Norway, in Finland - but it had never worked out. This year, it was going to happen if planning and careful calculation could have anything to do with it.

Gosh, North Norway, you do do the festive season well!

The streets of Tromso were snowy, the decorations were simple and heartfelt, and everyone was jolly and full of the spirit of goodwill.

Of course the yarn shops were visited, what do you think? Yes, despite the determined vow that 2012 will be The Year Of Using Stash And Only Stash, advice had been sought from dear friend Else, and armed with her list, each one was ticked off in turn. And turn about. And again. Isn't it lovely to go from one yarn shop to another and then back to the first and then think of something you saw in the third - or was it the fourth?

This window was crowded with the most wonderful handmade dolls, each and every one dressed up in hand knitted winter clothes! The lady in the rocking chair at the bottom right-hand corner is knitting on tiny wooden needles, while the rest of them are rejoicing in their warm jackets, caps, breeches snow suits, everything. Alas and alack, I only saw the kits for making up the bodies of the dolls after the shop had firmly shut for the night - but if any kind Tromso-ite wants to ship me one, I'll repay in full and then some!

At this time of year so far north it only gets to dusk-light in the middle of the day but that's no big deal. Or not if you're only visiting for a few days anyway. I can see that it might get a bit tiring if you have to endure several months of it. One man said that when they finally get a glimpse of the sun for ten minutes or so - around February, I think - they punch the air and shout 'Yes!!!' Makes our solstice seem quite a gentle affair.

Speaking of which, did you happen to watch the Newgrange solstice on TV? It was a bit of a non-event there this year, with cloud cover preventing the sun from penetrating the ancient structure, but I was watching it at my desk, with one eye on our own sunrise outside the window, and was rewarded with a ray of bright light right on to my keyboard. So, although Co. Meath didn't get the solstice sunrise, West Cork did. So there!

Up in Tromso, every toddler wore its own sturdy snow boots, and even small dogs donned suitable footwear.

Doesn't this little fellow look smart in his mackintosh and red boots? Despite the woebegone expression, he was the jolliest dog alive, giving us many greetings and welcomes to his home town. He came originally from Madrid, said his owner, but had adapted very well to the far north.

We took the cable car to the top of the mountain overlooking the town.

It was breaktakingly beautiful up there, with the wildness of the snowcovered hills all around, and, far below, the quiet fjord and the lights of the town, itself a remote outpost in this region of ice and snow. Around three in the afternoon you get a sort of after-sunset effect in the skies which is so lovely you stand looking at it for far too long, until you realise your feet are frozen and your hands are blocks of ice.

Worked even faster on the extra-long wristwarmers in a sumptuous blend of violet alpaca and silk (well all right, I didn't actually say I didn't buy any yarn, did I? It's not 2012 yet, is it?). And yes, I had to take my gloves off to knit. So not too much got done on the actual mountainside. More in the cafe where hot chocolate was temptingly available, and in the cable car going and coming.

It's at night that things get going in Tromso. For the locals, it's having a jolly time in bars and restaurants (I have to say, Norwegians, that the price you charge for beer can induce heart attacks in visitors from less prosperous countries, although I fully appreciate that you earn more, so it all evens out) but for those in search of the elusive Aurora Borealis, the normal going- to-bed time becomes the wrapping-up-and-going-out-again time.

A minibus picked us up and took us way out north of the town, into a dark and still world of snowy fields and fjords, with no city lights to pollute the natural skies.

There was a traditional tepee (the Lappish name is, I think, lavvo) where you could shelter if the cold got too much.

This picture was taken with a wide angle lens and a flash, but in reality it was a dark and incredibly cosy place, with the fire of birch logs blazing in the centre, and reindeer skins spread on the benches around the edge. You sat in there, with other faces just visible across the dancing flames, drank hot chocolate (well, what did you want us to do? Starve?) and realised, dimly, how many must have sat in such shelters across thousands of years, grateful for the warmth and the companionship of others while outside the wind howled and the snow fell. It was a very good feeling and one that has been tucked away to be brought out and re-lived at many times in the future, perhaps at night, when sleep is elusive.

But guess what occurred here in West Cork at the solstice! We'd just come back and were sorting things out by the car when we heard this pitiful cry in the hedge. 'Strange bird' said DH. 'Kitten!' cried I, dashing over and throwing myself down to look. Nothing could be seen, and the cry ceased abruptly.

Fretted about it all night. Next morning we heard it again and this time I burrowed deep into the hedge while DH went further up on the other side. And nervously, cautiously, it came out.

Not quite a baby kitten but a kitten cat for all that. Young indeed, still not fully grown, in excellent condition, with an unusually thick tail for a smooth cat. Huge golden eyes, and very very nervous. It cried, circled round us, and then bolted as we tried to coax it closer.

Cutting off DH's protestations even before they surfaced, I headed for the kitchen, warmed milk, snatched the feeding bowl from whichever dog had been unwise enough not to empty it, and placed offerings underneath the hedge. Coaxed again, but the kitten-cat stayed well out of reach.

Half an hour later, both dishes were polished clean. That evening, the next gift offering was placed slightly closer to the house, where we could keep an eye on it. She fell on it as though she hadn't eaten in weeks.

I put a box underneath the rocking chair on the porch, with a warm blanket in it, and hoped for the best.

Next morning, Christmas Kitten came running with cries of delight as I brought out her food. I stayed very still, and she actually walked around me twice before daring to rub against my ankles and utter such a loud purr that she vibrated all over.

It took three more meals before I could stroke her gently, but once that formality was out of the way, feline natural curiosity took over and The Cat Came In!

Now in a house of dogs this can create just one or two awkward moments.

Here is Mehitabel conveying her approval of the festive decorations. And there is the top of Sophy's furry head, advancing with malice aforethought.

Retreat of Mehitabel to behind a safe doorway. Advance of Sophy.

Sounds of crashing, thumping, bouncing and heavy breathing (Sophy of course - cats never get out of breath, had you noticed?)

Mehitabel decides that perhaps after all the garden is a safer place to be. (And yes, you're right, DH and his camera were enjoying themselves thoroughly. No pop star ever got the paparazzi treatment like Lone Christmas Kitten!)

For now she's roosting in a snug nest made of an old sleeping bag on the rocker in the porch. Meals are regular, and the amusement occasioned by suspicious dogs just enough to keep a girl on her toes. We do not know what is going to happen. It's like that with Christmas Kittens. They may have come just for a quick visit, they may be bored with their present posting, they may be passing through, they may need shelter and solace for a time. (well, now that you ask, some proper cat food was laid in as soon as the shops reopened).

I don't know if she's called Mehitabel. She may be Arabella or Fairycake or Lucy Clare for all I know. She hasn't seen fit to tell me yet. But I thought you would like to share the tale of the Christmas Kitten. And those of you who have lost a beloved pet recently (Chewyknits, for one, LilyMarlene another) I thought you might feel just a little better knowing that somewhere else in the world, a small stranger arrived in their place. It's not the same, I appreciate, but it's a reflection of the turning wheel, isn't it?

All right, all right! I heard you, way back up the page. Did I or didn't I see them? I was saving it to share as a solstice greeting. Up there they call them the sky maidens waving their mittens. I sent them greetings from all of you.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Twenty Thousand Projects Under The Sofa

Seventy-six projects led the big parade,
One hundred and ten WIPs close behind.
They were followed by rows and rows of forgotten UFOs...

It's got to stop. One particularly gloomy wet day last week, I incautiously dislodged a bale of fabric from the elongated piano stool that does duty as gather-all in the upstairs sitting room. It was a double bale of fabric, in fact, several yards each of bright pink and dark navy cotton jersey which I'd picked up for a song somewhere, some time back, with some idea in mind, now forgotten. That isn't topmost in my mind right now.

What is topmost is the fact that in so dislodging the fabric, I toppled an enormous logjam (can you topple a logjam? What exactly do you do with a logjam? Stab at it?) of carrier bags, small baskets, project holders, loose skeins and patterns. A pair of unfinished socks, started in Iceland last July. The beautiful front of a cabled jacket in unbelievably expensive alpaca silk aran weight. One bright red Origami sock, with its fellow just started, barely past the toe. And so on.

Now most times I can deal with situations like this. The normal practice is carefully to replace the covering material and go away to cast on for something new, right? That's what The Big Book of Advice To Obsessive Crafters would say. But, as I mentioned, it was a gloomy wet day, just right for pondering the Meaning of Life and particularly The Meaning of Startitis.

Because these past few months have been pretty appalling on that front. If Startitis be a vice, then the Celtic Memory establishment has been a riot of debauchery. What was I doing? What was I thinking? Was I thinking at all? Is sheer self-indulgence all there is to the human brain these days? (Don't bother answering that one.)

The heart was heavy, but the soul knew there was only one thing to do. Gather up all the WIPs. All of them. Lay them out, photograph them in the totality of their sad unfinished states. And then (courage, mon brave) let all of blogger land see them. Be truthful. Maybe, just maybe it will cure you of this reprehensible habit for once and for all (who's that laughing at the back?)

The memories come flooding back as each one is hauled out into the light of day. This cabled jacket in alpaca silk aran weight is going to be beautiful. And the yarn was just too expensive for it not to reach completion! It's already been started as two different projects, but interest waned, and it was frogged for another try. Some of the rewound balls are starting to look tired and whine for a bath. Then they'll look different to their new, fresh, as-yet untried colleagues. They always do.

Ah the Brigit jacket. Using that ingenious design from Starmore, on gorgeously smooth rich wool tracked down at Pierre Loye et Cie in Provence last May. It was a total bargain this yarn in the Campanule shade, and the jacket will be unforgettable. As was the scent of the little apricot trees in the sundrenched yard where we parked the car and DH photographed black redstarts while I ran wild in the bargain shed. (Brought home the kernels from some ripe apricots which we sampled from those trees, and actually managed to get them to sprout. Annoyingly, a marauding rabbit found them and nipped off each lush little plant at the root. Will they sprout again or will they give up? They're in the greenhouse, thinking about it for the winter.)

Secured this navy chenille, beautifully plush and thick, at the same place as the Campanule. Hidden in the bottom of a bargain bin on the floor, at such a price I would have been insane to leave it behind. A delicious crochet waistcoat, with tiny fob pockets (you can barely see those), but will there be enough to finish the back? The chance of finding more of the same yarn is unlikely, to say the least. And I'm not planning to drive down around Provence any time soon (bit chilly this time of year anyway). But one could almost get the scent of the orange blossom, the sound of the cicadas just by handling it...

It's my own fault, I shouldn't have grabbed a couple of balls of the chenille to take on a trip for which the chosen project was a Jane Thornley lookalike vest. But there it is again - that overwhelming desire to begin with the new love, instantly, immediately, without a second's delay. I mean, taking yarn from one project to start another? What kind of behaviour is that?

Ah the Icelandic socks. I remember the evening well. We'd spent all day driving in and out of long inlets on the Westerfjords, distances which could have been covered in two minutes if we'd happened to have wings and could fly straight, and came in a grey evening twilight to a small fishing village. Yes, it was the very place we had breakfast with the sorcerer next morning, now I come to think of it. I got that overwhelming urge to be working on a pair of socks and rushed down to the tiny local shop. You couldn't have called it a supermarket, but yet, there among the potatoes and the tinned beans, the spades and the saucepans, was a rack of knitting yarn and needles. Got two shades of Einband and two circulars, and was as happy as Larry for the rest of the night. There are times when only socks will do. And there aren't that many countries where you can find the makings thereof at 9pm in the middle of nowhere, are there?

Gosh, I remember exactly where I got this divine tweedy Italian cashmere. It was in School Products, up several flights of stairs in a decrepit old building on Broadway, NY, NY, and while I was fingering it lovingly, Berta Karapetyan was telling me about her change of heart from crochet to knitting (because you get smoother more draping effects with knitting) and also how she found knitting machines extremely useful for doing the long plain sections, leaving her the energy and inclination to spend absolutely ages on the complex bits. And when I'd left Berta, I went way up Fifth Avenue and had tea in that divine Japanese shop where they have all the lovely knitting books. It's going to be a beautifully cosy cowl - but for which winter?

And speaking of winter, this is a bright red stocking cap, in the Finnish style, for a new baby girlfriend, and I am absolutely determined to get it done and on her little head this winter, no matter what. In fact, in the early stages of this appalling realisation of just how many projects there were unfinished, grabbed this and stayed up really late one night last week to get some work done on it.

And therein lay my downfall. Because I watched The Holiday on tv, didn't I? And Cameron Diaz wore That Jacket in it, didn't she? Dear heaven, lay awake until 4am agonising over the right kind of yarn to use for such a project - a light colour of course, to show off the cables, but not too heavy a yarn. Cameron's was light and almost fuzzy, as you'd expect from someone normally living in LA who goes to her favourite boutique on Rodeo Drive to enquire what one should wear in an English winter.

Eventually remembered all that unspun Icelandic I'd carried home from the summer trip and fell asleep happily at dawn. It's a nice silver gray, which is only marginally more practical for fireside wear than Cameron's pure white, but it's knitting up beautifully. Just right for adding a welcome layer of warmth.

Ah yes, warmth. Intending to hunt for the Northern Lights this winter at some stage, so thought lined mittens would be a Good Idea. My own hand-dyed cashmere/silk for the outer layer, possum wool for the interior. Put on the embroidery halfway along the project and all, as it would be difficult to do once the whole thing is finished, as there is no division between outer and inner layers. So why isn't this one done, and its fellow well under way, since my fingers are icy right now, typing at my desk? (Not that you could type in mittens, but you get the idea.)

Good heavens, had quite forgotten the Origami Socks. Chanced on a remaindered copy of Knitted Socks East and West while away somewhere, and fell for these instantly, buying the bright red wool in two different shops because each had only one. It involved driving several miles too, I remember. It's a very pretty pattern. And yes, it deserves finishing. They'd look great for wearing on Christmas morning.

Are we there yet? Are we heck as like. My dear friend Tricia started her annual Advent Scarf KAL and how could I not participate this year? And there is the Lintilla shawl languishing somewhere, it's in soft dark green mousse yarn and it's going to look exactly like that worn so fetchingly while shopping, by Kate, Duchess of Cambridge - WHEN it's finished. Can't even find that at the moment. Didn't have the courage to haul out the huge bag with the almost-completed gansey in cream Stella yarn, because there is a lurking fear, amounting almost to certainty, that an overwhelming flood of 'what on earth was I thinking of when I started THIS?' will sweep across it. And that Stella has been tried and frogged several times already in OTHER gansey projects.

It was bad enough, starting that Fireside or Holiday jacket, although in defence, what would you have done, seeing Cameron Diaz slinking around a cute English cottage in it and ensnaring Jude Law into the bargain? (Never mind that she couldn't possibly have lit that log fire and fed the resident dog, let alone worn it to bed with a bottle of wine, while still maintaining the pristinity of the white wool. That's what you call poetic licence, I think.) But wandering around Ravelry the other night, as you do, I saw the most amazing shawl pattern (Zuni, I think, but don't quote me) which was nice enough in fingering weight but which immediately shrieked to be created in a really thick, ultra-luxurious yarn that would make a positive blanket of cuddliness for the cold weather. I have almost-matching supplies of rich angora and supremely soft alpaca (one from France, one from Norway) in my favourite violet shade, which together would make a thing of beauty. They're calling softly to me now from the sitting room. 'Come here and touch us,' they are crooning. 'Find the right circular this moment. We want to be with you! Wouldn't it be lovely to start playing with us tonight?'

I've got to face up to this problem that I seem to have developed. I'm not sure what to do. I would welcome constructive suggestions for dealing with it. Two lots of constructive suggestions actually. Firstly, how to stop starting things. And secondly, how to start finishing things.