Feels like Spring

Hello!

Today I’m writing to you from and entirely different world compared to two weeks ago. The snow melted away in no time, and suddenly it feels like spring. The spring bulbs in our garden are bursting into flower.

It’s not just crocuses and snowdrops, but also winter aconites,

and dwarf irises, yellow and blue.

It’s so lovely to feel the warmth of the sun, hear the birds sing their hearts out, and enjoy the flowers and the buzzing of the first bees.

And yet… there is this gnawing feeling.

It shouldn’t be like this in February – it’s unseasonally warm. The highest temperatures ever measured in this month for 5 days in a row. I don’t want to be a spreader of doom and gloom, but I can’t just ignore such signs of a changing climate. I’ve heard that it affects different parts of the world differently. Here in the Netherlands the climate has changed noticeably even in my lifetime (less than sixty years!).

Seems to me that if we want to leave our children, grandchildren and their children with a liveable planet so that they, too, can enjoy the beautiful signs of spring…

… we urgently need to learn how to be good ancestors.

Speaking of ancestors, on Sunday we visited a lovely place our ancestors left us. It’s a country estate that for centuries belonged to a wealthy family and is now owned by a nature conservation organization.

The 17th century house with stepped gable, surrounded by a moat with a bridge leading to the front door, is no longer there. The only buildings left are five tenant farms. These are the stables of one of them, now converted to living space.

The estate is part woodland,

part pasture (the cows are still inside at this time of year.)

Like many other farms in our region, the farms on the estate all have their own little baking house. Can you see the small white rectangle on the wall of this baking house?

Let’s zoom in – it’s a face! A person with a high forehead, no nose to speak of, and an elegant hairdo. Is it just a decoration, a household deity, or the likeness of somebody who used to do their baking here?

Going for a walk here, is like traveling a century or so back in time.

Apart from going for short walks, enjoying the garden, worrying about the climate and the pandemic, and generally doing what I need to do, I’ve also done some knitting. My blue Panel Debate cardigan is nearly finished and I’m knitting swatches and prototypes for a pair of fingerless mitts.

The yarn I originally had in mind for them didn’t behave as I thought it would. Looking for an alternative, I found several skeins in my stash that were meant for something else, but will be just perfect for my mitts.

I want to make a single colour and a 2-colour version. It is hard to capture the colours exactly. There is an off-white undyed cream, a dusty blue and a warm cherry red. What shall I do? Cream and blue for the 2-colour version, and red for the single-colour one?

Or cream and red for the 2-colour version, and blue for the single-colour one?

What do you think?

I hope you’ve enjoyed the flowers and the walk, and would be grateful for some help with the colours. I’m in doubt. Is the blue-and-cream combo nice and subtle or too bland? Is the red-and-cream combo nice and cheerful or too Christmassy?

Thanks and take care! xxx

Thinking about Flow

Hello!

(Because I think it would interrupt the flow of this blog post too much to insert links into the actual text, I’ve added a list at the bottom.)

It was yarn that first made me think about flow. Two skeins of a beautiful blue-green yarn hand dyed by Catharina at Wolverhalen. I chose this colour first of all because it caught my eye. The name – Flow – was of secondary importance, but it did catch my attention.

I asked Catharina about it, and she told me that she dyes a whole series of colours named for states of mind. Flow is one of them. Others are Positivity, Wisdom, Joy, Passion, Faith, and Stillness.

Flow… What exactly is it? It makes me think of water.

It also makes me think of  somebody with the unpronounceable name Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In my previous life as a translator, I’ve translated many psychology books and articles. During my background reading, I repeatedly came across his research.

In his famous book Flow: The psychology of optimal experience (that I haven’t read), he defines flow as: ‘…the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter…’ It is a particular kind of focus that seems to lead to intense feelings of happiness.

Am I ever in a state of flow? I don’t really know.

I used the flow yarn to knit another Thús 2 – a design I published in November last year.

Am I in flow when I’m knitting? Or when I’m designing a pattern?

Or when I’m faffing about with photography?

Or when I’m writing? Or when I’m doing other things entirely? Yes, no, well, maybe, sometimes…

Flow as a yarn colour is something that makes me happy. Flow as a state of mind is something I’d like to know more about. Are people generally aware of being in this flow state? What does it take to get there?

Flow is also a Dutch magazine that I sometimes buy. In the editors’ words, it is about ‘Celebrating creativity, imperfection and life’s little pleasures’. This is the first issue of 2021.

There used to be and English edition as well, but they’ve recently stopped publishing that. They do still have an interesting English-language website, and back issues and specials are still available.

My favourite articles in the latest issue are about navigating life in uncertain times and about tools for people working from home. And the item about Aheneah, a Portuguese artist who does cross stitch on a large scale, made me smile.

The message Aheneah gives off with her installations is to think outside the box and look at one’s roots and traditional techniques as things that can be transformed in unexpected ways and so given a new lease of life.

I’m ending today’s post with a poem by Wilder Poetry that really spoke to me. It comes from the Flow ‘Calm Down’ special.

Thank you for reading!

If you’d like to read more (or knit your own Thús 2), here is a list of links:

Saturday Knitting

Hello! This week I’m writing from a white and frosty village. We’re not entirely snowed in, but last Sunday we were treated to a beautiful thick blanket of snow, blown up into dunes here and there by strong gusts of icy wind. And because it’s stayed (far) below freezing even during the daytime, the snow is still here. A rarity nowadays and utterly lovely!

Before anything else, I need to show you this. The snow-shovel guy reversed and drove up several times specially so that I would be able to take a good picture for my blog.

Thank you Mister Snow Shoveler! Enjoy your moment of fame 😊!

It’s tempting to natter on about the snow, but I have made quite a bit of progress on the knitting front, and I’d like to talk about that, too. So let’s do that first, and have a few more snow pictures afterwards.

Recently, I wrote a very long post about my possible need for a little more focus. I don’t know if you’ve been able to plough through it all, but one of the insights I gained from a book I read on the topic was: ‘Different (knitting) tasks use different parts of the brain’. I realized that for certain aspects of my knitting projects, I needed to find moments during the week when the active thinking part of my brain would be fresh.

Saturday seemed like a good time, especially Saturday mornings. So I thought about what I would like to accomplish and noted it in my planner. The first thing I wanted to focus on was the sleeve cap of my Panel Debate cardigan. A puzzle because I’d enlarged the armhole and could no longer follow the pattern – how could I make a sleeve cap that would fit into the armhole and around my shoulder?

Spending several hours tinkering with it with a well-rested brain really worked.

I finished the sleeve cap. And using the parts of my brain that do the more automatic tasks, I was able to almost finish the rest of the sleeve in the evenings. Yes, progress!

The next task I wanted to tackle was finishing one of my UFOs (UnFinished knitting Objects that have been lying around for a long time). I chose a scarf and wrote that down in my planner for the next Saturday.

All I needed to do was weave in the ends and give it a Spa Treatment. Here it is, doing a stretching exercise after its bubble bath.

As always, the transformation was magical – the lacey holes opened up nicely, and the rest of the knitted fabric did too.

Before blocking
After blocking

This is what the scarf looks like when ‘worn’.

It is the Polka Dot Scarf by the Churchmouse design team. The pattern describes two sizes and I made the larger one. The yarn I used is Debbie Bliss ‘Rialto lace’, a very soft merino.

For a long time I disliked polka dots. I think it was because of that horrible sixties song about the Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini. Do you know it? But these subtle ‘dots’ made me overcome that.

Looking around for matching things for pictures of the scarf, I discovered that I actually have several other items with polka and other dots.

All in all this has become a generous airy shawl that will make a lovely gift for someone. Happy with it.

I’m also happy with my new Saturday knitting plan. Being able to make considerable progress with such a small adjustment to my life, has really given me a positive boost. In addition to these two projects, I have even made some progress on a new design of my own.

Until now, this winter I have felt sort of lost on Saturdays, with nowhere to go and no one to visit. This focused Saturday knitting has also solved that. I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep it up once we get back to a more ‘normal’ life and the gardening season starts again. But I won’t look too far ahead.

For the time being the garden doesn’t need anything doing to it. All I need to do at the moment is admire the hyacinths I planted in pots in November…

… enjoy looking at snow-covered shapes, like the dead flower heads of the Marjoram…

… and feed and talk to the birds.

I hope you’re all snug and safe, wherever you are. Bye for now, and ‘see’ you again soon!

Beautiful Houses (and a Spectacular One)

Hello!

Today I’d like to take you along for a bicycle ride. The traffic signs can be slightly confusing, but don’t worry, I know the way.

My foot injury is healing really well now, and I’m able to go for short walks, but my daily exercise still mainly takes the form of cycling. I’m so glad I’ve been able to continue doing that – it keeps me fit and healthy.

The countryside around here is not as flat as most parts of the Netherlands.

It is slightly undulating and riding an ordinary (not electrically assisted) bicycle like mine, is a good workout.

While I’m cycling, I love looking at beautiful houses, like this one basking like a cat in the late afternoon sun.

Or this one with its cheerful shutters.

Or this one in a lovely sheltered spot.

Or this one with the day’s washing drying in the wind.

My family is always laughing at me, when I show pictures of beautiful houses like these on my blog, saying, ‘People around the world reading this will think that we lead charmed lives and all live in picturesque thatched cottages or farmhouses!’

They are right, we don’t. Our house and most others are more modern and modest, and we get our fair share of woes and worries. Only last year a crystal meth lab was discovered in a picturesque house along today’s route (not in any of the photos) and a cocaine laundry in a farm building along one of my other routes.

But I’m not fooling you. It IS true that there are a lot of these lovely houses around here. Just like it is true that we really have windmills, although most of them are no longer working.

It was late afternoon. Taking pictures along the way slowed me down, and in the end I had to hurry to reach the best house of all before the light had gone. It’s not just a beautiful house, but a downright spectacular one!

This is its front door.

And here it is in its entirety.

From a distance it looks like an age-old castle, but it was built in recent years. From reclaimed materials.

The castle has lots of whimsical details – let’s zoom in on a few of them.

Here is one richly decorated turret, with coloured bricks, tiled squares, a spider’s web stained-glass window, and a couple of golden ‘girls’.

A fierce looking bird on another one.

While I was looking at the castle, I was wondering what the things sticking up in the air on the battlements of the north tower were. Zooming in on the photographs at home made me laugh out loud – they were the legs of upside-down mannequins.

I wasn’t exaggerating when I said it was spectacular, was I? The owner/builder must be a person with shedloads of focus. And a great sense of humour!

On the way back, I saw the first newborn lamb of the year. I don’t know what breed it is.

The light was fading quickly.

It was good to come back to our own unspectacular but beautiful-to-me house.

In addition to working on, ahem, ‘several’ other knitting projects, I’m knitting rows of beautiful blue-green houses for another Thús 2. More about that when it’s finished.

Thank you for coming along!

To Focus or not to Focus

Hello! This has become rather a long and complicated blog post, I’m afraid. I hope you’ll forgive me. Why not make yourself a nice cup of tea or coffee before you dive in?

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To focus or not to focus, that is the question I am asking myself this year. Would a little (or a lot) more focus be a good thing in my knitting/life? (And if so, how?) Or would it suck the joy out of it?

I don’t think anyone would call me scatterbrained, but I often feel drawn in many directions and (except in my job) have a hard time deciding what to do first, last, or not at all. Never being bored and always having many projects on the go can be fun, but it can also lead to overwhelm, fatigue and UFOs – UnFinished (knitting) Objects.

I know I’m not the only one with difficulty focusing, so I thought I’d share some of my journey here, always focusing on knitting. To my mind, what goes for knitting goes for most things in life.

To find answers, I started as I often do – by reading a book.

(Daniel Goleman, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, paperback edition New York: Harper, 2014)

I chose this book because, well, it’s Goleman. And also because one of the chapters bears the intriguing title ‘The Value of a Mind Adrift’.

So what can this book teach a knitter (or anybody else)?

Uhm… that’s not so easy to say. Ironically, I think it’s a rather unfocused essay, without even a definition of the word focus. Still, for me, 5 things jumped out.

1 – Anxiety is detrimental to focus

In fact all emotional turmoil disrupts focus, but Goleman specifically mentions the detrimental effects of anxiety in relation to focus and performance. Small wonder that people are having difficulty focusing on all kinds of things, and can’t even focus on their knitting, in this anxiety-inducing time we find ourselves in.

It also explains why there is still no progress on this project of mine.

I still think it is beautiful and I still want to knit it, but I can’t seem to focus on it. In the past I would have set a deadline, made a plan and told myself to just get on with it. But I don’t want to force myself to focus in that way anymore. Least of all in my knitting.

Knowing that our inability to focus can be caused by anxiety, I think we need compassion. And also strategies for reducing such emotional turmoil.

2 – Different tasks use different parts of the brain

I have always felt that, say, knitting a simple sock takes a different kind of energy from knitting a complicated Fair Isle pattern, adapting a pattern for a better fit, or blocking a lace shawl. Goleman explains that it is not just about energy, but that different parts of the brain are involved in different tasks.

What he calls the ‘bottom-up’ brain takes care of more automatic and intuitive tasks. In knitting terms this would be knitting long stretches of stocking stitch, or simple socks (at least for an experienced knitter). The ‘top-down’ part of the brain is needed for tasks that take active cognitive effort, like Fair Isle, learning new techniques, doing maths or finishing a knit. ‘Top-down’ tasks also take more energy.

Let’s take my knitting as an example. I’m currently working on a reconstruction of my inherited knitting sampler.

Figuring out each stitch pattern is a job for the ‘top-down’ part of the brain. But once I’ve worked it out, the ‘bottom-up’ part can take over.

And knitting the long stretches of my Panel Debate cardigan was pure ‘bottom-up’ knitting. But now that I’ve adapted the armholes for a better fit and am at a loss how to adapt the sleeve cap, the ‘top-down’ part of the brain needs to come to the rescue.

Most of my knitting time is in the evenings. The top-down part of my brain is often depleted in the evenings. Ergo, to prevent this cardigan from ending up as a UFO I need to solve that puzzle at a different time of the day, when my ‘top-down’ circuits can deliver the right kind of focus.

3 – Knitting can help us focus

Goleman explains that tight focus leads to fatigue of the top-down part of the brain, ‘much like an overworked muscle…’ (p. 56)  And just like an overworked muscle, that part of the brain needs rest to recover. But how?

According to research by the University of Michigan, spending time in nature is one of the best ways to do that.

But according to Goleman, an even better way is ‘full focus on something relaxing’. What better way to recharge our ability to focus than some simple knitting?

4 – Creativity needs unfocused time

I was so glad to read that goal-driven focus is not the be-all and end-all. For creativity it is absolutely necessary to let our minds drift. According to Goleman, we do need a goal, but once we have that, it is crucial to have ‘protected time – enough to really think freely. A creative cocoon.’ (p. 46)

For me, being in this ‘creative cocoon’ is one of the best things in life. But I find it very hard to take the time for it. That is something to look into.

5 – We need positive AND negative focus

Most of the news we read and watch has a negative focus. Some people say that we should purely focus on positives. Just focusing on positives is certainly very tempting, but somehow it doesn’t feel right.

Goleman has something to say about that, too. Or rather, he quotes someone who has something interesting to say about that – psychologist and researcher Richard Boyatzis. ‘“You need the negative focus to survive, but a positive one to thrive”, says Boyatzis, “You need both, but in the right ratio.”’ (p. 172 ) Turns out every negative needs 2.9 positives for the right balance.

Looking at my current sock knitting, I tend to agree. Starting on the foot of the second sock, I noticed that there was something wrong with the yarn. At first I focused on the positives (‘the colours are still sort of similar’), but…

… after a while I could no longer ignore the negatives. The colours really were very different from the first sock. And it was not just the colours – there were also irregularities in the yarn, and later on a knot followed by a complete break in the colour sequence.

So, I sighed a deep sigh and rrrrrrrip, there it went. All the way back to just before the heel.

That was a bit of a negative experience. But I’m glad I didn’t bury my head in the sand. All in all, with 1 part negative focus and 2.9 parts positive focus, I got a well-balanced pair of socks. Knitting as a metaphor for life. 😉

This book wasn’t an easy read. I struggled with all the talk about ‘leaders’ (mostly CEOs of big tech companies), as if we should all emulate them. Somewhere Goleman says that we are, in a sense, all leaders, but imho most of us do not lead anything but our own lives.

Having said that, it did give me food for thought. And applying some of the ideas to humbler and more personal pursuits has made reading it worthwhile.

Golemans book was a good start, but it doesn’t give us any ‘How-Tos’. I’m left with questions like: How to decide what to focus on? How to find focus when you’re procrastinating? How to stay focused until something is finished? And how about people with multiple interests or roles in life? I think I need another book for those.

Take care! Xxx

PS. In case you are wondering what my camera was focusing on in the picture at the top and during the rest of the walk – it was frozen moss:

Sunshine Inside

Hello!

Well, it’s been quite an eventful week on a national and global level, what with the resignation of our government, the inauguration of a new POTUS, and the introduction of a curfew and other stricter measures here. I frequently needed to remind myself to keep breathing.

On a personal level, one uneventful week follows another. And that’s a good thing in a way – it means that we’re OK.

THE event of our past week was SNOW! Last Saturday it started snowing in the evening, when it was already dark. On Sunday morning, I could hear rain drops pattering on the roof, but the garden still looked lovely with its thin white blanket.

When I went for a bicycle ride after lunch, there were just a few patches of snow left. It stayed longest on the thatched roofs of some farmhouses.

An hour or two later all of the snow had gone.

Ah, well, it was lovely while it lasted. Snow days are a rare pleasure.

Now we’re back to more ordinary January days – dark, windy and rainy. A good time to bring some sunshine inside.

To do that, I filled a large platter with decorated citrus fruit, taking pictures during the process to share here. (I was lucky that the sun peeked out from behind the clouds now and then, giving the fruit a cheerful glow.)

It all starts with gathering everything that is needed. First of all, different kinds of citrus fruit.

Lots and lots of cloves. (For 1 orange, 1 lemon and 3 tangerines I used 45 grams of cloves.)

A large platter, and winter greenery and other ingredients to decorate it. I picked some rosemary, thyme and bay leaves from the garden, but conifer sprigs or other evergreen twigs or leaves would be fine, too.

I also had some jumbo cinnamon sticks I once bought at the garden centre. Not terribly fragrant, but still a nice addition to the spicy scent of the cloves. Star anise would be nice as well, if you have some.

And finally a few tools and other bits and bobs. Scissors and secateurs, twine for tying the cinnamon sticks together and the twigs into bunches, a thin knitting needle (I used a size 2.0 mm/US 0) or a skewer, and a cloth to mop up the juice and dry your hands from time to time.

Oh, and if you’re working at a wooden table like ours, don’t forget to cover it with a whipeable table cloth or place mat, because juice will drip out of the fruit.

Now the fun starts. Prick holes in the fruit before inserting the cloves.

Make lines, circles, spirals, crosses, diamonds or other patterns.

There! It’ll give you sticky hands, but doesn’t make too much mess. And it’s an uplifting project that is also lovely to do with children.

Now it’s time to arrange everything nicely on a platter, together with the greenery and other spices. Tadaah!

I can’t guarantee that the fruit will keep for months. Sometimes it dries out nicely and will keep for a long time, and sometimes it gets mouldy. In the past, I’ve tried dusting it with a mixture of orris root and cinnamon powder. In theory, that should preserve it better, but it didn’t. I’ve also wrapped the fruit in tissue paper and stored it in a dark cupboard to dry, but that didn’t always work either.

My experience is that it is largely a matter of luck whether the fruit keeps well or not. But no matter how long the fruit lasts, the sunny colours are a feast for the eyes and the lovely wintry scents are a delight for the nose!

Knitting Spa

Hello!

OK, complete focus on knitting today – no tangents or digressions. Maybe this is all old hat to you, but I thought I’d show you what happens to my knitwork after the actual knitting is finished and the ends have been darned in.

Last week I said the hat and scarf I made for my brother needed some TLC to relax. Well, they got more than just some TLC – they received a full 4-star spa treatment!

It all started with a bubble bath.

Aaaaah, so relaxing, especially when combined with aromatherapy. To make the bubbles, I use a no-rinse detergent for delicate fabrics – Eucalan or Soak. There may be other brands, but these are the only two I know.

I can’t say that I prefer one to the other. Eucalan is sort of syrupy and yellowish, whereas Soak is thinner and clear. Both are available in various lovely scents. The Eucalan I have has a very mild lavender scent. My Soak favourite is Lacey, a subtle flowery scent that is harder to pinpoint.

Only a teaspoon of detergent is needed, so a bottle lasts forever. Both also come in small trial packages, that are ideal not only to try out the products, but also to tuck in with a knitted gift.

As their name says, no-rinse detergents do not need to be rinsed out. After a bubble bath of about 30 minutes, I first gently squeeze out most of the moisture. After that I’d roll a more fragile knit in a towel to squeeze out more water, but robust knits like these I put in the spin dryer.

Now, still slightly moist, the scarf and the hat get different wellness treatments, tailored to their specific needs. I thought the scarf would benefit from acupuncture, while some steam would be best for the hat.

First the scarf. These are my acupuncture (in knitting terms also known as blocking) tools.

Foam blocking mats, blocking wires (that come with a wooden ruler), and T-pins (stainless steel pins in the shape of a capital T). At first I used this kit only for lace knits, but now I’m using it for many other projects, too.

I threaded wires along the long sides of the scarf, between the edge stitch and the next, going up and down every other row.

Then I pinned it onto the blocking mats, smoothing the scarf out along its length and pulling firmly widthwise. (Never do this on a wooden table or floor – the T-pins may prick through the mats and damage the surface underneath.)

And here is a close-up. I hope you can see the wires and T-pins.

Now, let’s leave that to dry and continue with its mate. The still moist hat is pulled around the end of the ironing board.

Then it is covered with a moist press cloth (i.e. an old tea towel that doesn’t give off colour) and steam-pressed. I used the lowest setting that will give steam (silk/wool). If the picture looks slightly blurry, that’s the steam.

I tried all this out on a swatch first, to make sure nothing terrible (like felting) happened to my ‘clients’ and they would benefit from their treatments.

After pressing the hat was still slightly wet and I placed it on the blocking mats with the scarf. Twenty-four hours later everything was dry and I unpinned the scarf.

A lot of work for a simple hat and scarf. Is it really worth all the effort? I think it is – very much so. I took before and after pictures, but unfortunately they are not very clear because of the dark yarn colour and the dark weather.

Here are the hat and scarf (before on the left and after on the right):

And here is a close-up of the k2, p2 rib pattern (again before left and after right):

Can you see the difference? Before blocking the knitting was irregular, and the purl stitches disappeared between the knit stitches. After blocking the knitting evened out and the purl stitches became visible. And before blocking the scarf was 1.5 m x 14 cm, so stiff that it could almost stand up on its own, and slightly scratchy. After blocking it was 1.6 m x 25 cm, with a lovely drape and nice and soft.

Now all that’s left to do is gift-wrap the set, put it in a box, add a few Dutch treats and send it off to Germany, in time for my ‘little’ brother’s Birthday.

Here is a behind-the-scenes picture of the ‘Knitting Spa’ photo shoot.

The kitchen counter was the lightest place in the house on a dark day, and the bread kneading board made a nice natural surface for photographing the tools and detergents. A perfect Knitting Spa with everything to hand: hot & cold water, a bath tub, teas & tisanes, and a nice view of the front garden.

The yarn and the pattern I used:

Word of the Year

Hello again!

It’s good to be back here after a 2-week break. I hope that, in spite of everything, you’ve had an enjoyable festive season and a good start to the New Year.

We had a quiet and pleasant time, and on New Year’s eve I baked a big batch of knieperties. These very thin wafers are a traditional end-of-the-year treat in this part of the country. I always make more than enough to share with several neighbouring families.

This year’s conundrum was how to hand them over at a safe distance? It didn’t feel right to place them on people’s doorsteps. I came up with this solution:

Loops of silver ribbons tied to the bags to hang them from the hooked stick we otherwise use to open our attic hatch. It was great fun, really, and brought smiles to everybody’s faces, including my own. The anderhalvemetersamenleving in action.

Anderhalvemetersamenleving (1.5-meter-society) was chosen as Word of the Year 2020 in the campaign organized by our leading Dutch dictionary Van Dale.

A word that sums up a lot about the past year, and also a word that we will not be leaving behind us soon, I fear. (As a former translator, I have a thing for words. Although I worked with digital dictionaries for years, I still treasure my paper ones.)

My knitting during the Christmas break was entirely in the spirit of the Word of the Year 2020. It’s an exactly 1.5 meter long scarf for my brother who lives in Germany.

Knit in 2-by-2 ribbing it is very tight and narrow now. It will need some TLC (a bubble bath, some steam, and an acupuncture treatment) to relax.

More about that and the matching hat soon.

I have very little knitting to show today, but there will be more over the coming months. Lots more, I hope. Looking back at 2020, I realized that I haven’t finished those UFOs that I planned to turn into FOs. Not nearly all of them. Am I beating myself up over that? No, I don’t think that will help. But their state of unfinishedness did set me thinking. It’s not just those UFOs. I currently also have 4 WIPs as well as loads and loads of plans for new knits. What might help, is a personal word for the year 2021 to give me some direction.

At first I thought of ‘limits’, but on second thoughts that sounded too bleak. There are so many outside limits already. (Our present lockdown lasts until January 19 and we don’t need a crystal ball to predict that it will be prolonged.)

A word with a similar meaning that sounds much friendlier is ‘focus’. Maybe more focus is what I need. Or maybe not. During the past year I’ve become a very focused grocery shopper.

On the left an old-style shopping list with everything in no particular order and room for browsing around. On the right my new-style shopping list with everything neatly arranged along the supermarket aisles. Pro: More focus makes for very fast shopping and I’m not in anybody’s way for long. Con: It sucks all the joy out of shopping.

But still, I have a feeling that the word ‘focus’ may help me in my knitting as well as in other areas of life. At least it is something to explore. I don’t know if it’ll be worth writing about here, but we’ll see.

Now for something completely different. Spring is still a long way away, but even at this time of year there are a few bright and flowery spots in our garden. There’s the Viburnum tinus (top) that gives us flowers for a long, long time and provides a great hiding place for the sparrow family. The hazel shrubs already have catkins…

… and for the first time this year the Cyclamen coum is flowering. Its bright pink flowers are only about 7 cm (3”) high, but they cheer me up no end every time I look out the kitchen window.

Focusing on things like this really helps in a world in turmoil. Yes, Focus seems like a good word for 2021. Hope, too, by the way. And Peace.

Comfort and Joy

It’s Christmas Eve, and we’re nearing the end of a challenging year. Thinking about writing this post beforehand, I felt that I should say something Profound and Meaningful, but what? I wouldn’t know where to begin. I’m not some kind of oracle or Wise Woman, after all. I’m just an ordinary person muddling along like everybody else.

In the end, I’ve gone back to what this blog is basically about and decided to share a few of the things that have given me comfort and joy over the past weeks, hoping they’ll do the same for you.

The front door with the lovely garland at the top of this post isn’t ours. It belongs to a house further down the street.

Every time I pass this house, looking at these neighbours’ stylish grey-and-white decorations brings me joy.

Our style is more traditional, mainly red, green and silver. It’s comforting to take the same old Christmas baubles from their box every year. This one symbolizes 2020 for me.

White hyacinths opening their flowers at exactly the right time scent our living room.

The upstairs Advent calendar has now opened its last door. And I put the star on the top of the downstairs one this morning. One of the first creatures I placed on this cardboard fir tree was a woodpecker.

It looks just like the great spotted woodpeckers that visit our garden. They’ve been away for a while, retreating to the wood during their moulting period, but are back in full force now. Sometimes there are four of them at the same time, looking for insects on the branches of our old pear tree and fighting for a place on the peanut feeder.

Watching these beautiful birds always brings me joy. They are fairly shy, but if I’m very quiet and patient, they allow me to take a picture now and then.

Something that always brings me a lot of comfort is knitting. It is the feeling of the yarn in my hands combined with the rhythmic movement that makes it so. And what’s more, knitting things for others makes me feel connected with them during a time we are unable to meet. That’s also a comfort.

Apart from knitting several pairs of socks, a scarf and a hat to give away, I’ve treated myself to two skeins of exquisitely soft yarn for a hat and a cowl.

The hat pattern was a freebie from Churchmouse Yarns & Teas. They have a very active and friendly knitting group on Ravelry that I’ve enjoyed being a part of for years. The moment I saw this simple hat and read that the yarn they used for it was a sustainable cashmere, I knew that this was going to be my special December knit for me this year.

I was not just going to knit the hat, but also a matching cowl. Although I could have finished each of these projects in an evening, I decided to take it slow and enjoy every minute of the process, including winding the yarn and taking photos along the way.

I limited myself to knitting no more than a few rows a day. During these quiet, contemplative moments, I first saw my hat grow.

And then my cowl.

Knitting a pattern thought out by someone else is especially comforting – no stress about how many stitches to cast on, getting the right size, what decreases to use, and whether there will be enough yarn. I’ve given my own twist to it by adding a bit of contrasting colour to the rim of the hat, making a matching cowl, and finally duplicate stitching hearts onto both.

For the duplicate stitching I’ve tried out a new (to me) type of needle, with a bent tip. I’ve laid my ordinary darning needles and the new ones out on the finished cowl to show the difference.

The new ones are officially called tapestry needles, and they are a real improvement for duplicate stitching, I have to say. The bent tip slides easily between the knit stitches and is really nice to work with. (I’ll keep using the regular straight ones for darning in yarn ends, though.)

And here are my hat and cowl all finished.

They were a joy to knit, and I know they’ll be a joy to wear for a long time to come.

Now there is just one last thing I’d like to share with you – a gift we received on Tuesday. This year the organic farm that delivers groceries to our door, gave all their customers a bag of organic daffodil bulbs. It came with a message on a bit of sunny yellow paper. Translated it said:

When all of a sudden ordinary things
Can no longer be taken for granted
We realize how extraordinary
Ordinary things really are

Such a lovely gift – a ray of sunshine and hope during these dark days.

Thank you so much for reading my blog over the past year, and leaving a comment now and then. These small virtual moments of contact mean a lot to me. I’m taking a break now and hope to be back here somewhere in the course of January. I’m looking forward to ‘seeing’ you again then.

I wish you a safe and peaceful Christmas and the very best for 2021!

Advent Calendars and Seasonal Drinks

Hello! Do you have an Advent calendar? A home made one? A new one, or one you use year after year? A paper one, or one with ‘real’ gifts?

Advent calendars are not a tradition I grew up with. My Dad did not believe in Christmas. My Mum’s belief in Christmas was very strong, but of a kind that did not approve of such things. This year, however, there are no less than three Advent calendars in our home. It seems like I have some catching up to do.

The first one is the one you see at the top – a fir tree that is gradually filled with birds, nest boxes and animals. It was a gift from our daughter last year and can be used again and again. It is a small treat to hunt for that day’s ornament in their box every morning and add it to the tree.

The second Advent calendar is a traditional paper one with a door to open every day. It is next to my bed and the first thing I see in the morning when I turn on the light.

It was a gift from a dear friend. I found it in our letterbox on December 5th (our traditional gift-giving day), in a large envelope that also contained a pair of beautiful ‘pre-loved’ earrings and a bag of tea from Germany with the brilliant name Warme Socken (I don’t think I need to translate that).

It is a delicious seasonal blend of rose hips, apples, almonds, cinnamon, cloves and more.

The third Advent calendar was, in a way, also a gift from the same friend, because she recommended it to me. This one is in the shape of a book, The Alternative Advent Calendar: Secrets of the True Spirit of Christmas by Gillian Monks.

The book gives ideas for things to do for every day of the Advent period that are, in the words of the author, ‘universally relevant, regardless of geographical and genetic origins, social, academic or professional status, cultural background, religion or belief.’

All of the ideas in it are small and enjoyable ways to offer of yourself to the world. Most of them can easily be done even during the strict lockdown we are now finding ourselves in, in the Netherlands. Some require a little creativity under these special circumstances, but so far I have only found one that seems well-nigh impossible: ‘Open your door to all. Invite all your neighbours to supper – and I mean ALL your neighbours… as many as you can sensibly fit inside your house.’

Although the book was only published in 2019, this now sounds like a bizarre idea from a very distant past or for a far-off future, almost like an indecent proposal. But with a bit of creativity… a Zoom supper, perhaps?

Behind another ‘door’ there is a more doable suggestion: ‘Make someone a hot or cold drink’. My friend did that from a distance by sending me Warme-Socken-tea. In my turn, I am offering you a virtual hot drink.

Cinnamon-and-Orange Cocoa

For one small mug, you’ll need:

  • 10 grams of chocolate (I use a very dark chocolate, but think any kind will work)
  • Finely grated zest of half an orange
  • A pinch of cinnamon
  • 200 ml milk (I’m allergic to cow’s milk and use plant-based ‘milk’ – the rice-and-coconut variety is my favourite for this recipe)
  • Sugar or honey to taste

To make the cocoa:

  • Break the chocolate into chunks and put them in a small saucepan, together with the orange zest, the cinnamon and a little of the milk
  • Heat, stirring until the chocolate has melted
  • Add the rest of the milk and bring to the boil
  • Pour into a mug, add some sugar or honey if you like, and enjoy!

You’re welcome to virtually join me on the veranda in front of our garden shed. I don’t usually go to the trouble of outdoor decorating in winter, but in this special year I’ve made it into a cozy corner.

Our garden bench is overwintering there. It should of course have a beautiful hand knit blanket hanging over the back instead of this Ikea one, but nobody’s perfect. Maybe next year.

I’ve placed a few candles next to it on a rickety old footstool. One of the glasses has a felted sheep’s wool jacket, bought at a fair a few years back.

And in the back our little laurel tree is protected from the elements.

It looks happy there, and for the first time ever has flower buds.

According to the Alternative Advent Calendar, I should have asked you what you’d like to drink first. I didn’t know how to do that here, so I’ve chosen cocoa. For our friends in the southern hemisphere – please pour yourselves a cold drink from us! And for anyone who doesn’t like hot cocoa – maybe you’d prefer some Winter Tea instead? You can find my recipe for that here.