Knitted Knockers (or Knot!)

It’s time for another knitting post! This time, I have knitted what might be called a “medical accessory”: Knitted Knockers!

Knitted Knockers are knitted breast prosthesis, designed to be comfortable, lightweight and soft. The Knitted Knockers foundation registers medical providers to sign up to receive knitted prosthesis for their patients. The foundation also gets the word out to knitters and crocheters all over the US to invite them to make and donate knockers.

Makers can choose from several different approved knockers patterns: click here to see all the different pattern options! The foundation also provides a list of approved yarns. The yarns must be cotton–no wool!

Once you’ve made your knockers from approved yarn and the official pattern, you mail them to the foundation (unstuffed) for quality control. They’ll take a look at the sizing, at your gauge, and at the quality of the knitting. If they meet the foundation’s quality standards, they’ll stuff them and get them out to medical providers and clinics who need them.

There is very high demand for these, and when I first heard about them I thought it was a brilliant idea. I didn’t realize how soon I’d need to make them for someone I loved.

Knockers Needed

In December, we learned that a family member needed to have a double mastectomy. Always a scary prospect, we were especially worried about her going into hospital due to Covid (this was before many people were vaccinated).

Thankfully, all went well, and once the procedure was over, the prognosis was very good. Of course, recovery wasn’t easy and naturally the scars from the procedure are significant and uncomfortable.

That’s when I thought of Knitted Knockers. Of course, offering to knit someone breast prosthetics isn’t covered in any etiquette guidelines I know of. I wasn’t sure how to proceed and I didn’t want to be indelicate or offend.

Thankfully, this person is a crafter herself, and we have always enjoyed chatting about knitting, crocheting and other crafts together. So I decided to make the offer in the most straightforward and friendly way possible.

My offer was well received, and it was taken absolutely in the spirit it was meant: with love.

The Knitty Gritty Details

We consulted on size and color, and I decided to knit a size A in Cascade Ultra Pima cotton yarn (color “buff”–as in, “in the–“!).

For the pattern, I chose the latest version of the knitted pattern: Bottoms up in the round on DPNs. The original pattern started at the front of the knocker (at the nipple, essentially), with only three stitches cast on, and increased from there. Many knitters found that to be difficult and fiddly, so the pattern designer, Claudia Barbo, wrote a new version in which you knit the knockers from back to front. In this version, you cast on 15 stitches, which is a lot easier to manage than just three!

My yarn was a DK weight, and the pattern called for 3.75mm needles. However, I didn’t have DPNs in that size, and since my gauge tends to be tight anyway, I went up to 4mm.

I have to admit that I am not crazy about working on DPNs. The pattern tells you to divide the stitches by three and always keep them on the same needles. This creates a gap between the stitches on each end of the needles. Usually, when I’m knitting on DPNs, I rotate around so that my needles don’t always change at the same spot.

I followed the pattern, and here’s the result:

Not the most even stitching…

The Knitted Result

Though pretty, I was not crazy with the unevenness of the stitches. Also, the decreases on the front of the knocker (what you’re looking at in this picture) created ridges which met in the middle and formed what looked like a “nipple”. Washing and pinning it out to dry helped to reduce that, but still. It could have been smoother.

Also, it was too small! When the knockers arrived at their destination and were stuffed, they were about two sizes too small.

No problemo! That’s an easy one to solve: just make it bigger!

The issue of the “nipple” created by the decreases required some trial and error.

Yarny Experimenting

There are several different patterns available on the Knitted Knockers site. I decided to try the original pattern, starting with just 3 stitches and increasing from there.

However, it was really fiddly. I had trouble keeping my needles straight and making it look any good.

Then, I tried using the pinhole cast on:

It’s a beautiful cast on, but even doing this there were ridges that wouldn’t have been smooth enough.

I tried a few more times, but I really wasn’t happy with how it was turning out.

Then, I had an epiphany:

I Know How to Crochet!

That’s right! I know how to crochet! And the crocheted knockers looked fantastic!

And so, I dusted off the ol’ crochet hooks. They haven’t seen daylight in quite a while, and I had to re-learn how to hold the yarn in my left hand. But muscle memory kicked in really quickly, and before long I had cast on using the magic ring and was chugging along.

Using the same yarn and a 4mm crochet hook, I whipped them up pretty quickly:

Tah-daaahh!

I was SO happy with how these turned out! Though denser than the knitted version, they are far smoother. I washed and dried them and they came out very soft.

Crocheted Knockers (not as catchy…)

So they’re not knitted, but they look great. They’re on their way to their recipient, and I’m awaiting feedback on these. Hopefully they’ll be as comfortable as their knitted counterparts!

You can read all the details about my knitted knockers and my crocheted knockers on my Ravelry page.

I made two sets of knockers using one skein of yarn. I have a whole other skein, so I will either make more upon request for my family member, or I’ll donate some!

Quitting Facebook

I’ve written about this before. Many times.

Even a short period of time spent on Facebook leaves me feeling at best lethargic, at worst angry.

I haven’t been writing much on the blog lately, and that reflects in the amount of time I (haven’t) spent on Facebook. I only really go on to post my blog articles anyway.

After being off it for so long, I felt absolutely no desire to go back on. Maybe that’s part of why I haven’t been writing much on here. I didn’t want to feel like I had to go back on Facebook to share my articles.

Back on Facebook for a Visit

Yesterday, I published a blog article. My blog automatically posts to my “thebraininjane” Facebook page, but I need to actually go write a post on my own profile in order to share my articles there.

With some trepidation, I opened Facebook in my browser.

The first thing that I saw was that I had dozens of notifications. The little red notification icon with the number in it is just irresistible. I clicked on it.

Immediately I saw updates from friends, mentions of me in comments on posts I was clueless about, and all kinds of other things I had been perfectly happy not knowing about.

Almost Down the Rabbit Hole

Before I knew it, I had been ten minutes getting myself up to speed on a thread I had commented on weeks before and lost track of.

I hadn’t even seen the time go by! I had only wanted to post my article and leave!

I yanked myself out of the rabbit hole and quickly marked all notifications as “read”. I shared the link to my article, and closed the window in my browser.

Then I sent a text message to my sister-in-law (dear friend and beloved recipient of the Weekender sweater). I told her how I’d nearly gone down the rabbit hole.

Her response was pretty much perfect: “Facebook is not for me.”

Wow.

How simple. How uncomplicated! How true! HOW LIBERATING!

What To Do Now?

It became clear to me then and there that I want to delete my Facebook account.

And not just “deactivate”. No no no, I want to actually delete my account. I don’t want Facebook retaining information about me.

(Yes, yes, I know Facebook has my information on Whatsapp and Instagram, and don’t even get started on how much Google knows about me. Baby steps, people!)

My first step was to google (I know) “how to delete my Facebook account”. The first result was this C-Net article, published only a few days ago, which gives helpful step-by-step instructions.

Let People Know

One of the only things that I like about using Facebook is Messenger. I haven’t had the Facebook app on my phone or tablet for nearly four years now, but I have kept the Messenger app. I think that’s been one of my main reasons for keeping my account: having that ability to write to a Facebook contact if I want to.

The C-Net article recommends posting a status update a few days before deleting your account by way of an announcement. Let people know you’re closing your account and ask them to send you other contact info by Messenger.

Let this post serve as my notification: I’M QUITTING FACEBOOK!

Send me your contact deets, folks. I’ll actually create a contact for you in my address book! Imagine that!

What I’ll Miss

As a hopeless extrovert, I will miss the possibility of getting in touch with people from my past out of the blue. It’s nice to think of a person, remember them for some reason, and write them a little note to say you’re thinking of them. I’ll miss that.

I’ll also miss the local stitch n’ bitch group. There’s something about crafty people who knit and crochet that makes them some of the craziest, zaniest and most entertaining people around. The group will continue to meet, and though I may miss out on things online, I definitely won’t miss out when we meet in person again.

Finally, it’s true that there are lots of really fun and interesting Facebook groups out there. I’ve enjoyed my local Buy Nothing group tremendously. I worry that cutting myself off from Facebook will also mean cutting myself off from groups like these.

Maybe it will. But maybe that’s okay? We’ll see.

Quitting Facebook Feels Scary

Maybe it’s FOMO, maybe it’s because I’m such an extrovert. But the idea of quitting Facebook feels scary. Though I spend maybe 10 minutes out of every two weeks on the platform now, its just being there as an option feels reassuring.

But everyone I know who has taken this step has not regretted it. They’ve never looked back.

It seems that slowly weaning ourselves off of social media is, dare I say it, healthy? Perhaps it’s because social media is so hard to do in moderation. You’re either not on, or your doom scrolling.

Between the two, I’d rather be off it altogether.

I’ll keep you posted!

Another Weekend(er)

Yet another sweater has come off my needles!

I finished my own Weekender last year, and as soon as it came off the blocking mats I knew it was something special.

I wore the thing all winter and didn’t put it away until only about ten days ago. (Full confession: I washed it when I blocked it, and then didn’t wash it again until just before I put it away for the season. Wool really is a wonder fabric.)

As soon as I finished my own version of the Weekender (by designer Andrea Mowry), I knew I wanted to knit one for everyone I loved. Everyone should be this comfortable and cozy all winter long!

Yarn Choice: NOT Superwash!

My Minnesotan sister-in-law was top of my list, as I had not yet knitted her something. I turned to trusty Knit Picks for yarns, and sent her different color options.

I made the mistake, however, of suggesting a superwash yarn. I realized later that this would simply not do!

Why not, you ask? Superwash yarn is so convenient! It’s machine-washable! Perfect for gifts!

A Brief Lesson in Superwash Wool

Well, yes and no. Superwash yarn is treated so that it won’t felt when it’s washed.

Each strand of wool yarn has little scales or fibers that stick off it (imagine those little amoebas with the flagella that help them move–kind of like that). Those scales are what cause yarn to felt to itself when agitated (aka thrown in the washer).

To make a yarn “superwash” it is treated with chemicals to strip those scales, and then coated in a resin to make it super smooth. Great! You can now machine wash your knits without worry!

Aside from the environmental concerns some have over this treatment, removing those little scales also has its drawbacks. Those little hairs, when not agitated and felted together, help a knitted fabric to hold its shape. By removing them completely, the yarn doesn’t stick to itself at all.

What does that mean? Well, when you’re knitting something small and rather light, it’s no big deal. Shawls and scarfs are fine, even mittens or a hat. But something larger and heavier, like a sweater, will simply STRETCH OUT.

Sweaters knitted with superwash wool are famous for being ENORMOUS once they come out of the machine. Some people insist you must also tumble dry the sweater for it to regain some of its shape, and I’ve heard people have had success with that. However, the idea of tumble drying wool is just too terrifying to me.

And so, despite having ordered a lovely batch of superwash wool from Knit Picks, I sent it back and instead ordered this:

Knit Pick’s City Tweed Aran yarn in color “Blue Blood”

Swatching & Gauge

The Weekender is knit in worsted weight yarn. However, the City Tweed Aran yarn I used is a “heavy worsted” or aran-weight yarn.

I have a somewhat tight gauge, so I cast on for my swatch using the needle size recommended in the pattern. For my own Weekender, I had used regular worsted weight yarn and I had had to go up a needle size. This time, I got it right on the first try!

The Weekender is knit in the round, meaning it’s knit on circular needles and you’re always knitting, never purling. Therefore, your swatch should also be knit this way. However, casting on a little tube of knitting is really annoying. So here’s a trick:

I knitted this swatch flat in the round. Whaaaaat?? you say? Yes, it’s confusing. No, it’s not difficult. Check out this video from VeryPink Knits and skip to minute 3:05. She’ll show you how to do it.

I hit gauge bang on the nose with 4.5mm needles.

Cast-On, Ribbing and Joining in the Round

Andrea Mowry has you do a tubular cast-on for the Weekender. It’s a lovely cast on and definitely worth the trouble. However, I couldn’t make heads or tails of her video. So I went back to my trusty knitting teacher, Staci Perry of VeryPink Knits:

I cast on 55 stitches to get the required 109 stitches for my pattern. After chugging along happily on my ribbing (front and back), I was ready to join to knit in the round.

Now I am convinced there is an error in the pattern. Andrea says to finish the back and front ribbing with a RS (right side) row, and to then start your stockinette stitch. However, when you do that, the “seam” stitch that runs up the middle of the front and back of the sweater doesn’t line up with a knit stitch in the ribbing. It lines up with a purl stitch.

That bothered me to no end. At first I thought I had misread the pattern. But this had happened when I knit my own Weekender last year, and a girlfriend had also had the same problem.

So I will add this correction to the pattern: Finish the ribbing on a WS (wrong side) row, and then join to work in the round and start your stockinette.

Body & Shoulder Shaping

The only modification I made in the body was to make it about 5 inches longer, as per my SIL’s request.

Before casting on, she had provided me some measurements from a favorite sweater of hers. Based on those, I’d selected which size to knit for her Weekender, and then planned some changes accordingly.

After chugging up the main body, I separated for the front and back. I always realize, when switching from knitting in the round to knitting back and forth, how much I dislike purling. Luckily, this pattern doesn’t require much.

Then at the shoulder shaping it was time for… SHORT ROWS! Some people love them, some hate them. Ever since discovering German short rows, I have grown to love them.

German short rows are simply a way of avoiding doing the traditional “wrap and turn” short row, which then requires you to do a fiddly move to “pick up” the wraps when you’re done with your short rows. They can be substituted in any pattern.

Here’s Staci Perry’s very helpful video:

When I had first finished my short rows, I looked at the purl side of the work and was a little nervous about how it looked. The Weekender is knit in the round on the “wrong side” and then turned inside-out when you’re done with the body. So it’s actually the purl side which shows on the finished sweater.

Luckily, blocking worked its magic as usual, and all the bulky wonkiness of the short rows vanished after my Weekender had had a good bath.

Unblocked, after joining at the shoulders

I did the shoulder ribbing as per the instructions. However, I did not use the tubular bind off as suggested by Andrea Mowry for the neckline.

When I tried the tubular bind off on my own Weekender back in 2020, I followed the written instructions in the pattern and found it way too tight and very uncomfortable. According to Staci Perry’s video, it’s supposed to be really stretchy, so I must have been doing it wrong. Perhaps another time I’ll try it again.

In any case, I successfully managed the 3-needle bind off for the shoulders (after dropping a stitch and having to work it back up nearly half the body of the sweater–but never mind, it all worked out), and I was ready for my sleeves!

Sleeve Island!

Hooray for Sleeve Island! To fit with the measurements my SIL had given me, I went up two sizes for the sleeves. I found the sleeves on my own Weekender a little snug, and according to the schematic, they would not have been comfortable for my SIL. Instead of picking up the number of stitches for the size 3, I picked up the number for the size 5.

I knitted the sleeves for my own Weekender at the same time using magic loop. This time, I decided to knit them one at a time, and I was glad I did!

When picking up stitches for the first sleeve, I made the mistake of not picking up a stitch right at the edge of the 3-needle shoulder bind off. The result was an unsightly bump at the end of the shoulder:

UGLY BUMP!!

Thankfully, I hadn’t gotten very far down the sleeve, and I was only knitting one at a time. I quickly ripped it back and tried again. The result was perfect:

Ahhh, much better.

After that little hitch, all was smooth sailing down the sleeve. I kept meticulous notes as to the number of rounds and decrease placement, so that when I knitted the second sleeve, they’d be exactly the same.

Here’s me, very excited about finishing the first sleeve, modelling it for my SIL and being a goofball:

Blocking and DONE

I was so excited to bind off the second sleeve that I did a little jig. The best part of this yarn, is because it is NOT superwash, it can felt to itself. That makes changing balls of yarn a breeze. I simply spit-spliced them together!

(If you’re reading this Sudha, yes, that does mean that I slobbered all over the yarn as I was working it, but in all fairness I gave it a good wash before sending it to you.)

Thanks to the magic of spit-splicing, I had very few ends to weave in when I finished. Then, after a little lukewarm bath with some Eucalan, I blotted it on towels and pinned it out according to the requested measurements. Here it is:

Tah-daaaaaahh!

Sending it Off

I forgot to take a photo of the personalized label I sewed into it. It says, “Handmade with love by Jane”. And it’s true. I really loved making this sweater. The entire process was a joy.

I also love the way it turned out. The tweedy yarn is delicious, and since it’s a blend of wool and alpaca, it’s wonderfully soft. Perfect for snuggling up on a cold Minnesota day in midwinter.

Tucked in tissue paper, placed in a pretty box, I wrapped the whole thing in parcel paper and mailed it off with a kiss (and very detailed care instructions: DO NOT PUT THIS IN THE WASHING MACHINE!!).

My SIL’s feedback was exactly what a knitter loves to hear: “It’s perfect!”

As are you, my love. Wear it in good health and with great joy.

Freed From Food Fights

I was the world’s pickiest eater.

For years, all I wanted was cereal, pasta, bread, cake, muffins, croissants… Anything bready, and I wanted it. Even better if it was bready AND sweet.

My mother watched in despair (and amazement) as I somehow managed to grow without seeming to eat a single vegetable. That all changed, however, when I went to boarding school at age 14.

Faced with how gross the food was at school, I suddenly realized how good I had had it at home. I returned after my first semester away and would eat anything. (Or, at least almost anything.)

I am happy to report that I now enjoy a varied and balanced diet (though I still have a weak spot for all things bread…).

What Goes Around…

I can only imagine my mother’s smug reaction to the fact that the Bear (our second son) is just such another picky eater.

He would forgo all vegetables, and even most fruit if he could. Like his mother before him, it seems he would happily live on bread alone.

Following my mother’s approach with me, we instituted a “one bite of everything” rule. That has always worked remarkably well for the Bug, and we figured that way at least the Bear would get the occasional vegetable.

Oh, how wrong we were!

What works for one child, does not always work for another.

Dinnertime became a battle of wills. At first, hearing what was for dinner would make him cry. Eventually, just hearing the call of, “Dinner time!” was enough to set off tears.

It was a battle to get him to the table. It was a battle to get him to eat even one bite of each thing.

Finally, it came down to his choice: calm down and take one bite of everything, or go to bed. He would usually calm down and sniffle through the meal, but it made dinner time (and even lunchtime) stressful and unpleasant.

The Breaking Point

Things finally came to a head one evening. The Bear had been particularly threenager-ish all day, and when I called down to the playroom: “Dinner time!” a howl emerged from the basement.

The wailing mounted the stairs and burst forth through the basement door as his tear-streaked face came into view. We wrestled him to the bathroom to wash his hands, and got him to his chair.

When we were finally gathered at the table, he was given his usual choice: calm down and take one bite of everything, or go to bed.

He threw down his fork and screamed.

I snapped.

I jumped up from my chair, swiftly (but calmly) rounded the table, scooped him up and whisked him upstairs. I bathed him (by which time he had calmed down), got him ready, read him his story and put him to bed.

The following morning, what he hadn’t eaten at dinner was on his breakfast plate.

There were a few quiet tears, but he had understood the point and quickly took one bite of each before having his breakfast.

Then, Relief Came

I was fed up, and in my frustration I vented on a Facebook group. I got lots of sympathy, but then, relief. A friend shared with me the Ellyn Satter Institute Division of Responsibility in Feeding.

This. Was. A. Game. Changer.

The basic premise is this: parents are responsible for what, when and where to eat. Children are responsible for whether and how much to eat.

From the Ellyn Satter Institute website

Important to the process is establishing regular meal and snack times, and not letting children eat between meals.

Luckily, we’ve tended to do this anyway: we sit down together at table to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner. Snack times are mid-morning and mid-afternoon. I have a pet peeve about crumbs on furniture, so we’ve never let the kids eat anywhere but sitting at the table. That’s a firm family rule.

With that already established, putting this into practice was relatively easy. Chico and I talked about it, read through the materials on the website, and agreed to give it a try. Anything had to be better than what we were dealing with now.

Freed From Food Fights

What a relief to be freed from the responsibility of making my child eat!

The first time we sat down to dinner after reading about the Division of Responsibility in Feeding, we made a quick announcement:

“Boys, Mamá and Papá will give you food at mealtimes. We’ll decide what to give you and when. But you guys will decide whether you want to eat it, and how much you eat. All we want is for us to sit together and have a nice time as a family.”

There was a little complaining at first, but as soon as they realized they could choose to NOT eat certain things, the fussing stopped. We try to make sure there’s at least something on the table that they’ll like, but we don’t cater exclusively to their tastes, or make a separate meal for them.

Oftentimes, the Bear has nothing more than a glass of milk and a slice of buttered bread for dinner. It’s hard to take. But we’re working on trusting him to eat as much as he needs to, and on the whole mealtimes have been SO MUCH BETTER.

Pleasant Mealtimes

Now, we spend our mealtimes talking and laughing. Instead of nagging and arguing, we’re listening and chatting. We’ll talk about our days, talk about our plans for the days ahead, and just enjoy time together.

It’s just so freeing. Old habits die hard, and I do sometimes slip back into the occasional nag. But Chico and I encourage each other, and it’s so much better than it was.

According to the Ellyn Satter Institute, following this method will teach children by example how to eat a variety of foods. She does say it can take years, and sometimes it feels like it will never happen for our Bear.

But we must have faith and persevere. As long as mealtimes are a joyful time that we spend together, we’ve got to be doing something right.

Right?

Take A Hike!

It must have been obvious that I was not doing well.

So obvious, in fact, that my mother’s dear friend and my stand-in godmother (who also takes on role of great auntie and sometimes even grandmother in her friend’s place) informed me that she was coming to watch the boys on Wednesday afternoon and that I should leave the house.

She didn’t offer to watch the boys. No. She informed me she was going to watch the boys.

Alrighty, then! I’ll leave!

But where to go?

In the Before Times I’d have booked a massage, or perhaps an afternoon sewing lesson at a local fabric store. Maybe a mani-pedi or a visit to the hairdresser.

But in Covid Times (despite being vaccinated), either these activities are unavailable or seem unsafe.

So instead, I checked the weather report and then wrote to a friend.

“I know you’re working and you have responsibilities and everything, but I’m not okay and my godmother is watching the kids tomorrow and do you want to go on a hike with me?”

The response was swift and encouraging: I’ll make it work.

Outdoor Escape

That’s how I found myself in the car headed west on a mid-week afternoon (on St. Patrick’s Day, no less!).

I’d gone on AllTrails and found a lovely-looking hike within reasonable distance of home. I packed my hiking backpack with water, a first-aid kit, my knitting, two hunks of cheese and a Swiss army knife, grabbed my walking sticks and my mother’s old hiking boots and hopped in the car.

We met at Sky Meadows state park, a lovely park with several trail routes. After encountering a brood of chickens zealously guarding the restrooms, we struck north and tackled a 4.4 mile loop with gusto.

The first part of the hike was the hardest, but the view was worth it. As we stood at the top of a very steep hill, winded and sweaty after just 10 minutes of hiking, I thought to myself, “This was a wonderful idea.”

So Grateful

That hike in excellent company (and the delicious meal that followed!) was exactly what the doctor ordered.

So many things can crowd together to fog my mind and put me in a funk. Tedium, boredom, loneliness, feelings of inadequacy… We all have these feelings sometimes.

What we don’t all have, and what I am privileged to enjoy, are resources and opportunities.

Resources like the wonderful people who support me: my husband, my mother’s best friend, my own friends, family. Opportunities like being able to take a hike mid-week.

For these, and for so much more, I am very grateful. I hope to never take the people and the circumstances that surround me for granted.

If You’re Feeling Blue

You’re not alone. Though trust me, I know it feels like it. Depression sinks us further into isolation, which is a scary side-effect of social distancing.

If you or someone you love is suicidal, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (or SAMHSA–I know, catchy, right?) also offers a 24/7 hotline for free treatment referral and information: 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

There are lots of online resources like Better Help and others. I have no personal experience with these and don’t know how they work. Many of them are for-profit companies, so be aware of that.

If you have a family doctor, you can also reach out for tele-health appointments and referrals.

You can also write to a friend, or call. If you’re reading this and you want to talk, just drop me a line or give me a call. My friend rearranged her work day to take a hike with me. That’s what friends do. I’ll do the same for you.

Photo credit: Brittany Baker on AllTrails.com

One Year On

One year, folks. One year since things went nuts.

On March 6th 2020, Chico flew back to the United States from Spain, and on March 14th Trump banned flights from many European countries (including Spain!).

The fact that Chico has been with us through this pandemic has been one of the small miracles I’ve witnessed over the last year.

There have been a few others.

The Power of a Gifted Teacher

We are lucky to live in a privileged school district, where each child was issued a Chromebook. We are also lucky to have reliable internet connection.

And we are extremely lucky that for kindergarten the Bug was assigned to one of the finest teachers I have ever encountered. A woman of great patience, kindness, but firmness, with a sense of humor to boot.

Mrs. B has reached through the computer screen and ignited the Bug’s love of learning. I consider that a miracle. And the miracle of Mrs. B’s gift has had such a big impact on our family.

He’s logged on to school each day with joy and anticipation, and not once has he complained about it. Miracle.

The Dedication of a Team of Strangers

I signed up to volunteer with the local medical reserve corps last spring. I felt powerless in the face of the pandemic and wanted to help.

From the first time I volunteered, I was struck by how well organized, how proactive and how coordinated everything and everyone was. It seemed to me like all the other volunteers were pros who had been doing this forever.

It turns out, a large number of them were first-time volunteers like me. But like me, they were of a mindset that they were there simply to be useful.

It speaks to how well the organizers from the health department do their jobs, because the MRC here runs like a well-oiled machine.

We currently vaccinate between 1,800 and 2,800 people a day at the county vaccination site. That entire operation is staffed solely by volunteers.

That volunteer army is a miracle.

How Children Adapt to the New Normal

The first time I went to the grocery store wearing a face mask, I nearly had a panic attack.

It was so strange, so frightening and so new to me that I didn’t think I’d ever get used to it.

Ha! Shows what I know! Now I feel weird NOT wearing a mask!

When the kids first had to wear masks, it was a struggle. They complained and fussed, and kept pulling them off their faces. By the second time, they were more resigned. By the third time it was as if they’d been wearing them all their lives.

Now, when we leave the house, they put on their masks like champs. It’s the new normal for them, and they shrug and put them on, just like they put on sunglasses on sunny days and hats on cold ones. No biggie.

Not having to argue about mask wearing every time we go out? Definitely a miracle.

A Shoutout to Librarians

The last little miracle I’ve witnessed is the wonderful dedication of people who love their jobs, and do them well.

Specifically, librarians.

They are a rare and wonderful breed, and they enrich our lives in so many small ways. Every Monday, we go to our local library, and there we encounter the ways librarians show the community their love.

They’re small: A carefully chosen display of books and references on this month’s theme (March is national crafting month!). A printed flyer with a list of read-aloud chapter book recommendations for children ages six to nine. The weekly craft, all neatly packed in a brown paper bag, ready for us to take home (this week we’re growing zinnias!).

The joy the boys feel when they pick up their weekly crafts, and then settle in to browse the bookshelves… That joy is a gift from the librarians.

And it is no small miracle.

Thank You, Miracle Workers

Thank you to the teachers, the volunteers and the librarians. Thank you for the miracles you work every day.

Back in Time

The pandemic really has thrown me back in time.

First, it was the bread baking. Remember when we all thought we were going to STARVE and there WOULDN’T BE ANY BREAD?

(I never did get a sourdough starter going, I just stuck to the NYT no-knead bread recipe. I’m lazy.)

Then it was the knitting.

I was already on board with the knitting trend, but it would seem that many others (Michelle Obama, included!) joined me.

Then there were all the things that I started doing again that I hadn’t done in a long time: tennis lessons, playing piano, writing on the blog…

But this latest development has taken me so far back into the past that I could almost feel at home in one of the Barbara Pym novels I wrote about last week.

Sock Darning.

Yup. It’s true.

I have taken to darning socks.

Darn(ed) it!

Not just any old socks, mind you. I’ve darned some fancy Smartwool socks. The kind that you’re not supposed to need to darn. DARN THEM!

Mindful Mending

The act of threading the needle in and out, back and forth, focusing on keeping my shoulders relaxed and my back straight… It’s meditative.

The pandemic has been anxiety-provoking for most everyone. For me, stitching helps to calm my mind and soothe some of that anxiety.

Honestly, it also helps to stave off feelings of boredom, uselessness and inactivity.

Loved Clothes Last: Added Bonus

I haven’t been shopping much during this pandemic. I’ve avoided my bi-annual clothes shopping excursions. I’ve tried ordering some clothes online, but the waste of having to mail so many of them back is frustrating.

I’ve participated peripherally in the slow fashion movement by making myself some sweaters. These I wear all the time.

(I’ve practically lived in my Weekender sweater this winter!)

But with the pandemic, and with being unable (or unwilling) to do much clothes shopping, I’ve found myself slowly embracing the mending movement.

An attempt at mending a cardigan

First it was the socks. Then, this cardigan that was my mother’s. These aren’t fancy clothes, and you could argue that they’re hardly worth mending.

But they’re clothes I like to wear. They’ve been in steady rotation since the colder weather set in, and I’d like to keep them that way.

If You’ve Any Mending…

Don’t throw away something you like to wear just because it’s got a little hole in it.

Pick up your needle and thread and set to it! You could try doing some visible mending to make a fashion statement.

(Or, like me, you could attempt to make your mending invisible and fail entirely.)

After all, there’s a pandemic on. It’s not like we’ve got a whole lot else to do.

Allow Me To Introduce Barbara Pym

In 1977, she was called “the most underrated writer of the 20th century” by an influential English literary critic and one of England’s most famous poets. And they were right!

I love recommending Barbara Pym to people. She’s an absolute treat, and reading her for the first time is almost as enjoyable as discovering Jane Austen.

Barbara Pym was a 20th century English author, who published nine novels during her lifetime. Three further novels were published posthumously, as well as a collection of short stories.

If you enjoy an oh-so-British comedy of manners, you’ll delight in Pym’s novels.

Where to Start with Barbara Pym?

Most people agree that Excellent Women, published in 1952 is her best novel. It’s what Pride and Prejudice is to Jane Austen.

I enjoy it very much, but I am not as much of a fan of the first person narrative. I liked No Fond Return of Love (1961) and Some Tame Gazelle (1950) better.

A Quartet In Autumn was published in 1977 after a 16-year hiatus. It’s a darker book, but it’s still graced with Pym’s particular wit.

I recently finished Crampton Hodnet, which was written between 1939 and 1942, but not published until after her death in 1980. It’s been years since I’ve read any Barbara Pym, and coming back to her with this book was a joy. I found myself giggling aloud at several points.

What Makes Her So Enjoyable?

I’ve seen her books classified as “Romance”. I’ve also seen them referred to as “comedies of manners.” I think the latter is a better description.

In a romance, two people meet, fall in love and have some kind of conflict (or perhaps the other way around) and after hijinks and kerfuffles, end up married and living happily ever after.

Jane Austen’s books are certainly romances in that sense (though I would never classify them as purely “romance novels”!).

Barbara Pym’s novels, however, are more subtle and less obviously “romance” than that. Yes, there is often love–sometimes even romantic love–in her books. But most often her characters are falling in love with the wrong people (An Unsuitable Attachment was one of the novels published after her death), and rarely do her novels end with a marriage.

What makes her books so enjoyable is how bitingly funny they are. She usually has one character who acts as an observer, watching the little dramas unfolding about them with bemusement and humor.

She writes about small, rather circumscribed lives: spinsters active in fading churches, clergymen, awkward university academics, dashing undergraduates, glamorous local widows, and all with a razor sharp wit which delights in pointing out the ridiculous in each and every one of them.

She doesn’t do this unkindly, though. Her novels show she clearly loved observing people and their little foibles, and she writes of them with great affection. Her genius comes from the fact that she clearly doesn’t take herself or her characters too seriously.

You Will Laugh When Reading Barbara Pym

If you enjoy wry observations, awkward situations and somewhat ridiculous characters getting themselves into scrapes, you will enjoy Barbara Pym.

You won’t cringe at her characters, but you’ll sigh and laugh at them. And as our lives have become more insular, our circles smaller because of the pandemic, you’ll find the small, local settings–a university set in North Oxford, a small church community in a London neighborhood–almost familiar.

You won’t have the same powerful characters as in Jane Austen–no brooding Darcy or dashing Willoughby here. Instead, you’ll find much more commonplace and consequently probably more sympathetic characters. You can more easily believe her characters to have been real people.

Not Too Seriously…

The greatest power of Barbara Pym, I think, is how she makes us see ourselves in her characters, and in so doing she makes us laugh at ourselves.

Do yourself a favor and pick up one of her books from your local library. You won’t regret it.

Bright Spots

Today on our local NPR station, we were invited to send in our voice messages about our “bright spots” during this pandemic.

That got me thinking. What are my bright spots?

1. Baking with the Boys

Yeah, I’m trying to lose weight (it’s still going alright, though somewhat stalled).

But baking with the boys is so much fun! We’ve made scones, all kinds of cookies (chocolate chip, sables, New Zealand afghan biscuits, etc.), Irish soda bread, pies, tarts, cranberry upside-down cake, muffins…

Today, we made one of my absolute favorites yet: a blueberry “plain cake” by Dorie Greenspan.

OH. MY. LORD. This cake is SO GOOD.

The secret is beating the egg whites until stiff and gently folding them in. The boys were fascinated with this process.

(Though admittedly they’re usually in it to lick the beaters and bowls.)

The cake is now sitting on our counter, and I can hear its siren call…

2. FaceTime with Family & Friends

Another bright spot has been talking on FaceTime, Skype, WhatsApp video, Houseparty, or WHATEVER… with family and friends.

Today, I spoke with my godparents over FaceTime. Seeing their smiling (and HEALTHY!!) faces was a delight (though I was a bit frazzled by the boys–sorry about that!).

I’ve been on Zoom with friends from my master’s program in the UK, girlfriends across the world in NZ and Australia, and family in Europe & the States.

It’s true that as this has stretched on, the novelty has worn off and there have been fewer digital happy hours. But they still happen, and when they do, they’re certainly a bright spot.

3. Reading as a Family

Reading alone and as a family has been one of the biggest bright spots.

We read a lot before the pandemic too, don’t get me wrong. But in the fall of 2019, we started reading chapter books with the Bug.

We got ourselves a copy of The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease, and using that and Goodreads, we’ve built a reading list for the Bug.

Since starting down that path, we have never looked back. The Bug is now an independent reader, and picks his own books at the library each week.

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t like to be read to, though. He loves sharing the joy of reading, and a huge part of our stuck-at-home routine has been reading out loud together.

Not just before bed, but all throughout the day. I’ll read to them while they eat their ridiculously early lunch. I’ll read when they need to wind down. We’ll hunt for all the books we have on a certain theme (“snow,” “pets,” “summer,” etc.).

In fact, both the boys love reading so much that we launched a little YouTube project: Stories with Sammy (the Bear). Mostly I read the stories, but Felix also reads for us. The latest video is actually Sammy reading!

How can this not be a bright spot?!?

What Are Your Bright Spots?

I realize I am so lucky to have these bright spots. So many people have none.

What are your bright spots? What little moments, no matter how tiny, help you get through as this pandemic drags on?

Thinking of them helps. And hopefully looking for them will bring more.

Talking to Kids About Death

We got some sad news before the weekend.

The teacher’s assistant in the Bug’s online kindergarten class died in her sleep early last Thursday morning.

She had been off from school for about a week, the Bug’s teacher having told the class that Mrs. H wasn’t feeling well and was taking some days off.

So we knew she was unwell, but we had no idea how unwell.

Hard News

Chico and I were upset to learn of Mrs. H’s death. Though we didn’t know her well at all, we felt like she was part of the household.

We heard her voice every school day, coming through the speakers on the Bug’s computer. She rounded up the kids and got them ready to focus on the day.

She would chat with each child a bit before lessons began, and often shared little anecdotes of her own in response to the kids’ stories. She was a calm, kind presence in the Bug’s class.

Knowing how much the Bug liked Mrs. H, and worried about how he would take the news, we agreed to wait until the weekend to tell him.

His Reaction

On Saturday, when we were sitting together as a family, we broke him the news.

Without discussing it previously, Chico and I knew to use very clear, unequivocal language. In both Spanish and English, we told him that Mrs. H has died. Her heart has stopped beating, and her body has stopped working. She will not be back in his class.

We told him how sad we felt about her death, and how it made us feel like crying. We told him we would miss hearing her voice through the computer.

We each told a story of something she had said that made us happy to remember. Then we asked him to try and remember something about Mrs. H that made him happy.

He was fiddling with a piece of Lego in his hands, and he seemed distracted. He said, smiling, “If I have to think of something about Mrs. H that makes me happy, I’ll be thinking a long time! She always makes me happy!” Then he didn’t seem interested in engaging any more on the subject.

We told him that if he felt sad about Mrs. H not coming back, he could talk to us or to his teacher. He smiled, nodded, and went back to playing.

I, for one, was a bit surprised at his seeming lack of interest in the subject. But I reminded myself of several important points:

1. Mrs. H was a virtual presence to the Bug.

School for the Bug has been something he participates in through a screen. Mrs. H was only recognizable to him as a face on his computer.

While he enjoys his virtual schooling, I think that puts a bit of distance between him and the teachers and other kids in his class. Almost as if they’re not entirely real.

2. Her death is an abstract idea to him.

The Bug learned about her death on a Saturday, more than a week since the last time he saw her. His life isn’t materially altered by her absence, and he has yet to interact with others who might be sad about her death.

He may feel it more keenly when he “goes” back to school on Monday morning and she isn’t there. I don’t know what his teacher plans to say to the kids, but I wouldn’t be surprised if someone brought it up.

3. Children grieve in fits and starts.

According to an expert interviewed by NPR, kids don’t process grief all at once.

(Neither do adults, as a matter of fact.)

What may barely elicit a shrug one day might be keenly felt the next.

And as a child grows, the grief of losing a relative or someone close to them years before can come back with renewed force as their understanding improves.

There May Be More To Come

While he may have appeared uninterested or unconcerned when he got the news, I would be surprised if the subject didn’t come up again.

The Bug is highly sensitive, and he will surely be influenced by his teacher’s reaction, or the reactions of other children in his class.

I expect we’ll get occasional questions about Mrs. H, and about death in general. He still asks questions about his Nana’s death (though he was only 2.5 when she died, he still remembers some).

The only thing we can do is to respond honestly, clearly (no euphemisms such as “passed away” or–God forbid–“went to sleep”) and kindly.

Where are Nana, Grammy (his great-grandmother) and Mrs. H? Well, we don’t really know for sure, but our Christian faith teaches us to expect Heaven: eternal rest in the company of God.

Kids At Funerals: Yes or No?

We had little choice. We had to take both the Bug and the Bear to their Nana’s funeral. Anyone who could have babysat them was going to be there anyway.

Besides, the Bear was three days old and my milk was about to come in.

For children as young as the Bug and the Bear were, I think it hardly matters to them that they were at the funeral.

I’ve read that experts advise giving older children the choice of whether or not to attend funerals. However, in the case of family members, I would expect our children to be there.

My mother firmly believed that children should participate in big family events, whether weddings, parties, reunions or funerals. I share that belief.

Mourning, especially for a family member, is done as a family. It is a communal activity. I would expect our kids to attend family funerals, but would not require them to go to other funerals.

Others may feel differently, but I have personal experience of missing a family funeral, and I still regret it.

Though I was visiting when he died, I had to go back to boarding school before I could attend my cousin’s funeral 18 years ago. I have always regretted that I wasn’t there to share that part of the grieving process with my extended family.

Not Easy, But Important

It’s never easy to talk about death, especially to kids.

But in the end, it is worth it. Death is a part of life and cannot be ignored.

If we hide that reality from our kids and isolate them from participating in the communal grieving process with the rest of their families (or friends), we deprive them of understanding how life and death are intertwined.

I don’t know how things will be for the Bug. He may not grieve much at all for Mrs. H. Or he may be slowly internalizing what’s happened–processing it in his own time.

And that’s really all we can do. Give it time.