Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Guilt of No Reaction

I will openly confess, I am VERY bad at reading the news. Ask my best friend, I am usually quite uninformed about current events and my efforts to change this usually fizzle out as soon as I find a new book. I've found myself reading the news more while I travel because people I meet are curious about my thoughts as an American, and ignore my protests that I don't know enough to have an opinion.

It's very disconcerting to read the news right now. I don't know how to reconcile what I hear with where I am. How am I supposed to feel when I read about Paris and send the message to a friend, "I'm so glad you're ok", and then look up and out the window of the train at the beautiful mountains and the first snow I've seen all fall?

This isn't the first time I've struggled with what I would call "guilt of no reaction."

Earlier this fall I got the news that my aunt had passed away. I read the message, and then I walked outside and enjoyed the sunny day in Edinburgh. I felt guilty, confused. Even if the news wasn't unexpected, shouldn't I be more upset? But I didn't know anyone here. And people were excited. And the sun was shining. The news didn't fit into my life here, and I didn't know how to react. I recognized this feeling; it was the same at Middlebury. Bad news didn't have a visible place on campus, unless it was stress. My senior year a friend from home passed away, and I remember sitting down in the dining hall a few minutes after getting the news, "hey, Katie, are you ok?" "...I guess so?"

I was up in Shetland on 9/11 this year. I spent all day wandering around, discussing knitting patterns and reading my book, and listening to a fiddler in the hostel. And eventually I realized that no one I was talking to was going to mention it. But I had that moment when I remembered, very vividly, getting the news on the school bus as a kid. Maybe it was a good way to remember, though, to be welcomed warmly into a new community in a new country.

A few weeks later I was on a bus across the island. The driver was playing the news and I stared out the window. I heard the words "shooting" and "Oregon" and moved up to the front row. The driver looked at me, shook his head, and remarked on the tragedies resulting from gun access in the U.S.. "It's so sad," I answered, trying to think whether my friends in that area had all graduated already. "It's in their constitution" he informed me. I blinked. He didn't realize I was American. Eventually, I got off the bus and put my thoughts away and walked on the beach and went to a class on lace knitting.

People keep complimenting me by saying that I don't act American. Should I be flattered or offended?

But I think the response to that right now will be, but Katie, you're being close-minded and elitist. Everything you've mentioned above involves white people. You haven't mentioned the recent tragedies in countries except France. I don't know enough. Except for "It's so sad. It's so scary" I have trouble putting words to my feelings in response to these events.

I keep reading the news. I keep shuddering. And then I put down my phone or I leave the wifi and I look around. And I don't know how to react. And I feel guilty about that. And I go for a walk, and take pictures of the coast, and laugh when the sun sets at 3:30, and read science fiction, and knit. And I'm happy. And life is easy. And I still feel a little guilty.

But in the middle of a conversation with some Norwegian students about the flaws in education systems, I realize: I can feel guilty, and I probably will, but maybe my non-reactions are a good thing too. If it's hard to react because the news feels so far away, so unrelated to life here, then that fear isn't everywhere yet. I'm making friends with different backgrounds than me, and I'm changing my thoughts based on their experiences. I'm learning about folk crafts from people who are kind enough to help me just because they want to share their interests.

I'm spending day after day in beautiful places, learning from generous people.

Maybe that is a lesson I should be learning right now.

I didn't turn my profile picture to the French flag this week. Every time Facebook prompted me, I ignored it because it felt meaningless to me. So far away. How does it show my support to click a button on a social website when I can't even articulate my feelings to myself? Instead, I made friends with a few strangers and laughed with them as we discussed education and travel and art. And yes, they complimented me on being un-American.

Maybe I'm ignorant. Maybe I'm selfish. But maybe, maybe, I found a peaceful reaction. As the world reels in shock and fear, as hate and condemnation are thrown around, I added one link of good feelings between two people from different places. I gained a little bit of faith in the kindness of strangers. I left a little love in a landscape far from where I grew up.

And while I was finishing writing this, sitting in a coffee shop window, a boy tapped on the window to get my attention. I looked up, he tapped his wrist where a watch would be, and I held up my phone to show him the time. He blew me a kiss and walked away. And I laughed.

It's a tiny thing, a few seconds of connection, but it made me smile for the first time since I opened BBC when I sat down here. Back when my coffee was still warm. The fear isn't just in my phone. The world isn't as carefree as that boy. I still don't know how to react. But I don't feel guilty about that smile.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Fjord Photo Fun!

Fall colors on the Flåmsbana
 View out from Flåm

 Fall colors might just rival Middlebury

 These guys like the view too
 On the water!
 I want to go up there...


Geography and Gymnastics

Last night (it really was about 4pm but it was very dark out) I found myself stopping by a window in downtown Trondheim to watch the kids inside run around doing gymnastics. They played in the foam pits, did flips on the mats, swung from the uneven bars. I found myself smiling and remembering this phase in my own childhood. In Cultural Geography class I wrote a journal entry about these memories, which I reread and have decided to share. Maybe it's cheating to recycle my writing, but I'll call it a bonus post instead.

 February 23, 2014 - Stretching

"Can you have a memory without a place? This question was asked in passing in class about a week ago, and ever since it has been haunting my mind. Nearly every conversation I’ve had of late has included the phrase “this reminds me of...” or “it’s just like this one time at...”. The notion of a memory separate from a place appeals to me because memories can be triggered by scents and sounds and often feel like they contain only emotions. I have found, though, that every memory I believe to be independent of location comes back to a specific spot. The picture of my grandfather is set in the living room of a house in central Idaho. The scent of woodsmoke goes to the cabin in northern Wisconsin. The chilling cold at sunrise is associated with an overpass in southern Minnesota. The song “Peaceful Easy Feeling” places me on a highway in Utah.

Today I think I found peace with this notion that place and memory are inseparable with an unexpected trip down memory lane. I was at capoeira practice in the CFA, and about five of us had just finished warming up and were stretching. As I sat on my knees and placed the back of my hands on the hard floor, leaning back to stretch my wrists in preparation for acrobatic work, I traveled back to my childhood. When I was about eight years old I was interested in gymnastics. Fundamentally, this was a passing phase in my childhood. I quit as soon as I got scared of doing back handsprings. But for a few years I spent several evenings a week at Ricochets Gym. We entered through a back hallway connected to a furniture store. The floor was covered by blue mats and pits of foam blocks. The air was always dry and smelled like chalk. It was cold in the hallway and warm in the gym. We jumped on the trampoline, flipped on the bars, fell off of the beams, and occasionally (but only if we had been good) we could jump into the foam pits and throw blocks at each other. And one of the first things we did every class was to line up and stretch. With a special focus on the wrists in preparation for doing handstands and cartwheels. We sat on our knees on the squishy blue mats, still cold in our sparkly leotards, and placed the backs of our hands on the ground, and leaned back watching the graceful older girls on the balance beams.

After gymnastics I found a longer lasting interest in skiing and running, and it was not until college that I returned to doing cartwheels on a regular basis. But no matter the situation, when I lean back to stretch my wrists I find myself as an energetic eight year old sitting in Ricochets Gym, complete with the dry air and scent of chalk. A memory doesn’t exist without a place. Every action we take is stored in our memory as an entry tagged by place. In computer science, we would say that human memory is a map from events to lists of places. This provides order and a way to relate different memories. Today, when I found myself in a memory many years and miles away, I followed it to the next place. I wandered through the many locations that could be associated with this action. I ran cross-country in Minnesota, I removed logs from trails in Idaho, I went rock-climbing in Arizona, and I finally found myself back on a hard, cold floor in Middlebury, Vermont, on my fifth day of college listening to a senior explain how to stretch your wrists properly so you don’t hurt them doing handstands. I’ve spent about as long playing capoeira as I did doing gymnastics. There are miles and years separating my current self from my eight-year-old memories. Yet a single action connects them all. So today, I stood up and and added another cartwheel to the list.

It's been awhile since I wrote this, and there have been many more cartwheels to add to the list, in a number of different countries. On beaches and mountains and down the hallways at school. Maybe today will have another.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A Black Ferrari

A dance studio in a warehouse on the waterfront. This wasn't where I expected to wind up in Bergen. But somehow I've found a little home for myself here. While I was in Scotland I kept telling friends back home that I missed dancing, so when I found myself being asked in Bergen if I liked to dance I was cautiously optimistic, "what kind of dance?" "Rock & roll" "like swing?" "Like swing." Forget cautiously optimistic, I was overjoyed. And so, I wound up at a boogie woogie dance class in Norwegian.

And the instructor quickly realized that I rock-stopped instead of triple-stepping and that I had no idea what he was instructing me to do. But I learned to recognize the numbers 1-8 in Norwegian. And when he danced with me he realized I could follow a dancer, just not verbal cues. He even switched over to swing dance for a bit and laughed at my ear-to-ear grin.

Four days later we came back for free dance. And again for lessons. And by now people recognized me. It didn't matter much if I couldn't follow the conversations, I was greeted with smiles and included in the dancing. There was the lead that teased me about stepping back when I should go forward. The ones who laughed at my inability to count properly for set routines. The young couple who danced lindy hop in the corner. The teenager who answered my "sorry...can you speak English?" response to her rapid Norwegian introduction with, "yeah! I'm American. Lived in Utah until recently." The boy my age who joked that I knew all the music (duh, 50s and 60s classics). And the quiet Englishman who danced so well that I felt like we'd had a conversation with every dance.

It made me feel even more lonely the first time I went to free dance. To dance and know you can dance better. To hear songs like "Only the Good Die Young" and remember dancing on the grass outside in the summer with friends. To start a charleston move and relax (I know this!") only to realize it was a sequence and I had messed up the rest of it. To think about the many many many nights of dancing at Middlebury and wonder where all those friends are now and when I'll have a group that fun loving again.

Choo Choo -- my adventure in learning choreography in 24 hours. Luckily it was a great group and they helped me a lot...

In the Mood -- I smile whenever I hear this song

But maybe dance groups make good families. Because while I left one behind at Midd, I seem to have stumbled into another one.

This week, I have been the follow for a private dance class. A gentleman is taking classes to surprise his girlfriend, and they needed a follow to practice with. My host had agreed to help, but found herself needing to take care of a grandchild and asked me to fill in. I walked myself over to the studio, smiled encouragingly, and proceeded to practice spinning for an hour. It was actually helpful that I don't speak Norwegian - I couldn't accidentally back lead because I didn't know what we were practicing. Instead, the gentleman was forced to lead well. And the best bit of all was that when the instructor realized I had done a few aerials before he showed me a few new ones! And he asked me to come back two days later to help with the next lesson.

I walked back in the next day for boogie woogie class. A smile and a hand on the shoulder from the instructor.

"It's good to see you again"

"Have you moved to Bergen for real yet?"

Friends! Friends! I made friends! I felt like dancing; clearly I was in the right spot. And it continued - they joked with me all through class. This was what I wanted from my stay in Bergen, this feeling that for a little bit I wasn't just passing through, but had a life here.

The next day, my last day of dancing in Bergen, I spun my way through another private lesson. I smiled and tried to follow descriptions in Norwegian of analogies between types of dance and different martial arts. Between frame and filling a cup of water (I think, this one never was translated). Between leading a dance and driving a car. Somewhere in the car analogy there was a comparison between different cars and different types of follows. I think it was supposed to explain how some women back lead, or tend to do certain moves, or have trouble counting, but I lost track of the conversation amidst the laughter and jokes. But I looked up when I saw them gesture at me...

"...but she, she is a very good dancer. She is a black ferrari."

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Notes from the National Gallery

Sometimes, when I'm either organized or really lonely, I keep a journal. I love reading what I wrote about past trips or events in school or friends who inspired me. And sometimes, when I'm not really organized, but maybe still lonely, I write sporadic notes about my reactions to things. I never let people read these. But today, at risk of being unpolished, I present my reactions from my visit to the  National Gallery this morning:

 Usually, when I stand in front of a painting I think, "wow, that's beautiful" or, "wow, so many years went into cultivating his skills." I love walking in the quiet rooms and passing paintings and stopping when one catches my eye.

In a museum last spring there was a sign describing people who feel pain from looking at beautiful things -- I understand this feeling. I chase places and artwork that I describe as "so lovely it hurts." A month ago I stood on a beach with tears running down my cheeks and wondered whether it was because it was so beautiful or because I was so alone. Maybe the two weren't so far apart?

Today, though, I stopped in front of a famous painting. I'd seen it in books and postcards and an inflatable toy. And for the first time it spoke to me.

Of walking alone through  another new city with your head full of swirling thoughts and begging for a distraction. Anything. Anyone. Just something to break up the current of your thoughts. Of watching yet another couple walk past and wondering, "will I ever feel like my life isn't always in transition?" Of staring off a bridge and having the landscape blur in your head because you've seen so many new places lately. Of feeling like it's just too much for a moment.

I'm looking at this painting, and I'm seeing myself reflected in the swirls.

I'm sitting and a girl walks up, her boyfriend takes her picture as she stands in front and claps her hands to her cheeks in a mock scream. And I wonder, when did she last feel like this? When did she last feel like she had to scream just to break up the ceaseless swirling in her mind?

Because I've screamed. And I've cried. And I've started running just to see if I could outpace my thoughts on a sandy beach or a trail through the woods.

Everyone knows this painting. Loves this painting. People walk through the gallery everyday and take selfies screaming with The Scream. And ironically, after sitting next to The Scream, I didn't want to scream. Instead, I wanted to smile, because the world, with its admiration for this work of art, had given me permission to be lonely.

And it's a funny thing, but after you scream you relax. And remember that the beauty of living in transition is being able to choose where to go next.

On the room with Monet, Manet, and Cezanne

It's such a funny thing, to walk through a room in an art gallery and see so many familiar names. It feels safe, in a way, to know that no matter where I end up in an art museum I'll find a bit of consistency. But also, I feel like such an idiot -- I'm lucky enough to travel and see all these paintings and I don't have the background to understand what I'm looking at. I see beauty. Skill. Differences. But I don't see progressions, transfer of knowledge, departures from a norm. I don't know which cities were important to artists at what time. Or who taught whom. I don't know early years from late years.

I want to learn to see. In art. In landscapes. In everything. I just finished reading Sherlock Holmes and so much of that is about noticing details and knowing how to place them in context. The only paintings I can place have Norwegian folk costumes - and I'm only starting to be able to remember these distinctions.

The princess

Even the fairy tale princess doesn't like to spin. She sits on the ground with it dropped in front of her,
looking like she just wants to steal a moment for herself.

The three women on the bridge

A moment can be enough. It's fuzzy in front of them. The road ahead is all swirls and confusion. But for them, it's a moment watching the river and not looking at the progression. Maybe I'll learn this lesson eventually...

A letter to the Shetland Knitters

My last day in Shetland several members of the Knitters and Spinners Guild asked if I would write a letter for their newsletter. I was extremely touched, and wrote the following to sum up my experience. Given that I never wrote a concluding blog post about Shetland, it seemed like it might be worth sharing...

Unlike most of you, I remember learning to knit. I was about eight years old and I fell under the colorful, soft, warm spell of a wool shop in Idaho, and the owner started me on a scarf. For years afterwards this "legitimate fiddling" kept me out of trouble at my grandmother's house. And then kept me engaged during a year of dizzy spells that confined me to the couch. Somewhere in all these years I looked up Fair Isle and decided that I needed to visit, and shortly thereafter decided the best way to accomplish this was to apply for a Watson Fellowship (forget the intermediate steps of applying to, getting accepted, and attending a participating university). The perfect dream: one year of independent international travel to pursue a personal interest. And sometimes, if you're lucky and you work really hard, dreams come true. To my friends, "I'm going to knit for a year!" To the academically inclined, "I'm studying textile history and traditional patternwork."

And so I found myself spending a month in Shetland.

What a lovely month it was! I started by attending a Knitters and Spinners Guild talk and slideshow about textiles around the world, and finished with Wool Week. I managed to go both north to Unst and south to Fair Isle. I didn't hug a pony, but I did sit in the front seat of a plane and see five different lighthouses (I grew up 1000 miles from the ocean). I learned that camping bods are cold in late September and that most busses don't run on Sunday and that the Lerwick library is both warm and dry and has free wifi.

But mostly I found kindness and artistry.

I found that I could walk into stores or museums or Sunday tea and leave with both a new friend and a quick lesson on improving my own knitting skills. A big accomplishment for a girl who used to shake just introducing herself to a crowd!

I don't know which amazed me more: the speed at which Shetlanders knit or the quality of the work they produce. The combination absolutely blew me away. It's one thing to say, "I want to learn about Shetland lace" and quite another to hold one of the shawls in my hand and marvel at the lightness, the seeming fragility, the thousands of stitches, and the invisible seams. And that was before I tried to knit lace myself! Or with Fair Isle color work. I read patterns, and count stitches, and try to remember which color is in which hand...and watch women fly over the rows, while chatting, and modifying "patterns" to fit a specific piece. As someone who used to get phone calls at university because I could sew a seam, unpick a row, or teach someone to purl, this was an incredible opportunity for me to be the beginner again. For me to see what is possible and to learn from the best.

All too soon I found myself cramming a few extra balls of wool into my backpack and saying goodbye and summing it up as "beautiful place, beautiful people, beautiful knitting. When can I come back?"

People keep asking me if my visit lived up to my expectations. It far surpassed them. Even when you expect artistry it takes your breath away. But I found more than that. On some hard-to-reach-rocks-in-the-sea are resilient and generous people who made me remember why I travel, and also reminded me why sometimes people choose to stop. And stay.

But for those of us on tourist visas, the time came to catch a ferry.

This is really a thank you note. To everyone I met in Shetland for sharing their homes and time and stories with me. For all the short conversations that mean so much to a lonely traveler and a growing girl looking for inspiration. A very big thank you to three women I met first in Glasgow. To Hazel Hughson, who helped me to place textiles into my own context as a computer programmer and a traveler. To Helen Robertson, whose jewelry captures the essence of a "living tradition", rich in skill and willing to push the limits, and has broadened my outlook going forward. To Hazel Tindall, who opened every door in Shetland for me and without whom my month would have been both lonely and uninformative (and much less fun). And finally, thanks to Bruce Gilardi, who I met by chance in Bosnia last spring, and whose connections to these islands, and advice and enthusiasm have been invaluable.

And with another thank you, I'll turn my attention now to Norway. To see what people, places, and textiles capture my imagination in the next few months. If you're curious, see where I end up on weaveofabsence.blogspot.com.