My neighbourhood, 100 years ago, Ottawa, 1911. H. Bristow’s “Charlie” and Cutter. Timmis, Reginald Symonds. Source: Toronto Public Library.
Today my neighbourhood looks much as it did in this photo of one hundred years ago, although minus the cutters.
The snowploughs (this spelling is intentional!) are digging us out, although the accumulation is relatively light. The temperature has also risen from -20 Celsius yesterday to a balmy -11 Celsius, making excursions outside rather more pleasant.
Is there anything more delicious than a fresh, white, clean snowy path to walk on, before the salt and sand have been laid and dirtied everything?
Deliveries today, if there are any, may be slightly more rapid than they were one hundred years ago, although much less thrillingly achieved:
Grey gelding and open delivery sleigh of Slinn-Shouldis, Ottawa, 1910. Timmis, Reginald Symonds. Source: Toronto Public Library.
Taxi rides were also likely more fun then than now (although perhaps not for the driver awaiting his fare!):
Jewel and Hinton’s Cab Sleigh, Ottawa, 1910. Timmis, Reginald Symonds. Source: Toronto Public Library.
As for me, I am ensconsed in small pre-Christmas and pre-travel pleasures, such as eating these:
And reading this:
The book is an absolutely wonderful graphic novel for teenagers written by Quebec author Fanny Britt and lusciously illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault. I bought it in French, but it is also available in English and apparently has received press from the New York Times. It’s a lovely story of a girl being bullied who finds solace in the story of Jane Eyre, and eventually happiness through friendship.
I don’t normally buy graphic novels for teenagers (!), but I have adored the story of Jane Eyre since I was twelve years old and was very impressed with both the author of this book in interview and the slightly dark (almost appropriately gothic), slightly Victorian feel of the illustrations. Jane Eyre is a fundamentally feminist novel, I think, in the best possible sense, and the pairing here is perfect.
OK. I want to share one more thing before I go back to staring in delight out the window at the delicious snowy-ness of it all and soft glow of the winter sun behind snow clouds. This is an excerpt from a Michel Tremblay novel that I am reading in my never ending quest to improve my French, set in 1930 (Les clefs du Paradise):
Même s’il ne le connaît pas beaucoup, Édouard a toujours été fasciné par son oncle Josaphat. Peut-être parce qu’une sorte de mystère l’entoure: Édouard sait par exemple que le violoneux n’est pas le bienvenu à la maison – il ne souvient pas l’y avoir jamais vu – et que son pere blêmit chaque fois que son nom est prononcé devant lui; peut-être aussi parce que chaque fois qu’il l’a entendu jouer de son instrument, en particulier au marriage de son frère Gabriel, cinq ans plus tôt, il a eu l’impression de s’approcher de quelque chose de grand et qui le bouleversait.
And my rough translation:
Even though he doesn’t know him very well, Édouard has always been fascinated by his uncle Josephat. Maybe because a sort of mystery envelops him: Édouard knows for example that the fiddler (violin player) isn’t welcome at the house – he couldn’t remember ever having seen him there - and that his father became white each time that his name was said in front of him; perhaps also because each time that he had heard him play his instrument, in particular at the marriage of his son Gabriel, five years earlier, he had had the impression of coming close to something big and that had moved him deeply.
You might have noticed my lack of comment on the progress of Gianni’s Christmas sweater…This is because I had forgotten that it takes much longer to knit a sweater about three times the size of one that I would typically make for myself or for my petite mother and 3-5 hours of knitting a day is about all I can handle. I miscalculated the time needed to complete it by about a week, so it is a good thing that knitting on transatlantic flights is once again permitted! That said, I suppose I could give Gianni a sleeveless..er..vest!
Wishing you delights of the season, even if you are not reveling in the delights of a snow day!
A favourite neighbourhood tree, stripped bare in winter.
I read this article in the Guardian this morning, which is easy for me to like as it aligns with many of the things that I embrace in my lifestyle (I’m not being challenged here at all). Quoting the president of Uruguay, who himself has a stripped-down lifestyle:
“I’m president. I’m fighting for more work and more investment because people ask for more and more,” he said. “I am trying to expand consumption but to diminish unnecessary consumption … I’m opposed to waste – of energy, or resources, or time. We need to build things that last. That’s an ideal, but it may not be realistic because we live in an age of accumulation.”
Asked for a solution to this contradiction, the president admits he doesn’t have the answers, but the former Marxist said the search for a solution must be political. “We can almost recycle everything now. If we lived within our means – by being prudent – the 7 billion people in the world could have everything they needed. Global politics should be moving in that direction,” he said. “But we think as people and countries, not as a species.”
I’m no saint (note: I fly to Europe a few times a year), but I prefer a simple lifestyle in my day-to-day. I could own many things that I don’t – a car, fancy furniture, a smart phone, designer clothes, other technology or vehicles. What I own basically consists of some furniture, some items of which are family heirlooms; some books; some basic but quality clothes (some vintage or second-hand); this laptop and an e-book device; and two bicycles (one a good one of carbon fibre). I walk to and from work and do all of my shopping on foot. The furniture that I own that is not from my family is either recycled or furniture I have had since I was a student. I take care of my things, and occasionally I buy nice things such as some new linens, but I don’t have any desire to have more than I do. This is how I feel comfortable in life, particularly as there isn’t a lot of maintenance required when you don’t own very much that you need to worry about.
There’s a great deal of evidence in the economics literature and beyond that people are only made happier by more income and consumption up to a certain point. Once their basic needs and a little bit more are met, happiness generally peaks. There’s a nuance to the story in that wealthier people tend to live longer, but this largely reflects a complicated story involving health shocks through the lifetime (as well as the ability to get better health care, even in a public system, through a variety of channels). (I’m speaking here about developed countries, but most particularly my own, as it’s what I know best.)
I often wonder about this as I see people cruising down the street in their way-too-big car. Very few people need to drive a massive truck or SUV in this urban environment. I’m so used to the North American car-dependence that I barely notice it at times, and then my boyfriend comes over from Italy and declares, “What enormous cars!” I know of a couple who recently invested in a wine storage facility in which they store more than 400 bottles of wine.
I know full well the happiness that comes from having enough money to pursue one’s hobbies. That’s important. I don’t understand the status impulse that drives people to own a lot of things, particularly if they don’t intend to use them for a long time. I’m also not calling out the people with the wine, per se, as it’s no better or worse than a myriad of other consumption behaviours we can easily observe around us. The nice thing about things of quality, as the president of Uruguay notes, is that they can last a long time. It’s one of the reasons that I am so passionate about crafting and artisanship.
I find myself feeling reflective this year as the holidays approach. Part of it is that I’ve personally had a great year, for which I’m enormously grateful, and another part of it is that I know people who are facing great challenges with illnesses of family members (including a child). Part of it I think is just being a Gen X and so sandwiched between the baby boomers and the Ys and Millennials and trying to take it all in. I have the benefit of knowing how to program computers by virtue of having been a young adult at an important turning point in the computer revolution and having formally studied applied statistics. I also have the benefit of having gone to school in a period in which one was expected to actually be able to do fairly sophisticated math without the benefit of a calculator or a computer, so I’m not afraid of being without technology. I chuckle when I think of the fact that although typed manuscripts were generally expected, one was still permitted to submit a handwritten manuscript to a university professor. Likewise, in school, it was expected that we write papers based on actual books that we had to look up in a card catalogue and pull off the shelf and read and synthesize.
I am attracted to the juxtaposition of all these things, because I think there’s something in there that can yield a useful awareness (not that I’m quite there yet). My e-book device is one of my favourite possessions, but some of the greatest moments of discovery of my life were spent in the stacks of a library, browsing musty old physical books and manuscripts and waiting for chance to lead to me to a life-altering page. I want to remain open-minded and to welcome change, but I also find myself greatly attracted to certain principles that were applied in the past and a certain slowness that we accepted as a matter of course.
Yesterday I was walking down the street and saw something that gave me pause. It was very cold (and still is) as an Arctic air mass has settled in (the average temperature is hovering around -20 Celsius). I had been at work and had realized that my group was scheduled to provide a snack for the office that afternoon, but that we hadn’t planned for it, so I headed to the supermarket. On my way, I saw an elderly man with a cane in the middle of the street, who was trying to hail a bus as oncoming traffic was bearing down on him. He was wearing winter clothing but was not adequately dressed, and of course he was endangering his well-being by walking directly into traffic. He was clearly confused.
What was heart-warming was that I saw a girl of about twenty-five, who was ahead of me, head into the traffic and gently steer the man out of danger. As I passed by them, she was telling him that she would stay with him to ensure that he managed to get on the bus. I said a silent thank you to her for her awareness and kindness. Later on, I saw them again in the supermarket at the courtesy phone, so the girl must have decided that the man was too confused to get on the bus and she was perhaps trying to contact a caregiver.
I’m not sure why I’m writing this today, but I think because it gets down to the essentials. A Gen X friend and I had a conversation subsequently about the thing that the girl had done, with him taking the position that perhaps the younger generations will be the ones who will not only notice what is wrong but who may have the voices and the courage to make real and lasting change. They may be forced into it, simply by virtue of the dwindling traditional opportunities available to them. That said, it could turn out as the president of Uruguay laments in the article: “The protesters will probably finish up working for multinationals and dying of modern diseases. I hope that I am wrong about that.”
It’s easy to be carried away with the sparkles and shine of the season and to forget about what, at the root of the matter, gives and generates peace and hope. I’d like to say that I believe I will do something to generate significant change, peace or hope hope in the new year, but it’s a dubious proposition. That takes hard work and commitment that is difficult for most of us, including me, to undertake and advance. At least I can take small steps to think more consciously about how I live and how I want to live going forward.
Santo Spirito, with projection, Christmas 2012, Florence, Italy. (Scroll below after the wordy part for more photos!)
If you were to ask me why I write in this space, I don’t think I could tell you. I like to write here, for some reason, although I don’t have any desire to cultivate an audience. I don’t have any commercial ambitions and honestly I wonder why anyone would care about my personal stories or taste for the historic. I suppose all of these go hand in hand: I’m not bothering anyone and in turn I don’t want anything from anyone, so whether I write her doesn’t matter. I rarely post anything on FB, as I don’t find many things that I want to post, particularly about my day-to-day life. I’m an open book but private at the same time, if that makes sense. Perhaps I just want to write? I do write a private journal, although that amounts to (more or less) a laundry list of grocery items, must-do items and inspirational quotes.
It may be that this is a way of narrowing the field to the things that really matter to me, after a long period of supping at a pretty large buffet. You can only do truly good work when you focus on one or two things, I think, so I’d like to find that one or those two things. When I was younger it was easy, as I put my focus on running. I ran and raced and that worked for a number of years as a centre of my focus, apart from my studies and work. But lately…I’m interested in everything. So far, I’ve determined only a few things:
- One is that I don’t want to have a sewing blog. I can’t get my head around posting pictures of myself modelling clothes on the web, so that’s not going to happen. More importantly, I have realized that I don’t have a strong desire to have a lot of clothes, so apart from the occasional summer dresses and blouses and skirts, I doubt I will annually do enough sewing to warrant a blog. That said, I think that sewing is a fabulous hobby and can be in line with a desire to live a more conscious, careful and thoughtful life (in the consumption sense).
- Although I adore knitting and have a higher skill level in knitting than in sewing, I don’t want to have a knitting blog. There is a great deal of competition in that category and frankly I don’t have the time to knit fast enough to publish endless interesting things about knitting. I will almost certainly post pictures of finished objects and knitting inspiration, however, as knitting is a warm hug sent out to the universe. If you’ve ever knitted anything with proper sheep’s wool you’ll know what I mean. If you haven’t, what are you waiting for? (Oh and go and check out Kate Davies’s most recent pattern for socks (First Footing). I don’t have much time for other people’s patterns these days as I want to make up my own, but I will probably make those.)
- I wonder if I might want to write about travel, as I’ve done quite a bit of that and have a fair bit to say about it, in the sense of observations that I make about place and people, but I definitely wouldn’t be interested in writing about useful itineraries or anything much at all that would interest the modern traveller. (I tend to do odd things like travel to Paris with a Paris map book from 1939 and use Somerset Maugham novels as my companion to London…not to mention Baedekers from the late 19th century for northern Italy…)
- I do truly enjoy thinking about Canada’s past and Canada’s present, particularly in the economic history sense. One of the major issues is that I can’t write in a way that intersects with my job, because of the nature of my job, so I’m limited in some respects in what I can write about and the context I can provide. I also find myself concerned about copyright and posting things and so I’m quite cautious in doing this.
- My biggest passion is probably drawing, but I’m working on that area of my life, attempting to work with more discipline in developing my skill, and as I’m not a formally trained art historian or art student, the best I could do in sharing information from that field would be to post impressions or things that I like. I may do that, too.
So after all that, I’ll continue and share what I’ve been thinking about!
I’ve been thinking about why we travel, for one. (I know that Alain de Botton has written the book on that (The Art of Travel), but I’m still willing to go there.)
I’m privileged that I have the opportunity to go to Florence for Christmas again this year, as it’s one of my favourite places on earth. Somehow as a little girl I always knew that I would go to Florence. It was a kind of a matter-of-fact knowing that I would go there, as if it had always been there somewhere in my destiny (and I’m not sure I even believe in destiny). I’ve always been one to follow my nose, so to speak, and I knew I had to go there. I also knew I’d go back, although perhaps I didn’t know how many times.
Through a series of twists and turns lately – although perhaps it was more like a butterfly alighting on a series of different weeds and flowers (here’s Eglantine! here’s Ivy!) (to quote Elizabeth Barrett Browning!) – I came across a Pico Iyer article about the nature of the travel writer. (Credit goes to The Travelling Philosopher for the find.)
His thesis is essentially that there are travel writers who are somewhat dispassionate observers and analysts while there are those that go seeking to heal some personal, psychic wound. Most travel writers, of course, fall somewhere between the two on the spectrum.
Pico Iyer is the kind of writer, I have always thought, who is so elegant in his turn of phrase that you hardly notice when he is dead wrong. I remember a particular piece that he wrote in the NYT after the peak of the recent financial crisis, about living an apparently simple and ascetic life in Japan. He took quite a bit of heat for that piece, actually, because his ‘simple’ Japanese life is built on a foundation of Oxbridge privilege, book advances and employer-paid trips to the US at his whim.
In this case, however, I think he’s correct. When I was younger I probably travelled to have time to lick my own wounds and to sort out my relationship to my home. At this stage in my existence, however, I’ve worked most of that out and I appreciate both the failings and strengths of my home with more patience, maturity and hopefully less hubris. I travel with eyes that are not so much focused inward but that are keenly searching for bits of information about how the larger world is organized. I want to know at which points of vulnerability or confluence a country or a people gets turned onto one particular course rather than another. But more simply, I want to understand how habits and culture shield us from seeing that we are all the same, or at least no better or worse than any other.
At this point I think the best metaphor for the kind of travel I want to do is looking for a point of opening into a place that I can walk through. I took a course in Italian a couple of years ago with Oxford professors, Cambridge grads and even the daughter of a proper Earl. It was a decent course and the people were not uninteresting, but there was so much posturing as the individuals sought to assert and re-assert their status in the room that it was difficult to get beyond the surface of any of it.
I recently took an evening course to continue practising my French, on the other hand, in my own neighbourhood, with decidedly not particularly privileged or academic people, and I learned far more of the variety that the traveller seeks. There were people who were learning their third or fourth language, after a life of uproot; mothers and grandmothers and uncles and brothers looking for a change in mid-life; and there were young people hoping to improve their job prospects by improving their French. I think what I’m trying to say is that what great citizens and great writers do (I like to believe that I could one day be the former although I am not in any way asserting that I’m on the road to the latter; rather, I’m thinking about Alice Munro!) is find that opening I spoke of in the paragraph above, without even necessarily getting on a plane. In the case of writers, they communicate it. Travel writing, being no different from other writing, I imagine, has to be this.
So what is the opening that I find when I go to Florence? I don’t know if I’m ready to articulate it. There’s the obvious opening that I have in my life with an Italian companion and his friends and family, but that’s not what I mean. There’s always been something found as I wander the streets and in that climb that I make to the top of San Miniato immediately after I arrive, even if I haven’t slept one bit on the overnight transatlantic flight. If you’ve been there and you’ve given yourself the liberty to just wander – map-less and intinerary-less, perhaps you’ll know the magic to which I’m referring.
I have only a few goals for this trip. I have the obvious visits I’d like to make to a few exhibitions that are going on in the area, although these are not essential. One thing I’d like to do is finally speak to the elderly American lady that G and I have seen year after year in the tea room of a major hotel, drinking her glass of wine and chatting up the bartenders (we’ve been curious, but never had the courage to strike up a conversation; I’d like to know her story though, as she’s apparently a half-year resident of Florence). Other than this I might like to chat with the tailor in the ramshackle shop whom I met last year, if he and his wife are there over the holidays. I’ve decided that I’d also like to climb to the top of the Duomo. It’s been years since I’ve done this but I think I’d like to do it again. Incidentally, the view from where I will be staying will be much like this, permitting the drawing of the many personalities of the Duomo, even if I don’t manage to climb it.
Mostly I’d like to feel the place, because that’s where all of the best clues are to be found. Naturally!
Guarding the baby Jesus, after Christmas mass.
A dog in shop window with a crèche (presepio) in Arezzo, 2010.
After spending a lovely day reading and working on Gianni’s sweater yesterday, I popped out to run a few errands. I spotted a “made in Canada” sign on a Christmas stocking in a shop window and decided to pop in to take a look.
I have a confession to make: It’s been years since I’ve bought many if any Christmas gifts. Even as a kid, I wasn’t a huge fan of the gift-giving aspect of Christmas. I loved the simple things – the walk in the snow to the late-night church service on Christmas eve (I’m not religious, but this service recalls memories of my grandmother), singing carols, tobogganing on Christmas morning, cooking with my mom, a big hug from my grandma! Fortunately my immediate family and friends understand my aversion completely and are not offended by it.
I don’t know why I’m a minimalist in this regard, but I have been so for as long as I can remember. I suspect it may be a combination of a highly sensitive personality type and my childhood circumstances. My dad was diagnosed with a degenerative disease when I was about seven, and thereafter our family experienced some economic changes. My dad had to sell his veterinary practise in the midst of a recession when he was no longer able to conduct surgeries (I was twelve).
Don’t get me wrong – I always had a roof over my head, good food on the table, music lessons and books from the library. I did not suffer at all, except for the fact that we moved a number of times and so there was uproot. That said, there weren’t trips or gadgets or new clothes. My mother is a fabulous household economist, so we got by with less money through making things at home and using second-hand things. I started vintage shopping and tailoring second-hand things when I was a teenager, two things I enjoy to this day, because I could afford those things with the part-time money that I earned at odd jobs. Honestly, I feel grateful for the spur to creativity that I learned through that process because my life is much richer now because of it. I wouldn’t change a bit of it, although of course I wouldn’t wish the cause of it on anyone.
Christmas is a particular time for me in this regard. I don’t understand why people who have everything rush around to buy more things for other people who have everything. I understand the impulse to give, but I feel deep-heart pain when I am in shops full of objects of low-quality and little use and am expected to pick up some things and wrap them up. Fortunately, we managed to eliminate the gift exchange at work this year, which was an exchange of low-quality objects generally without meaning, just for some party fun. This year I made up a Canadian Christmas trivia game and I honestly suspect it will be just as much fun as any other activity we could undertake. It would have been nice to give something to charity, but I don’t like to be dogmatic about anything and we decided that forcing others to give to a particular charity would be inappropriate. Most of us give consistently throughout the year anyhow and it is a personal choice. I do work with lovely and generous people.
So yesterday I popped into the shop because I do feel obliged to buy a few gifts this year. I will be in Italy again for Christmas and my boyfriend’s family gives me beautiful things. I feel uncomfortable turning up empty handed, as I try to respect the culture I have been invited into. The past few years I have taken small things – a bowl made by an artisan of Canadian wood, a Quebec apple cider, maple syrup, some Christmas tree ornaments made by hand. My gift to Gianni is always something knitted, because he expressed a love for these things a few years ago. (Actually, it was kind of funny, as three years ago I did not make anything and he fell quiet…I drew it out of him that he had expected something made by my hands!) If I had time I would knit something for everyone, but unfortunately I’d be knitting all year if I tried to do this (and I have other hobbies and a job!).
In the shop yesterday, I was disheartened but not surprised to find very few things actually made in Canada. In Italy it’s rather easy to find lovely artisanal things, including wonderful food, which is my favourite thing (!), but we simply don’t have the depth of tradition here. It takes special effort and extra time to find quality objects handmade here that are transportable and that will meet the Italian stamp of approval (and also assuage my guilty feelings about buying imported things that are effectively damaging the globe). I honestly felt faintly nauseous in the shop yesterday! The shop people were looking at me peculiarly, as I surveyed everything carefully, looked at tags, (probably whilst sighing excessively), etc..
While I was preparing the Christmas trivia game for work I surveyed a few Canadiana sites and some interesting thoughts came to mind. The Christmas tree, for example, was not commonly seen in the average Canadian home before the 1920s through 1940s, although wealthier families had had them since the Victorian period. I thought about one of my favourite Canadian novels, The Tin Flute (Bonheur d’occasion is the original title), about poverty in the Montreal neighbourhood of St. Henri – one of the most exquisitely beautiful portraits of what it felt like to be working class and poor during the first half of the twentieth century that I have ever read.
When I started preparing summaries of my family history a couple of months ago, my grandfather responded to my mother’s sharing of my documents with an interesting story. I had filled in some of the mechanical details of my grandfather’s grandfather’s immigration to Canada when he was four years old. I had gone to the British censuses and located my grandfather’s great-grandparents and their family history. I had tracked their arrival in Canada and their first appearance in the Canadian census in 1861, as well as the interesting trajectories they followed subsequently, woven into the history of this place. My grandfather himself was only little when his grandfather passed away in 1926, so this information was new to him.
The story that my grandfather, who is ninety-two years old, emailed(!) was this:
As for Grandfather George A. I have couple of vague memories. I recall Christmas morning 1925 hearing a whistle downstairs and Grandpa giving me the whistle as a Christmas present. Grandpa died the following January 26? and I think I remember seeing him in the coffin in the living room and I vividly remember of looking out the window and seeing a horse-drawn hearse turning out of the driveway and going east to I assume the cemetery at H… where he was probably stored until the ground thawed out in the spring.
In those days when people died in the wintertime with the roads closed for cars the mortician came to the home, prepared the body and the funeral was in the home. I distinctly remember that it was a regular hearse on sleds which was part of the mortician’s equipment at that time. Earlier before there were any cars I assume there was also a horse-drawn hearse on wheels.
Amazing what sticks in a 4 year old boy’s memory.
One other thing which should impress you … M was born Jan 7 so mother had a baby and three other children aged 6, 4 and 2 to cope with at the time of her father’s death.
I suppose the point here could be that even perhaps a simple gift like a whistle can give joy, on a farm, in the middle of snowy rural Ontario in the 1920s. But really the point for me is that the memory of his life with his family is way more valuable to me than any physical gift I could ever receive. I cherish the connection most of all and I suspect that ultimately that is what most of us are seeking in our gift exchanges at Christmas.
(Degas, bottom; Berthe Morisot, top)
I think of Emmy at eighteen, newly installed with her vitrine of ivories in the great glassed-in house on the corner of the Ring. I remember Walter Benjamin’s description of a woman in a nineteenth-century interior. “It encased her so deeply in the dwelling’s interior,” he wrote, “that one might be reminded of a compass case where the instrument with all of its accessories lies embedded in deep, usually violet, folds of velvet.”
~ Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes
I thought about Mother’s life, the part of it I knew. Going to work every day, first on the ferry then on the bus. Shopping at the old Red-and-White then at the new Safeway — new, fifteen years old! Going down to the library one night a week, taking me with her, and we would come home on the bus with our load of books and a bag of grapes we bought at the Chinese place, for a treat. Wednesday afternoons too when my kids were small and I went over there to drink coffee and she rolled us cigarettes on that contraption she had. And I thought, all of these things don’t seem that much like life, when you’re doing them, they’re just what you do, how you fill up your days, and you think all the time something is going to crack open, and you’ll find yourself, then you’ll find yourself, in life. It’s not even that you particularly want this to happen, this cracking open, you’re comfortable enough the way things are, but you do expect it. Then you’re dying, Mother is dying, and it’s just the same plastic chairs and plastic plants and ordinary day outside with people getting groceries and what you’ve had is all there is, and going to the library, just a thing like that, coming back up the hill on the bus with books and a bag of grapes seems now worth wanting, O God doesn’t it, you’d break your heart wanting back there.
~ Alice Munro
I’ve been offering an ear to a few people lately who are suffering heartbreaking losses. We are all connected. Be kind to each other. XX
I feel such a creative force in me: I am convinced that there will be a time when I will make something good every day, on a regular basis…I am doing my very best to make every effort because I am longing so much to make beautiful things. But beautiful things mean painstaking work, disappointment, and perseverance.
~Vincent van Gogh
Ladies’ hockey club, Edmonton, 1899. Glenbow Archives.
(Note: This is a wordy post but there are photos below.)
Last week I presented a few photos of men at work. I could do the same of women, but I must admit that I am more fascinated by the breadth of activities undertaken by women at the turn of the twentieth century and its first few decades.
I’m not sure exactly why that period interests me so much. I’ve always loved the aesthetics of the Victorian to the Edwardian periods and on to the 1920s. I think it might be that there’s a visual representation of the gradual emancipation of women through that period.
One of the academics in the field of economics that I most admire is Claudia Goldin, who has written extensively on the labour supply of women in the US – not just through recent decades but even back through the seventeenth century. It will come as no surprise to any thinking person, that through history women have had an important role to play, not only in the home but on the farm, for example, so the historical path of female labour supply is definitely not a straight line. This is a complicated subject, however, and I can’t do it justice in a short post, so I won’t try. At the same time, I mention this as the rural and frontier nature and dreams of Canadian society at the turn of the twentieth century probably encouraged (or at least did not discourage) some equalization between men and women.
I think my fascination with the period stems from the fact that I grew up hearing a great deal about the suffragettes. My great-grandmother’s cousin was married to a very famous Canadian suffragette. My grandmother therefore grew up hearing constantly about this person. Women were legally declared persons in Canada in 1929, in part through the actions of that woman and four others.
More recently, I discovered two interesting things about my paternal grandmother. I had always known that she was an educated woman with many skills, but I hadn’t realized that she had started her university degree in 1928, a year before women were officially declared persons in Canada. She graduated in 1932 and in the yearbook it states that she was on the university women’s hockey team. She always had an athletic frame and walked a lot through her life, but I had never once heard that she had been a hockey player. It was a revelation for me, as was the thought that she had started university at such an interesting point of transition.
It’s not as though my grandmother was a pioneer, per se, as bold Canadian women had been pursuing higher learning for a while. (The first woman to practise medicine in Canada began practising in 1868, although for a number of years women had to study medicine in the US as they were not permitted to study in Canadian medical schools.) That said, university attendance was not exactly commonplace among Canadian women in 1928. Women were more likely to go to hospital nursing schools or teaching colleges, as nursing and teaching were considered practical occupations for women who wanted to do something outside of the home (before marriage, of course).
Obviously, this raises two questions. One is about my grandmother, and what drove her to university (her sister did, in fact, go to a hospital nursing school, became a nurse, and then married a doctor and stopped working). The second question is about my great-grandfather and what his views must have been about women attending university (obviously liberal). And why? When I was doing historical research into his family in England I noticed one thing. He had an older sister who was a trained and employed teacher in England, unmarried, whose name was my grandmother’s middle name. Had my great-grandfather’s sister been a strong-minded feminist woman who had shaped his thoughts? Had she also attended university, as he had? I’d like to know.
The thing is that my grandmother was already gone by the time I became an athlete myself in my 20s, so I wonder now what she would have said and thought. She had always encouraged me to read, to think for myself, to be competent. I don’t doubt that she would have liked my athletics.
As an aside, having been a competitive marathon runner myself, it still fascinates me that the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon ran in 1972; the first Olympic marathon for women only took place in 1984. I met Joan Benoit Samuelson, the American woman who won the latter race, in 1998:
I admired her so much; she was fierce! (Well, actually, I’m sure she still is.)
One of my favourites whom I met was Greta Waitz. She was the Norwegian who won the New York Marathon multiple times. She was coaching Liz McColgan at the 1998 London Marathon when I had a competitive bib for the first time and I remember being so in awe of her I could only smile at her. Unfortunately, she died of cancer a few years ago.
Back to the post…
To tell the honest truth, I’ve never liked hockey at all. I know, it should be illegal for a Canadian to say that but I think my resentment has two parts. One, I was never put in hockey lessons when I was a kid; and two, both of my brothers played hockey at ungodly hours and so every Saturday morning I was dragged out of bed to the arena to sit there and watch them practise and play. To make matters worse, in the evenings, the TV would be monopolized by my brothers watching hockey. I never had a say in matters! Modern day men’s hockey is also way too violent for me, which means that I look on it with a bit of disgust.
I do however have a few small, positive memories of hockey. One is of going to Maple Leaf Gardens with my dad a few times. If you’re from Toronto or you know anything about Canadian hockey, the idea of going to Maple Leaf Gardens in the 1970s will still hold some romance for you. I even had a hand-knitted Maple Leafs jersey that my grandmother made for me!
The second positive memory, unbelievably, is of all the times that my brothers put me in net on our background rink and fired pucks at me. Honestly, skating around and being outside were always things I adored. I must find a picture!
Anyhow, on to the photos! They’re fascinating.
Ladies’ hockey team. Banff, AB, 1911. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB
I’m fascinated by the men out to watch the game. What were they thinking about the women’s quality of play?
Ladies’ hockey team, Vulcan, AB, 1916. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB
Ladies’ hockey team, Okotoks, AB. 1895 to 1905. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB.
(Love the cardigans! I also love that these look like ordinary farm women, and not particularly young ones.)
Okotoks ladies at Vulcan, 1917. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB.
I love this one, because you can see the vastness of the landscape beyond the outdoor rink. It must have been extremely chilly out there!
Ladies’ hockey team, Vulcan, AB, 1913. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB.
(Not sure I would want to replicate those hats, but I love the bloomers!)
And possibly my personal favourite:
Women mountaineers! Fabulous!
It’s very cold today (-17 C), although it will gradually warm up through the day and tomorrow there will be flurries and temperatures hovering around 0 C. Over the rooftops, you can glimpse the ice on the tree branches.
There’s an exquisite quiet that falls on the place when it is very cold. There are people out and about – taking dogs for walks and out exercising with friends - but there is also a stillness, a breath of nature that pervades everything.
The other day, walking to work, it looked like this (unfortunately for the photo, the recycling and garage bins were out for collection on that day!):
This weather obviously (!) drives me to knit. The sleeves of Leila Raabe’s Stasis are completed, but I’m afraid I’ll have to wait until the new year to knit the body. I’ve cast on Gianni’s Christmas sweater and have roughly three weeks to knit it before I leave for Italy. As it’s in a heavier-weight yarn, I think I should be OK, even though he wants a rather large size.
I’ve 100% fallen in love with Brooklyn Tweed‘s aesthetic and yarn. I’ve said this before but I love the rustic quality of the yarn, married with exquisite softness. This sweater will be lovely after it is blocked. Here’s a small swatch of a lace pattern I was trying out for another sweater (the lace pattern is Oriel, from one of Barbara Walker’s treasuries), after blocking:
The square is so soft and the yarn has bloomed so beautifully. I can’t wait to finish Stasis and do the same. January!
What I especially love about Brooklyn Tweed designs and the eye of Jared, who started that company, is that although the designs sometimes embrace more experimental constructions and techniques, the aesthetic overall is clean and classic. They also subtly embrace vintage touches. Overall, the garments are made to transcend fashion trends and can be knitted with more or less ease to suit the age and taste of the wearer. A win-win. I’m very impressed. I think the only thing I don’t like is the length and write-up of the patterns. They do this because they introduce new techniques and approaches, but being used to old-fashioned knitting patterns I find it irritating to flip back and forth over nine pages of text! That’s a small quibble though, and the times, they are a changing. (Plus I’m excited about trying new-to-me techniques…see below.)
I cast on Gianni’s sweater with a tubular cast on, which I’ve actually never done before, and man does that make a nice finished edge for the ribbing. I was wearing one of Gianni’s high-quality bought sweaters at the time (which, even though it was used when he gave it to me, I had to pay duty on when I returned to Canada…can you see me with the customs agent trying to negotiate a price on a high-quality ten-year-old Italian-made sweater?) and could see that the manufactured garment actually had the same type of cast on. The yarn is Brooklyn Tweed Shelter in colour Long Johns, which is super super super. I can’t say enough nice things about it.
The yarn is not cheap and this will not be a cheap sweater in the end, but I never buy cheap materials. When I was a student years ago I did, because otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to create anything at all, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that for me it’s better to make one truly top-drawer garment instead of five with low-quality materials, as I’ll wear the one really nice garment for years and will not wear the garments made with materials I don’t especially like.
My mother always bemoaned my “champagne taste” when I was a kid, which I completely understand, but I’ve compromised in life by simply not having anything when I couldn’t afford the good stuff, instead of settling for something that I don’t like. I’m the same with food, music…everything! I like to think it’s overall a good strategy for the environment and for my long-run health and well-being, because I am not much of a consumer and I don’t throw out much, although I’m not driving the local economy’s engine very much. I feel quite guilty about that but it’s tough to find a wide variety of Canadian-made products of high quality (at least in the textile field). The textiles industry received “infant industry” protection in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but as we don’t have comparative advantage in this field at all, the broad industry gradually more or less died. There are a few individual artisans starting up in Canada and producing very high-quality products, but it’s not always easy to source the stuff and the prices make the products not accessible to most people.
I still have a soft spot for Briggs and Little, a New Brunwick-based firm, but the yarn that they produce is rustic in nature and therefore is not suitable for all projects.
One of the interesting things about knitting with Brooklyn Tweed yarns is that they are milled in New Hampshire. In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth, a whack of French Canadians and Maritimers moved down to the US to work in the New Hampshire textile mills. The old system of land distribution in Quebec and the heavy influence of the church meant that French Canadian families had very very large families (a bit like the Irish) but no land to distribute to all of the children in the family. There was really nothing for “surplus” children to do on the impoverished Quebec farms, so they moved down to New England to work in the mills. Many New England families (and, well, families all around the US) now can trace some of their roots back to French-Canadian families, and French-Canadian names abound in some states (albeit sometimes with an Americanized pronunciation). Some very interesting academic research has been done on their integration over several generations, if you’re interested. Some of these people and/or their descendants eventually came back to Canada, particularly in the 1920s, but that’s another thread of the story.
On a final note to the story above, one thing that many Canadians and Americans don’t realize is how porous the Canada-US border was in 1900. Basically, people freely moved across the border, or lived on one side and worked on the other. I met John Kenneth Galbraith, who was a famous Canadian economist who lived most of his adult life in the US and who worked for various US administrations, at the National Archives in Washington when I was working there in 1992 (my first professional job!). He noted exactly this point, recalling anecdotally how comfortable and natural our relationship was with the US, particularly the border states (at least work and sociologically speaking…they still plotted to annex us on multiple occasions; although of course there were also movements within Canada favouring union with the US on multiple occasions).
I like the US as a neighbour and appreciate and often admire our American friends, but of course I am pleased that we have managed to retain sovereignty. A diversity of perspectives and policy approaches in the world is a good thing and I am honoured and grateful to have been born in this wonderful and exquisitely beautiful country. I can love and appreciate the unique qualities of other countries and cultures through travel, which is a great privilege.
You can spend your whole life thinking the grass is greener somewhere else, but ultimately it’s much nicer to be where you are, no? Some colleagues and I were chatting about the whole debacle with the mayor of Toronto yesterday, and I couldn’t help recounting that I loved and appreciated growing up in Toronto in the 1970s. There was a spirit of optimism, innovation and simple joy that existed in that city then; I hope the city still retains some of that!
Well that was a ramble. I think I should knit, or search archives, or swim in a sea of other joys. I wish you happy weekend!
This amazing photo was posted on a FB group (Lost Ottawa) that I am subscribed to the other day. I wish I could give further photo credit but other than that it is a “PJ Studio” photo taken in the 1890s, I don’t have further detail to offer. This street is now a shell of its former self, although in summertime it is used quite heavily as a pedestrian walkway (no cars are permitted).
I awoke this morning to this.
There’s really nothing more lovely, in my view, and although it might seem crazy, to me winter is one of the great joys of living in this country. It’s something we have in common, that in a way binds us together.
I post this poem every year, but I never stop loving it. Although today’s deep snow was of course accompanied by mild temperatures, this poem by John Newlove is the one poem I know of that best captures the feeling of being in winter in this country, as it is and how I will always think of it:
You never say anything in your letters. You say,
I drove all night long through the snow
in someone else’s car
and the heater wouldn’t work and I nearly froze.
But I know that. I live in this country too.
I know how beautiful it is at night
with the white snow banked in the moonlight.
Around black trees and tangled bushes,
how lonely and lovely that driving is,
how deadly. You become the country.
You are by yourself in that channel of snow
and pines and pines,
whether the pines and snow flow backwards smoothly,
whether you drive or you stop or you walk or you sit.
This land waits. It watches. How beautifully desolate
our country is, out of the snug cities,
and how it fits a human. You say you drove.
It doesn’t matter to me.
All I can see is the silent cold car gliding,
walled in, your face smooth, your mind empty,
cold foot on the pedal, cold hands on the wheel.
I walked home this evening from my French class, with crunchy steps, listening only to my footfalls, branches creaking with snow, and watching swift, wispy white clouds scuttle across a dark night sky (snow is no longer falling). I felt the vastness and potential in the universe that I always feel on a winter’s night.
And speaking of a winter’s night…any Canadian reading will be more than familiar with this Gordon Lightfoot classic.
Happy Winter’s Eve.
And for something along the usual lines of my posts, because why not… Would that I owned a sleigh and team…
Sir George Drummond and a group of men in a sleigh, Montreal, about 1895. McCord Museum, Montreal.