Friday, June 24, 2016

Spinning Straw into Gold


I’ve always had high expectations for myself. I assume thats's pretty normal. High expectations should come along with our divine potential. They keep us focused on growing and improving.

 Unfortunately, I’ve had to downscale my expectations a lot. I’m still testing my limits to figure out a sane balance in my life. When I push those limits, I always pay a price.

This has been a payment week. Last week I went camping, but was very careful not to push myself. I sleep on a bed in my parents’ trailer, napped at least once a day, knit the pieces to last week’s angels, and read most of Walden. It was a beautiful, restful time, far away from dishes, laundry, and eternal remodeling.

But I got back on Thursday at noon and planned to put a blog out on Friday. That meant finishing up the angels. What I imagined as a quick job, turned into a full eight hour work day. I sat and sewed. I didn’t realize I was hurting myself until it was too dark to take  pictures and the angels still needed hair. I have been creeping ever since with increased pain and the anger and depression that goes along with hurting myself.

Thus the story of Rumpelstiltskin.
A quick re-read reminded me that the poor miller’s daughter was operating under the too high expectations of her king and her father, not herself, but she still had to pay the price.

The magical Rumplestiltskin offered to spin straw into gold and save the maiden’s life. First, she chose the payments--things she could part with, like a necklace and a ring. But in the end, he demanded her baby, something worth more than her life.

In my case, I eliminate the option of a magical happy ending. (My doctor says we’ve gone through about 20 “miracle drugs” so far.) For most actions, I choose the payment—grocery shopping or swimming cost me some extra time napping. Knitting and spinning make my arms and shoulders tired. Church will send me to bed until evening. 

If I chose to do more, I no longer set the price. This time, it has been most of a week pretty much down. That leaves me two weeks behind in dishes, laundry, and knitting projects. I don’t know when the price will be paid so I can speed back up to my usual slow walk.

Perhaps as a reminder, I have purchased a mascot from I plan to call her Patience because that is what I need most.

Buying a knit bear seems silly for a knitter, but I am supporting a blogger who struggles to do what I want to do. He supports himself solely through his knitting and his writing. 

Thanks to my husband, I don’t have to do that.  But I hope that someday I will be able to pull my own weight again financially. For me it is pride, not survival. Patience will be essential to keep my pride and aspirations from hurting me again and again.


When I buy fiber ready to spin, it’s a simple operation to sit down and produce pretty yarn. But going with the theme of overly high expectations, I prefer to start with “raw” wool right off the sheep. 

I have two bags of nice Icelandic wool in my porch. I have only begun to put a dent into this wonderful supply. 
The dog is begging to go outside with me.
He won this time.
First I need to sort it. Some of the wool, mostly from the legs and belly of the sheep is just too dirty to work with. (This particular fleece has a lot of vegetable matter tangled in it, but is remarkably clean. Some fleeces that I have worked with were so coated with clay/mud that I had no idea what color the sheep was until after I washed it.)

I wash the wool by letting it soak in very hot water with dish soap. I run the wash twice, then rinse.

Once the wool is clean, I gently squeeze out as much water as possible and set it outside to dry in the sun. 

Carding the wool lines up the fibers to make them easier to spin. It also pulls out knots, short fibers ,and more of the vegetable matter. I run clean fiber through my drum carder twice. By the time I have sorted, washed, and carded the wool, only about half of the wool I started with is usable. In pioneer times, I would use this waste wool to stuff furniture or insulate my walls.

Carded wool from a distance looks soft and clean, but I will still be picking straw out of the wool while I’m spinning and from the yarn while I’m knitting.

My plan was to wash wool to show the lovely sink water and to spin to show the finished product, but I am already feeling the carding. I don't want to spend another week down with blog-related injuries. Time to post pictures and call it a blog.


I have used the down-time this week to work on one of my knitting weaknesses: socks. I have knit amazingly few socks because I don’t value socks very much. I buy them cheap; wear them out; throw them away. Most of the time I don’t even wear them. But so many people swear by hand-knit socks and value them as gifts. 

So I bought a class and a kit from The teacher, Lucy Neatby,
This is Lucy Neatby. I'm a pretty conservative crafter.
demonstrates each step slowly and thoroughly, adding in many useful knitting tips along the way. It is definitely worth the price. 

I’m one of those annoying students who work ahead. I make a lot of mistakes because I jump into step three before completely understanding step two. 

But in spite of myself, I have accomplished a pair of socks I would be willing to wear—if it wasn’t 90+ degrees outside. I think they will look very cute over the tops of my ankle-high boots. But until I am tempted to keep them for myself, they will be on sale in my shop. (At least they will be posted by tomorrow, 6/25.)

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Blessings and Imperfect Angels


I believe in angels, but I doubt they are allowed to interfere in mortal affairs very often. I think God expects us to be angels for each other. In that sense, I am surrounded by angels. 

I have a crappy chronic pain problem, but I have a wonderful life because I have an amazing support system.

Amazing starts with my husband. I have read so many stories of spouses leaving because they weren’t able to cope with a caretaker role. But my sweetheart stays with me through thick and thin, rich and poor, sickness and health. 

This spring, while facing the loss in my career and a possible layoff in his job, my husband built me a completely new bedroom. We have more closet space, beautiful artwork, and a big TV. It’s painted in soothing, earthy colors to coordinate with our wedding quilt. My mother-in-law sewed and quilted it over 25 years ago and we have wanted to display it on the wall for almost that long. It’s finally hanging above our headboard. When I left work, I had a cozy nest to land in.

He also lets me do crazy things that are completely contrary to his orderly, conservative nature. When I wanted to put a dragon vinyl on my kitchen wall, my husband suggested that a painting would work better and asked his mom to do it.

 My mother-in-law is an accomplished artist, so it was exciting to work with her on the planning.  The painting was even more fun. We got to visit and laugh as she worked for hours on my wall. The final result, as you can see, is gorgeous. 

My mom and dad are always there for me as well, in everyday and more amazing ways.
  Their contributions to my life would fill many essays

 I’ve always been invited to travel with them. They carried me and my little boys (9 and 6 the first time) halfway across the country three times. We travel somewhere with them every year. I camped with them this week—cushy camping with a bed in their trailer and absolutely no responsibilities.

 Today I’m sharing a recent, photogenic, gift. This year’s birthday present is a peaceful, Japanese-inspired, rock garden. It requires little water and light maintenance, a little corner of the yard that I can manage.

The last angels I’m spotlighting today have no idea how much their gifts mean to me. 

When we moved into the neighborhood in the 70s, it was quite rural. There weren’t any commercial farms, but most people lived on an acre or more with large gardens and some livestock. I remember sheep, pigs, and rabbits at my home and horses around the corner. Now we live among expensive homes and professionally manicured yards. 

Only a few of the original homes and pastures remain, one belongs to my angel. Her son keeps a few sheep in her pasture to qualify for the “green space” tax exemption. These sheep are mostly scenery, but they still require shearing once or twice a year. For many years now, they have given me the wool. 

Spring shearing happens during the difficult final months of the school year, so a new load feels like a promise of summer with ample time to wash, dry, comb, and spin the wool. I currently have two large garbage bags of raw wool inside my porch. It smells like sheep and kind of like horses. (They may share pasture and barn space.) Most people think it stinks. For me, that is the smell of childhood and creativity. 

Next week’s blog entry will tell more about the process of turning dirty wool into a clean project. This week’s knitting is a thank-you gift for my neighborhood angels.


The current sheep are white Icelandic, so I am learning the potential of that type of fleece. I used my favorite doll pattern to make these angels. Fortunately, I had a bag of brown Icelandic fleece in my stash, so the angels are entirely Icelandic except for their shiny synthetic halos and messy Shetland hair.

Icelandic is supposed to be perfect for felting, so I put all the pieces into a hot/cold heavy-duty washer load. They shrank by about a third, but more importantly, they took on a more finished look and and a nice fuzzy halo. (That’s the official word for fuzz on yarn and wool.)

My angel family has Dutch ancestry and many beautiful blondes, so the blonde angels are for them. The grey and brunette angels are available in my shop. (Many of the angels throughout my life have grey hair, I bet yours do too.)

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Sink or Swim: Riding the Waves of Education Reform


Education has always been subject to trends and fads. It has also always been described as being in one type of crisis or another. And experts, often far from classroom situations, always  jump in to solve the crisis.

 I grew up with the joke that Utah is always 10 years, 2 hours, and fifteen minutes behind. Education is definitely an exception to that. Utah educators read books about education and national trends sweep us at about the same speed as the rest of the country. No one wants to be behind or deprive our kids of any opportunity, so we implement the latest research. 

Unfortunately, education reform tends to be “one size fits all,” so some trends are better for some teachers and students than others. The following is my viewpoint of teaching during a tsunami of change.

In the beginning (1991), there was freedom. 

In fact, my first paid teaching gig gave me too much freedom. Alta High School, the second half of the year, College Prep English for seniors. I was given two shared classrooms, a key to the book room, and a kind mentor who taught another subject in a different part of the building. I was never told what to do, but I must have done it wrong because in spite of passing two evaluations, they didn’t keep me. 

Luckily I fell into the arms of Union Middle School. I had a mentor teaching the same subject across the hall, a culture of sharing, and a written guideline of topics I needed to teach and novels I could use. I was free within parameters. There was a state core long before common core, but it was written by lovers of language and literature rather than businessmen. 

There was also time. All seventh graders had English and reading every day, most with the same teacher. Reading was for literature, vocabulary, and reading strategies. English was for grammar, usage, and writing. We had spelling in one of those as well. I had the same kids for an hour and a half, only three groups of kids to know and love. (That’s 75 instead of 150.) Even with small children at home, I had time to read what they wrote and really get to know the kids.

Our freedoms started to gradually erode once we became part of a new district and the state decided to adopt Common Core. But it didn’t seem bad at first. English and reading were split apart so most of us only taught one class or the other. We had reading specialists who gave us helpful strategies that should be taught in all classes, but they also counseled that we really shouldn’t read whole novels in our classes. Eventually we lost Reading altogether. It became a specialty class of structured training for kids who were behind. Kids who read near or above grade level didn’t take reading at all.

We decided to start working with the core early, to get a jump on things. That gave me the opportunity to completely revamp the seventh grade curriculum. The Gates Foundation Maps were our starting point and they looked fantastic. There was so much literature listed that I could keep the same kids in seventh grade for several years. The skills part sounded good too. I dreamed of the day kids who had come through this training would arrive in class already knowing the skills listed in the previous grades. It never happened.

We had several years of teaching the core when no test had been developed yet. Then Utah decided to make its own test, but that took a couple more years and gave us a couple more years of autonomy. Once we saw the test, were told it would be part of our school’s “grade” and eventually our own evaluations as teachers. We had to teach for the test. 

Test scores became the top priority of the district. Pressure to raise scores came from the top and landed hard on us at the bottom. More and more, we were told what to teach and how to teach it. Inservice was no longer about giving us more tools to choose from. Instead we were told exactly which tools to use. 

Teaching has always been comparable to juggling cats. The challenge for teachers today is to use all the prescribed tools to insert the prescribed skills into kids who aren’t at that level yet. The specific language arts challenge is to teach informational and argumentative writing over and over without making it joyless for teachers and students. Now teachers have to juggle cats while roller skating.

Pressures started to mount at about the same time as my brain stopped working right. I was confused, and therefore very angry about everything we were being asked to do. It was too hard. It took me a long time to admit that I couldn’t do it. 

Fortunately, I have many  peers who are fulfilling the demands with grace and pizzaz  But even the youngest of them are so, so tired. 

Change is coming. Parents in our district and state are rebelling against Big Testing. The governor is considering dropping the core. The pendulum is swinging back. Or maybe sideways. Pendulums are not a good metaphor with something as changeable as education. I hope my colleagues survive long enough to be able to use their amazing skills to teach kids to love learning in a less pressured environment.


With my cognitive difficulties, I’m having a hard time following lace patterns. But that doesn’t keep me from knitting lace. I knit like I used to teach, with a lot of improvisation and change as I go along.  A book called Crazy Lace by Myra Wood gives me guidance on what I need to do to reach the required shape and a variety of stitch patterns to choose from. I knit this  shawl by making it up as I went along. Being able to improvise is a good life skill for anyone.

Of course this shawl, and the other items pictured below are available in my shop.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Goodbye Mrs. Thorpe


This has been the hardest blog to write so far and the hardest knitting to finish. In fact, I wrote next week’s blog two days ago and will probably revise it tonight.

Most of this short-term disability time has felt like summer or a long Christmas break. The permanency has been pushed to the back of my head so I didn’t have to think about leaving behind a huge part of myself.

For many years, I asked students to write about their names. I wrote a demo paper describing how I am a different person when answering to each of my different names—Mrs. Thorpe, Sister Thorpe, Deb, Mom, and Debra—the “real” me.

Since I started teaching shortly after I got married, Mrs. Thorpe has always been my teaching identity. And in a society where people at the bank and the grocery store call everyone by their  first names, I am only ever called Mrs. Thorpe by students and former students. 

In my early years, I hoped that Mrs. Thorpe would grow to be the way I saw my mentors—formidable women who could silence a classroom with a look, were not afraid of parents, and told administrators how things should be done. I never got that tough, but I could usually keep things down to a mostly on-task low roar. Kids sometimes compared me with Ms Frizzle from The Magic Schoolbus.

As Mrs. Thorpe, I loved to organize and plan curriculum. I got to write the first seventh grade curriculum to go with the common core. Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick was the perfect novel to start the school year because kids can understand it and the chapters are short. It also fits the required theme—Characterization. My kids studied perseverance by reading about the Civil Rights Movement and courage through the eyes of Anne Frank. There was a survival unit with a lot of Gary Paulson readings. We combined science and science fiction while studying and writing about the challenges of space travel. They finished the unit by writing well-informed argumentative papers about whether or not people should go to Mars. Best of all, I was able to check off all the boxes on all six units, make lots of cross-curricular connections, and save my weekly poetry day. Poetry Monday turned into Poetry Friday. My students and I wrote together and shared. It was more relaxed than the other days. I got the chance to walk around and talk to kids about their ideas as they got more ideas from each other.  

My written curriculum, my ideas, were very organized. My room, not so much. Naturally neat kids were always offering to straighten my pictures and sort my baskets. Every level surface was covered with piles of books, Read magazines, and worksheets. Until my health turned worse, I knew where everything was.

I was never a superstar. But I believe many students learned about the joys of reading and writing. At the very least, they will always have my September memorization poem available in their heads

I’m not sure who I will be when I leave Mrs. Thorpe behind at Union Middle (maybe in a book room). Mrs. Thorpe was my more confident self, the one who talked all day and ran the show. I’m not in charge that way in any of my other life roles. I won’t be earning my share of the living any more.I was distraught when I first had to leave. Today, the end of school dinner, will be painful. So will next August/September—the best part of every school year.

I’m very well taken care of at home and I have lots of time ahead of me to play with string, try to take better care of my husband, and help my boys finish growing up. I just don’t know if that will be enough for me.


In the crying time right before and right after leaving, I had grand and maudlin plans for my goodbye knitting piece. I was going to design a shawl called “Hearts and Teardrops.” I had a dramatic yarn choice for it too—two skeins (a whole lot) of pricey bright red lace weight yarn that I can't remember the reason for buying years ago.

I also found an option on-line, some gradient-dyed wool that I could spin and knit into a shawl that moved from black into pink. Of course, I bought it. I shouldn’t have bought it because it was in New Zealand and there is plenty of good wool here, but I didn’t even look.

Finally, I picked up a cone of silk yarn of the same brand I had worked with earlier in the spring. I knew it was nice to work with and I could use it to make a practice scarf to figure out how knitting hearts would work. The only color available that I liked was a bright blue.

Knitting hearts turned out to be hard, especially because of the “cognitive difficulties” that forced me out of work. I can’t count well or follow intricate pattern without a real struggle. I  started and pulled everything apart several times. Finally I got out two rows of hearts before giving up. In the meantime I had calmed down and so had my ambitions. I knew I wanted to finish this piece of knitting and this piece of writing and move on.

I’m planning to memorize Frost’s “The Road Not Taken, “ so I decided to use the rest of the piece to show a long, winding road.

I ran out of yarn before managing any winding and the scarf, like my teaching career, ended up much shorter than planned.

 I need to post this and get to school for the last time. I promise new, more successful knitting next week which I will try to sell you through my Etsy shop.