Diane Stranz on American Life

In Praise of Things Irish

Soundtrack:  Wolfstone, Tall Ships (from Pick of the Litter: The Best of Wolfstone); Joe Burke/Michael Cooney/Terry Corcoran, The Bells of Tipperary/Miss Galvan’s (from Piping Hot:  Celtic Bagpipe Collection); Altan, Mo Choill and Cherish the Ladies, Roisin Dubh (from There Was A Lady:  The Voice of Celtic Women)

. . . in honor of St. Paddy’s Day and the Old Tipperary Inn, lower Greenville Avenue . . .

I am primarily German from my father’s side of the family and Louisiana Cajun from my mother’s side . . . but somewhere in there I just HAVE to be an itty, bitty, tiny bit Irish or life would even be more unfair than it already is (and we all know how unfair THAT is!)   When you are living true to yourself, Creation assists you on that path by providing ‘meaningful coincidences’  and I have noticed a pattern of meaningful things taking place in my life on St. Patrick’s Day . . . and I know that is no accident, and serves as a reminder that St. Patrick’s Day is actually a holiday WORTH observing (some clearly aren’t . . . especially if they were created by Hallmark).

This past St. Patrick’s Day I attended the Texas premiere of American Violet in Hearne, Texas (www.americanviolet.com — it opens April 17) and spent the day with a good friend I hadn’t seen in 23 years.  It was a day which will clearly be one of the best I have this year, and beats ANY day I had last year! (smile) (Friday the 13th’s are always great days for me as well . . . but that’s a different blog post).

I am positive that Eden and ‘the Fall’ existed and happened in some dimension of existence beyond the 4D capabilities of earthly reality, as all myth and metaphor so exist per Carl Jung (FYI:  physicists have scientifically verified 40 dimensions, have evidence of 100 more and suspect the actual number is infinite) . . . BUT!  If I had to guess where on earth is closest in spiritual and physical reality to Eden, I just have to think it is Ireland.

First of all, Saint Patrick is no ‘namby-pamby’ saint.  The man’s life was a genuine and true, hard-core, rugged adventure story, worthy of comparison to The Iliad or The Odyssey any day.  I mean, show me a real man who walked his walk instead of talking a talk, and you’ve got Saint Patrick.  He practically single-handedly brought civilization to the wildness of Ireland (I’m not a huge fan of civilization over wildness, but that’s just because now we live in civilization-overkill where any genuine wildness — be it spiritual, personal or in nature — is so rare it is practically an endangered species.  Such was obviously not the case in St. Patrick’s Day and time).

And because of St. Patrick, Irish monasteries existed at the time Rome fell — which was a saving grace for humanity’s future.  Not until Thomas Cahill published How The Irish Saved Civilization in the late 1990’s did the Irish gain widespread recognition for having literally saved the intellectual and artistic fruits of civilization from destruction by the Huns (and others) after the fall of Rome.  [This is a book highly worth a read, available at any decent library if you are too cheap and/or poor to buy it for yourself.]  So thank you Thomas Cahill.

And thank you Michael Flatley for introducing the world to Irish step-dancing.  Can you imagine how much we could cut down on juvenile delinquency if we had flourishing community centers where there was ALWAYS some sort of just-for-fun dancing going on?  I know I’D be there.  I never missed a school dance when I was in high school if I could help it, because dancing is just FLAT OUT FUN.  Religious groups who ban dancing are exacerbating the very problem they seek to avoid:  why would teenagers sneak off alone and unsupervised if they could, instead, be having a blast dancing pretty much any night of the week?  Talk about re-directing premature and as-of-yet-unfocused and random sexual energy!   Really, too many religious groups are their own worst enemy . . . there is a REASON why the ‘preacher’s kid’ is usually the wildest and most out-of-control kid around. 

Here’s a link to a YouTube video of the Connemara Irish dance group (all female): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cHx4guRdniE&feature=related, and here a link to classic Michael Flatley, the Lord of the Dance:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ytcZIfvSWW4&feature=related.  Flatley’s much older now, of course, but my sons and I happened upon him on TV last fall (a global dance program) and he still looked pretty good.  He also choreographed a guest stint on Dances with the Stars a few seasons back which was phenomenal.  Here’s the link:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8YHCqwlFSHw.

The Irish brew some mean whiskey, they’ve proven to us that yes you CAN actually survive and thrive on a simple diet of almost nothing other than potatoes (if you don’t deep fry all the nutritional value out first) AND you do not even want get me started on how awesome I think bagpipe music is!  Love it, love it — oh give me a man who plays bagpipes and wears a cute little kilt to go with ’em (not all the time, but with bagpipes in hand?  Hell yeah).  If I didn’t think Mel Gibson was such a weirdo as a human being, I’d say ‘give me a peaceful version of Mel Gibson’s character in Braveheart‘ but . . . he lost my respect with that atrocious mock-Catholic movie he made a few years back, which shall go unnamed.  (To which you say, “Lord! Is it even POSSIBLE to devise a peaceful version of Mel Gibson’s character in Braveheart?” IDK!  But I can dream the impossible dream, can’t I?  It’s all good.) 

4/14/09 UpdateLet’s change that to Liam Neeson in Rob Roy, especially since the following dialogue from Rob Roy is SO ON POINT:  “Hey Rob:  ya know why Calvinists are against shagging standing up?”  “No, Carl, I do not.”  “The fear it might lead to dancing!”

Each song in today’s soundtrack is available through I-tunes, so AT LEAST go listen to the free teaser for each one, if nothing else.  They’re fabulous and there’s a wealth of fabulous Irish music just like it out there.  So quest!  And find it! 

Mo Choill reminds me of a quick story, then I’ll end.  In 1997, I was handwashing my hot red Mazda convertible on my landlady’s driveway one beautiful spring afternoon (yes, those were the heady days after my first divorce when I got in touch with my inner beatnik — sigh.  When I wasn’t holed up writing, I was driving my convertible or chatting with interesting strangers at the Whole Foods Cafe on lower Greenville in Dallas.  Not that I’d want to go back in time, but still.  Good memories).  So, I’m playing There was a Lady:  The Voice of Celtic Women on the car stereo, and Mo Choill comes on . . . and up walks my landlady’s “super christian” son-in-law (except when he relaxed and let his hair down, he was a really nice guy).  He exclaimed, “Wow!  Who IS that singing?  She sounds like an ANGEL!” 

I love sharing things I enjoy, so I was excited he liked the music.  I said, “She DOES doesn’t she?  This is off a Celtic women’s CD . . . ”  At which point he immediately looked horrified, backed away from me like I had the plague, and sputtered, “Oh, no:  all that Celtic stuff is the work of the devil!  You need to quit listening to that, Diane.”  Then he ran quickly into the house, I guess to avoid having his eardrums further seduced by the wicked, wicked music I was playing.  So of course I did what every good Christian should have done in the situation:  I protected that G-D CD like my life depended upon it so I’d have it around to play today while I wrote this blog post! 

Got to go pretend to be productive with my day.  Sorry this post is one week late:  I hope your St. Patrick’s Day was full of dancing and wicked, wicked music and beer and/or whiskey . . .  and the love of a good man or woman (your own, not someone else’s) (!!) (It IS possible to be moral AND fun, and by golly I intend to prove that!)


Hand-made clothing and thinking for one’s self

I believe part of the answer to America’s economic crisis is a return to self-sufficient local communities, including local small-scale farming and the establishent of individual and community gardens, as well as a shift to regional small-scale manufacturing to produce the FEW goods of necessity which justify automated mass-production.  I do not think, by and large, that clothing production should be automated — except for local small-scale plants which produce basic, hardy cloths (denim for example) used as a ‘staple’ for many different things besides clothing.

Accordingly, I believe deeply in the value of handmade clothing (really I believe deeply in the value of handmade almost ANYTHING:  a person truly close to God is a person who knows how to work with his hands and loves working with his hands and VALUES working with his hands!  It is almost sinful to be blase about the value of your own hands). 

This morning I was trying to find information online about a wonderful festival I attended outside Dallas in 1997 called ‘Sheep to Shawl.’  At that festival I met a couple who run a small sheep farm in Duncanville and who sell the wool from their sheep (which they shear themselves) to local individuals who card and dye it by hand, then sell to local purveyors of knitting yarns.  Fabulous, fabulous, fabulous.  Anyway, in doing that google search, I happened upon the blog of knitter and free-thinker Donna Druchunas, a resident of Colorado (you’ve got to love that state).  I hope Donna does not hate me (or sue me!), but I am going to reprint an excerpt of one of her blog posts here, because it is just too wonderful:

Do you know how to think for yourself?  I didn’t learn this important skill until I was almost thirty years old.  In grade school I memorized times tables and spelling, in high-school I learned how to pass standarized tests, and in church I was taught to follow rules simply because they were written in the Bible.

Today, someone got pissed off at me on the Knit Design group because I said that I think that many knitters suffer from an inability think for themselves regarding their knitting because they got gipped in school. Instead of learning how to think, we were mostly taught what to think. This has consequences in many areas of life, including knitting.

We were talking about the differences between line-by-line instructions and charts, and I said that in my classes, I find that many people have troubles with charts because they try to translate each symbol into words and then translate the words into stitches on their needles. The techniques I teach allow knitters to move directly from symbol to stitch, without looking at the chart legend every few stitches. I try to help my students learn how to read their knitting, so they can also memorize the patterns they are working on and free themselves from needing to slavisly follow line-by-line instructions or charts.

When I teach lace knitting classes and show my students how to read their knitting so they can anticipate mistakes as they go, by matching their knitting up to a chart, instead of blindly following instructions without paying attention to the fabric on their needles, I always have 2 or 3 students who are so excited to learn that THEY are in charge of their knitting and that they can decide what is right and wrong in a pattern for themselves.

Too many knitters go along blithely following the line-by-line instructions in a pattern without understanding how knitting stitches are formed, what the shapes of garment pieces should look like, or how the stitches on their needles work to create the pattern stitches they are trying to make. Without these skills, they are destined to remain chained to patterns, always worried about what to do if there’s a mistake in the instructions. How freeing it is to grow past this beginner stage!

The person on the Knit Design group who attacked me, said I was being insulting by criticizing the US educational system. Far from it! Criticizing a faulty system has nothing to do with insulting the people who have gone through that system. The students in my classes are intelligent and bright women. But some of them have gotten ripped off by an educational system that did not give them the confidence or critical thinking skills they need to realize that they do not have to follow rules and stay inside the lines! I hope that confidence and independence are two things I can impart to all of my students, regardless of their knitting skill level or past educational history.

Do I still knit from patterns? Sure. Sometimes it’s relaxing to make a design that someone else has figured out for me! But my ability to understand the underlying logic of patterns and the structure of knitting stitches and garment shapes, means that I can continue even if there’s a mistake in the pattern or if I want to make some changes to the design to suit my own tastes and body shape.

If I didn’t learn to think for myself for almost thirty years, that just shows that it’s never too late to gain the confidence needed to stop being a follower.

Question Authority is my favorite motto and it applies in knitting as much as anywhere else!

Please check out Donna’s blog for yourself — and learn to knit!  My daughter Bethany knits (although I am ashamed to admit I do not:  I do cross-stitch and used to do crochet in my youth, but that is the limit of my needlecraft skill). 

Donna can be found on the web at www.sheeptoshawl.com.  

Diane Stranz