Biography of a Poncho

In 2004 Spin Off Magazine put out a call for pictures of ponchos that readers had made. I actually made this poncho, my first start to finish project, in 2004, and was pretty excited to consider myself part of the fiber arts world. I emailed a picture of my son wearing the poncho and wrote up a little bit about my process and his excitement. I was surprised to learn that my picture was being included in the Winter 2005 issue of Spin Off and I would be rewarded by a selection of Interweave books. The picture at the right is not me, but it is the first version of the poncho I made, before I added the front and back extensions.

The poncho at its beginning.

I had learned to spin the year before and my teacher, the salty Kathleen Bowman, had at last deemed me fit to strut my stuff in public. Off I went to the Fiber Frolic held in Windsor, Maine. My son, age 13, came along. He had been begging, for a couple of years, for me to make him a poncho and I had been dragging my feet. But with my new spinning skills, and well honed knitting ability, I figured now was the time. As I took a dying class, his job was to find some fiber that I could spin into yarn for his poncho.

He found the roving, beautiful hanks of rusty mohair and wool blended together, at the booth run by Stanmere Farm. I could afford two hanks, but it would not be enough to make a whole poncho. What to do? I found some grey carded Romney and bought a pound. All the Romney cost what one of the hanks of dyed mohair/wool cost. I needed to figure out how to make they work together.

How I Made It

Poncho, now 17 years old

I wanted to maximize my use of colored and blended yarn. When I had used about a quarter of my marled yarn I started to alternate with my pure rust yarn. I knit one row of rust, three of marl, then two each of rust and marl, then three of rust and one of marl. Then came the band of rust yarn. When I saw I was starting to run out of rust, I reversed the process of alternating yarns. I ended up using the rest of the marl before the poncho was quite big enough, so, again, I alternated yarns in the 1:3, 2:2, 3:1 pattern until I was working with the Romney grey.

The Poncho age 17.

I divided the rusty Stanmere roving into thirds. Two thirds I spun at a light worsted weight and plied on itself using a wound off center pull ball. The other third I spun and then plied with the Romney creating a slightly marled yarn. I spun the rest of the Romney and plied that on itself. So I had 3 lots of yarn to make the poncho. My son wanted a squared off poncho that could have been worn on an adventure with Hobbits and Dwarves, one Clint Eastwood might have been comfortable in.

The “pattern” or “recipe” in one paragraph: My plan was to knit as much as possible in the yarn containing the mohair. I took my US #7 needles and, using the first of my Romney-mohair yarn, cast on 80 stitches and knit a 1×1 ribbing for 4 rows. Then I marked the knit stitches every 20 stitches and started to increase one stitch on either side of the marked stitch, every other round. The increases were typical of a raglan sweater, but the spacing between pairs of increases was even. The poncho, of course, grew each round. I continued the increases until the length of each side was the same length as from the neck edge to just below the elbow. Then I worked the front and back separately, ending with a two row rib and binding off.

The color spacing was entirely guess work and experience with how much yarn would be used each row as the poncho got bigger. It was a fade before fades became popular. I based it on how one would incorporate a yarn of a different dye lot.

Much later, when I took over the poncho for myself, I added about 6″ to the front and 12″ to the back, ending with 6 rows of seed stitch before binding off again. This leaves the front brushing my lap, but provides some coverage for my back when I’m sitting. If I were making it today, I would add the extensions, front and back, as I was making it. The slightly cludgey transition doesn’t effect my love of the poncho. I take it to the Common Ground Fair every year. It is a wonderful intermediary garment during sweater weather here in Maine.

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Granny Sula

I stood scowling on the cliff’s edge, behind the fence where it was safe. Birds circled below. Sparkles glinted off the ocean. The breeze swooped down over the manor roof bringing the aroma of roasting oats. I heard the tapping of Granny Sula’s canes on the rocks as she passed from the lawn to the granite leading up to the fence. I turned. Granny was dressed in wool trousers and jerkin, shirt sleeves billowing. Her massive patchwork silk scarf was tied around her head and shoulders. I longed for the day I could dress as comfortably. 

Clack. The cane in her right hand swished to shoulder level, pierced a lump of moss and flicked it through the fence and over the cliff. I had always understood that Granny’s canes were not to aid her in walking. I had seen them slice through the air as she rounded on a servant who fumbled clean laundry into a puddle while trying to hang it on a line too high for the poor thing to reach. I had seen the canes ward off father’s hounds when they chased the chickens, or skewer a chicken that had visited the vegetable garden once too often. I had felt their points in my own back when I slouched over my reading. “A lady must retain her posture no matter how weary.” 

Clack. So here she came to pass the morning with me. I sighed. I loved my grandmother and yet conversation with her was rarely easy. But the ring of the cane tips on the stone assured me that this would not be one of those days. Clack. “Bethina Rose!” Clack. “What are you doing there?” Clack. “Gawking at the clouds and waves!” Clack. “Catching flies?”

I adjusted my face and smiled, remembering to widen my eyes in joy at the sight of her. “Granny” I said. “How will you brighten my day?” 

“I have a surprise!” she said. “Your fate is about to take a turn.” 

“Is this the engagement Father has been planning? Has he finalized the terms, then?” I kissed Granny’s cheek and offered her mine. She gave me a kiss, then patted me on the hand. 

“Not everything is about you and your dratted marriage.” Granny’s hand moved to my shoulder and bore down as she hoisted herself to sit on the top pole of the fence. The canes leaned between us.

“Should you be doing that?” I asked. Granny had beaten me herself the last time she had caught me sitting astride the fence. 

“It all depends on whose opinion you are seeking,” She said. “Since mine is the only one that matters here, then, yes, I should.” She raised her legs, one after the other, and put them on the seaward side of the fence. She unwound her scarf and began to tie it to her feet.

“What on earth are you about? You’ll trip and fall.” I asked, sounding just like Granny. But her talk of changing my fate distracted me. “So has father done the deal? Has he found a suitable liason?”

“My gracious,” said Granny. She tried to control her scarf as it flapped in the wind. “Why ever would you think that mess with your father was finished? That could go on for years. Men are so fickle, and he is no different.”

“You said that today my fate would take a turn. I assumed marriage.”

“It will indeed, one day. But your father’s arrangements will have nothing to do with it. You young people are so self-centered.”

Granny stood on the lowest rail, leaning back against the one on which she had sat. The scarf remained tangled around her ankles as she captured the flapping ends. I grabbed the back of her jerkin, pulling her down. “Watch out there! You’ll fall.”

The pieces that made up the scarf were culled from scraps. It was a history of the family clothing flowing left to right as Granny wore it now. Nearest to me was the brilliant green of the overdress I now wore. I had helped dye it with weld and indigo. I stroked it now. Granny looked from my hands to my face. She patted my sleeve. “Such a beautiful job you did.” Rare praise, indeed. She took the left hem in her hand and inched her way up, searching. I knew she was looking for another scrap of apple green cloth, the one my mother had dyed when she made my first clothes. “Here it is. And these.” Granny pointed to pieces of mid-day blue embroidered with gold, and one of red with green vines and yellow flowers. “Strong colors for a strong girl.” She patted my cheek.

“Thank you,” I said, not sure how to take the praise, falling back on politeness.

“And here is your mother’s wedding dress,” a pale lavender, “and mine,” grey with swooping birds on the farthest border of the scarf. “The one that started it all.”

Granny stood again. “But, never mind about that,” said Granny. “Just hand me my canes.”

I kept hold of her jerkin and passed her the canes. “Let me help you back over the fence.” 

She shook her head. “No, I’m changing your fate, today,” she said as she jabbed the cane tips to catch in the corners of the scarf, “your fate and mine,” she said. Granny twisted out of my grasp, clasped the cane heads together, and leapt. The glory of her flight and the sureness of her death warred in me.

The scarf snapped out taut, a giant kite with Granny and her canes making the spines. She called out as she fell, caught an updraft, and swooped out toward the sea, scattering the birds and rising above them. The gaudy scarf was unmistakable even in the distance.

I stood, hands grasping the fence, and wept. I watched my grandmother soar and dive, gaining distance from the land, but not casting into the ocean. Then I saw a gray and silver sail emerge over the horizon. It turned toward Granny and she dove toward it. The two merged, Granny and the ship.

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I don’t want to bury the lead on this. I’m not going to unfriend anyone.

I have been reading a lot of posts lately, in which people warn others to unfriend them if they voted for the other guy and are therefore harboring racist or socialist beliefs in their souls. They say that to support the people currently in power on one issue is to support them in all issues and behaviors they exemplify. 

To be honest, I don’t expect the election to change who I am in the least. If I am your friend now, I will still be your friend. I will still ask you to explain why you hold the beliefs you hold, as I always have. I will still ask for examples, as I always have. I will still strive for personal growth, understanding, finding common ground, truth, nurturing my better self, adjusting my vision to encompass things I’ve been blind to. I’m trying to do the work. Ecclesiastes has its place.

For months now, I have been posting VIGILANCE, COURAGE, UNITY. Friends asked why I was making this a daily reminder,  did I set it up as an automatically repeated event, what did I mean by those words, why now – of all times. I started posting VIGILANCE, COURAGE, UNITY in Nancy’s memory. I took up the banner she lay down on her passing. At first it was to remember Nancy’s beacon of grace and honesty. She spoke truth, garnished with love, and never shied away from calling bullshit when that was what she saw. 

As I continued the posting it became more of a prayer for these values to persist in the world. And finally it became a meditation on the values themselves. I have never set up the post as an automatic event. I wanted to be mindful of the words, intentional in my statement. 

There are so many things we need to be Vigilant of: making progress, the impact of our words and actions, threats to our own well-being, storms on the horizon and shelter at hand. 

We must have Courage to stand up for ourselves, speak truth to power, and listen when others speak their own truth. Just because theirs is not an experience we share does not make it any less true, nor make them any less Courageous for speaking out.

We must have the Courage to stand in Unity with others whose voice needs to be amplified. Unity does not mean sameness, and it does not mean “in lock step.” 

And there are times we must have the Courage to stand alone and cry “bullshit!”

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GNU Knitting


Mom’s Tomten sweater with a tree of life from Barbara Walker – root system by me.

I have always been a teach-an-individual-to-fish kind of person. In my knitting circles I recently witnessed a brouhaha over reverse engineering a knitted garment and whether to share the process notes. It got me thinking about the value of shared knowledge. What am I willing to figure out? What would I just as soon pay for? What am I willing to share? Under what circumstances am I needing to be paid for my work?

I find there are several formative experiences that weigh into my responses to those questions:

First, I came of digital age when Open Source was called GNU. Anyone could tweak or add to commonly available applications; the least buggy, most useful versions would persist. Entry into the process was open to anyone, but improvements happened slowly, as needed, by people willing to innovate.

Second, I am a big fan of Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Disposessed,” a novel about a working communal society.

And third, one of the most effective teaching strategies I’ve used is talking through my process out loud. The formula I used was, basically, “I see _____, and I think _____, so I decide to _____.” (Those of you who know me realize that it was never exactly that simple.)

Figuring out how to use a new technique is a lot more fun than figuring out the technique itself. I am more likely to read about grafting one knit piece to another, and then apply that knowledge to the next sweater, scarf, or shawl I make. I use sequences and series from color theory or beginning calculus to inform how I merge Fair Isle and Shetland lace motifs. Origami and geometric shapes also appear in how I structure sweaters. Fractals and flow transformation come into play as one shape or pattern morphs into another. I might start off with little diamonds which gradually elongate to become leaves. Leaves broaden to become waves. I try out an effect first with lace, then add color, then add traveling twisted stitches to become brioche. The story is often the same rocky Maine coast, but the presentation is eternally different. This, for me, is play.

When I can’t figure out the How of something, I will pay for a pattern. I rarely make the item I paid for, mining it, instead, for information. I wanted to knit an afghan modeled after the Drunkard’s Path Quilt but couldn’t figure out how to embed a quarter circle in a square. I came upon a blanket made of knit squares that contained circles of color and bought the pattern for that and borrowed that strategy. Other times it has been more hype than usefulness as I found when the asymmetrical garter stitch shawls started to become popular. It was as I had suspected a matter of increasing on one side every row, and decreasing every second row on the other side. There it turned out the information worth buying was the percentage of yarn you needed to reserve for the bind off.

There are several folks who started off sharing techniques as they matured into accomplished designers. Bad Cat Designs, Brooklyn Tweed, and Lily Chin all started off with informative blogs explaining what they did. It was illuminating to follow their thought processes. Their early designs and advice left plenty for the knitter to figure out on their own, but provided a great start for how to consider the technical aspects of the craft. I made sweaters for both my mom (pictured above) and my son following Jared Flood’s (Brooklyn Tweed) post about modifying Elizabeth Zimmerman’s Tomten sweater for the adult wearer. String Geekery published a stitch pattern called Coffee on her blog. I flipped it upside down, reversing some of the decreases, and am using it in a shawl. I will be morphing the Coffee into a smaller, frothy-er motif. The finished piece will be called “Café Cassé.” I am grateful to those who share their knowledge. I recognize it as a way to organize thoughts, the last step in the process of “learn one; do one; teach one.”

I try to pay forward what I’ve gotten. I give away a lot: shawls, hats, baby sweaters, and advice. I give to people who need the comfort of an unexpected gift, a virtual hug. I give knowing the gift has value because and the receiver couldn’t or wouldn’t make the thing for themselves. I use the baby sweaters and hats to try out new designs; they are often prototypes. I give a shawl to each graduating niece, in the color of their choice and the fiber of mine, with or without beads. I give the nephews cook books.

Graduation Shawl – beaded, merino-cashmere 90/10

I charge for what gives me stress – if too many people are involved, or there is nothing left to tweak or learn, or there is a deadline. I knit my sister an entrelac sock for Christmas. I figured the second sock would take me at least another six hours of knitting those tiny squares, and couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. For the second sock I used the same yarn and a different pattern that focused on short rows instead. Recently she asked what it would cost a friend to have me knit a pair, both in entrelac. Twelve hours, I said. Then $120, she said. I haven’t heard back. If the friend lived nearby, I would happily coach her for free if she wanted to knit her own pair, but to knit them myself, again, I would need the incentive of money. People will say that isn’t the way to sell things; the market won’t bear the cost. True. That doesn’t bother me. Happily, I don’t need to make a living. But think about what cart wranglers at the grocery store make. 

Each September I sit with other Wednesday Spinners at the Common Ground Fair and teach people to use a drop spindle. It is my weekend to share an important part of my craft, and work with others to better appreciate the joy fiber arts can bring. I meet each learner on their own terms. With some it is just learning to spin the spindle and draft the wool to make a rough sort of yarn. With others it is chatting about the structure of each hair and the physics of spinning. I work with all ages of folk from 4 to 80 on up. I have a blast. I was taught to spin by a woman who felt it was an essential bit of knowledge for everyone. I am compelled to pass that on. The same feeling of outreach applies to knitting. But if I have to prepare a special presentation, balance a class with a variety of skill levels, teach an agreed upon set of skills in a specific period of time, then it becomes a job. I still enjoy the class, but the preparation that allows me to have fun is the work and I want compensation for that.

It turns out I am delighted to share my time or knowledge with anyone, as long as I can manage the schedule myself. I’ll coach you along your journey in person, email, or skype. If you’re having a baby, I’ll give you a one-of-a-kind sweater or hat. All else arrives serendipity, with maybe a touch of kismet thrown in.

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Anatomy of a design project

This is an invitation to knitting friends to join me in a project. This is not really a KAL, but an opportunity to enjoy a bit of random creativity, put some good words out into the universe. I am AcadiaS on Ravelry; share there or here with what you make with these ideas.

Yesterday I saw a post about math and knitting. My heart bumped. I followed the link to this page by Naomi Parkhurst. My heart bumped again when I discovered that this was about coded knitting. Words of power hidden in a craft practiced publicly like Madame DeFarge, like Rose Greenhow, like the women of Native Tongue.

Not only does Naomi Parkhurst provide the patterns she creates, but she reveals how she does it. It is a straight up matching code, where letters of the alphabet are matched with numbers which are then applied to a charting grid. The example she gave for “sunshine” used base-6. (You can read all about it on the above link.)

I had to try it. These are my notes on Naomi’s process. If you are interested in engineering your own patterns, you’ll have to read her blog as well.

But what words to use? A poet friend shares a daily post “UNITY, COURAGE, VIGILANCE” as encouragement during these times of turmoil. They sounded like the perfect words to use. I’ll give her the project when I’m done. The the next aspects to decide:

  • What base to use? I chose base-6, because that’s what Naomi used. Also because that guaranteed there would be no stretch longer than 5 stitches in any single repeat.
  • How to deal with zeroes? Since in the lace rendidtion of this process marks the end of each digit with a YO, leaving zeroes as they are would create a double YO. Naomi suggests other alternatives.
  • How big a block to graph? I started out with a block 9 stitches wide. UNITY resulted in 4 pattern rows with 4 ‘rest’ rows that could be either garter or stockinette based. COURAGE became 5 pattern rows and VIGILANCE became 6 pattern rows. This was problematic for knitting them side-by-side as I would need some buffer rows to make each block 6 pattern rows high. The alternitive would to be consistent in number of rows and variable stitch width. UNITY stayed at 9, COURAGE was 10 and VIGILANCE 12.
  • What to make? I considered scarf variations, a stole, a cowl a hat. Grafting or not, mirroring the patterns. How much and what kind of yarn was available (OK, it’s not like there is a dearth of yarn to choose from). I had been discussing the Sufi story of the sultan who had a ring made with the words ‘This too shall pass.’ To continue my round of mystical thinking I chose a circular scarf. 180 stitches on size 7 needles provides enough to repeat VIGILANCE 15 times in a round (so that word does not get mirrored because it’s an odd number), COURAGE 18 times, and UNITY 20 times. My plan for the moment is to do each word 3 vertical repeats for a total of 72 rows, probably buffered with garter stitch.

Here are the charts I’ve made:




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Querying Gender

This week a group of boys in England wore skirts to school in protest of a “no shorts” policy. Oregon drivers can officially circle “X” on their licenses as a gender choice. Myra Breckenridge is no longer the only transgender name we know, not by a long shot.

I’d like to be able to say “This is what it means to be female. This stuff is what it means to be male,” but I can’t. I have no idea what it means to be anything except what I am in my own head. The smattering of gender trappings learned and rejected by a child of the 1950s – clothes, makeup, being safe, who may hit whom, bathroom protocol, war mongering – have blurred in the intervening decades. Women throw right hooks in the movies, but it is always accompanies a frisson of surprise. Husbands raise kids while their wives are bank managers. Ditto the frisson. Do women wear hats and hose, men put on ties, to go shopping on Saturday afternoon?

As a forty-five year old mom I had no problem marching my six year old daughter into the boys’ department of Filenes. Mid-riff baring shirts, skimpy shorts, and underpant revealing skirts found in the girls’ department were not going to happen for her no matter what common culture said was appropriately feminine dress. Rugged, skin covering clothes were practical for a kid given to skidding on her knees. So were pockets. Was this cross-dressing? Would there be long term effects?

During college orientation at URI in 1972, a boy asked “Are you a liberated woman?”
“Come to bed with me and prove it.”

The exchange was mostly about gender, even though it was cloaked as sex. It was about framing as a dichotomy a question that was really multi-faceted. It seemed typically masculine, this bestowing of and either-or choice, ignoring the wealth of possibility in between.

One night, sitting with Dad when he knew he was dying, he said, “you can either be independent, or you can learn to blend in and be happy. You’ll never find a husband if you don’t.” Interesting assumptions, just like the boy twenty-five years before, as if the only choices were immersion or independence, husband or loneliness. Who needs a caretaker? Why should gender dictate choices?

I hadn’t discovered any of the hard boiled lady detectives yet, nor any of the gender fluid starship captains of Melissa Scott. John D. MacDonald had famously said that he didn’t like women in his novels because they slowed the action down. Reading The Left Hand of Darkness and a handful of similar short stories, raised the question of why gender matters at all.

I’m writing a book with a protagonist whose gender is undisclosed. I started thinking about this character in the early 1980s when I was living in a country where the cultural trappings of gender are different, but no less rigid than in the US. The character needed to be separated from the binary of social propriety. Perception of gender in the States has changed, broadened, become more polarizing. Today, lack of gender is itself a political statement. Why is there this pressure to adhere to one gender or another as if they were political parties? Why not be unenrolled or independent? What would that look like? Why let others define a limited field of choices?

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How soon can I get it?


A simple image, but hard to remember. Knowledge doesn’t come instantly. Practice doesn’t make perfect, it just makes better. There is no line in the sand, because sand shifts.

My kids have entered the Peace Corps and I have quoted this wisdom from Piet Hein, WWII freedom fighter and mathemetician, in the days before they flew off. Reading the blogs of other new volunteers, I can see it is a lesson they are learning. Things do take time when the familiar clues of progress are absent, when the language is different, when the expectations of others are out of sync from the expectations of self. Time collapses in retrospect and there is a bit of wonder that becoming comfortable with all the newness could ever have taken so long.

In schools there are still analog clocks on the wall over the door. Kids still watch the clock, but the coordination between minute and hour hands is virtually meaningless. They sneak peaks at phones, or computers to find out what time it is. Time varies from culture to culture. It is fluid. Not just the passage of time, but our understanding of it. As clock styles have changed, so has perception of time’s passage. In the analog world the minute hand has to traverse a portion of the circle that makes up a clock face. A quarter of an hour somehow feels different than fifteen minutes. Seeing numbers flip over is different than seeing the second hand sweep around and the minute hand clicking forward. A new stream bed of time is cut through a digital day.

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The Right to Question

While this is a modern picture, this face of the building has not changed in 35 years.

While this is a modern picture, this face of the building has not changed in 35 years.

It was in 1984. University students across Morocco were on strike, so it must have been some time in February. Teachers were required to put in an appearance and spend some time in empty rooms, normally filled with 80 or more students. Looking busy was essential.

The Chair of the English Department asked to speak with the teachers responsible for teaching first and second year students grammar, composition, and comprehension. He was a Moroccan, recently returned with a Doctorate in Linguistics from a school in the US. He was the third Chair in five years, and had taken charge of the upper level students, mostly 4th years who would be leaving for teaching posts in the spring.

The man had quirks, to be sure. He was insecure and had reason to be. His wife, an American teacher in the department, helped fascilitate all meetings. Feuds with faculty members, both Moroccan and native English speakers, became common. Staff had left abruptly just three months after he had assumed the Chair. Those who had to stay because a spouse worked in another department, were desperately unhappy. Rumor had it that soon the only jobs to be available for expatriate English speakers would be in the language lab, where accent and cadence were important.

I was part of a group of four women who had been working together for nearly five years, teaching the basics to first and second year students. Two of us were French who had spent much of their lives in England. One was Welsh, and I was American. Although grammar, composition, and comprehension were billed as separate classes, we taught them as interrelated. We prepared all our lessons together, using the same texts, many of them from Time, Newsweek, or English papers, and teaching with a Chomskyan view of language. We stressed the importance of asking questions, both for clarification and to delve more deeply into the nuances of English as a language.

This all proved to be a problem for the Chair. He liked Chomsky well enough from a linguistic point of view and when handed out via lecture, but was entirely against this business of encouraging students to ask questions. They expected answers and became surly when they did not get them. They relied on logic to take the place of dogma and would actually argue their point of view. He thought a more prescriptive strategy better suited to students just starting out at university, a strategy that relied more on memorization and acceptance.

He outlined his ideas in our meeting. “No,” said the group leader.

“Do you deny that you teach them to ask questions?”

“Of course we teach them to ask questions.”

“But surely you see this is wrong?” The Chair seemed shocked.

No one, it seemed, disagreed with the facts. Early teaching of question asking techniques resulted in students continuing to ask questions as they got older. The problem was that one side saw this as a good thing, and the other saw it as bad. It smacked of religious fervor on both sides. It was surprising, to me, that he found questions evil. I believe the Chair was equally surprised.

I am sure it was not the first time I encountered this dichotomy of thought. Whether my Dad would go to Hell for having smoked (Toby Tobacco in Sunday School said yes!), or questioning God’s motivation in sending one or another band of barbarians after His Israelites (Reverend Welch said questioning God was “just not done!”) were two of my early experiences. The Civil Rights movement and Vietnam War were keystones of my youth and both had a religious aspect to them. This hatred of questioning was, however, the first time I had seen such tempers rise in a strictly secular circumstance. Passions burn hot when individuals, or groups, feel threatened in either their lack of knowledge or way of life. Those feelings can be aroused in any arena.

While the Computer, Burger, and Cola Wars are half joke, half serious, I am surprised (dismayed? astounded?) these days by authentic passion surrounding ideas that I had thought long since put to bed, like racism, equality, gender, unalienable rights.

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Changing the world–a two sided equasion

EPSON MFP image“ ‘I wish I had known I wasn’t going to change the world,’ I’ve heard others say.” – – shared this morning in the FaceBook group Peace Corps Northeast.

The writer goes on to describe the small ways her host community was affected by her presence. But like all equations, it doesn’t do to look at just one side. By entering the Peace Corps, she has affected the world in a small way. She has changed herself as well in more dramatic ways. Big World + small changes = One Person + big changes

Both my kids are going into the Peace Corps, and, of course, I have been trolling the net for advice to give them; this is an article I will forward to them as an outside-the-family source.

EPSON MFP image Certainly my days in El Menzel, Morocco did not seem world changing at the time. Certainly I provided a model of “American” that was different from the popular view at the time. I was modestly famous for my speaking colloquial Arabic, riding an illegal moped, being a regular at the public baths, wearing henna in my hair, having a father who spoke a bit of classical Arabic. There is no telling how much of an impact all this made, nor how long lasting that impact was.

This notion of not changing the world is common among returned volunteers. It reflects youthful perspective. It looks for change in others, holding the self as a constant. It was years before I realized that the effect that changed the world was in me. Peace Corps volunteers are not just ambassadors of American culture and values, not just guests at the table. When they leave their host countries, they return to see their own communities with fresh eyes. They develop different standards of poverty, wealth and industry. And perhaps they learn an appreciation for charity and grace.

A couple of years ago I found myself in a class with three other women who had also been Peace Corps volunteers. One had recently taken a young man from Ghana under her wing. He was newly arrived in the Boston area, enrolled in one of the many colleges, and missing home. He welcomed her as a surrogate mom. She had just realized that her own welcome in her host community was much less due to her American-ness, and much more to her youth. The adults of the community helped her assimilate because they recognized a kid out of culture. They treated her as they would any young person far from their family’s guidance. Volunteers are blessed with learning how to “adult” not only in their own community among peers, but in an entirely foreign community. When they return to the States, they will forever hold those two cultures in their hearts.

Used Things MarketSome of the cultural differences are superficial. There were adult interactions I had never really experienced in the States. On my return to the US, it was like going abroad for the first time, learning a new culture; being a stranger and yet at home. I had trouble buying things. Not just because the shelves seemed overcrowded with variety, but because I didn’t know how initiate a transaction. None of the polite social exchange, chit chat, oblique approach to purchase that was familiar in Morocco, worked in Bangor, Maine. Meeting new people was difficult; no one shook hands. I had learned to cook and buy food in a place without refrigeration. Markets there used kilos and sold things in small quantities for daily purchase. Farmers markets were not yet a thing in the States, and the closest open air market I knew of was hundreds of miles away in Boston. Bathing was also a challenge. I had gotten used to having a serious wash once a week in a steamy public bath, chatting with friends, helping scrub their kids, being scrubbed myself. A solo daily shower seemed just odd.

There were, however, more fundamental changes in dealing with others. Knowing what it was like to not even recognize that there was a subtext to some social situation, I was more likely to explain interactions, rather than leaving someone floundering. While my kids and students benefited from this, the risk came in teaching Grandma to suck eggs. This was a useful skill when it came to helping folks transition from the world of typewriters and file cabinets to the world of computers, internet, and virtual communication. Knowing how to explain the unknown, the unimagined, to a person who expects to be in charge and is uncomfortable at being clueless is invaluable.

Time alone, surviving mistakes, learning culture all contributed to an talent for shared self reflection. It became clear to me early on that I alone was responsible for the trouble and frustration I faced. I had made that choices that led me overseas. I chose to let it get to me, or not. I was also responsible for putting my feet on the path that led me to joy and delight. I needed to remind myself of that then, when living as an expat; I remind myself of it now.

The Peace Corps was less about how a volunteer could function as an advocate for change in the world, and far more about becoming the change in the world that Gandhi advocated. My children have heard my travel stories: years spent in Morocco (in the picture I am second from the left), both during the Peace Corps and for quite a few years after COS (close of service); growing up in Kenya and Jordan with parents active in American Friends Service Committee; travel through Europe, learning languages. I am a huge fan of international living. It is weird, then, that for the past 30 years I have lived in rural Maine, traveling only for conferences. Beyond a brief trip to the Maritimes I have never really traveled with my kids. Now I look forward to visiting with them in their new homes.

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Rafe–For Want of a Toe

Rafe sat on the bench, a neckerchief stuffed in the gap where her toe once lived, waiting her turn. Other recruits drifted past, peered at her bloody rag. Some kept their distance. Other fetched up in little knots, glancing her way every so often, the sound of their chatter kept low and private. She wondered how many other recruits managed to lose some body part on their first day. She wondered if it meant she’d be booted out as too incompetent to train.

With the medic’s tent at her back she could either sit bolt upright or slouch forward with her elbows on her knees. Lying down seemed too much like defeat. To keep pressure off her wound she sat with a rigid back and glowered. The little bottle the medic had given her to dull the pain sat on the bench next to her, still full.

This city of tents was so unlike home, she had hoped to find a place for herself. Now it felt like more of the same, still strange, still unwelcome, still having to watch her back and her mouth.

“So, how did you manage it?”

Rafe started at the voice. She had been so drawn into herself that she had missed the medic sitting down on the other side of the bottle of medicine. Worse and worse. Not the makings of a soldier, for sure. “Excuse me?” she asked.

“How did you manage it?” The medic did not seem much older than she was. He was built like a beech sapling and radiated something that broke up tension, and lifted the spirits.

“We were playing mumbledy-peg and I suppose I got cocky. Lesson learned. Won’t happen again.” Rafe sighed. Even as she had spoken, she could hear the tone of voice she had used with her mother, offering up yet another insincere apology, accepting blame for something that was not her fault.

“I get that. Happens all the time. You recruits jockey back an forth, find your place in the pecking order. I deal with cuts, bruises, broken bone, the whole gamut, every time there’s a new influx. So I get how you lost your toe. Nothing odd about that at all.”

“What?” She looked him in the eyes and scrunched her face into the stupid look that sometimes worked with Ma.

“Let’s start again.” The medic held out his hand, smaller and less scarred than hers. “I’m Blue Thane. Medic. For you recruits.” He spoke clearly and waited between sentences, making sure she understood.

Rafe nodded and Blue Thane continued. “You lost a toe. The bleeding looks almost stopped and you’ll be fine. She didn’t take either of the edge toes. Your balance won’t be affected, so no worries there. It wouldn’t be enough for you to get boosted out in any case. We like scrappy kids. You make fine soldiers and generally survive to make the training worthwhile.”

Rafe got a bad feeling. The medic was talking about the other thing that happened. This was, indeed, going to be like Ma.

Blue Thane stayed casual and comforting. “I’ve just spent the last half hour digging pieces of steel and wood out of three of your pals. Legs, hands, and one serrated rib cage. That,” he paused again until he had her eyes on him, “that, young lady, is what I want to know. How did you manage it?”

“Why do you think I did something?”

“It was pieces of the same knife that took off your toe. Several someones saw it explode.”

“And you won’t help me unless I confess to it?”

“Jale’s Needle, no. That’s not it at all. I’m a medic. Live and let live. Sew ‘em up so they will live.” He spread his hands to show how empty they were. “We’ve got folks of all kind here, who come in as recruits. Some on the run, some doing walk about, some just looking for adventure, or to prove a point. There are some here who are wary of witchcraft. You know, magic.”

Rafe’s confusion changed from feigned to genuine. “A witch? Magic?”

“Surely you’ve heard of witchcraft and magic.”

“But they’re not real. Are they?”

“No, of course not. But you did have something to do with the knife exploding.”

It was no longer a question. How had she admitted to that? Rafe looked at the medic’s face. His brows did not fall into the resting scowl she saw in her own face when she looked in a mirror. In fact, he seemed to have just heard a joke and was trying to decide if it was one she would appreciate. He reminded her of Grammy Heddle, definitely not afraid, and maybe even someone who could help. “Can we talk about this inside your tent? It’s not exactly something I want everybody to know – for sure. No matter what they might suspect.”

“Sure, we can do that.” Blue Thane got up and led the way into the tent and Rafe limped in after him. “I’ll just leave the flap open, if you don’t mind, for light. No one can see in.”

Rafe wondered where to start. It was not as if she had needed to explain herself back in Riverside. The neighbors took care of that if there were ever foreigners who saw something they didn’t understand. She looked around the tent. “Do you have anything you don’t mind getting broken?”

Blue Thane fished a cracked mug out of the trash. “Will this do?”

“Put it on the stool.” Rafe opened her mouth. “Ahhhh,” she said, moving her voice up and down, trying out different notes. She found one she liked and got a little louder. Pop. The mug shattered into a pile of dust.

The medic looked from her to the dust.  “Huh. I knew a girl in a tavern up north who could break wineglasses when she sang. How about this?” He picked up a wooden spoon and placed it on the stool.

Again, Rafe searched for a pitch, and found two. The handle fell off, then bowl of the spoon split in half. She watched Blue Thane to gauge his reaction.

“Why did the cup disintegrate but the spoon broke cleanly? Clay versus wood?”

“Partly. But the cup was already cracked. It had lost integrity.”

Blue Thane wiped off the stool and gestured for her to sit. “Can you do this to anything, or just certain materials?” He laid out his kit and removed the wad of cloth from between her remaining toes.

“Pretty much anything.”

“And you do it with just your voice? You don’t do any little hexy thing?”

“Just my voice.”

“I don’t imagine they ask you to sing at parties?”

Had he just made a joke? Yes, he had. Rafe giggled and shook her head.

“So what happened with the knife? Why did it explode? It was solid, not cracked. It had integrity, as you say.”

“I was surprised. I didn’t expect her to take off my toe.”

“I don’t supposed people bothered you much back home. I assume they knew about this.”

Rafe nodded.

“And that’s why you ended up here?”

She nodded again.

“What would have happened if you had stayed — wherever you came from?”


“The blacksmith would have taken your tongue, or cut your throat?” He seemed shocked.

“No. Da was a blacksmith and I would have been next, until Ducky got big enough. Or longer if Ducky wanted to go sojourning in the world. I guess Jenna will have that job now.”

“Jenna is your sister?”


“And Ducky?”

“Brother.” This all seemed unnecessary to Rafe. “Will I need to leave?”

“What? No. There are plenty of people with Graven’s Guard who have quirky little talents like yours. It just means you’ll have extra work, training so you don’t go exploding things accidentally. As a rule, we like to damage the other side, not our own.”

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