Carolyn McAlpine — McA as some of us called her — was the youngest member of the Etobicoke Handweavers and Spinners Guild when she died a decade ago from an aggressive brain cancer. She was 33 years old.
She was the most joyful, fun person I have had the pleasure of spinning yarn with. And if you’ve ever hung out with spinners you’ll know that’s saying a lot — we are a pretty fun-loving bunch if I do say so.
It still breaks my heart when I think of her being gone, but there is something she left behind for which I am deeply grateful. It’s something I have been drawing on a lot lately: her joyful approach to courage.
The other day I was out running some errands when the weather took a kooky turn — fierce wind and swirling snow combined with bright sunshine. There were a few of us out there, suddenly caught up in the sparkly light of snowshine, looking at each other with a little more light and laughter than we had just moments before. Carolyn sprang to mind — it was the kind of beauty from turbulence she had a way of summoning.
She’s been springing to mind a lot these days, perhaps because everything feels kind of swirly and I’m working at staying open to those bursts of light. I am shifting gears in my work, and all around me (and everyone, really) there is so much that is being called into question. Some other time I’ll explain more about my work, and maybe explore some of those other questions, too. For now, I want to shine a light on Carolyn’s approach to courage — an approach that I believe illuminates the path ahead.
Carolyn was one-of-a-kind, from her dimply smile to her willingness to go hors piste at a Tim-Horton’s drive-thru during a snowstorm. She radiated a kind of magic, and I don’t use the term lightly.
She shared her magic with us even when she died, as some of us learned at her memorial service. Her nearest and dearest (numbering in the hundreds, not surprisingly) came to celebrate her life on an early summer day in 2010, on the Eastern Ontario farm she shared with her husband (photographer Gary Mulcahey). During the festivities we were each invited to choose a ball of yarn or bundle of spinning fibre from her stash to remember her by. At one point, a few of us were standing off to the side of the stash table, mostly strangers to me. I don’t remember who said what first, but there was an uncanny moment when we realized that Carolyn had visited each of us the night she died. It’s a bit odd — brash even — to say that the dead woman we were celebrating had dropped by in our sleep as she lay dying. But that’s what happened.
Our descriptions were so similar that we finished each other’s sentences: she was radiant and beautiful in a flowing white gown, drifting close and then receding, and it didn’t feel like she was saying good-bye but rather hello from another place. There were a lot of tears and even more laughter as Carolyn brought out the loving, ridiculous, seemingly impossible stuff and plopped it right in front of us even as we tried to mourn her.
That’s the very real thing she left in her wake: a willingness to embrace the strange and wonderful with joy and courage. It’s who she was, and it’s what she got us all to be.
In the years that she was alive, she worked this magic in more ways than I’ll ever know. I got a tiny sampling as her guild-mate. I mentioned she was the youngest of the bunch, which included mostly women and a couple men of a range of ages including one member in her 90s, Pearl. Between young Carolyn and young-at-heart Pearl, there was a lot of giggling and mischief.
One day Carolyn proposed a fundraiser for the guild. The plan was that each of us would buy specially dyed fleece or yarn and make something out of it for a gallery show. She was doing the dyeing herself and these were not just any colours: they were neon green, yellow, purple and pink! There was a complicated algorithm that only Carolyn understood about what would happen next to get people streaming through Nielsen Park Creative Centre’s gallery to leave some money behind for the guild to purchase new books and equipment.
I remember thinking, “These colours are hideous! And this fundraiser is complicated!” To be honest, looking back now I don’t remember how it worked, nor anything about the final show, including how much money was raised. What I do remember was Carolyn’s contagious courage — we all went for it. And I remember that we had so much fun, and made the most amazing things that we never would have created otherwise. The biggest issue we had was trying not to pee our pants from giggling as we were hanging the show with outrageous neon shawls, tapestries and felted sculptures.
My project for the fundraiser was a crocheted cushion backed with some salvaged gold brocade upholstery. I spun those outlandish colours into a bright yarn that complemented the vintage fabric — surprise! Now, well over a decade later, faded but every bit as fabulous, that cushion is a prominent accessory in my office, reminding me of this amazing human, and the twists and turns that ideas take when unleashed.
When Carolyn joined the guild she was new to spinning and weaving. She had done some embroidery and was curious about all things textile. She absorbed the wisdom and knowledge of the many experienced guild members who welcomed her with open arms, and often as not she promptly ignored their advice and did her own thing which worked out beautifully. She garnered more than a few head shakes but she kept right on going. The head shaking usually turned into more giggling as new and exciting things emerged, inspiring bursts of creativity from other guild members.
I look back now and realize that not only were her ideas perfectly sound, but they were also profound and full of love. There’s so, so much I miss about the amazing McA (and just writing these words brings back the sadness that washed over so many of us when she died way too young) but I really can’t miss what she left behind because it’s alive and well, whenever we choose it. It is the courage to pursue what might seem ridiculous and strange, if it feels right, and even better if we can joyfully welcome others along the journey.
Rest in peace, McA. You are dearly missed. And you are, thankfully, still here.
This post originally appeared on my Medium page in January 2022.