Sunday, April 6, 2014

She Taught Me Touch

     I grew up in an imaginary city.  Some cities remain the same for decades, even centuries, but not mine.  The grid of streets I lived on in northwest Detroit remains, but the neighborhood, the school, the park, the corner store, the incessant hum of traffic, the Tigers game wafting from every back yard on a summer evening, those are gone.  As a result, my childhood seems to be a dream or a play whose set long ago burned down.

     In my memory it’s always warm, an Easter morning. I am four, wearing a new yellow dress with a white piqué pinafore.   I am standing beside her house, in the sharp smell of warm brick, the scent of new cotton, vinegary aroma of Easter eggs.  My little brother, with his quiff of pale hair and his matching yellow suit, looks like a newly-hatched chick.  In my basket is a pink stuffed rabbit; in his, a blue one.  We are posing for pictures.  Or maybe it’s a summer evening, shadows softening the outlines of my grandmother’s flowerbeds and making a blue oval in the shade of the oak tree. She is leaning back in an Adirondack chair, her small, narrow feet in their black lace-up shoes neatly placed side by side. 

  She wore rimless spectacles, cotton print dresses and aprons trimmed in rick-rack.  She cooked pot roast on Sundays, and dotted her side tables with figurines and bowls of flowers. My memories of her are mostly tactile: her soft cheeks, her arthritis-cramped fingers, the soft cables of her yellow cardigan, the nubby surface of her green sofa cushions.   I remember the sound of her voice as she moved from task to task but I don’t remember her opinions because she never weighed in on family discussions of politics or religion.

 My parents embraced the aesthetic we now call mid-century modern—Mad-Men style, with its clean lines and rejection of clutter.  At home, our chairs were covered in naughahyde.  Biomorphic ceramic ashtrays were the only ornaments on our streamlined coffee table.  My father, who had spent the war years in England, hung architectural engravings on the walls and read Evelyn Waugh.

 My tall, elegant mother eschewed makeup, jewelry, lace and frills for herself and for me as well.  I had a short haircut and wore sensible lace-up shoes with my school uniform. At special occasions like Christmas and birthdays, my grandmother always wore red nail polish, bright red lipstick, and pearls in her ears.  By the end of the evening, I would have donned her earrings and her cardigan as well as a touch of the lipstick.  In all the festive snapshots, I’m the short-haired kid in glasses, wearing pearl earrings, an over-sized cardigan, a smear of red blurring her big grin.

My grandmother’s way of life, rooted in a childhood on a Michigan farm, was very different from my parents’ austere urban modernism but to me it was a sensory paradise.  I can still see the bright yellow tiles on her kitchen floor and the faded pinks of the cabbage rose print in her chintz-covered armchair.  Once a rich auburn, her waist-length hair had greyed to a soft gold-pink.  In the morning, I loved to watch her pin her braids into an oval at the back of her head.  I loved to sit by her side, whatever the task.  I can still feel the smooth weight of the dull gold cotton sateen that she used to sew the pleated curtains for her the bay windows.  My grandmother and I stroked the gold sateen together, admired it, and made plans for every scrap.

Some of the left-over fabric would become pin-tucked throw pillows for her sofa, and a bit more would appear as an elegant opera coat for my doll, Lily Goldbell.   On long summer afternoons, she’d weed and harvest fruits and vegetables in her long back yard that seemed to me a world in itself, with its raspberry patch, tomato plants bristling in the sun by the pungent compost heap, its goldfish pond in the shade of the huge oak tree, and nearer the house, beds of pink cosmas, snowy allysum, black-eyed susans, orange dahlias, gold-and-brown marigolds.  

When the work was done, and the new potatoes were soaking in ice water, we would sit on the side of her bed and sort out the top drawer of her dresser, the scarves and gloves and jewelry boxes.  Every object had a story, and as she told me the story, my grandmother and I would study the beads or try on the gloves with their three fanned lines of stitches, one for each long bone of the hand.  I would hold a silk handkerchief to my cheek or run the beads through my fingers of the rosary I’d receive on my first communion.  I’d touch the brooch waiting for my twenty-first birthday to my collar.   I felt as if my grandmother’s dresser held my whole future safe behind its curved mahogany drawers. 

Unlike her sisters, my grandmother had married young and never went to college. The newspaper sitting in a basket in her sun room was the only reading material in her house.  She never asked about my grades or my reading level.  I was a bookish little girl, proud of my spot near the top of my class, but I was always glad to leave my school accomplishments behind when I visited Grandma.  Perhaps that was the reason I needed to check in with her frequently.  I longed for the smells and sights of her kitchen, her knick-knack shelf, her embroidered hand towels and starched curtains.  I begged to stop for a visit whenever we passed her street corner in the car, no matter how urgent my parents’ errand might be.

She always had time.  When my mother, distracted with two younger children, was too busy to show me how to do up the buttons on my bride doll’s elaborate gown, Grandma would sit beside me, and together we would do and undo every tiny pearl bead, and then we would pin up the bride’s long hair and place her veil perfectly.  Together, we stroked the delicate tulle and arranged its stiff folds. 

When I was five, my grandmother taught me to crochet with white cotton thread and a steel needle.  I am left-handed, so not only did she have to convey the complex movements to my short, fat fingers and short attention span, but also patiently transpose all the movements from the right side to the left.  So gentle was her teaching method that without any struggle, I soon found myself making intricate doilies, much to the amazement and bewilderment of my mother.   With my growing collection of doilies, I began to understand the geometry of radial symmetry as circles grew with the repetition of eight spreading petals.  From that moment, working out my grandmother’s patterns for cotton stars, I learned that holding a needle and thread or a strand of yarn could become as natural as holding a pencil.

As my school years continued, I spent less time with my grandmother.  Weekends were devoted to nature hikes with my two younger brothers and visits to art museums, softball games and old movies on television.  I spent my after-school hours inhaling books in the local branch library, sneaking from the children’s room into the adult section, and curling up in a corner with Katherine Mansfield, Charles Dickens, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. 

My grandmother became ill.  The diagnosis was hardening of the arteries, but the symptom was an increasingly severe dementia.  Her beautiful hair was cut short, and then her words stopped altogether.  When she died I was fourteen on the cusp of fifteen, just out of my freshman year of high-school, self-centered, moody, and anxious to put all signs of childhood behind me.  No longer interested in doilies, I was busy reproducing the latest mod styles on my new sewing machine.  I wore pale-pink lipstick, and when I could get away with it, lavender eye shadow and mascara.    Beyond a vague sadness on the day of her funeral, I didn’t grieve or even think much about my grandmother for years until one Saturday night when I was mid-way through college.

I was sitting at a movie theatre downtown with my roommates, watching the cult hit Harold and Maude.  Ruth Gordon in her seventies looked naggingly familiar.  Suddenly she opened a drawer, turning to her young co-star Bud Cortt, and said, “let’s see what we have here.” I began to sob and couldn’t stop until long after the closing credits rolled.  Suddenly, I was back in my grandmother’s bedroom, poring over her dresser drawer, carefully smoothing each scarf, each pair of gloves. 

At that moment, my link to my childhood was restored.   The sights and sounds and especially the textures of my childhood came to life again.  I connected, consciously, with my past. I understood that an essential part of me experiences the world, not through logic or reason, but through my senses.  I remembered how satisfying it was to hold a skein of cotton in my hands, and I realized why I loved to knit. 

Today, forty years later, knitting still connects me to my grandmother’s love of the actual, material world, her quiet acceptance of the rhythms of nature, her skill in manipulating needle and thread, and her rare ability to find eternity in a summer afternoon.  The feeling of a strand of yarn comforts me in a way that no photograph can do.  It’s a direct link to that unspoken, tactile connection, my wordless genealogy, that imaginary place I discover again every time I cast on and make a stitch. 

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Zen of Entanglement

Last week I plunged in to a project that has scared me for months.  I had fallen in love with the Celestarium Shawl featured in Twist Collective for Winter 2012, a circular shawl that replicates a star chart, with the stars represented by yarnovers and crystalline beads.  I selected my yarn, a deep blue, I  located and collected the beads, and laid the supplies, including the needles, on my work table.  And then I got scared.

This is a lace pattern I can’t memorize because it has no repeats.  There won’t be much automatic pilot knitting here.  Instead, I will be following chart after chart and really concentrating on my work.  Lately, I have been knitting in front of my television screen, catching up on all the past seasons of Breaking Bad, and cranking out simple scarves, and I don’t know if I can reform my lazy ways any more than Walter White can turn away from cooking meth.

But last week I read a wonderful little book by Phillippa Perry, an English psychotherapist, entitled How to Stay Sane.  For a psychotherapist, she herself sounds remarkably good-natured and unflappable.   As I perused her chapter on Stress, I was surprised to see that Perry recommends a certain amount for sanity and suggests that we make a chart of things we would love to do, but remain outside our comfort zones.  After completing my chart, I could see that my star-chart shawl was sitting just a little outside the cozy solar system of my knitting comfort zone.  Clearly, it’s time to tackle Celestarium.

The first step is winding my skeins of yarn into balls.  Simple, but not this time.  The yarn I chose, as I discovered when I desperately searched the internet, (not the yarn called for in the pattern) is notorious for tangling.  I found myself with a tangle more thorny than any I had encountered in all my years of knitting, and that’s saying a lot.

When I was younger and more impatient, I might have lost my cool completely and either broken the pesky strands, cut them, or thrown the whole mess away, but now I can see that of the sources of dismay and frustration in my life, this little skein of yarn doesn’t rate at all.  Instead, I’ve been sitting on the floor, listening to classical music streaming on my i-pad, and putting in an hour or so of winding every evening.  When the hour is up, I feel strangely at peace, even though I may have straightened out only a small number of the hundreds of yarns of wool still tangled on the back of my chair, and my spine feels like someone inserted an old broomstick into my back.

It’s not true meditation, because I’m not trying to empty my mind or count my breaths, but it is very calming to focus on freeing a navy-blue thread from its crazy course over and under and around its fellow strands, reducing what looks like visual cacophony to a single theme, sweetly turning round and round a little globe:

I hope this first stage in my adventure outside my knitting comfort zone is a sign that as I go, I will continue to make discoveries.  That’s what travel, whether through the night sky or just through my little life, is all about. 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Many Tiny Gestures

In the New York Times this week, the potter Edmund de Waal poses against the backdrop of his current exhibit, hundreds of small, identical, meticulously crafted ceramic vessels:

Looking at this image, I couldn’t help thinking that the wall of pots looked an awful lot like a close-up of rows of knitting:

And that connection reminded me of something I read several years ago in Shaun McNiff’s Trust the Process, a study of creativity addressed to visual artists.  In the chapter “Karma of Simple Acts,” McNiff advises artists to “experiment with making artworks that require the repetition of small gestures over extended periods of time.”  Mc Niff suggests that this technique can help overcome the fear that a large blank canvas can represent, and also observes,  “the process of building a picture from thousands of strokes also gives me the opportunity to carefully watch how a composition emerges.” 

Repeating small gestures over extended periods of time is what we knitters do. Although many creative activities require repetition of gestures, whether in playing a musical instrument, practicing a dance routine, or spelling out words, in most cases the component gestures disappear in the final product.  But in knitting, each tiny seed is visible in the finished product. While a shirt is cut out of a large piece of cloth, a sweater is created by placing one tiny loop through another tiny loop, over and over again.

Naturally, as we hook one tiny loop inside another, we watch how our “composition” emerges.  The process of creating a knitted garment is so slow and incremental that we can make the subtlest of adjustments as we go.  We can shape and re-shape, we can turn a curve into an angle or a straight line, we can meld and smooth as we go.  Drawing two stitches together makes a tiny concavity; turning an additional loop into a new stitch makes a tiny cup.   The repetition of miniscule elements means that knitting in amazingly sensitive to the maker’s will.

In the same way, I’m sure Edmund de Waal sees miniscule variations in his collection of vessels, as each one takes on its individual character, while a product of the same series of gestures.  I’m sure that he sees his own mood, his own degrees of awareness reflected in each one, just as a knitter observes tiny variations in her gauge from row to row.

There’s an immediate fascination for multiple versions of the same form, especially when the forms are handmade, and we see similarity coexisting with difference. In the same way as the display of de Waal’s vessels, a knitted scarf or shawl offers the pleasure of a field of identical, heart-shaped elements with tiny variations apparent to hand and eye.

As knitters, we have an immediate key to a creative portal, as we repeat tiny gestures, building something beautiful and useful as we go.

By the way Edmund de Waal is also a gifted writer.  His family memoir, The Hare with the Amber Eyes, is a delightful book that has sold millions of copies through readers’ word-of-mouth endorsements.)

Sunday, September 1, 2013

DIY: Old School Meets New School

Today’s do-it-yourself movement is exciting to watch.  Young people are salvaging discarded mid-century furnishings.  Empty lots become into community gardens.  Thrift store sweaters are raveled, their cashmere and wool yarns re-knit and woven into luxurious hats and scarves. 
Palais de Tokyo, Paris, March 23 2013

            But we baby-boomers had our own DIY movement back in the day.  In the seventies, we focused on creating an alternative universe as far away as possible from our hometowns.  We weren’t interested in re-fashioning our parents’ discards; instead, we went back a few more generations, to our grandparents or great-grandparents, determined to recover a more authentic relationship to the natural world, unhooked from the plastic, mass-produced consumer goods flooding store shelves during those prosperous times.
We were all about self-sufficiency, living without gas or electricity, raising our own food, making our own clothes, starting over from scratch.   Looking back on us now, I have to admit that most of us were fundamentally hedonists, not so much concerned with saving the world as with the quest for better-tasting bread, richer, more saturated colors, for the charm of hand-carved banisters, the gleam of old linen. In our quest for such pleasures, we began learning to bake, dye our own yarn, brew beer, knit socks, and weave rugs, acquiring some badly needed discipline along the way. 
            When I set out to knit my first pair of socks in 1978, no sock yarn was available in my local yarn store, and double-pointed needles came only in large sizes.  I produced my first socks from sport-weight, marled wool on size five needles.  The socks fit beautifully and lasted for years, but like our seventies pottery and loaves of bread and macramé plant-holders, they were a bit crude.
             Apprentices at first, we seventies DIYers became more proficient with practice.  Living in Denver in the late seventies, I was lucky to find a fiber renaissance going on around me.  In Boulder, the Schacht Spindle company was just starting up, in Loveland, Interweave Press had begun, and in Denver, shops like Skyloom Fibres introduced knitters and spinners to the best equipment and materials available.  I’ll never forget the weekend Sidna Farley at Skyloom invited Elizabeth Zimmermann for a two-day workshop.  In her mid-eighties then, Elizabeth rode into town on the back of her husband’s motorcycle with her wit and knitting know-how in impeccable order.
A decade later, having moved first to LaCrosse Wisconsin and then Birmingham Alabama, I could find not only a wide range of good sock yarns at my local yarn shops, but also finely crafted spindles, elegant spinning wheels, and fibers ranging from local, organic wool fleeces to exotic varieties imported from all over the world, and now, thanks to the internet, yarns and tools from all over the world are available at the click of a keypad.
Sadly, for our late-baby-boom generation that came of age in the early seventies, what had started as a humble movement based on simplicity and a rejection of consumerism evolved for some of us into a more effete kind of materialism.  We had rejected Cheese Whiz for boutique Brie on a bed of grape leaves, we traded Betty Crocker for Martha Stewart, and we spent more on artisanal yogurt than our mothers spent on Thanksgiving dinner.  At its best though, our version of DIY ushered in a new era of craft in cooking, textiles, gardening and home furnishing and design.  One of the presiding deities of the Arts and Crafts movement of the nineteenth century, William Morris, once advised, “have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”  In out finest moments, we tried for that.
Today, when I look around at the young DIYers, I can see they’re different from our generation.  Instead of rebelling, they connect skillfully with their elders and each other, and use social networks to share ideas, opportunities, and skills.  Instead of running away, they work to improve their communities by starting urban recycling programs, practicing black-belt frugality, finding ways to make something beautiful out of discards, something of permanent value out of the disposable. 
They are more likely to re-knit an old sweater than buy a sheep farm, more likely to re-finish an old coffee table than build one out of old-growth pine.  I’m impressed, astonished at their ingenuity.  But sometimes, at a neighborhood yard sale, I want to turn to the young woman beside me and ask: 
Are you sure about that imitation-Pucci minidress with those black tights and combat boots and your granddad’s fleece-lined helmet? You are?  And I see you found Grandma’s black vinyl clutch bag.  You must take home this copy of The Vegetarian Epicure, in perfect condition except for a slight stain on the page with the incredibly decadent chocolate cake recipe. 
Oh, OK. You’re a locavore vegan and you don’t use ingredients grown more than twenty miles from your home.  Got it.  Look, here’s some locally grown organic cotton at the next booth.  Let me lend you a spindle!