Unravelled

Just in time for the COVID-19 pandemic, I had finally learned how to knit. That had been a long-standing goal. Friends were knitters; my daughter-in-law was a knitter. I admired, I wanted to do likewise. Yet my first effort, about 10 years ago, ended in failure. My teacher, expert and patient, lived in another province, which meant that any mistake was instantly fatal for the project. I did not know how to “unknit.” I had crocheted for years; in crocheting, you just unravel the yarn until you have undone the mistake, then keep going again.   

Not so in knitting. Undoing errors is as difficult a process as the initial knitting, if not more so. After struggling to learn from a book that optimistically assumed easy success, I gave up. My half-finished toque, begun at least four times, was unravelled for the last time and tossed into the remnant yarn bin.  

Then just over a year ago, I learned of a knitting group that was going to meet weekly in a home nearby to teach beginners. Now that was what I needed – an experienced teacher to sit beside me and fix what I screwed up. After knitting numerous swatches, and pulling them apart to do yet again, I was comfortable with the basic knit and purl.

My first real project was a dish cloth, in an impractical white because I had lots of left-over white yarn and because in white, stitches can be easily seen. I was inordinately proud of it. Never mind that I’d been rescued by my teacher several times along the way.

Photo of dishcloth with skein of yarn and two knitting needles

Then I became ambitious. Having mastered the complicated (for me) pattern of that dishcloth, I expanded it into a small prayer shawl. I had enough white yarn left from this and that so I could easily make a shawl. Well, not easily. Nothing about knitting is easy for me. Probably won’t be even if I live to be 90 years old. Really good knitters begin as children.  

Although I was now bragging to friends that I knew how to knit, I began this second project in solitude. No distracting conversation, no observers to make me nervous. Slowly I gained confidence. By the time I’d knit almost two feet of the shawl, I dared to knit in the presence of family, pausing if I had something to say, because talking and knitting still couldn’t happen at the same time.

 I thought I was doing well. I boldly decided that using slightly different batches of yarn wouldn’t matter. The shawl would be “interesting” for its shades of difference. Okay, here and there I miscounted stitches and had to fudge a bit to keep the border even. Perhaps only I would see those glitches.  

Then came COVID-19 and physical distancing. No more knitting group meetings. I was on my own.

 My striving for perfection (except for those aforesaid glitches that no one else would see) came to a halt the evening that I missed an entire row. I didn’t notice, just kept knitting.  Yet when I woke up in the middle of the night, I realized what I had done. What made me think of knitting at 2 o’clock in the morning remains a mystery.

The next morning, I looked at my half-done shawl, then at the pattern book. Yep, I’d skipped a row. The shawl had now reversed itself; what was the good side had become the reverse side. It was glaringly obvious. Well, then. Time to practice my very unsteady unknitting skills.

A long, tense two hours later, I stared at what was steadily becoming something that could not be rescued. I had now tangled enough stitches, lost my sense of an even row, and become so discouraged that I couldn’t imagine how I would ever be able to get back on track.

I retreated to a private room. There was no way I was going to let even my supportive husband see me laboriously unravelling hours and hours of work, returning the yarn to its original state. (Alright, not the original state – that’s never possible –but rolled into a coherent ball with which one thereafter begins again, if the will is there.)

There is no picture of that half-finished shawl. I had planned to take that photo when it was all done, and I could legitimately brag about it. Which will not happen now.

Photo of knittng book, knitting needles and skein of yarn as well as three small balls of yarn

Yet in the unravelling, I gained a more realistic view of my project than I’d allowed myself to see before. There had been, all along, uneven stitches because my tension was unsteady, and some raggedness here and there where I’d snagged or split the yarn. My miscountings were also more obvious than I’d thought.   

Worst of all, not only were my efforts to shift from one ball of yarn to the next entirely sloppy, but incorporating different kinds of yarn was clearly foolish. The shawl had become narrower because of slightly thinner yarn. The two shades of white didn’t look fashionably creative at all; they signalled clearly that they didn’t want to be together. The whole project hadn’t merited completion in the first place.  

The effort I expended trying to unknit, however, was not in vain. Through that miserable process of guesswork and sheer ignorance of where to put the needle next, I was learning. By the fourth row of undoing stitches, I was beginning to understand how knits and purls worked, just not consistently enough to succeed in the unknitting. I was tying together, metaphorically of course, actions and consequences.

Even the eventual despair that led to plain unravelling—hold onto the yarn and keep pulling—wasn’t so deep that I couldn’t see how I might, possibly, have been able to pick up the stitches at some point and rescue some of my work. Unfortunately I didn’t know how to count rows, wouldn’t have been able to figure out where I was in the pattern, in which each row had a different sequence of knits and purls.

All of which is to say that should I choose to begin the project again (unlikely), I would do better: yarn would be consistent in color and weight; rows would be carefully counted and noted; due attention would be given to the pattern. It would still not be perfect, though. My knitting teacher and her equally skilled knitting friends had assured me that even a lifetime of knitting did not prevent errors. For them, though, errors were just delays, not disasters.   

 

COVID-19 has given me more than enough time to meditate on knitting and other connections. From my busy academic days came a memory of writing a paper on Rudy Wiebe’s Sweeter Than All the World, likely because of its pervasive knitting images. The lonely narrator, finally prepared to accept his Mennonite heritage and desperate to find out who he is, explores his family history all the way back to the 1500s. The image clusters of knitting needles, ropes, knives, and threads bring together the suffering of a persecuted people, the beliefs and longings of key characters, the practice of knitting while praying, and the harmonies of songs while yarn is turned into toques and mittens. It is a tour de force.

That yarn of family betrayals, prison visits, traditional hymns, and loss of faith—telling, is it not, that we call stories yarns?—seemed the right narrative to lend meaning to my otherwise meaningless efforts and unravellings. On the one hand, my knitting failures are of little consequence. As I once explained to someone I was visiting in a nursing home, it didn’t matter if I had to unravel six inches of crocheting because I was only keeping my hands occupied while actually focusing on the conversation. The world did not need another baby afghan, but it did need my presence beside her.

On the other hand, my knitting failures can become a way of re-seeing failures of communication. If conversations don’t seem to be going anywhere, if hurt seems to multiply into hurts, might there be value in tugging gently at threads until we get back to some point of beginning?

The work of psychoanalysts indicates that sometimes moving forward requires going back to find out what metaphorical knitting needle stabbings, what ignored knots, what parallel yarns lie behind the current impasse. What’s more, current research shows that trauma is often intergenerational, that behaviour patterns have long histories. The threads of those narratives have been woven into our very cells. 

Not to say that such a cat’s-cradle of stories needs to be entirely understood and somehow redone. ‘Tisn’t always possible. What is possible is some recognition of complexity, some acknowledgement of causes, some willingness to hear differing voices. Then, with greater skill and greater humility, the story can begin again.

 

Songs, stories are beyond value: they are the memory and wisdom of a people, the particular individual rivers of the sea of life which constitutes us all.

Rudy Wiebe

These Fragments I Have Shored Against My Ruin

The title is T.S. Eliot’s line in the last stanza of The Waste Land, his 1922 cry for meaning in a world where all had seemingly gone mad. In the wake of the pointless slaughter of World War I, the old verities had lost their hold. Eliot responded with a lengthy poem of seemingly disconnected fragments: bits of old stories, remnants of forgotten myths, tag ends of religious ceremony, glimpses of relationships more bored than tragic.

When I first encountered the poem as an undergraduate, newly wed and full of joy, I hated it. Not even three years of English courses had given me tools enough to make sense of the senseless. Yet a patient professor (kudos to the young Dr. Ron Marken) initiated us into the very human enterprise of making meaning out of the shards that litter all lives, eventually—precious fragments that we gather and cling to as a way of holding chaos at bay.

In this post, written originally as my last column for the Prairie Messenger before it ceased publication, I salute the veritable fort of books with which I have built meaning into my life. In almost all the columns I wrote for the PM, some book or books hovered in the background, providing a focus or silently directing the process by which I tried to make sense of some experience or observed phenomenon.

This is not to disregard the teaching and influence of many good people who taught me lessons without which I would have lost my way far more frequently than I already have. It is just that as print media give way to other means of community-building, I want to praise the continued power of the written word and honor the friendship of all those many writers who invited me to enter their experiences, or their characters’, for my benefit. As Adele Wiseman once wrote about her own love affair with literature, in “stories life was in a sense holding still for [her] to look at and learn from and make judgments on” (Memoirs 7).

Library

My copies of T.S. Eliot’s Selected Poetry and Four Quartets are almost in tatters now. At such a time as my libraries (yes, that’s a deliberate plural—our house has more than one room) are dispersed, these little books will be tossed into the recycle bin. Meanwhile, I pick them up now and then, not only to remind myself of particular lines or to be drawn into Eliot’s profoundly mystic, yet grittily realistic images, but also to converse again with my younger self who was once stunned to discover how poetry could expand the soul and revivify the world.

Many other old literature textbooks (anthologies, poetry, novels) still claim space on my bookshelves because they likewise belong to my identity. I now own an almost new volume of Shakespeare’s plays in which I can reread as much as I wish, and the internet makes searching for quotations easy. Yet I cannot part with my well-worn copy. It was lent (given?) to me by my sister for my very first seminar class; it had already been copiously annotated with her delicate script.

Four Quartets and the Complete Shakespeare

During that difficult, painful year, when family cohesiveness was strained almost to the breaking point, I studied obsessively, pondering Shakespeare’s poetic wisdom, and linking it forever with the now essential relationship with my sister. When I pull that heavy book from the shelf now, even if only to raise a flat of bedding plants under grow lights, I breathe again within a sisterly love that made all the difference in the world. As Hamlet ruefully—and gratefully—observed, “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will.” Indeed.

The religious shelves of my library tell another co-existent version of who I am. Unlike my literature collection, which shaped my identity twice—once as a confused, struggling, student, and again as an instructor who relied on all those books to supply exactly the right lines for the moment—my religious collection is a record of a journey, with very little circling back to my former self.

While once upon a time, the very evangelically oriented books of John White and Leanne Payne offered some kind of salvation, most have long since been sent to some book sale. Likewise several books on Christian womanhood and marriage, and a variety of how-to-live-right volumes of theological advice. The Edna who needed those books has changed; once-valued texts have little to say to me now.

Our identity is forged in the crucible of human interactions and experiences, both of which are temporal, even fleeting. One cannot freeze a conversation, except by writing it down (already an interpretive act); one anchors an experience often by tethering it to some solid physical entity, such as pictures, souvenirs, furniture, clothing, even journal entries.

There are those who collect stuff, preserve even the broken teacup and old newspapers. Others stockpile pictures, physical and digital. For some, regrettably, the shoring up of fragments becomes pathological as the fragile identity cannot bear to lose anything.

I gather and keep most of my books. I keep buying new ones, too. I warehouse my writings, of whatever sort, whether published or never even intended for publication. There is something about the written word that tells me who I am and who I might become. I pray only that I will be able to distinguish between the necessary and the blindly obsessive when the time comes. To be able to let go is also an indication of strength. That is what I said to myself as I said goodbye to the Prairie Messenger.

There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will. –Hamlet (Hamlet, William Shakespeare)

(Originally published May 9, 2018 in Prairie Messenger)