Zen and the Art of Knitting

I took a class on world religions when I was in my 30s. I was raised in a evangelical fundamentalist Christian household and community, and the class was my first real exposure to ideas that were not based on the Bible. I was intrigued by both the similarities between religions and the differences.

While most of the religions focused on one or more deities who needed to be pleased or appeased, Buddhism stood apart. Although Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, plays an important role in Buddhism, Siddhartha was an earthly prince. He was a human who lived and died.

One of the concepts of Buddhism that I found my mind returning to again and again is the concept of impermanence and non-attachment. I will readily admit that I’m not good at non-attachment.

Buddhist monks may spend days or weeks making intricate sand paintings called mandalas. When the design is completed, rather than affixing it to a board and framing it for all to admire, they pray over it and sweep it away. It is no more. The fact that “mandala art” is become part of rock painting and decorating is antithetical to the very concept of the mandala. Recently I encountered “mandala yarn” used to crochet elaborate wall hangings to be cherished for generations. I considered making one.

I began crocheting when I was a little girl. Mom handed me a crochet hook and a ball of yarn to keep me busy. I was soon crocheting elaborate doll clothes and simple shawls. Although there have been periods in my life when I didn’t crochet for months or even several years at a time, crocheting, and more recently knitting, have been a big part of my life for several years. Learning to knit, for me, has been more than a lesson in arts and crafts. It has been a lesson in embracing imperfection, a lesson in patience, and most recently in “letting go.”

For years, I’ve tried meditating to combat anxiety. I’ve used mantras and scriptures, apps and music to facilitate that state of near-trance when I enter a state of flow – where my mind stops chattering long enough for God to talk. For me, nothing has been more thought-clearing than the simple act of creating with yarn. There’s something almost magical about turning a single piece of string into a piece of fabric. Whether it’s a dish cloth or a fancy garment, the simple rhythm established by wooden needles passing one over the other creates a calm that I have yet to experience through any fancy application of technology. The creation of a garment or accessory is a bonus.

Yesterday I found myself part way through a knitting project. I have a tendency to buy yarn that appeals to me and then try to find the right project for it rather than choosing a project and then choosing the fiber. Sometimes I pick the wrong project. Yesterday I found myself looking at a piece of knitting that I started a couple of months ago and put aside because it just wasn’t working.. I’ve tried several times to love it and to finish it, but I couldn’t’ get to that place where my needles fly on their own without thinking. Every stitch was a struggle. It was one of those projects where the design was just wrong for the fiber.

I really wanted to love it, because I had at least 15 hours invested. The yarn was hand-dyed, purchased at a trunk show and cost a pretty penny, too. I looked at the work in progress, spent another hour or so knitting another couple of inches and finally accepted that I was never, ever going to love what I was making enough to finish it. I had a hard choice to make: I could stuff it into a bag and try to forget about the expense – both monetary and time that lived in that little bag…. or I could “frog it.”

I don’t know where the term “frogging” came from. Simply put, it means unraveling the fabric and recapturing the yarn or string. What had taken so many hours to create took only a few minutes to unmake.

I thought that I would feel a twinge of remorse at watching all of my work-time disappear, but I didn’t. At one point, I was left with a huge tangled mess when the stitches didn’t unwind evenly. I picked through the mass and pulled the knots apart one by one. After a long while, I was left with three balls of yarn that looked just like they did before I began the knitting with them in the first place.

I looked through my electronic gallery of patterns and one seemed to cry out, “make me with that beautiful yarn,” so I listened. My needles flew. I found the rhythm, and the world dropped away.

From time to time, I would look around the room from my knitting chair, and I spied possessions that no longer serve me. Some were broken or outdated. Others tied me to a place in the past. Like the “frogged” project, they no longer felt right. I took the broken things to the trash and the things that might be useful to someone else to the “donation” box. The ties to those objects unraveled much like the knitting. I encountered “knots” as I removed certain objects that had belonged to a beloved family member, but that I never loved for the sake of the object.

As humans, we long for continuity. We become attached to people, places and things. The concept of detaching from our possessions, relationships and even our ideas is painful. We hold onto things (ideas, belief, possession, and people) that harm us because we are afraid to trust our instincts – afraid to admit that what we are doing, keeping, and believing isn’t working.

No earthly thing is forever. so long as we live, we will be forced to say “goodbye” to people, places and things over and over. The more we are tangled up in the past, the harder it is to move into the future – to live the life where the design and the material work together.

Sometimes “frogging” means admitting that I hired someone that was wrong for the position I needed to fill. Sometimes it means realizing that I’m not the best person to handle a project because my skills just don’t match the needs of the client. Whatever you’re dumping bucket after bucket of your energy into, make sure that your going to have a result in the end that you can be proud of – or at the very least, one that won’t make you cringe every time you think of all of the time and expense that you put into it.

I wouldn’t be a very good Buddhist monk. Although I give away a lot of my finished projects, I admit that I become attached to some – those I keep. Others I donate. Some I give to people who I love. Others end up in the “frog pond” and are turned back into a ball of yarn waiting for just the right project to come along. There’s no shame in that.


It’s a Small, Small World.

My husband and I took our 17-year-old son to Walt Disney World at Christmas time this year. We toured Animal Kingdom and Disney’s Hollywood Studios together the first day. My husband decided to enjoy some relaxation while our son and I went to the Magic Kingdom and Epcot Center the second day. My son’s name is Matt. We rode several rides and watched several attractions together. I wanted to ride “It’s a Small World” – and he didn’t. We waited together through about half of the 45 minute queue, and when he made it abundantly clear that he would rather be eating lint, I allowed him to exit the wait when we came upon a gate that would allow him to escape.

I waited another 30 minutes alone, surrounded by people, and watched their interactions. The park was terribly crowded. It was still early in the day, so children weren’t having full on meltdowns yet, but it was lunchtime, and there were plenty of hungry little people. I started to feel a little sorry for myself, waiting all alone, and then I realized that I don’t need to make my son miserable to have a fabulous time.

I came to love that ride because my mother loved it. I came to love it more this year, riding alone, because it brought a plethora of beautiful colors and a whirlwind of motion into what had become a dark night of the soul- my journey of grief after Mom’s death in November.

I sat next to someone else’s child. He saw tears streaming down my face and said, “don’t cry.” I smiled and laughed through my tears and said back, “they’re happy tears.” I’m not sure that they were until that moment, but at the moment I made the claim of happiness, I was determined to be in love with that moment – and I was.

Winter in Ohio can be a hard time to create happiness – at least for me. The ground is covered with dirty snow or thick ice. The trees are barren. The birds are somewhere warm for the winter. It’s dark by the time I leave my windowless office to cook dinner, and the dining table looks out over the deck that is covered in dead leaves instead of containers overflowing with flowers in a hundred different hues.

My world got a lot smaller when Mom died. I lost the person I phoned when I needed to talk about what was bothering me. I lost my frequent destination for my Tuesday “day off.” My world got “small.” I wrote about losing her daily for a short while, until someone I don’t even know in “real life” said something that I decided made me feel like reading my words was a burden to other people. I stopped writing, and my world became still smaller.

I came to the realization a little over a week ago that my world had become too small – too dark. I set out to change it. A friend shared social media invitations to a class teaching African dance. I signed up, even though I knew that when I arrived, I wouldn’t know a single soul. I did something so far outside of my comfort zone – dancing – in public – in stretchy fabrics. I didn’t hide when, later in the evening, my friend showed up and started filming and sharing “live.” Just by being there, my world got a little bigger.

The following weekend, instead of sitting inside the house and doing the same old thing, I got my husband into the car and drove to the “Great Big Home and Garden Show.” We don’t have any home improvement projects on the agenda for this year, but I wanted to see the gardens. They didn’t disappoint. There were tulips and daffodils and hyacinths – a riot of color. There were trees in bud, and although I was in a giant building, I could almost feel myself outside beside a running brook in one of my favorite parks. Almost. I felt my world expand a little more.

When I moved to my present home nearly two decades ago, I never built a new network of close friends.  While I don’t mean to minimize the importance of the male friends and mentors in my life, I’ve reached an age where I’m looking to build my connection with other women.

I don’t go out and “do” things with women. Now that I have become a “woman of a particular age,” –  now that I am the involuntary matriarch – I see clearly how important that network of strong, wise women is to have. Only by reaching out and by sharing our joy and sorrow can we truly live a full life.

This is the “year of yes,” to quote Shonda Rimes. This is the year that I will grow my world by doing things that I don’t usually do – by saying yes to new experiences and learning new things. It is a small, small world – but it doesn’t have to be.

The cookie story

I haven’t felt much like Christmas this year. We decided to spend Christmas Day with Mickey Mouse this year since Mom isn’t here anymore and the family seems to be heading in 12 different directions this year. The only decorating I’ve done was to pull a small tree out of a box already decorated and “fluff” it a bit along with putting a strange crèche I found up on the piano. Five minutes. Done. Boom.

While going through a box of Mom’s things, I found a binder full of family recipes. I didn’t think I was up to the task of making the butter cookie cut outs I made with Mom or the chocolate molasses cookies that she sent us boxes of for every special occasion. I decided to make something emotionally easier – my aunt’s “dunkin platters.”

I assembled all of the ingredients on the kitchen island and went off to search for my kitchen aid mixer. I stepped into the storage area and found it right outside the door – not where I expected it to be – but very handy indeed. It was filthy, but I figured it must have gotten dusty when my husband blew in insulation a couple of weeks ago.

I put the full pound of butter on the stove to melt and then I set about cleaning up the dirty mixer. I grumbled under my breath that the last kid to put it away had left something sticky on the base. I couldn’t figure out what it was, but it didn’t want to leave. The bread hook and wire whip were in the bowl, which was odd because I don’t store them together. They looked nasty, too, so I stuck the, into the dishwasher. Next, I checked the mixer bowl for any stray dog hair, since we share our home with 3 of them now. Instead of hair, I found a layer of dead bugs in a variety of shapes and sizes. I shivered a little and then tried to shake them into the trash. They weren’t leaving. It took tons of hot water, soap and elbow grease to make that bowl sparkle. I was more than a little annoyed.

The beater was attached to the stand. I wanted to clean it, too, since it may have touched the bugs. It wouldn’t come off. As I wrestled with the mechanism, more dead bugs fell out of the mixer head. I pinched myself to make sure this wasn’t just a bad dream. Ouch! It wasn’t. It was then that I realized this wasn’t my mixer (thank goodness). It was Mom’s. Those bugs had probably been there for years.

I was still a little queasy. I wasn’t sure that cookies still sounded good, but the full pound of butter was now melted. Waste not, want not..

I have to eat strictly gluten free, so baking cookies required ordering certified gluten free oats and gluten free corn flakes, along with gluten free flour. These were not cheap cookies to make, and they required planning. I was committed now. I went in search of another navy blue kitchen aid mixer. It took a while, but I found it, right where my husband told me he had put it.

I followed the recipe, heated the oven, and lovingly plopped spoonfuls on the ungreased tray. 10 minutes later I found a single 11 x 14 inch cookie instead of 18 3-inch rounds. I decided I needed a smaller spoon. I eventually worked out the right size, timing and temperature for the gluten-free version of these treats. After baking for most of the afternoon, I put two on a plate and made a cup of instant coffee, because Mom always have me a cup of instant to dunk fresh cookies into.

I haven’t cried in a day or three, but when I put that coffee-covered cookie into my mouth, the dam burst. I cried until the tears ran down my shirt, and then I cried some more. It was then that it hit me – these cookies are Christmas for me. Mom made cut outs all year long. They weren’t special. I only got these once a year – on Christmas Eve – and I would eat the dunkin platters because they were my favorite. My aunt who made them is still living, but she has memory problems. I haven’t had one of these cookies in at least 20 years. Suddenly, I was 8 years old and sneaking into a corner with a handful of my favorite cookies before someone else could eat them.

I really needed that coffee. Those cookies are sweet! I guess my adult self prefers slightly less sweet, which is a good thing because even after giving some away there remains a huge box.

I’m leaking a little again. It’s alright. The best memories, sometimes, are the ones that run down your face.

My Secret Weapon

This morning as I was preparing for a contested court hearing, I couldn’t help but miss my mom.  Mom was my “secret weapon.”  She was proud when I became a lawyer.  She always asked about my work.  I didn’t give her much detail, but I told her about the kinds of cases I was working on.  “I represent a mom in a nasty divorce,” or “I’m a guardian ad litem for 3 kids who love both of their parents.”  Sometimes it was “I have a bankruptcy hearing and my client is really scared,” or even, “the attorney on the other side yells a lot and it makes me anxious.”  Mom never asked for more details.  She just said, “that sounds like hard work, but it’s important and I know you’re making a difference.”

The night before my very first contested hearing, I called Mom and told her that I was nervous.  I didn’t really know what was going to happen.  I was afraid of looking unprepared and making a fool out of myself as well as doing a bad job for my client.

Mom asked me what time my hearing was.  She told me she was going to pray that my hearing would go smoothly.  My hearing didn’t go perfectly, but it did go smoothly.  I didn’t feel anxious or nervous.  I asked the right questions.  All-in-all it was a great success.   My client ended up with a good result, and I gained confidence.

I called mom that night to tell her that the hearing had gone well.  She answered, “I knew it would.  I prayed.”  We have had many of those “night before a hearing” conversations over the past seven years.  She said a lot of prayers for people she didn’t know, and I had a lot of hearings that went smoothly, where I didn’t feel nervous and didn’t make a complete fool of myself.

I’m not claiming to have had divine intervention in my cases – but I can’t recall ever having a hearing go badly when my mom was praying.  Mom’s prayers were my “secret weapon.”  Mom believed in me, and knowing that she believed that I was “making a difference” gave me confidence.    I want to be the kind of lawyer that my mom believed I am.  Sometimes prayer changes things from the inside.


Color the Sky

Many years ago, I entered a coloring contest.  I carefully outlined each space before meticulously filling in the area with the selected color. I stayed within the lines.  I colored the whole page.  Not an inch of uncolored page remained.  I was as proud of the result as any 8-year-old could be.  It was my masterpiece.

I lost the contest.

This was no ordinary coloring contest –  one of my older cousins had organized it to keep the younger cousins busy during meal preparation for some celebration.   As I recall there was a panel of older-cousin judges, but I might be wrong on that aspect.  It was, after all, more than 40 years ago…

I lost the contest.  The winner colored outside the lines.  I remember asking the “head judge” why I didn’t win.  My picture was better.  My coloring was spot on.

His response?

“You colored the sky.  You’re not supposed to color the sky.”

For years and years, I left the skies in my coloring books a boring white.  The skies in Never Never Land and Cinderella’s Kingdom were always an overcast, unhealthy beige without a hint of blue. Occasionally I would get brave and draw a sliver of sun in the uppermost corner, but never again did I dare to color the sky.

I looked out my bathroom window this morning and saw the brightest blue sky.  My iPhone camera simply didn’t do it justice.   The sight brought the memories of my blank white coloring page skies back to me.

Life is short.  Less than 3 months before Mom died, she told me that she planned to live to see age 90.  Before she died, she wanted to go to the beach.  She wanted to sit on my back deck and look at the flowers.  I looked forward to days together where we might look up and watch the clouds together.  The skies in my daydreams about what might have been are always blue, with a puffy cloud or two and a sliver of golden sunshine.

There are rules in place to keep us safe, like “you must stop at stop signs.”  Other rules  were just someone’s idea that caught on.  We follow those rules because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”  Don’t eat dessert before dinner.  Follow the pattern as it is written.  Don’t wear white after Labor Day.  Cover the gray in your hair if you don’t want to look old.  Don’t put the good china in the dishwasher.  You get the idea.

I’ve spent more than 40 years believing you shouldn’t color the sky.  What a dumb rule.  Always color the sky.

Ask Me Anything

I always thought I knew a lot about my mom’s life.  She told scores of stories.  I can tell you about the day that her old dog, Shep, died.  I can tell you about the day my dad proposed to her – and that she didn’t answer him right away.  I can tell you about the day that she received the phone call that there was a baby girl waiting to be adopted, and she could pick her (me) up that same day.  I thought I knew a lot.

One day, my still-sharp 88-year-old mother’s brain changed.  She couldn’t tell me the familiar stories anymore.  During her final illness, on days she couldn’t quite place who iI was in her life, she asked me questions that led me to pose my own questions about what shaped her early life  – questions that she could no longer answer.

I don’t know if my mother ever had a boyfriend before she married my dad at the age of 37.  I don’t know what she dreamed of when she was a teenager.  I don’t know a lot of things. Looking back, I don’t think that I know a single story about Mom’s life between ages 10 and 25 or so.  There are still family members alive who might be able to tell me their own stories about her during those years, but nobody can tell “her” story.

As we cleaned out her apartment last weekend, I couldn’t help but wonder why she kept certain things.  although I never saw her journaling, a part of me hoped that I would find a box of notebooks – diaries – hints at who my mom had been before she was my mom – and who she was when nobody was watching.

I wonder sometimes how much my children really know.  Once in a while Matt, my youngest, appears shocked when he learns some bit of my history – some part of my life prior to the year 2000.

I wish that my mother had written her story.  I do keep a journal most days, so my life from age 50+ is theirs for the reading if they should choose to to do some day.  The years before, however, the years who made me who I am – flaws and all – are locked away in my head except for the little glimpses I tell in my stories.

Maybe some day I will tell my children to “ask me anything,” and record those answers in writing or on video.  How I wish Mom had said to me, “ask me anything” in those months leading up to the end of her life.  There are so many things I would love to know now – not that they would change a thing – but things that would help me to understand why things were the way they were.

There were things that were hinted at but never spoken.  There were times when I asked Mom about first-hand memories that were vivid to me that, according to her, “never happened.”

I’m not certain that I have the courage to tell my children to “Ask me anything” and give them the answers while I am still living.  Perhaps, though, the revelation of that information might help them to understand me and the experiences that made me who I am.  Perhaps the joys and sorrows and traumas don’t matter to anyone else.  Perhaps, though, my daughter, or my great-granddaughter some day far in the future would hear my memories and realize that I, too, questioned my worth at times, and that I spent 50 years or so worrying too much about what others thought.

Perhaps some day I will write my own story.  Parts are interesting – other parts heartbreaking or downright boring.  What might be boring to me might explain to my daughter why I am quirky about certain things.  If she ever wishes she had asked me a certain question, perhaps she could find the answer.

So, kids, when I am gone, look for the name of the document and the password hint.  In the meantime, ask me anything, and I’ll do my best to answer now – or in the future.



Time to Give Thanks

November 2017 has marked some difficult changes for me.  When you’re adapting to big changes, it’s easy to lose track of time.  Weeks seem to have flown by without me having noticed.  Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day.

I have a lot to be thankful for.  Some days those things are easier to see than on other days.  On those days – the days when the world seems to be against you and things seem like they may never be “right” again – on those days it helps to have a practice in place to focus on the good.  I recently began being “thankful” on purpose – every day.

For me, it starts with “clean water to drink.”  I get up in the morning and fill a clean glass with crystal clear water straight from the tap.  I don’t have to walk a mile (or more) to a well or a filter site to collect water and carry it home.  I can wash my morning pills down with a whole glass without even thinking about it.  I take the time to look at that crystal clear water in the clean glass before I consume it.  I take a moment to give thanks for clean water, and that prayer of thanksgiving is followed by gratefulness for a furnace to take the chill off the air, a soft rug under my feet, and a giant fluffy dog who greets me as if he hasn’t seen me in a year.

After I trot downstairs, I have the luxury of letting the tap run until the water is hot before filling my kettle to put it on to boil.  I can take a long, hot shower and not worry about whether that luxury will leave me without clean water to cook dinner with later in the day.

When I was in the Vermilion Rotary Club, the clean water problem came to my attention for the first time.   I was in my late 40s before I realized that something as basic as clean water is a barrier to basic hygiene, education, and economic growth in much of the world.

A Rotary colleague, John Hill, put together a clean water initiative through Clean Water for Haiti.  Clean Water for Haiti puts filters for safe water in schools.  The children can collect their household’s clean water while they receive an education.  The filters are assembled in Haiti, creating jobs.

Start your day off with an attitude of gratitude. If you can’t find something to be grateful for, pour yourself a glass of clean water and drink it.   If you are blessed, as I am, with money to pay the bills with some left at the end of the month, consider giving to Clean Water for Haiti or another charity providing clean water solutions in areas of need.

For the price of a $1.00 bottle of drinking water per day for just over 3 months, you can sponsor a clean water bio filter for an entire family.  I will be giving to Clean Water for Haiti on Giving Tuesday -help me to help them “Make Waves,” so that someone, somewhere, can start their day by giving thanks for a glass of clean water.