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.

Day 8 – Sometimes You Just Have to Feel It

Sometimes the lesson is simply indescribable. You just have to feel it. Any attempt to find the words to describe those profound, deeply-felt changes will pale in contrast to the realization.

This is as close as I can come: The depth of the feeling of being very sad about a change – like death – is in direct proportion to how hard we resist the change. As long as I dwell in the past, wishing things could have gone differently or that I had said something or did something else, I will continue to feel sadness.

When I accept that Mom is gone, and that it happened just the way that it was always going to happen, the sadness eases. It’s out of my control. It always was.

The words make it sound much simpler than the feelings do. You’ll have to trust me on that one.

Day 5 – Be Authentic

I learned many lessons during Day 4, but I didn’t write about them. I was in a dark mood. I didn’t feel like doing anything except knitting and wasting time on social media, so I didn’t.

I spent a few minutes reviewing some of the comments that readers have left on my previous blog posts. One of the comments that I received recently made note of the observation that although there have been very difficult times in the past year or so, my posts have been (mostly) positive. That is by design, but I realize that perhaps that isn’t the for the greatest good.

I write as a way to cope with my emotions. Being sad, depressed or lonely feels bad. Being angry and anxious feels bad. For me, and I believe for many others, emotions each have a physical sensation that feels “good,” “bad,” or “neutral.”

These past months have been extraordinarily difficult. There have been many days during which I have lashed out at people who care the most about me. There have been days that I have cried and days that I have shirked responsibilities. I have made nasty comments under my breath and though unkind thoughts.

I will be the first to admit that I am extraordinarily imperfect. I strive to be positive and to show kindness. Some days I fail. Some days I am a miserable person to be around.

There would be something wrong with me if I only felt happiness while my mother was dying. I experienced sadness, rage, confusion and frustration on a daily basis. I had some really bad days.

I wrote in a journal daily. I let the feelings out. I didn’t keep them inside, and by letting them out in the light, I was able to deal with them. Writing about the negative emotions felt like opening the curtains on a dark room and throwing open the windows to allow the clean air to come in.

Many problems don’t look so big or so scary when you put them on a piece of paper.

I started writing in a new journal 3 days before Mom was hospitalized in August. I chose a book with black paper because I felt like even a grocery list could look elegant written in white ink on black paper. I filled every page of that book. Today I filled the last page. I’ve never been so relieved to finish filling a journal and being able to move on. Instead of a black book with black pages and a black cover, I’m next writing in a beautiful book wit a purple cover embellished with beautiful colors. The pages are ivory and they have lines so that my writing doesn’t end up all crooked.

I hope that the sadness and anger that sometimes filled those black pages becomes a thing of the past as I move out of this dark chapter in my life.

Death visits us all. My experience is not special or unique. Losing a parent is the “natural order” of things. Although I won’t allow myself to wallow in grief, the words of a dear friend remind me to be kind to myself. “You are never truly prepared to say goodbye to your mother, no matter hard you try.” He was right.

I’m not feeling very happy or positive today. I’m also not feeling very negative today. I’m pretty close to “neutral” on the emotional spectrum, and I think that’s a pretty good place to be at this stage in the grieving game.

Spread kindness, sprinkle joy. Be authentic.

I love it already!

There is a story about an old woman, recently widowed, who is moved to a nursing home.  The woman is blind and cannot live independently.  She waits, without family, in the lobby as her paperwork is completed and her room made ready.  A staff member describes the room in great detail to her as she waits.  “I love it already!” the old woman exclaims.

The nursing home staff member asks her, “How do you know you love it?  You haven’t been inside it yet.”

The old woman, blind but wise, says, “The actual room and its furnishings has nothing to do with it.  I’ve already decided that I love it.  Happiness is a decision you make on purpose.”

I’m paraphrasing the story.  I saw it originally on Facebook, and a google search showed that a similar story, but not quite the one that I remember was written by Joyce Meyer in “The Mind Connection:  How the Thoughts You Choose Affect your Mood, Behavior and Decision.

It’s been some time since I wrote a blog post.  To be honest, I’ve been feeling very sorry for myself.  We discovered at the beginning of August that my 88 year old mother’s cancer had caused pathological fractures in her spine and right hip.  She elected to have 10 radiation treatments to “beat it back” to alleviate the pain. Although I begged her to come stay with me for the duration of the treatments, she steadfastly refused to leave her home.

The treatments were harder than she expected.  Due to the area that was being treated, there was a lot of irritation and inflammation in the digestive tract.  She was frequently nauseated and vomiting, and there was nothing that I could do about it.  Once the treatment started at the cancer center near her home, it couldn’t be transferred to the sister center near mine because of differences in equipment and dosages.

The day after her last treatment we received a call that she was gravely ill, and that management at her independent living community had determined that she was no longer independent enough to stay in her home.  She was a danger to herself and potentially others.   She had to leave, and I needed to be there when they broke the news to her.

I finished up some urgent matters at my office and drove south to Mom’s home.  I packed up a handful of things in case I needed to stay overnight.  When I arrived, Mom was sitting in her chair.  Although we hadn’t spoken, she acted like she was expecting me.  “I’ve decided to take you up on your offer to come stay with you. It will be a little vacation at your house – let’s see how it goes.  I need some help.”

I was delighted that she had made the decision on her own.  I knew that once she arrived at my home, she was unlikely to return to hr own, but we didn’t talk about that.  I tried to get her to just get into the car so that I could help her (and so that my family could help me…)  She refused.  She needed to “clean the house,” and she couldn’t miss her doctor appointment in two days.  I decided to stay with her for those two days.

To make a very long story very short, the doctor appointment never happened.  Instead, my very sick mother slipped into a rapid decline and ended up spending the next two weeks in a series of moves that included two emergency rooms, three hospital rooms, two nursing home rooms and a bunch of procedure rooms.

I was with her night and day for more than a week that seemed like an eternity.  Somewhere around day 4, my mom started to disappear.  She changed from my loving mother to a scared, angry woman who told me that I was evil.  She went from praising the staff to believing that they were possessed by Satan.

She was treated for electrolyte imbalances and a urinary tract infection. Each time they discovered a deficiency, I grasped onto hope that correcting it would bring my mother back.  It didn’t.

She finally settled into a nursing home for rehabilitation.  She was unable to do even the most basic self-care chores for herself.

I really, really wish that I could tell you that she is like the old woman in the beginning of this post and that she was determined to like her room before she even saw it.  Instead, each time I would visit her in the nursing home, she would berate me.  She would accuse me of tricking her into agreeing to stay with her so that I could put her into a nursing home where they torture her, make her fly on trapezes, tie her to the bed, punch her in the stomach, and leave her alone in the dining room for hours and hours without help.  Gradually, I came to accept that the person that I love as my mother has rather suddenly disappeared.

One trip she told me that I am not her daughter anymore.  Another time she told me that there are two of me.  One is evil and one is her daughter, and she is not sure which one I am.  She tells me that she wants to go home – but now she thinks that home is in Kidron, where we lived for many years, but she hasn’t lived there in a decade.  Every visit, she asks me how her mom is – my grandma – who died when I was a little girl.  Every visit, she tells me that she wishes that she had just died.

For two weeks at least, it seemed that everything made me cry.  I stopped doing the things that I love to do.  I stopped doing the things that help me to function – to stave off anxiety and depression.  Instead, I cried.  Sometimes I raged – I would scream in the car driving down the road when nobody could hear me.  I have often told other caregivers “You cannot pour from an empty cup,” but when faced with the same sort of scenario in my own life, I poured and poured and poured until there was nothing left to give, and it still was not enough.

I would start projects  – writing projects, crochet projects, cleaning projects -and then I would abandon them.  My living room became filled with half-done afghans, dish cloths and hats.

One day a few weeks ago when I didn’t have court or client scheduled, I didn’t get out of bed until past 10:00 a.m.  I’m an early riser.  I get up, make coffee and then journal, meditate, and study.  My husband knew then that something was very wrong.

We were blessed with a beautiful weekend in late September.  My husband suggested a boat trip to an island.  Reluctantly I agreed to leave – immediately.  Instead of packing a large cooler full of food to prepare, we left with just our clothing and toiletries, a couple of packs of lunch meat, a loaf of bread, a bag of trail mix and another of potato chips, and elected to treat ourselves to a whole weekend of restaurants.

Although I used to run many miles each month, I had stopped doing that, too, over the course of the summer.  There was a charity run scheduled for Saturday that weekend on the island, and I decided to register and do my best.  I joined several hundred runners at the start line.   There were several times that I had a hard time seeing the road because the tears were flowing so hard.  I wasn’t in physical pain -it was a mental and spiritual battle. I crossed the finish line with tears streaming down my face.  I started something, and I finished it.  The 5k run didn’t become another unfinished project.

I wish that I could say that I snapped out of my funk and began living life again immediately after that 5k, but the truth is that it took another week of slowly beginning again to use the tools that helped me to function after the last crisis in our family.

Anyone who has followed me on Facebook or in my blogs for any period of time knows that I tend to post the happy things.  My life is spent cultivating joy whenever possible.  It’s easy to find joy in a flower when life is smooth sailing.  Applying the tools is much more difficult when the waves are crashing and it seems that the world is burning down around you.

I’m learning that people can’t hurt our feelings.  It’s our own thoughts about events that hurt us.  It’s our own thoughts about life that bring us joy.

For those weeks in September, I spent all of my energy trying to find a solution for Mom’s mental decline.  I spent hours combing my memory trying to find signs that the dementia was there all along and I just missed it.  I spent hours trying to convince her that she’s in a place for help and that she still has a life to live if she just tries.  that “project” took all of the time and attention from all of the other “projects” in my life.  I finally realized that making myself miserable and allowing depression and anxiety creep back into my life – forgoing joy and happiness won’t bring my mother joy.  It won’t bring her peace.  It won’t make her want to live.

I choose life.  Mom will be 89 in a few weeks.  Whether or not she emerges from this event, her life is nearing its natural end.   My visits always upset her.  I no longer see her every day.  It’s not good for her, and it’s really horrible for me.  If she tells my kids that she wants something, I send it.  I’ve stopped worrying so much about what other people think about the matter.

I’ve finished crocheting two cowls and I’m almost done with a poncho that I started at the beginning of summer.  I ran again this week.  I am back into my morning routine.  I go to sleep giving thanks and I wake up anticipating a great day.

I am here to love my life, no matter what may come.  It’s the only life I have, and I’m not about to waste it.  This weekend I am setting up my office in a different room in the same building.  I don’t know exactly what furnishing will fit or how they will look, but I love it already.  I’m going to learn to knit on Thursday.  I don’t know what I will make, but I love it already.

I don’t know what may come, but I’m certain that I can find beauty and comfort in it.  I love it already!

This one’s for you 

There was a time not so many years ago when I would write for the joy of writing. I would write stories and poems.  I wrote term papers and articles.  I enjoyed writing.  I enjoyed sharing my writing.  One day it came back to me through the grapevine that someone felt that my writing was “passive aggressive.”  They felt that it was directed at I them.  Maybe it was. I can’t tell you what was in my head at the time.  

Writing was an outlet for my feelings.  Feelings are not always right or wrong.  Brooke Castillo (check out her podcast) says that the thoughts that we have about a circumstance cause our feelings.  If that is correct, then we can change our feelings by changing our thoughts. That’s a lot harder than it sounds. 

I get anxiety. I won’t say that I suffer from it (although I sometimes do), but the fact is that I experience anxiety is truth.  I am feeling anxiety right now. I am anxious that this blog post isn’t eloquent or polished.  I get anxious that people will think there’s something inferior about me because I admit that I have anxiety. 

Anxiety has a physical quality. My tummy feels a little funny and it feels like someone is squeezing my voice box. Sometimes it feels like my heart is beating in my throat. Sometimes anxiety has an identifiable source. Other times, it’s just there. 

My anxiety has a host of symptoms that accompany it. Sometimes I worry. I play a scenario out in my head and invent a dozen potential outcomes – some of them catastrophic. It’s rather like the movie “Groundhog Day.”  Sometimes there aren’t conscious thoughts – just a feeling of impending doom. 

I used to love to add to this blog. I allowed anxiety to take it away from me. I worried about what other people might think of me as a person or as a professional. I stopped writing. 

Like other things in life, anxiety ebbs and flows. When anxiety reaches its high tide mark, I stop creating. It takes too much energy. There is nothing left for music or writing. I can get through the things that I have to do, but there isn’t energy left to create.  

When my anxiety is high, I hope for an invitation to spend time with someone then make myself sick being anxious about it. If I can push through the anxiety, I nearly always have a great time. It’s getting there that is the problem. 

I know some remarkable people who have anxiety.  Over time, we learn ways of coping with it, or even harnessing it. I’m no expert on treating anxiety- or even coping with anxiety, but I have survived anxiety for at least 35 years, which qualifies me to say it can be done. 

I’m constantly seeking and evaluating new approaches to dealing with anxiety. Some work better than others. My anxiety toolbox includes exercise, meditation and essential oils.  Sometimes it has included medication and therapy. 

May is mental health awareness month. Perhaps this post would have been more appropriate last month, but the truth is that admitting you have anxiety causes…(you guessed it…) more anxiety!

My hope is that there is someone out there who reads this who will say, “I am not alone.”  I’m putting this blog out in the world unedited, flaws and all, to prove to myself that it’s okay to do C+ work once in a while.  If you think this is for you, it probably is. Tell me what you think.  We can talk about it. It would make me anxious…but I think I’d like it.  

Day 6/365: Prayer and Meditation

I spend a period of time each day in prayer and in meditation.   I set aside time each day for each of these practices.  I am not a theologian or a guru.  I have found, though, that prayer and meditation complement each other and add a great deal to my life.

I have heard it said that prayer is talking to God, and meditation is listening for the answers.  That may be an oversimplification, but I like the sentiment.

The first thing I do in the morning, before I get out of bed, is to give thanks for another day of life.  If my husband is in bed, I check if he is breathing and give thanks for that, too.  I (silently) say “this is the day that the Lord has made, I will rejoice and be glad in it,” and then I wake up my 16-year-old son and round up the dogs.

I go to sleep at night (literally) counting my blessings and giving thanks for the many people and things that bring joy into my life.  I don’t view God as a vending machine in the sky that doles out favors in exchange for prayer tokens.  I don’t spend much prayer time asking for specific blessings.  I do, however, seek answers.  I ask for inspiration, and I receive it.

I attempt to spend 15 – 20 minutes each morning in meditation.  I have some recordings that i like to use to get into a meditative state of mind.  It seems my mind is always working on one question or another, and it is difficult to reach a place where I can just “be” instead of “doing.”

I have learned to keep a pad of paper and a pen handy when I meditate because ideas just pop into my mind.  Without my mind planning projects or worrying about details, I am free to simply breathe in and out and listen for inspiration and answers – or just to relax and enjoy life.

There are many free meditation apps for iPhone and Android that are useful tools to help you learn to meditate.  Although it’s cold in Ohio as I write (1 degrees F, brrrr), when the weather is warn, there is nothing that I enjoy more than sitting in nature with my eyes closed and just simply observing the sounds of nature and the sensations of the sun and the breeze as they touch my skin.  In these moments I can truly disconnect from the wear and tear of life’s distractions and allow God to speak.