All the pretty string

I’m pretty much an introvert. Don’t get me wrong – I love people.  I love to hang out with people [once I get there] and I love to talk with people and to get to know people.  I love to get up in front of a crowd and talk.  I love to go where people are and smile at them for no reason at all.  Sometimes they think they know me and stop to chat.  Despite my love of people, though, I must say that actually interacting with people exhausts me. After a day in court or a day consulting with existing or potential clients, I need some alone time to recover.

That’s where all the pretty string comes into the picture.  I didn’t have many friends when I was a little girl.  Truthfully, I’ve never learned the skill of cultivating friendships.  While my brother roamed the neighborhood playing with the other little boys, I sat in the house and got underfoot.

I think I was about 8 years old when my mother handed me a ball of yarn (hot pink!) and a crochet hook.  She taught me to make a slip knot, and then she wrapped the yarn around my left pinky and through my fingers and then held my little hands in hers and guided me through the first stitches.  Once I had the hang of “chaining,” she let go.  She told me to keep going until I got to the end of the ball of scratchy pink acrylic yarn.

Periodically the yarn would tangle between my fingers, or I would let go to scratch my nose or go to the bathroom, and I would take my chain back to Mom and ask her to wrap the yarn around my fingers again.  She did, and each time she would admire my ever-growing chain.

Honestly, I don’t remember how long it took me to finish that long, long chain, but I think it was long enough to allow her to get some housework done – or perhaps some time alone for a cup of tea.

As the summer progressed, we tore that ball of yarn apart time and time again.  She taught me single crochet, then double crochet and half-double crochet.  Before the summer was over, I had turned that same ball of hot pink fiber into a ruffled rhumba-style ball gown for my Barbie doll.  She looked fabulous.

Like many other hobbies, crochet has come and gone and come again in my life.  It was something that I had in common with Mom. Mom loved people too, but they wore her out, and so when I went for a visit, I would frequently take my latest work in progress along. She would work on her doily or her baby sweater, and I would work on my hat, scarf or shawl.  When we were stitching, we could talk, or we could be silent – bonding over our mutual love of turning thread to treasures.

I recently purchased A Stash of One’s Own:  Knitters on Loving, Loiving with, and Letting to of Yarn, by Clara Parkes.  It is a book full of essays by other people who love yarn. It’s not a long book, and I am enjoying it so much that I’ve been “rationing” it – reading just one essay at a time, then surfing Ravelry for patterns designed by the writers.

This morning I read an essay by Franklin Habit and his relationship with needlework and his mother.  His mother’s “stash” became an embodiment of her for him, and he spoke of the emotions that surfaced after her death when it came time to process her death – and her stash.

As a child, his mother’s “pretty string” was forbidden.  Later in life, their mutual love of “pretty string” brought them together in new ways.  It’s a beautiful essay, and well worth a read.

Late last year, in Mom’s final illness, she asked me to bring yarn and a hook to the nursing home where she lay all day.  Her occupational therapist encouraged the idea, and I scoured my stash for yarn that was brightly colored and very soft.  I grabbed an assortment of crochet hooks from my collection and delivered the package as proudly as a little girl clutching a handful of dandelions from the lawn on Mother’s Day.

Although Mom admired the yarn, it was clear that crocheting together was something we would not be able to do any more.  I haven’t finished a crochet project since.  The scarf I worked on at the nursing home sits unfinished in my bedroom.  Instead, I did something that Mom never really tried.  I learned to knit.

My love of pretty string leads to me knitting in public when I am waiting for an appointment or enjoying the sunshine in the park.  The yarn attracts people.  They want to watch.  They want to touch.  They want someone to teach them to use the pretty string.

My home is full of pretty balls of string.  To be perfectly honest, wrapping yarn around a pair of knitting needles and watching it turn into solid fabric or lace feels like alchemy or magic.  I can lose myself in knitting – and frequently do, surrounded by balls of pretty string, losing myself in memories, or making new ones.

 

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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.

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.

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.

 

 

Day 9 – Out with the Old, In with the New

My mom wasn’t much of a housekeeper. Truth be told, I struggle with keeping a clean house myself. My brother and I didn’t have many chores growing up. I had to load and unload the dishwasher, and I vacuumed and dusted for a few pennies, but I always liked dusting. I still love the actual act of dusting and polishing wooden furniture (not that you would know it from the current condition of my home).

I was in my 20s the first time I ever saw someone wipe down the inside of their sink after washing the dishes. Sure, we cleaned the sinks in our house, but it was part of a weekly “heavy duty” cleaning – not something we did every time we used the sink!

My mom and dad were both pack rats. There were parts of the house that could have been featured on an episode of Hoarders. Both grew up in the aftermath of the Great Depression, and neither threw away something that they might need or that “might be worth some money someday.”

I searched Mom’s apartment for some important documents while she was in the nursing home. I never found what I was looking for, but I found drawer after drawer stuffed with the gifts that I had purchased or made for her in the past decade, many with tags still attached. She was “saving them for a special occasion,” I am sure.

I haven’t cleaned out Mom’s apartment yet. I’m dreading the task. I think the long Thanksgiving weekend is probably the time to dive in and get it done. First, I’ve had to learn to let go. Mom and Dad had an auction sale when they sold the family home more than a decade ago. They moved from a 3-4 bedroom house (depending on how you counted) with a full basement, garage and two sheds to a 2-bedroom apartment. Every nook and cranny was filled. I ended up with at least a truckload of furnishings during that move.

They moved into an even smaller place a few years later and I again was elected (by default) to take possession of the “family heirlooms” – mostly broken furniture and wedding presents that Mom had never used because she was “saving them for something special.” I never used them either, for the most part.

I’m enrolled in a program with a life coach, and serendipitously, October was all about organizing. I learned to winnow the mounds of stuff that I have accumulated over 30+ years of adulthood by asking 1) does it serve me, 2) do I love it, and 3) is it outdated or broken? I was shocked by the realization of how much “stuff” I was holding onto because it was important to someone else. The local Goodwill store was the recipient of multiple loads of bric-a-brac, furniture and books.

My mom crocheted hundreds of doilies. I have them all over my house and I still had boxes and boxes of them left when she died. At her funeral we laid them out in stacks on a table and invited guests to take them to remember her. I felt a catch in my throat “What if it makes me sad that I don’t have these anymore?” Then, I remembered that these doilies had been occupying a corner of my closet for several years in boxes – just like the things that Mom never, ever used.  It gave me joy to watch friends and relatives sorting through the piles, smiling and admiring Mom’s handiwork.

My coach reminded us that the blanket that Grandma made isn’t Grandma. If it’s worn out and stained and you’re ashamed to have it on display, perhaps it’s time to take a photo and let it go. There are a few things that I will keep from Mom’s house. There are things that I have always found beautiful. They would bring me joy to have, and I would USE them. Those will come home with me. The rest will find new homes. Those things that hold special memories but would never be used will be photographed. I don’t need to fill my home with physical objects to fill it with beautiful memories.

Along with the old “stuff,” I am letting go of old ideas, old resentments and old grudges. Out with the old. Bring in the new. New life, new ideas. I’m never going to love cleaning. Perhaps one of those “new ideas” is that hiring a cleaning service would be a good investment – it will give me more time to blog.

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.

Day 2 in the Life of a Motherless Mother – Loss is Universal – Grief is Indivdual

The writer in me outlined an agenda of all of the “lessons” that life and death would teach me, in order, for the next two weeks. Having buried a husband, my father, and many others close to me, I foolishly thought that I had learned the lessons that death had to teach me. I thought that I knew how to handle grief. Confirmation bias goes out the window when you’re learning about grief all over again.

I went back to work for a few hours yesterday. I had a list of work-related goals that I wanted to accomplish but I kept it short. One, two, three. Done.  I began a blog post about bringing dull and lifeless diamonds back to life by giving them a good cleaning.  I paused the blogging to run an errand out of town.  No big deal.  I was accomplishing tasks right an left.  I got a little cocky.

I decided that my hair needed a trim. I pulled into the parking lot of a “no appointment necessary” establishment. I froze. I realized in just that instant that I couldn’t bear the small talk that a 15-minute haircut involves.  If my hairdresser asked how I was doing, I ran the risk of all of the emotion that I was holding back bubbling out through my tear ducts and making a mess of my shirt. I don’t recall if I actually shed tears in the parking lot, but I put the car into drive and headed back home.

My daughter celebrated her birthday yesterday. “How can we celebrate anything when Mom is gone?” I asked myself. Daughter wanted Mexican food. She wanted to go out – I didn’t think I could bear it, so we compromised and I made Taco Tuesday on a Wednesday. We sang the birthday song from Chi-Chi’s restaurants (how I miss them) and we enjoyed a meal together, minus the teenager who is never home these days.  We had a brief celebration and then I went to the living room to hibernate.

While I pined for Mom, I flipped mindlessly through Facebook and saw again that a high school classmate and her mother were grieving the loss of a brother and son. Another friend was mourning the loss of a beloved pet. Others were passing the anniversary of the death of a parent. I talked to my cousin who lost his father last week. Death will touch us all. Loss is Universal.

My sister-in-law reached out yesterday. We had a brief text exchange. We agreed that losing a mother is different than other losses. It stings.

I didn’t just lose my mother. I lost the person I called upon for advice. I lost the person I called to share my happiness. I’ve lost track of just how many times I have though “I should tell Mom” in just the past five days. Dad wasn’t my “go to” person for the kinds of things that Mom was.

I can honor Mom’s memory by allowing grief to wash over me as it comes. I will further honor her by not allowing myself to be swept away. I have many “lifeguards” who have offered assistance if I should find myself floundering in an ocean of tears.

As Day 2 came to a close, I realized that while my grieving process for Mom is different than any I have gone through before, I am not alone. Nearly all of us will have the experience of grieving a parent. Loss is universal. Grief is individual. No two people will grieve their mother the same way. The loss of a mother will be grieved differently than the loss of a father.  Life marches on.