July 28, 2011

How I Learned to Knit

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In the first season of 30-Rock, Jack Donaghy staticizes Liz Lemon as “New York, third wave feminist, college educated,” a bunch of offensive stuff, and “Every two years you take up knitting for a week.”

I have tried to learn to knit at least half a dozen times.  Within that demographic,  that’s roughly twelve years out of my life that I could have been a calmer person.  Because I have finally learned to knit and I find it calming, mesmerizing even.

Chris, the unclassifiable, except she spent her Army years as a Russian translator, was over the other day because I said I could show her how to knit. She had some bulky purple Peruvian wool and two size 11 knitting needles.  We wound one skein into a ball and sat down together on the sofa.

The first difficulty I ran into was that while I have known right from left for quite a long time, I sometimes can’t articulate it without visualizing a piano in front of me. Sitting there with Chris, her small hands, and those ginormous needles, it was hard to visualize the piano because as I watched her fingers gyrate, I kept seeing one of those Octopus rides at amusement parks.

“You better not put this in your blog,” she said as we watched her fingers manipulate the needles.

“I won’t.”

But that was me six months ago.  Prior to six months ago, when I tried to knit, my neighbor Gwen, who knows something about just about everything, had to cast on for me.  Gwen, of course, knows at least three ways to cast on and I think favors something obscure like the old Norwegian method.  She would do the cast on and I would mutate stitches, creating prits and knurls, until I quietly put it all away and watched a re-run of 30-Rock.

I don’t like a challenge. I don’t.  Life is hard enough.  So six months ago I decided I would give up any investment in actually making something.  Instead I would do what I tell my adult piano students to do: enjoy the process.

I sometimes get a beginning student, someone in their 50’s like me, who tells me she wants to play the Beethoven Appassionata.  That’s the goal.  Everything is to be directed toward that end and this student will evaluate everything she does according to how it measures up.  When the first thing I need to explain is that one plays the piano with the tips of the fingers but the side of the thumb, then I’m sorry, but this student hasn’t yet found a parking place in the neighborhood of the field.  Unless she can seriously adjust her expectations –and students often do– neither of us is going to have any fun at her lessons.

So, to knitting: I decided that I would do nothing but cast-on until I felt comfortable with casting on and the stitches looked reasonably even.  To that end, I cast on, ripped out, and cast on for days.

Then I moved on to the knit stitch.  I knit until I used up a ball of yarn, ripped it all out and knit it up again.   I did the same thing for the purl stitch.  Then I knit-purled.  It took weeks.  Finally I knit a scarf in a rib stitch, ripped it out several times and did it again.  You get the idea.

Fast forward two months to my first hat.  I ripped this out three times before I got it looking respectable.  But it was too big.   I tried to shrink it but it didn’t shrink around, it shrunk up into a beanie that was too big for pretty much anybody’s head except maybe Renee Fleming’s.  So I ripped out the hat and used the now ratty yarn to have a go at making a sock.

Knitting socks on double-pointed needles was a developmental step that interrupted my long stretch of knitting with tranquility. When I graduated myself from working with bulky yarn to using worsted, I also experienced some turbulence.  But I adopted the same policy as when I first learned to do my own income taxes: when I started crying, I just put it away for the rest of the day.

By now I have knit a dozen socks if you count all the ones I ripped out.  But I have four pair of them, three of which are respectable and that’s counting the pair that features a sock slightly smaller than its mate.  I am staying calm about that pair.

My mother was famous for making large afghans with a loose crochet stitch and giving them to just about everyone that walked in the door.  She passed them out like other people might pass around a candy bowl.

“Did you get one of my afghans?  I have a blue, a yellow, and a purple one here.  Which one would you like?”

All the neighbors, all her friends, and their children and grandchildren had at least one each.  Her priest and his family each had one and so did the priest before him.  Any of my friends who had gone with me to Olympia in the 25 years before her death had one.   My mother kept trying to give them to me.  I think five had passed through my hands over the years.  I never wanted one but my policy was to take them and give them away.  It was easier than fighting with her about why I didn’t want another or why I didn’t want that one.

“What’s wrong with it?  You said green.  It’s green”

“That’s not my idea of green.  I said forest green.  Oh never mind, give it here.”

I think about my mother’s afghans when I look at the pile of socks I’ve made.  Some are too small, some too large for me.  I am going to have to start giving them away.  .  .  just like my mother.

Stay calm.




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