Looking back over 2020, I found this essay I wrote in March, not long after Georgia went into lockdown in an attempt to slow the spread of Covid-19. I had just finished a knitting project that had taken over five years to complete. It was supposed to be a shawl, but it’s big enough to use as a lap blanket. How did that happen? Here’s my reflection on life lessons I learned as I learned to knit.
I started this knitting project the summer after my husband died in 2014. I have friends that knit, and it looked like it might be a way to slow myself down from the kinetic frenzy of workaholism that had been flying around in my body for years. My daughter was living four hours away for her first year of college. I was suddenly living alone in a large house and needed to create new ways to do just about everything. I thought knitting would give me something to do with my hands so I could reflect on the enormous changes that had occurred in such a short time.
And, besides, yarns are so pretty. So many colors and they feel soft and fuzzy. I picked a yarn that appealed to me and then started to figure out what to do with it. It was fun to choose the pattern, buy the tools, and envision myself in a beautiful multicolored shawl.
You need to know that I have never knitted. I had done a little crochet but mostly embroidery. My friends made knitting look so easy. I was confident that I could learn. My teachers, accomplished knitters, assured me that it would be a breeze and promised to help me along the way.
Thinking back on this time, it felt like the beginning of a new adventure. I was full of confidence and optimism. How could I fail? I had a plan. I had the tools I needed. I had resources to call on if I needed coaching. But, it turned out that a knitting project is very similar to any other project in life.
Learn the basics first.
The first thing I faced was my lack of hand-eye coordination. The yarn had to be held a certain way in my hand. The needles had to move in concert. Over and over again. Then my mind began to wander. I laid down the project and went to get something to drink. When I would pick it back up several hours later, I had no idea which direction I was supposed to be knitting.
My friend said, “Look at the stitches, and you can tell.” Really? They all looked the same to my beginner’s eye. I grew frustrated and thought I would never figure it out.
I realized that I had not done my homework to understand the relationship between the needles, yarn, stitches, and keeping track of the pattern. I could not see where each stitch began and where the next one started.
I ripped everything out. We switched to straight needles instead of a circular needle, thinking that would, at least, help me keep track of the direction.
I muddled on.
Knitting Lesson #2
Pay attention to the details as you go.
After another knitting session, my friend picked up my project and looked it over. “Oh,” she said. “You’ve dropped some stitches.” They were several rows back and, as we kept looking, there more even further back. There were so many. What was I doing wrong now?
The tension I held on the yarn was too loose, causing a loop from a lower row to appear to be my next one to pick up. Sometimes it looked like I just hadn’t been paying close enough attention and grabbed any old random thread. How in the world was I going to fix this?
My first reaction, much the same as it always is when initial success escapes me, was to decide knitting just wasn’t for me. Instead, I ripped the whole thing out and began again. After all, yarn is expensive.
I muddled on.
Knitting Lesson #3
What appears to be a mistake is an opportunity for creativity.
I was so frustrated, thinking that I would never finish the shawl. I pulled out rows, redoing them, and started over several times, and I decided that I needed a creative solution to my dropped stitches. Working with crafters years ago had taught me that sometimes you could turn a mistake into something extraordinary. And beads would be a lovely addition to a shawl. Embellish it with beads!
So, I bought what seemed like a million of those little plastic circles someone invented to indicate knitting mistakes. Every time I saw an aberration in the stitches, I just marked it with one of those markers and moved on. That problem was solved!
I muddled on.
Knitting Lesson #4
You have to stick with it.
Now and then, my friends would ask how my shawl was coming. My reply was usually something about somewhere I had gone, a movie I had watched, or the amount of reading and writing required for my Master’s degree program. My knitting project spent most days tucked into a cute animal print tote bag I found in New Orleans.
As each autumn rolled around, I would think about how fun it would be to have the shawl in cooler weather and pick up my needles to stitch a few rows. I would even knit on road trips with my daughter (I had discovered that I don’t get car sick when I knit, and it kept me from side seat driving).
I muddled on.
Knitting Lesson #5
Sometimes you just have to do it.
Summer of 2019, five years after I started the project, I finished knitting. My friend took me to a bead shop in Milwaukee. The excitement and creativity were back. So many colors of beads and sizes and shapes. How many beads did I need? I had no idea. Picking a shiny multicolored metal bead, I bought more than I thought I needed.
Back at her house, I spread the shawl out on the floor and began to replace the plastic markers with my beads. The beads were tiny. The beading needle was skinny and sharp and stabbed into my finger every other minute. Threading it was a pain even with bifocals. I managed to sew on a few beads and decided to lay the project aside. Besides, my back hurt from sitting on the floor, leaning over this gigantic shawl.
Back at home, I thought I would certainly finish sewing on the beads before New Year’s. My knitting friend and I were going to Savannah for a holiday, and I could show it off. Nope.
Then there was a January class and another paper to write. Enough! It was the first of February, and, damn it, I was going to finish sewing on those beads.
I muddled on.
I did finish the beads that weekend and wrapped the shawl around myself.
It seemed a little large, more like a blanket.
And, oh, by the way, it was as big as the throw blanket on my chair. But the beads looked nice.
Oh damn, I needed to make some of the threads look a little neater.
WHAT? ONE END IS WIDER THAN THE OTHER! (Refer here to Knitting Lesson #2 above.)
This crazy beaded blanket/shawl experience is a metaphor for my life during the previous five years. Looking back, many of the same lessons I learned while knitting also had to be learned as I knitted together a new pattern for my life. So here’s my take on the life lessons I learned from knitting:
Life Lesson #1
Learn (or Re-Learn) the Basics
When you’ve lived life as a partnership, and you’re suddenly single, a new pattern of living life emerges. Even my everyday activities had to be reworked to fit new spaces. I sold my house and moved to a condo in Decatur. I started seminary. The academic rhythms and activities felt foreign after close to thirty years away from school. Many days I felt like I was flailing around trying to reactivate muscle memory in my brain on how to read and retain for exams. I had to revisit writing basics for the academic world instead of the crisp, to-the-point marketing copy I usually wrote.
Life Lesson #2
Pay Attention to the Details
Because I was goal and task-driven, I have never been very good at noticing where my body is in the world. I was in my head most of the time, thinking about the project plan’s next step. After hours at my desk, I’d “wake up” and suddenly realize I’d been sitting there all afternoon, without moving, and it was dark outside. The ability to focus is a great thing, but becoming overfocused caused things like running red lights on the way home!
I’ve had to learn how to do things like time blocking and setting timers to take a break. Mindfulness training has helped increase self-awareness. Having my head in the same space as my body has allowed for deeper relationships with my daughter and friends. Giving myself space to be still through meditation has made me more aware of God working in me and the world.
Life Lesson #3
Mistakes are Space for Creativity
When my daughter came back to live with me, learning how to listen to my body and the Spirit came in handy while trying to discern new and imaginative ways to be together. We were both determined to act like grown adults. Both of us wanted the outcome to be creative and life-giving.
When the inevitable struggles to learn to live in the same space came, I often felt like I’d fallen into that tote bag of yarn balls and couldn’t see my way out. “Be still,” God said. And if I stayed on the meditation cushion, a few steps of the path ahead appeared. I could see what I needed to adjust within myself and learned to ask to have my needs met. Slowly, I learned to value and prioritize spiritual practice to create a container that could hold everything I felt.
Life lesson #4
Stick with It
My first two years at seminary opened my eyes to just how much I didn’t know about God, myself, and others. I had much to unlearn that wasn’t serving me very well in everyday life. In learning how to care for others, I was learning how to care for myself. After two years, I knew I needed to stay longer in that space to move from unlearning to creating new learning. I signed up to study theology and ethics for another two years. People ask me what I’m going to do with what I’ve learned, and I often say, “Try to be a better human.” The more I learn, my curiosity grows, and I want to learn more.
Life lesson #5
Stop Procrastinating and Just Do It
Most of all, I’ve had to learn to move forward even when it felt risky. I had to lean into those uncomfortable places of being vulnerable and trying new spaces. Sometimes, I must ask forgiveness and start again until I know I’m moving in the right direction.
Like knitting projects, life doesn’t always end up being what you thought it would be. But it can still be wonderful. Even when you have to use every creative move you can think of to bring beauty from tangled threads, just do it. Keep trying new things and listening to the signs of what’s working and what’s not.
You might end up with a slightly wonky-shaped, soft, beautiful beaded lap blanket/shawl.