Huzzah to Next Week

My grandmother was nineteen when she got married, thirty when she got the right to vote. Three years later, my mother was born. Twenty-six years later, I came into the world.

By the time I turned twenty, women still could not get a credit card without their husband’s permission. I’m guessing that single women simply couldn’t establish credit on their own. My friend Sally, a professor at UCLA, was running downstairs between classes to use the Women’s bathroom—the Faculty bathroom on the floor where she taught classes had urinals. Faculty bathrooms with urinals is a not so subtle message.

A woman had to prove she was crazy to terminate a pregnancy. Newspapers still divided help wanted ads into Help Wanted Men and Help Wanted Women. A listing for a college educated, bi-lingual secretary paid less than a janitor. The secretary was filed under Help Wanted Women; the janitor under Help Wanted Men.The accepted wisdom was that men would be supporting a family, so deserved more pay. It was also accepted wisdom that hiring a single mother as a secretary was a smart move because she would be more compliant—she had a family to support and so would be afraid to talk back. Temporary employment agencies carried names like Kelly Girl and American Girl.

I was 13 when Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his “I Have a Dream Speech.” I can’t honestly say what I remember about it, other than a sense of hope for the future and belief that my country valued the dignity at the base of being human. I also remember the cover of Life magazine, just a few months before—Myrlie Evers comforting her young son, weeping for his slain father.

The years that followed the speech were gruesome. Civil rights workers—black and white, men and women—were murdered for trying to register blacks to vote, their murderers set free by juries of their peers. Fire hoses were aimed at peaceful marchers; attack dogs set upon them. The North proved no better with riots in Watts and Detroit, hate-filled marches in Chicago.

It seemed by the next decade that some things had been settled: women had a right to choose; the right to vote was sacred, as sacred as the American flag; a precedent had been established that ensured human rights, regardless of color or gender, a precedent that laid the groundwork for ensuring rights regardless of sexual orientation. It was a precedent that human rights were more important than States’ rights.

To say that the events of the last few years have been seriously south of disheartening is an understatement. Given that it is a minority of people who are driving the effort to turn back the clock to an hour fraught with such brutality, it is particularly unnerving to watch events unfold.

Two important anniversaries will happen this week: the passage of the 19th Amendment, the one that enshrined my right to vote, and the March on Washington, when Martin Luther King, Jr., gave us his dream of what America can be.

His dream, his notion, of America is the same as mine. Our founders set in motion an idea, recorded in a Constitution, that enshrined a commitment to honoring the inherent dignity in a person. Back then, it was primarily applied to white, property-owning men. But an idea like that cannot be contained. It can only grow.

That was what was important about the Sixties to me. By the time the decade came to an end, we were just 25 years past a war that had horrified us with the Holocaust. During that same war, black American soldiers had to ride in cars behind German prisoners of war—those who had fought for the country were second class to those who we were fighting against.

Once the genie is out of the bottle, you can’t put him back.

Change does not come easily to humans. But the nature of life is change. Snakes shed their skin because they keep growing—imagine what would happen if they didn’t—or couldn’t—shed their skin.

Despite the attempt to turn back the hour to a brutal, unjust time, I am hopeful. I am hopeful because we cannot thrive as a nation, as a people, if we do not adapt to change. The generation coming up has already shed the skin of prejudices to which older generations thought they were entitled. If older generations won’t shed that skin—well, imagine what would happen to a snake that refused to shed the skin it had outgrown.

Huzzah for this coming week of anniversaries. Let us celebrate their shedding light into dark corners. Let us fill our hearts with the power of human dignity these anniversaries commemorate to shatter the mean-spirited enshrinement of power by those who refuse to change.

What in the World is Goin’ On?

“What in the world is going on?” my grandmother asked my grandfather as he crossed the yard. She was hanging the laundry to dry, my two oldest uncles playing nearby, my aunt in the cradle by her side.

Beyond her yard, sirens were blaring. Fireworks were booming. People were whooping and hollering.

“Put down your laundry and put on your hat,” he said. “We’re going to town. The war is over. The boys are coming home.”

It was November 1918.

That image has stuck with me 34 years after my grandmother told me that story: my grandfather striding across the yard. My grandmother, surrounded by domesticity, wondering, “What in the world is going on?”

It was a common expression back then: What in the world is the matter with you? What in the world am I going to do with you? What in the world am I going to do with this fallen cake?

But, it also told a piece of a story. I think the story went beyond my family, but it’s not always easy to tell how much is cultural and how much is familial.

My grandmother was born in 1889 in Kansas. When she was five, her family moved to Lawton, Oklahoma. “First there was nothin’. Then there was tents,” she explained to me. This was in 1979. I was recording her life story—it was to be a surprise for her 90th birthday.

She had wanted to be a telegrapher, she said. But she was nineteen, there were eight others at home, so she thought it best she got married.

And so she did. And so started a story about women and their choices: you could either be out in the world, or in the home, you couldn’t do both. A woman out in the world was a threat to the domestic scene—you might be more interesting to the man, keep him from coming home at night. The woman out in the world was barred from things domestic; to the woman in the home, she was as useless as the man she served when it came to things of the hearth and home persuasion. More man than woman.

Was that the story or is that how I interpreted the story? I don’t know. In retrospect, I think that storyline resulted from my grandfather’s philandering ways—an assault on my grandmother’s quest for domestic perfection and satisfaction.

At any rate, I have spent a good amount of time trying to reconcile my yearnings to be both a woman in the world and a woman in the home. It took me years to free the creativity that expresses itself in cooking, creating an inviting home, nesting—even cleaning (without the obsession). I chose a stealthy path of woman in the world. It wasn’t a career path, more like a quest. I was careful not to tread on the territory held by my grandmother, a territory that intimated my mother into stealthy submission.

I ate lunch at a bakery on Tuesday. This wasn’t a hippy-dippy bakery, my friend told me. It was more like the way my grandmother baked, buttery and sweetness. The aroma as we stepped into the shop confirmed it.

A woman named Betty (my mother’s name) invited us to sit with her. She was 83, born and raised on a dairy farm in Sequim, my new hometown, milked cows every day when she was growing up.

We got to talking about pie.

“Do you use lard or butter for your crust?” I asked. It is the closest thing I had to an intelligent question about the subject of making pie crust. I am totally intimated by pie crust. It is as mysterious to me as knitting.

“Half lard, half butter,” she said. “It’s all about not overworking it,” she said.

I’ve heard that before. Don’t overwork it. But as far as I can tell, you can’t tell that you’ve overworked it until its overworked. It’s a sensory thing—the touch and feel that comes with care and commitment to creating.

I find myself these days, not so much ignoring what’s going on in the world, as wanting a retreat from it from time to time—having time for and to reflect on things that are of what I have come to define as home. A friend’s father recently died at home. She called on her friend to be with her and her father during those final fours, that most intimate of time.

It is the intimacy of home, I think, that I have begun to embrace. I’m learning to bring all that I learned from being out in the world into the intimacy of my home. I think I am dispelling the curse and sentence domesticity was to the women in my family.

I wonder what my grandmother would think of Twitter. I find it baffling, wonder how you know when to shut it down, take a break from it. I think I tweeted once. But for her, who wanted to be the receiver and sender of news from the world, maybe she would have embraced it, setting down her knitting needles from time to time to tweet and respond.

“I’ve buried three husbands,” Betty, our lunch companion told us. “I think they thought the only way to get away from me was to die.” She was the very definition of 80 is the new 60. Lonely and sad to be a widow, somewhat baffled by it, but ready and willing to be vibrant and out in the world.

“I think you wore them out,” I said.

She smiled. “That’s how I’m going to look at it.”

I’d like to think that my years of working with words—the way I put myself out into the world—has given me the touch and feel for texture that her years of working with pie crust gave her. I do plan on trying my hand at making pie crust.

Knitting update. I am still unraveling.

Fixin’ to Cast On

I love the Southern expression for PMS: Fixin’ to Start. I love that Southern expression period, Fixin’ to fill-in-the-blank.

Fixin’. It’s that time between intention and action.

Knitting has taken on a life of its own for me.

Since I wrote about my early attempt at knitting, the knitting group in Sequim, and my move to Sequim, I spent a week at the Port Townsend Writer’s Conference in a workshop with Ann Hood. I signed up because I am writing Beans and Meatballs and the Pink Stuff.

I did not know anything about Ann Hood before I took the class. I just liked that her blurb said our writing had to answer the question, “So what?”.

On the first night of the Conference, I learned that eleven years ago, her five-year old daughter spiked a fever and within 36-hours had died from a virulent form of strep. It left her unable to write or read. Knitting became her path through grief, until she could write and read again.

Writing for me has been my way to stitch together senseless, random, seemingly unrelated experiences so they come to make sense to me—the sense that is an acceptance of the senseless, random, unrelated way that life unfolds. The story they tell.

After help from my friend Jennifer, who introduced me to the knitting group, I started my first knitting project—a scarf. It is perhaps, the ghost of that unfinished scarf that wanders aimlessly through the universe wondering if I’m ever going to learn to cast off.

She did the casting on for me. Slipknots are still very slippery for me; I don’t get them. Then I began knitting. I don’t know if it’s under, over, around, and through but that’s what I kept repeating as I pushed the needle through a loop, wrapped the yarn around it, and pulled it onto the other needle.

“What are you making?” Nettie asked me.

“Stitches, as far as I can tell,” I said, marveling that I was beginning to see rows of stitched together yarn.

I stuck the ends of the needles with the few rows of stitches clinging to it into the ball of yarn and went home. But, was I a knitter, I wondered.

This question kept me up one night.

“Write about what keeps you up at night,” Ann Hood had advised during the workshop.

I did, then stopped midway through my eloquence, wondering, was I just making this up? Was I really afraid that being a knitter would catapult me into my grandmother’s world?

Stuck in the middle of what I was trying to write, I decided I should try being a knitter.

I decided that knitters knit. So I pulled out the needles with the few rows of stitches clinging to it from the ball of yarn and began knitting as I watched The Daily Show, because that’s what I thought knitters did, they knit while other stuff was going on.

Under, over, around and through. Under, over, around, and through. Under, over, around and through until I had a good six or seven rows—maybe more—of yarn stitched together. I was amazed.

I held it up to admire it. One end had loops hanging down from the third and fourth row. Instead of a nice neat straight edge, it looked like it had an ebb and flow, like the lines waves leave on the beach.

I tried to talk myself into calling it a design decision—an improvisational one. It could be a symbol of the yin and yang of knitting.

But I couldn’t talk myself into it. I decided that while knitters might be able to improvise, what I had was just bad knitting. So I unraveled the yarn, wrapped it around the ball, stuck the needles into the ball of yarn, and decided that I just wasn’t a knitter.

Jennifer was having none of it.

“I’ve knit since I was sixteen,” she said. “It takes time to learn.”

In the meantime, a perfectly innocent suggestion from my beautiful, smart, talented stepdaughter that I take advantage of social media to promote my writing sent me into a tailspin. I felt like a dinosaur. One might say I became unraveled.

This kept me up one night, the night before last night’s knitting group.

I decided that I would go, but not bring my ball of yarn with the needles stuck in it. I needed a break from feeling totally incompetent about life.

As always, the food was magnificent, the company as down to earth and grounded as the meal. Eva, our hostess, took me on a tour of her art studio, showed me photographs of her pottery in which she had embedded leaves and her projects with the children she had taught. On the way out of the studio, I noticed the Green Man she had embedded in the concrete entry. The leaves that surrounded his winking face were imprints of kale and mustard greens.

Back inside Eva’s house, a work of art in itself, I sat across from one of the other Karens. She was transforming earth-toned, almost string-like linen thread from a large spool into rows and rows of stitches. She showed us the scarf she had made for a friend, stitched together from another spool of linen, this one green, the color of new growth that shoots up through the earth in spring. Instead of rows and rows of tight stitches, there were rows and rows of soft lacy loops. She had changed needle size throughout the project to create subtle changes.

I told her that I had unraveled the rows and rows of stitches I had done.

“You can learn a lot from unraveling,” she said.

I don’t know whether my grandmother ever unraveled anything she started. She probably did. But I never heard about it. I appreciate my grandmother’s commitment to knitting. She seemed to always have a pair of knitting needles with rows and rows of perfect stitches falling from them. I think that for her, perhaps as it did for Ann Hood’s grief, knitting was a way to deal with the unacceptable. But I suspect that for my grandmother, knitting was a coping mechanism for a cast-in-stone way of being, her way of containing the shameful secrets she protected: her husband was a philanderer and he and her son were child molesters.

That was the world, the world of protecting shameful secrets, that I was afraid knitting would catapult me into. As a writer, my job is to shed light on those shameful secrets—to make them human. I thought the two worlds were incompatible—that once I cast on, I would never be able to cast off.

“I just knit scarves,” Karen said. I was relieved to hear that—to see that there was tremendous creativity in knitting scarves. She said that with one project, she had figured out how to integrate a wayward loop into the final scarf. The acceptance of imperfection.

I slept well last night. And I’m back to writing. And, I suspect there is a way to integrate my desire to write enduring human stories with the fast-paced new fangled world of social media.

Tomorrow, Jennifer’s going to get me started again, helping me cast on. Perhaps the ghost of the scarf wandering the universe will find peace at last as I knit rows and rows of stitches, making my way to the moment when I learn to cast off.