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.

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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.

Once Upon a Time, I Knitted

Once upon a time I knitted. With emphasis on once.

I was 19. My grandmother knitted up a storm. She always had knitting needles, crochet hooks, or needle and thread in her hands. She hand stitched blouses right up until her death at 99.

So, when I was 19, I decided to knit. To make a scarf for my then boyfriend. This was a brief era when we (whoever “we” were) were trying to get back to the time before household appliances, TV dinners, and other labor-saving devices and products were introduced to make women feel okay about being sent back to housewifery after their “Rosie the Riveter” experience.

My grandmother showed me how to get started, but we never got around to the “casting off” part. I knew how to knit, but not how to stop. So I just stopped. I don’t know when the half-finished (if that) scarf with knitting needles attached disappeared—it just did.

Once upon a time, I almost experienced a tornado.

It was 2009, thirty years after I started my knitting “project.” I was in Iowa City for the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. The sirens started wailing on a Sunday evening as I walked to the first meeting for my class. The Mid Westerners strolled casually, while a woman from Seattle and I ran to the door of the first building, only to find it locked.

“The entrance is on the side,” someone said. Seattle woman and I trotted to the side of the building. I don’t know about her, but I was replaying all the disaster movies I had ever seen where those who can’t get in the locked door are doomed to be eaten by the monster, killed by the psycho, or swept away by the tornado.

That didn’t happen. Instead, I spent my first class meeting writing in the belowground floor of the natural sciences building, surrounded by glass-encased images of a giant grasshopper, the torso of an ape, and bird dioramas. An Iowa City resident tracked the oncoming tornado on her smart phone.

For an instant, hot air pressed in with a vise-like grip. A light film of sweat covered me. Then just as suddenly, it released its grip and cool air blew and the light film of sweat cooled me off.

The tornado had touched down a few miles away.

I remembered seeing my Great Aunt Neet’s Blackwell, Oklahoma, house after it got struck by a tornado in 1955. I was five. She was my grandmother’s younger sister. Her husband had grabbed her and their daughter and a mattress, carried them with his will to the bathtub in the inner bathroom and pulled the mattress over them. As the tornado raged above them, my great aunt and her daughter prayed while my great uncle cursed. Apparently that covered all their bases. They survived intact, but I believe their roof ended up miles away.

Knitting was on my mind this past week. Along with the tornado in Oklahoma.

The week before I had gone to Sequim, our new home, to make sure we had an actual home to which our movers could deliver our belongings. On Thursday, I was treated once again to an evening with my friend’s knitting group.

They meet once a week to eat, drink wine, share their lives, and knit. It’s an excuse to get together, so not everyone knits each week. But they do eat, drink wine, and share their lives. Sometimes, they knit at a local restaurant or wine bar. Once they met at the bowling alley. All so they support local establishments. Sometimes, they leave knitted balls to let them know they have been knit-bombed.

For the first time, I understood the mindfulness of knitting. I understood that where I see a ball of yarn (or is it a skein?), those who knit see how it can be transformed—into a blanket, booties, a sweater, or a scarf. That was the missing piece for me—the transformation of yarn into three dimensions.

And underneath the transformation of yarn, was the knitting of relationships. Plans were made to form a work party to tend the yard of a woman who was absent because her husband was in the hospital. Compliments passed around for the homemade soup served by the hostess, the asparagus grown and fresh picked by a retired corporate executive, the rhubarb-blueberry crumble made from fresh-picked rhubarb. And so on.

It’s what I have come to refer to as “womaning up”—embracing what I thought of as things of the home—and transforming them into a three-dimensional world. Creating community. Being free of destructive female competition.

My grandmother never really freed herself from that competition. In part because she excelled at those things of the home. She made sure she did. But, because it was a competition, it left no room for things outside the home—like being concerned for those outside one’s extended family.

So for years, I thought I had to eschew things of the home.

Those teachers in Oklahoma who threw themselves on top of their students to protect them—they womaned up. As did those teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

I said in an earlier post that I think it’s time to woman up. I think that womaning up—fusing things of the home with things outside of the home—holds the promise for our future as a nation, as a world.

Perhaps, in my new home, I will learn how to transform balls (or is it skeins?) of yarn into a scarf.