This blog post is coming to you from my personal queerantine! Times are pretty terrifying and stressful and unprecedented for many of us who have had the privilege of living lives absent of large-scale chaos such as what the Coronavirus has introduced, but I have witnessed and experienced such profound moments of beauty during this time that I thankfully have been able to stay more optimistic than panicked. This weekend Claire and I had a google hangout with some of our NYC friends over dinner, and it was so lovely to see their faces- it added a sense of normalcy to my life that was desperately needed. We chatted about how we are all coping, how our families are doing, what our new normals looked like. I shared that I had just bought a huge packet of vegetable seeds to plant, the best case scenario being that gardening would give me something productive to do during isolation, the worst being that it would provide sustenance in the (hopefully unlikely) event that we would need better access to fresh food in the coming months. My friend Geri shared that she had just purchased gas masks. It was in that moment that I realized how much of an advantage we had over so many people, how much our environment was affecting our ability to feel optimistic and hopeful. We have sun, warm, breezy weather, plenty of outdoor space, a walkable neighborhood, lots of rooms, plants, flowers, more activities than one person could get through in a month. I love our home so much, but I’ve always thought of it as modest. Right now, though? It feels like a paradise.
Anyways, it got me thinking about how this pandemic has allowed so many of us to be vulnerable to each other in ways we just don’t normally practice. Sharing our fears and our worries to feel less alone, being honest about where we came from and where we want to be once we find ourselves on the other side, creating and inspiring one another and being soft to strangers and friends during the bleakest moments of our days. It’s one of the bright spots I’ve found, feeling so connected to people even though I am more isolated from them than I have ever been. In that spirit, I want to share a short story I wrote a while back. I wrote it to workshop in my writer’s group, the first I have ever been a part of. As someone who is constantly creating, I am embarrassed to say that sharing my fiction writing is REALLY difficult. It feels personal in a way that none of my other artistic endeavors do. I have been writing essays for years, but fiction holds this really strange, sacred space deep inside me, and sharing my work is literally one of the most uncomfortable things I have ever done. Which is why it feels kind of important now. In my writer’s group (which has been a beautiful experience for me because I am lifted up by some of the smartest, most talented and compassionate women I have ever known), one of the members remarked that my story was emblematic of a heroine’s journey, which really resonated with me. Because it’s not a big story, it’s very small, very intimate. But maybe that’s what we need to be reminded of right now, that sometimes saving ourselves is just as powerful as saving the world. Sometimes we are the world. It’s okay to show up for ourselves.
Below is my short story, if you feel so inclined to read it (and a drawing kind of inspired by it). Thanks for being here. I am wishing you all peace, and hope! And wishing you as many moments of joy as you can find or create yourselves!
She called them “panicked attacks” when she was a little girl, when her mom used to have them. As a kid she didn’t really understand what panic was as a singular thing, where it came from, what it meant. But she knew exactly what it looked like, the rolling chaos it brought, a wave too big for the shore. A panicked attack wasn’t just any ordinary, run-of-the-mill bout of anxiety; a panicked attack arrived with problems of it’s own.
The girl sat in her parked car in this foreign neighborhood, staring out her smudged front window, not actually seeing anything on the other side of it. She counted silently, backwards at first, and when she lost track of where she was, she counted forwards, and when when she lost track again, she just made up numbers.
“Two thousand, three hundred seventy-eight.”
Always in her head as the words, never the shapes.
“Four hundred thirty-two. Twenty-seven thousand, sixteen. One million, sixty seven hundred, thirty-one thous-.” She paused. She wasn’t good at naming 9-digit numbers. She started over.
“One million, sixty seven thousand, three hundred forty three.”
As she named numbers she made sure not to grip the steering wheel too tightly because she had read in a magazine (or maybe it was on twitter?), that if you clenched your muscles when you were about to be attacked by something panicked, your body would hang on to that fear and never release it, and you would be destined to live with negative energy churning through the strands of your muscles forever, and so would your babies, and so would their babies. (Wait, maybe it had been her horoscope). She worked her fingers gently, rhythmically over the molded bumps on the back of the steering wheel. The little dips were notches for your fingers to rest inside, as if to make sure the driver knew exactly where their hands were supposed to fit when operating the vehicle. As if the driver’s hands could go anywhere else while operating the vehicle.
She traced each of the bumps around the wheel and went back to counting. There were thirty-two of them.
She traced them out again. Thirty-three?
She traced them out again. No, thirty-two.
She traced then out again. Coughed.
But how many dips in between the bumps?
Her eyes were getting dry from staring through the window into the bright outside, so she shut them tight. Took a deep breath. Took five more deep breaths. Focused on keeping her fingers relaxed while ignoring her taught shoulders pulled up her to her ears and her toes clenched into little balls under the roof of her Keds and her stone stomach struggling to make room for all the breath she was forcing in and out of it. She told herself she felt better. She wasn’t really sure if she knew what “better” felt like but she figured that if it wasn’t this, she could be sitting in her car until it turned dark. Maybe until it turned dark and then light again. She was in a dip between two bumps and if she didn’t climb out of it now, she wouldn’t manage to do what she had come here to do.
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Out of her car and squinting in the bright sun, she watched a middle-aged man with too many balled up plastic bags stuffed under his arms cross the street towards the peach colored house on the corner, number Fifty-Seven Sixty-Seven Oakley. She had memorized the house number last night but she pulled out her phone anyways, unable to stop herself from double-checking the address that she had already double-checked seven times before she left her apartment. What is double checking called when you do it more than twice?
“Double…triple…quadruple…” she muttered to herself, following in the man’s footsteps down the tree-lined sidewalk. “…quintuple…” she mouthed. She pulled her canvas tote tight against her body, then loosened her grip just as quickly, paid attention to her exiting breath (no negative energy). The thing is, she had never been to an estate sale before. And when she was in a new place, real or imagined, and she didn’t know what she was supposed to do there, what it was going to look like, how she was supposed to operate, she just…felt wrong. Too many possibilities to sort through and make sense of. Too many variables to prepare for. Not good. No bueno. No thank you.
Wait, what came next? Was six times of something the one that started with ‘sex’? Or was it seven times of something? She knew that if she walked fast enough she could enter the house right behind the man with the bags and learn how to be at an estate sale by watching him (he looked like he knew what he was doing). But she couldn’t remember if ‘sextuple’ meant six of the same thing, or seven.
Two bags fell out from under the man’s arm. He bent to pick them up, but then another one fell out of his back pocket, and then four more fell from under his other arm. Maybe he didn’t know what he was doing. He snatched all the bags up, walking a bit more slowly towards the house to keep hold of them all, and at this point she could have easily caught up with him and followed at a respectful distance, but instead she slowed herself to pull out her phone from the very bottom of her bag, open the safari app, and type into the search bar “what next after quintuple”. She clicked the top result. Sextuple for six, google said. Septuple for seven. Octuple. She had learned all these a long time ago but had forgotten most of them, so she kept reading. Nonuple. Decuple. She rehearsed the words in her head, tried to commit them to memory. She glanced up just in time to see the man gently closing the front door of Fifty-Seven Sixty-Seven behind him, one of his dropped plastic bags doing a slow motion bounce across the overgrown lawn.
“Goddamnit” she groaned, marching across the walkway towards the three concrete steps leading up to the house’s tiny peach porch. At the front door she paused. She wasn’t sure if she was supposed to ring the doorbell, knock, or just walk in. She cursed herself again. She hadn’t paid attention to what Plastic Bag Man had done because she just had to know what ten of something was called. She was right on the verge of starting what had the potential to be a very time consuming spiral of self-aggrandizement when she heard a car door slam behind her and turned to see a spritely older lady hop out of her Range Rover, open her trunk, and start pulling out cardboard boxes. If she waited any longer to go inside the house, the white-haired lady would be on the porch in no time, probably asking her questions, trying to make conversation. She felt her stomach roll. No bueno. The girl pressed her palm to the doorbell, then turned the knob with one hand while pounding on the door with the other.
Three’s a charm.
When she had first entered the house, the darkness, the coolness of the space, had stopped her in her tracks. She shut her eyes tight and waited for the wave of wooze to drip from her head and settle into her, yes, still clenched toes, where it usually resided, waiting to rise up again whenever she needed to be reminded that she was indeed a living thing. Her breathing steadied and she opened her eyes right as a clipboard swiped past her face, a mash of words trailing over the shoulder of the person holding it: “welcome-let-me-know-if-you-need-anything-sorry-the-velvet-couch-is-already-sold”. There were, in fact, many general things she needed at any given time. She would not be letting the person behind the clipboard know what they were.
The shadow of the space started to lift as her eyes adjusted and she realized she was in a living room, an older person’s living room by the look of the purple-ish shag rug and dusty brocade drapes towering in front of too-small windows. Clear plastic covered what was left of the furniture and she didn’t have to touch it to know it was sticky. She had once begged her mom to take her to the hospital, convinced she had ripped off the skin of her legs after spending three hours in the dead of summer on her grandma’s plastic covered couch watching a Soul Train marathon (her mom was going to take her but grandma said “uh uh we ain’t doin’ no such thing” and gave her ice cream instead). The space was awfully dated but the taste wasn’t exactly bad- everything looked well preserved, expensive. Not very crafty, though? She scanned the room, then peered down the hall looking for makes. A quilt, maybe? A framed cross stitch? A crocheted throw in too many shades of clashing acrylic orange? Nope, nada. The living room was littered with lots of things, but nothing seemed handmade: porcelain table lamp, albums, a mid-century stereo system and a collection of battery-operated radios from what looked like every decade of the past century. A vintage storage trunk in pristine condition that she could probably have fit her whole body inside of. Dozens of framed canvases were propped up against the walls, mostly still lifes, some portraits, all creepy, a perimeter of angles rising from the cushiony carpet. Did the person who used to own this house paint all these? Did a painting count as something ‘handmade’? Technically that seemed like a fair description, but it also seemed weird somehow. She had always hated the fact that painting was considered a practice of art while needlework was considered a practice of leisure. What was the difference if you used your hands for both?
She walked towards one of the smaller paintings that leaned against the couch, sliding between an armchair and a folding card table covered in ornate silverware. She knew it wasn’t physically possible to squeeze in her butt, but she tried to make it smaller anyways, inching slowly past the furniture so that no part of her body would have to touch it. Crouching down low to the carpet, she strained her eyes to see the painting better: a bowl of shiny fruit spilling onto a table, a glass of juice or wine, a spoon holding some pomegranate seeds. It wasn’t a particularly moving painting, but it was very detailed and she could tell what everything was supposed to be. ‘Robert H. Woods’ was the name carefully, legibly painted in white at the bottom of the canvas. ‘Robert’, she said quietly to herself. Maybe that was the difference between painting and needlecraft: men. She stood up and scooted again down the tight alleyway of card table and couch, immediately noticing that the antique spoons on the tea-colored tablecloth were identical to the one in the painting. She instinctively grabbed one and exited the room through the kitchen, floating past a bookcase of encyclopedias and old maps, eyes peeled for her prize.
It was waiting for her immediately when she opened the heavy wooden door next to the bathroom and climbed down the creaking stairs to the basement. One bulb with a long metal chain to click it on and off dangled from a wood beam in the middle of the room, and all around the tiny circle of light loomed the shadows of sweaters. There were dozens and dozens of them, hung up on wire hangers snagged onto the frames of doorways, hooked over knobs and curtain rods, clenched onto window sills, metal scrawls etched deep into the peeling paint of the concrete. She wondered if all these sweaters had been knit by hand. She shook her head. No way. There were more sweaters here than anyone could have knitted in two lifetimes. They dripped from the ceiling and the walls, the curved edges of the hangers pulling on the stitches at the shoulders, arms too long for the bodies reaching grotesquely towards the floor. Gravity thinned out the Fair Isle, distorted the tiny shapes and flowers and patterns stamped across the rows; the collars sagged so much they looked like U’s instead of O’s. She felt her breath catch. Who would do this? Anyone with a bit of sense knew not to hang up wool garments for any length of time if you wanted them to keep their shape. She knew that yarn, like skin, grew. You left them stretched out like this and the stitches got weaker, got pulled out of shape, were impossible to block back into their original dimensions, were destined for death. This basement was a goddamn sweater graveyard. She let her toes clench up.
It wasn’t until she stepped off the last step, walked further into the basement, past the bookcase that had been relieved of it’s titles and crammed instead with vintage Disney glassware, that she realized the entire room was carpeted in shadowy stacks of more sweaters. There were a few skeins of yarn hovering in the corners, some plastic tupperware of pipe cleaners and fabric remnants and rick rack, but mostly it was just sweaters. They were everywhere: piled up on the plaid couch, stacked on top of the wooden crate, leaning against the rusty wheels of a road bike, smooshed inside an empty fish tank. A few looked small enough for kids but they were mostly adult sizes- stripes, cables, tweed yarn, thick’n’thin yarn, lace weight. It was hard to breathe in this room, all the fuzzy fibers from the wool clinging to the air. Something rough suddenly grazed the girl’s cheek and she spun around, eyes wide. A sleeve cuff dangled in the air, peeking out of a cluster of wool torsos that hung suspended from a beam in the low ceiling. She grabbed the sleeve and leaned in closer, scrutinizing the stitches in the dim light. Fingers have a way of working yarn into knits and purls that can’t be duplicated by machine, the oil of skin plumping all of the fibers up, giving them life. She grabbed another sleeve hanging on her right, reached for a waistband that hovered on her left, eyed the thick two by two ribbing, found a single end of yarn woven into the backs of the stitches.
These were all hand knitted.
The original sweater that had attacked her was a deep, royal blue all over, save for the mint green bow that was woven onto the front, it’s ties tucking under the arms to the back. Stockinette with intarsia, she noted, one of the simpler ways to create an image in a knitted garment, and, guessing from the over-sized fit and slouchy raglan seams, made in the 80’s. The sweater should have been ugly- blue and green was a weird color combination by most people’s standards, and the bow was a bit much, but…there was something about it that she liked. It looked like winter. She got on her tip toes, gently lifted the hanger from it’s hook in the ceiling, and examined it more closely, tsk-tsking at the peaked spots of stitching bubbled up at the top of each shoulder. ‘Who would do this??’ she thought again. She saw a couple of moth holes on one sleeve, a bit of unraveling at the collar, but they were only tiny bits of bad; the yarn was a great quality, a super soft merino, or maybe even a cashmere blend? As she carefully unhooked the cold hanger from the sweater, she glimpsed it’s insides and felt a thrill at the sight of all those purls stacked next to each other, row by row by row, a parade of tiny, even nooses at the necks of each stitch.
She stood silent, alone in the quiet chaos of wool, holding the sweater. She had come to the estate sale to rifle through some vintage skeins of yarn, maybe pick up a couple pairs of needles that were in good condition. But she felt she had just stumbled across exactly what she was looking for, though she wasn’t sure why.
She held the sweater up against her body and swayed back and forth in the sweater graveyard. The girl had never actually knitted a sweater before; she told the knitting friends she had made online that sweaters were beyond her expertise, but that obviously wasn’t true. In the three years since she had taught herself, she had knit dozens upon dozens of scarves, hats, dolls, each project built with a more intricate stitch pattern than the last as her fingers became more adept at maneuvering hard metal with soft skein. She got very good very quickly, graduating to gloves (both fingerless and closed) on double-pointed needles with fingering weight yarn, thick square pot holders with the outlines of tiny cows grazing across the edges, lacy shawls, more complicated hats with poofy pom-poms than she cared to keep track of (but of course she did: she had made twelve). She gave most of her makes away to family, sometimes donated them to the thrift shop downtown, but the truth was that she had been ready for a while to make a sweater for herself, she just hadn’t been ready to be bad at it. She didn’t like learning curves, hated the long transition between starting something and owning it. She probably would have never even tried knitting if an important person hadn’t told her that it might help curb anxiety. Her mom had hated the idea, had said “who could sit still long enough for all that?!” so of course she took it up. The suggestion had come at a time in her life when she didn’t have a lot of space to say to no to things that might make living easier. So she reluctantly put
- Learn To Knit
on one of her many to-do lists, which was followed in quick succession by
- Learn To Bind Off
- Learn To Use Circular Needles
- Learn to Knit In The Round
- Learn To Read a Knitting Pattern
- Learn To Knit German Short Rows
- Learn To Knit With A Double Strand of Yarn
- Learn to Knit On DPNs
and so on and so on.
She had been waiting to put a thin, even line of ink through
- Knit A Sweater
for about five months now, theoretically spending all that time counting backwards from about two million. And here she was now, in the middle of a home filled with subpar artwork by a Mr. Robert H. Woods, at one.
“Jesus Christ Look At All These Sweaters!” screeched a high pitched voice, and the girl instinctively threw her hand to her mouth to clamp it shut, fearing she had actually vocalized what had been running through her mind since she had first descended the stairs. No, not her own voice- the voice of the woman from outside. White Hair Lady smashed one of her cardboard boxes down on top of a clear patch of polyester couch cushion and started fingering the folds of a knot of sweaters at her feet. The woman caught the girl’s eye and brightened. “D’ya see this?!” she yelled, brandishing a delicate sleeve in her direction. “Look At All These Sweaters!” White Hair Lady kept staring at her as if waiting for an explanation, but the girl couldn’t, wouldn’t give her one.
Hours later, she is sitting in her bedroom, twinkle lights plugged in, cross legged on the floor at the foot of her bed. The music trickling from her phone is turned down too low to really tell what’s playing, but it’s loud enough for her to feel like she isn’t by herself. She takes a tiny pair of silver plated scissors, holds her breath, and snips into one of the bottom-most stitches of the ribbed waistband. This part she knew would be tricky, pulling the yarn apart from the row where the sweater had been bound off. It catches every six stitches or so, knotting up on itself, keeping the length of growth to a slow crawl, making her stop to squint at the tiny fibers rolled all together in a tiny cushiony glob. But once the bottommost row is unraveled, her fingers speed through the body, stitches zipping away from the grip of it’s mass, miles and miles of zig zagged stretches of yarn piling up at her knees.
It gets tricky again when she gets to the bottom edge of the bow because now she has another color of yarn to contend with, to carefully separate from it’s braid, but she gets through it, manages to not break the continuous flow of yarn any more than she has to. Bits of fuzz and debris and the ache of whatever was happening in the 80’s flies around the room, settling in her hair, on her eyelashes, making her sneeze. Part of her had wanted to go very, very slowly, keeping count of every single stitch she unraveled from the old sweater, to know exactly how many stitches she has to work with for the new sweater that she will make out of this untangled yarn. But she knows that this is too, too many steps backwards. Uh-uh, nope. It wasn’t too long ago that she had made a promise to herself (in front of someone else, for accountability, even though it was hard, and even though she hated it), that she would no longer let her brain soothe itself in a way that might put her body in trouble. The kind of trouble that not drinking or eating or sleeping or peeing can cause when the person wearing the body is occupied with performing a task that might take hours to complete. Or days. Weeks. No bueno.
So she is going fast, she speeds through the rows, she rips them out with steady resolve, only pausing to undo a knot, or to start folding a new skein of yarn. She doesn’t even have time to count all the individual stitches.
She’s still sort of like, loosely keeping track. Just of the number of rows she has unraveled. She could probably do the math and figure out a very approximate figure for how many stitches comprised this beast of a sweater. But she doesn’t have to know, or need to know. She just likes to know. She likes to know as many things as possible.
As the sweater shrinks down, invisibles itself to nothing more than a chunky necklace of stitches, her excitement rises and collects in her fingertips like butterflies, itching to get started, even though it’s not time yet. Having touched every single stitch on the sweater, she has a good feel for the yarn, can tell that it will glide off her metal needles with ease, won’t clump too much, will slip into a wall of tiny, even loops while her fingers dance above them, coaxing them together, pushing them apart, through the back loop (TBL) to rib, through the front loop (TFL) for stockinette, gently scooting each one down and off the needle so she can get to all the stitches behind it, the ones her fingers haven’t choreographed yet.
In the bathroom, a sea of deep blue with spots of green is pooled inside the tub, tiny filaments like cactus needles poking through the surface of the water. She has painstakingly wrapped the miles of yarn into many large, thick loops, then tied little pieces of string around them to keep the strands from getting tangled on itself when she puts it in the bath. The cool water soaks through the strands, irons out the kinks that someone’s hands and needles folded into them so many years ago, loosens all the leftover dirt and grief that have been mashed into the grooves of what was once a piece of art.
After exactly forty minutes in the bath, she pulls out the stopper in the tub and watches, listens as all the water glugs out. The yarn, almost black with water, smells heavy of wet dog, so she cracks open the window above the sink. Tip toeing to the hall closet, her feet leaving faint prints on the wood floor, she finds six empty hangers and floats back to the bathroom, the breeze from the outside already thinning out the air. She lays the soaked loops across the hangers, places them all around the inside of the tub, on the shower head, the towel hook, the soap dispenser. For a moment it sounds like it’s raining in the bathroom, the yarn dripping too many rhythms at once, a tiny but determined applause. She remembers when she first started knitting, remembers learning the difference between knits and purls; a knit has a loop that wraps around it like a necktie, and a purl has a loop that wraps around it like a noose. That’s how you tell them apart. But really, the back side of a purl is just a knit, and the backside of a knit is just a purl. There’s no difference between the two stitches, it just matters which side you are on when you make it.
She turns out the light, closes the door, and lets her yarn dry.