Sexy-ugly: Lyle Lovett, overalls, cat-eye glasses with Coke bottle lenses, bowling shoes. Ramen slurping, beat-up pick-up trucks, carnies and firemen, usually, except for the ones who are either sexy-sexy or ugly-ugly. A “perfect” poached egg. English bulldogs. And my chunky, mismatched, shittily-knitted almost-finished all yarn all the time all night do right patchwork quilt.
Not sexy-ugly, just sexy-beautiful—and smart, savvy, hardened yet heartened, pee-your-pants funny, strong & resilient, a little bit famous, resourceful and did I mention beautiful??: my friend Haven. (I know. That name, right?!) Everything about her is beautiful, and it’s all in her book: from her name to her trauma stories to her directives and phoenix-rising survival arc; it’s all there, so I’ll say less. Let me just tell you two more things about her: 1) she knits. 2) she takes great joy in the process and don’t tell her I said this but, she’s kinda bad at it.
You thought I was going to say she makes the most gorgeous fill-in-the-blanks: sweaters, layette ensembles, art collage maps of the world on a #10 bamboo needle. No. She knits. And yes, what she makes are The Most Gorgeous Things but in the way your besties tell you your new bangs look gorgeous when you cut them yourself after three Moscow Mules.
She. Just. Knits. No purl stitching, no yarn-overs, no increases or decreases. She knits and she knits and she knits and then she joins together the pieces she has knitted into giant, chunky, tactilely satisfying, boldly colored, striped and not-striped, sexy-ugly knitted blankets and throws.
To call them afghans would be to insult the one your grandmother made you when you went off to college. Let’s stick with “throw”.
Her throws are stunning works of art. You want one. You would pay hundreds of dollars at an upscale New England farmer’s market for one of her sexy but ugly but drop-dead hella beautiful but funkyassmonkeybutt throws. *Oh, and that book I mentioned she’s writing? It’s called Woven. It would be more appropriate to say she weaves the pieces of the throws together the way she has woven all that life has thrown at her and is turning it into such a inspirational memoir for the rest of us.
I watched her in action when she was at my house for a little r&r following a recent bout with ptsd for which she was undergoing emdr. If that’s too many acronyms for you, you can gtfo.
The yarn was electricity incarnate in her lap. All its pinkness glowed like, I want to say it glowed like labia but 1) gross. and 2) gross. And yet it was exactly the kind of color those When I Am An Old Lady, I Shall Wear Purple ladies dream of when they talk about owning their bodies and taking back words like vaGINa and LAbia so I’ll call it Labia Pink. BOLD LIPSTICK POP SUNSET LIGHT IT UP JAM BAM RASPBERRY MA’AM LABIA pink.
Why? Why so bright pink? WHY THE FUNK NOT?!
Her gauge was loose. Her rows were crooked. Nevertheless, her hands flew and she was in the zone. And it looked like FUN. Stacking link upon link of silky pink yarn through her fingers without counting. Able to talk to me, drink her wine (or tea, I think. It was a Sunday afternoon and we were taking a rare break from wine.) She could be mindful about her needles sliding in and around the fibers, but not anal. The sound of their clinking was therapy without all the words. It looked and felt like what I wanted to be able to make. Something big and substantial without pouring all that attention into a pattern and leaving little headspace for anything else. (I get it, that can be another form of therapy. A meditation with a reward at the end. But my prize is my hands in the strands and puddles of yarn. I couldn’t care less about the destination, people. You know what it is.)
“Oh,” I said. “Huh,” I said, wondering how this unholy pink beast growing in her lap could become anything like a quilt? I didn’t want to insult her, but, yeah.
But she had read my mind.
“And isn’t it FABulous,” she tagged on. “Donchu just love this color. And the final quilt will be messy and mismatched and folky and feelie. I make them all the time and give them away. People love them.”
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My mother had taught me to knit when I was very young, and I have dabbled ever since. After many, many, many basic scarves, I graduated to fancier scarves. Then I taught myself baby hats. Then any size hats. Then pompoms on the tops of hats.
I guess you could say I’m crafty. I scrapbook and cross-stitch and make my own DIY body scrubs. I’ve sewed rooms’ and a trailer’s worth of curtains and a daughter’s worth of dresses. And quilts. Wedding quilts, art quilts, memory quilts. I gave them away. People loved them.
But quilting meant precision. It meant measuring twice and cutting once, multiplied by two million, then hours at the machine in solitude. No chatting, no Netflix, no wine. (Maybe tea.) Quilting, at this stage in the game, doesn’t suit me anymore. I need to keep my hands busy and make something good, something that stitches my prayers and my anxieties and my tactile proclivities all into one piece without forcing me to deliberate for hours over quarter-inches and straight seams, not to mention you try to thread a needle with monovision contacts and a mild and mysterious case of neuropathy.
After I have strung together loops of yarn (or loops of words) for any length of time, my hands do start to ache a bit, but that doesn’t mean I stop for once and for all. It does mean I look for something useful to do with my loopy project, if only to remind me I have a purpose beyond making boas in every color of the spectrum. And watching Haven knit what would eventually become a blanket throw didn’t just give me an Idea, it gave me Permission.
I wanted to knit for the hell of it. For the simple therapeutic pleasure of the clink of the needles and the accumulation of something I had made. The same sense of accomplishment that comes when, on apple-crisp late November day, you stand back and survey your yard, dotted with tidy piles of leaves that your hands and arms and muscles amassed. I thought I wasn't allowed to knit ugly. I thought I wasn't allowed to be less than perfect.
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Nowadays, I have this dreamy job where I get to teach what I’m passionate about to trusting kids in a supportive environment that pays me fat money. I am grateful to have something that allows me, to paraphrase Rumi, to let the Beauty of what I Love be what I Do.
If I had one complaint, it would be that we teachers have too much freedom to choose our own material and deliver it however we think will land best with our students. And if it doesn’t work, we try try again until the noodle sticks on the ceiling.
I know, I know, it sounds awesome. Unless you’re someone who struggles from a heavy dose of *Imposter Syndrome* and whose mother was a free spirited Presbyterian and whose father was a Navy man who, God love him, mopped the kitchen floor every Saturday morning and still drives five miles under the speed limit. This dichotomous combination of dance-in-the-graveyard-in-a-navy-blue-jumper meets seersucker-clad southern-Democrat created in me a need for routine even while poking holes in its boxes. Many a time I’ve gone skinny-dipping, unapologetically only to lie awake at night spinning out on the hamster wheel of self-consciousness. I don’t ask permission to strip down and jump in; everybody knows forbidden cold plums taste better than cold plums proffered on a plate. Getting Away with Something is half the fun but insomniac second-guessing your own spontaneity is zero fun at all. When entrusted to educate young minds, something deep within me feels very strongly about the importance of feed these kids the right plums. So when I started my job, I kept looking around for someone to ask, “These plums? How cold? Sliced and sugared? Baked in a cake? Puréed with a spoon? Or maybe grilled with pork chops and green onions?” I needed to know, for the love of Pete, if I was serving up the right plums at the right temperature.
Without an oversight committee to design the curriculum, I taught Harper and Jonathan and Flannery, Emily and Billy and Mary. I taught anaphora and ACT vocabulary and French infinitives et le futur simple and mindfulness meditation and the metta and Adho Muka Svanasana and the kids did great. And I slowly began to trust myself but I still felt I needed some god-on-high to come down and tell me that in this overwhelming plethora of Suggested Texts and Enduring Understandings I should be imparting, I was serving up the right plums.
One day, right around the time that Haven was busy blowing my mind with her reckless abandon and you-know-what-colored yarn choices, I had a conversation with friend and mentor and fellow artist Brock Gordon who is my Department Head and best bud and inspired dude and all-around wünderkind. First I told him I had a bad case of *IS* and he said What’s that and I told him, you know, when you don’t have an MFA and all the writers you hang around with do and you feel inferior, like an imposter in a world where you don’t belong and wonder if you could maybe publish your books if you just started lying and stuck some letters on the end of your name and it can be very crippling. And he near about fell off his chair! “WHAAAT?! There’s a name for that?! Ohmygod, I have that too!!!”
And then he told me something that changed me profoundly, a balance to the equation where permission was the missing factor.
Turns out the company where we work operates on a pyramid model. No, not what you’re thinking. Imagine a triangle where the top tip is TEACH
and the middle shape is MOTIVATE
and the base is LOVE.
I tried to draw a diagram but I'm crap at it and sometimes, I actually do know when to admit defeat. You get it. The foundation is LOVE. Ooshy-gooshy, radical, profound, patient and personal and spiritual and guided LOVE. Love of subject, love of light bulb moments, love of whole child and wholistic learning. We were not only encouraged to put that at the crux and undergirding of all that we did in the classroom, it was actually part of the mission statement of the school. Okay, and I teach YOGA too, so imagine how that resonated with a philosophy where compassion and selflessness form the cornerstones.
As this essay comes off the printer on a rainy Sunday afternoon, I’m putting the finishing touches on a throw I made. The colors aren’t exactly how I wanted them to turn out. There are more slipped stitches than you can shake a knitting needle at. It’s lumpy and bumpy and truth be told, kinda ugly. I made it without a pattern, I made it because it satisfied. It started as a strand of simple yarn, then grew to something snuggly and imperfect.
There is no greater authority than love, no greater excuse to take wing. There is no greater comfort than a “throw” made by hand, there is no thing of more value than a gift made by heart.
The next one, I’ll give away.
Maybe we all need permission not to be perfect, because “Perfect” is a myth. One of the first lessons I gave in Junior English class was on the importance of myth—how we turn to it to understand what unites humanity; how story can help make sense of a senseless world; how Neil Gaiman’s interpretations of Odin and Loki and Freya and Fenrir should be required reading. Perfect is a myth and life does not have to be perfect to be wonderful. We work with our hands to remind us of our purpose. Perfection is a myth. We create meaning where there is none, we weave and loop and dance and paint and dive headlong and bare-assed into backyard pools and deep quarries and come up hard-breathing and invigorated. Perfection is unattainable and permission is paradoxical and plums are delicious, no matter how they’re served. We eat them because they’re cold, or cinnamon'ed, because they’re poetic and ripe and because we can spit out the pits after having worried them in our mouths for a minute, to feel something of the earth under our tongues. We make things and give them away. People love them. People, love.