Small Things for Big Problems

Lina lived in Quillium Square, over the yarn shop run by her grandmother. . . . [The] shop had once been a tidy place, where each ball of yarn and spool of thread had its spot in the cubbyholes that lined the walls. All the yarn and thread came from old clothes that had gotten too shabby to be worn. Granny unraveled sweaters and picked apart dresses and jackets and pants; she wound the yarn into balls and the thread onto spools, and people bought them to use in making new clothes. — Jeanne DuPrau, The City of Ember

About 16 years ago, I stood in our kitchen in Minnesota, a set of thin knitting needles and a ball of sock yarn on the counter. At my feet—scattered everywhere on the linoleum and on the carpet behind me—were beads. My two children were extremely fond of making beaded snakes—of giving them names and homes, and constructing stories about their families and having them visit each other—but they were also extremely fond of dumping the beads everywhere and then using toy construction vehicles such as backhoes, bulldozers, and dump trucks to scoop them and push them and cart them around.

I can still remember how I felt as I stood there, a knitting needle in my right hand, the yarn looped around my left thumb and pinky, beads at my feet, children’s voices tugging at me. My husband was probably travelling yet again for work, and I was experiencing the quiet desperation that often came with having unrelieved days on end of just me and my children in the house. Those stitches that I was casting on to that thin needle felt like a lifeline—each stitch was purposeful and orderly, and it was a useful and creative thing I was attempting to do—and I remember thinking that if I could focus on those stitches, I might just be able to succeed at my one goal in life: being a decent mother who didn’t lose her shit and irrevocably damage her children.

This post has taken several sharp turns over the past week. It began as an ode to small things. Then, it morphed into yet-another treatise on handiwork as meditation. Four days ago, it became a rant about women’s work. Three days ago, I dumped everything but the quotation and wrote about reinvention. Two days ago, I yelled at the radio and then vented here about the need to retain a sense of perspective and to keep calm.

Clearly, I have been just as scattered as that box of beads.

I spent yesterday dusting, sweeping, darning, and knitting. While I knit, I watched our prime minister, who is in self-isolation because his wife has tested positive for COVID-19, give a press conference. And as the other news came in—closures and cancellations and directives on social distancing—I kept knitting, and as I did so, I felt my anxiety ebbing away.

We live in a world that uses big measures to quantify success, and because of that, anything small is easy to dismiss. And yet it’s often the small things that end up mattering the most—the small things that build until they collectively break us, or the small things that hold us together when we’re close to falling apart.

The photos, from the top: Darning my older son’s wool socks; knitting socks for my younger son; and—like Lina’s granny—unravelling a pair of hand-knit socks, ones that shrunk in the wash, so I can reuse the yarn. My youngest son needs a scarf, and I think it’s going to be a modification of this one, made from scrap yarn.

How about you? Are small things holding you together too?


10 thoughts on “Small Things for Big Problems

  1. Yes, small things are feeling like big things today. A square of chocolate. A favorite poem. Snow falling in big, fat, lazy flakes. A welcome blog post.

    If it makes you feel any better, I shouted at the radio yesterday, too, listening to the arrogant, ignorant, petty man who is my president lie and deflect and brag. And then I turned it off, and I spent the evening playing Upwords with Cane in front of a fire, grateful for all that I have to be grateful for, which are mostly small things. (Although, some are big. I am off work for the next week, but am not facing economic insecurity because of it. That may come, I know, but it’s not here today.)

    I had to smile at this: “…my one goal in life: being a decent mother who didn’t lose her shit and irrevocably damage her children.” I think that is the bottom-line goal of all of us who become mothers, but it is rarely voiced, and almost never so succinctly.

    My blogging friend Kari wrote something this week about blogging more often as a way to contribute to helping us all weather this. It’s something I’m thinking about. I hope you might, too. It really lifted my spirits to see that you had a post up. I’m sure I would have appreciated all the other iterations of this post, too.


    1. I’m glad to know that for now at least, you’re okay financially. And you’re right—that’s not a small thing at all. The economic disruption of all this will be huge, and governments will have to take effective action.

      “Succinct” is a huge compliment! Most of my posts here (and my comments on other people’s blogs) have been painfully verbose, and one of my goals is to do a better job of editing myself.

      Every time I get a notification of a new post from your blog or Kate’s (and a handful of others), I feel my spirits lift too. Besides editing myself, one of my other goals was to post more often once my course was complete. And it’s funny, but I, too, had a similar thought—that if we’re all stuck in our homes doing the social distancing thing, blogging more might help us all feel less alone and isolated. When I wrote this post, I actually told myself to try channeling what you’ve been doing with your Sunday posts—to not get bogged down in perfectionism and the need to connect all the dots. (I have to tell you that I think your posts are STILL pitch perfect.) This is definitely going to be a stretch for me, but I’m going to try.


  2. This. We went for a walk today. Had a checkers tournament. I did some knitting. Violet colored. Abram built things with LEGO.

    Maybe when this is all over we’ll remember the little things and how they are kind of the big things.

    Thank you for posting, Marian. It’s good to hear from friends.


    1. Thank you for this, Kate 🙂 . A friend who is in my local climate action group said she hopes that this collective pause that the world is being forced to take will open our eyes, that it will cause us to see that we don’t actually need all the big (i.e., carbon-intensive) things that we once thought we needed in order to be happy. Time will tell, I guess.

      Stay well, Kate.


  3. Marian,
    I really enjoyed receiving your post!! The story telling of the old knits combined with the current knits and what all the meant in the today’s!!! I loved hearing about your thoughts and feelings about it all!!!
    I would love to commission you to knit my 5 pound Yorkie a cotton sweater if I send you a picture and her dimensions would you consider it? Of course with compensation! I loved the second pic of your knitting!

    Now on the other thoughts… your post was GREAT! I especially liked your admission that as each changed this week so did your thoughts to the post change with it!!!

    This week, I too, could barely live through my emotions with the world around and my own personal days! Without getting into that story of my week, I found myself deep cleaning my apartment home on Saturday morning as a form of therapy!!! That is something that I have the power to control!

    I hope that I will hear from you more because “that if we’re all stuck in our homes doing the social distancing thing, blogging more might help us all feel less alone and isolated.”

    True True True! I love to read my blogs and contribute my experience when I think helpful and to feel connected!

    I had a pen pal who lived in Argentina when I was in 1st grade. We had so much I share and learn about each other’s world. A year later she and her twin sister came to live near me attending my class for one year. I will always remember them, our differences, our learning and so much love!

    I get that from my blogs!!!!

    Keep posting!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This warmed my heart this morning, TD—thank you so much! I consider all my blogging friends pen pals, and I’m so glad to hear you feel the same. On cleaning your apartment as therapy—I couldn’t agree more. Whenever I am feeling out of sorts—whenever my mind cannot stop churning—I clean. Sometimes my mind is churning so badly that I clean with tears streaming down my face. When that happens, the cleaning barely makes a dent in my thoughts, but at the end of it all, I have that cleaned *something*—a bathroom, a drawer, a shelf—and that’s at least some small sign of progress.

      I’m honoured that you want to commission me to knit a sweater for your dog. I have a better idea: I know you’re a needleworker and are talented with your hands, so may I suggest you take up knitting too? My best friend taught herself to knit by watching youtube videos, so other than buying the needles and yarn, you don’t have to leave your home. Knitting has been shown to be meditative, and learning something new would be a great way to get through the coming weeks.


      1. Great suggestion to learn to knit, Marian!! I did learn how to crochet, but didn’t really get excited about it. I have enjoyed a variety of creative outlets. I totally enjoy seeing and hearing about your love and Kate’s love for knitting!


      2. I learned how to crochet too, and have made many crocheted items (baby blankets, Christmas ornaments, a mesh market bag . . .), but I much prefer knitting. I hope you give it a try, TD, and let us know how it goes 🙂 .


  4. Small things – most definitely. That sums it up nicely. And – knitting as a lifeline: that too (I’d add crochet, especially the kind that doesn’t demand too much of me).
    And here’s a thing – today I had a conversation with my cousin and his wife – both independently commented that this interlude had made them think very carefully before making any purchases, not because they are financially constrained in any way but because they want to limit what comes into their home. They each went on to observe that maybe this time will trigger a different way of thinking about the climate crisis. To understand how momentous these comments were, you have to know that neither of them have ever before raised this with me as an issue, despite knowing how important it is in my life. This gives me some hope that enough people may value some of the positive impacts of this awful crisis in our lives – the reduction in car use and traffic fumes, in city noise, the realisation that we can live with enough (and don’t have to have more).
    All the best to you, Deborah


    1. Oh, definitely crochet too! Any creative task that puts you into a meditative flow state will work 🙂 .
      Thank you for sharing that conversation with your cousin—that’s exactly what I’m hoping comes of all this: intentionality in the way we live our lives as well as honesty when it comes to needs versus wants.


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