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?
January 16th…it’s not too late to post about the new year, is it?
(And also: Trigger warning—this is yet another overly long and weighty post that deals with mental health and existentialism.)
About a month ago, Kate and Rita had a discussion about getting through the dark, cold depths of January and February, and this conversation got me thinking, not for the first time, about how I envision the months of a year.
Do you picture the year in your mind’s eye? Here’s what I see:
As you can see, I picture the year as a clock. Now, a clock has twelve hours and a year has twelve months, so you’d think the months would be evenly distributed, but no: January is at the 12 o’clock mark, but June is at 3, which means that the first six months of the year are squeezed into only three hours. July and August, lazy and hot, stretch out, taking their time and meandering from 3 to 6, while September, the ninth month, packed with paper and pencils and new prospects, runs from 6 until at least 8. October and November follow, shivers that are barely there at all, and December is a month that is so filled with expectation and pressure that it takes nearly a full quarter spin of the dial.
Sometimes—as I’ve pictured above—the gap between one year and the next is non-existent: December 31st is stitched on to January 1st and one year flows seamlessly into the next. Other years, however, it feels as though there’s a rip in time, as though there’s a well of blackness at the 11 o’clock mark and we’re being forced to take a leap across a chasm. The leap from 1999 to 2000 felt enormous, and—if I had been awake for it—I’m certain 2019 to 2020 would have felt the same. But the biggest gap for me was forty years ago, when we sailed from 1979 into 1980.
I was 12 years old on New Year’s Eve 1979, and I had been dragged along to my parents’ friends’ house. I was the only child in their house that evening: My parents’ friends’ much older children were out celebrating, and my brother, 14, had been allowed to stay home. For a while, I wandered the basement, half-heartedly playing a solo game of pool and throwing darts at the board that hung on the faux wood-panelled wall, but as the evening wore on, boredom was replaced by something else: It was almost as though my physical body—the liquid in my veins and the miles-long spools of DNA in my cells—had suddenly become dizzy with the knowledge that it, they, I was situated on a ginormous rock that was spinning in space and hurtling around a star. And as the clock ticked toward midnight, and I was called upstairs for the final countdown to 1980, a suffocating dread of the future hit me and it was all I could do to not—what? Scream? Cry? Take some unspeakable action to remain in 1979? I honestly don’t now know, and the incident didn’t repeat itself until many years later, but I still remember the pain of that moment as though it were yesterday.
I’ve often wondered what it’s like in other people’s heads. Do other people picture the year as a clock? Do other people think about being on a rock hurtling through space? Do other people have brains that spider web out and stick to everything, silently spinning language—beautiful and hideous, comforting and comfortless—providing an endless and exhausting running commentary and analysis of every. single. thing they encounter?
Of course, short of each of us scribbling down our every waking thought—or short of a new technology that turns our thoughts into live-stream videos (please let that never happen)—we can never truly know. That brings me to this:
The other day, my 14-year-old son and I were discussing solipsism, the philosophical framework that says you can’t ever truly know what reality is and that can almost make you believe you are the only real being on this planet.
This wasn’t the first time a conversation with my son has gone miles deep and philosophical. He was only nine when existential dread descended, making every nighttime tucking-in a torturous event filled with tortuous discussion, all answers fielded night after night, week after week, by me. I knew exactly what he was going though, after all, but it broke my heart that he hadn’t managed to at least make it out of childhood before having to deal with such weighty thoughts.
I remember being in first-year university and sitting in an introductory physics class in a dusty lecture hall, my body wedged into one of the small desks that were perched on a ratcheted slope, feeling hemmed in on all sides by the dreams of a few hundred others. Turning to my new friend, a kind boy who had grown up in small-town Alberta, I asked, “Do you ever wonder if all this is a joke?” He looked at me quizzically, not understanding. “You know,” I continued, trying to find words to convey an idea that would form the plot of a movie 13 years later, “Do you ever feel like one day some being will pop down and tell you all this is one big experiment?” The expression on his face slipped from quizzical to incredulous, and I thought, No, clearly, you don’t.
Rita once said (paraphrased because I can’t find the exact post) that we are all the narrators of our own stories, and while solipsism is the narcissistic height of all that, I almost find myself wishing that all this—the world in which we’re living—actually is an experiment.
A couple of weeks ago, I listened to a call-in program on CBC Radio about the generational divide over climate change, and while many people were supportive of the children who had protested in 2019 and even said that the divide was not generational, but political and ideological, there were also one or two callers who said that the children who were protesting climate change were naïve.
This charge of naïveté makes my blood boil.
What is Greta Thunberg’s main message? She’s asking adults to do the Right Thing. She’s asking adults to listen to the scientists. She’s asking adults to be responsible. This is not naïveté; this is a child who has absorbed the lessons that she’s been taught in school: I’m not a teacher, but I did spend about a decade shelving books in school libraries, and I know for a fact there are no books with titles such as This Is Too hard, Let’s Just Give Up! or Someone Else Will Clean Up the Mess! or Pollution: A Noble History or One Person Can’t Possibly Make a Difference!
I suppose I’m now coming off as naïve. Perhaps you’re saying—while bristling—Of course we don’t teach children to pillage the Earth! That’s just the way the world works, that’s just collateral damage from the system we live in. What do you actually expect us, as individuals, to be able to do about the mess we find ourselves in?
Maybe I am being naïve, but I think the most important thing we can do is staring us in the face. It’s right there in the arbitrary number we use to mark the passage of our rock around our star: 2020.
(Yup, it’s so painfully obvious I didn’t want to write it.)
We can open our eyes. We can seek clarity. And once we do—once we recognize that this mess is an existential crisis—we can focus on what’s important: Community, conversations, connections, and caring—for our planet and all the life on it as well as for each other. After all, this is the only rock we have.
Recently Months ago, I fixed my favourite jeans. They’re 18-ish years old and were getting so threadbare that for a while I was one of those fashionable women who sport jeans with rips in all the right places. When the rips began migrating north, however, fashionable began to verge on risqué, and I knew I had no choice but to toss the jeans or fix them.
So, I took a long length of denim I had previously harvested from a child’s pair of jeans—ones that were too worn to send to Goodwill—consulted a tutorial (and my 20-year-old son’s girlfriend who was visiting for the weekend), inserted the fabric into the leg of my jeans, and pinned it in place. Then I hunted down a box of craft supplies and chose a matching colour of cotton embroidery thread, so the stitches that would need to run the entire length of my thighs would be fittingly quiet.
I cut a long length of floss from the skein, and as I separated it into two 3-strand lengths, the action whisked me back thirty-five years to when I sat on the burnt-orange living room carpet of my parents’ house, my back against the red chair, my teenage self attempting to disappear in the small, meditative Xs of cross stitch.
It’s safe to say my Dutch mother—who sat her four-year-old daughter down with a square of aida and a needle threaded with embroidery floss—would be horrified by my pants. She would be horrified by the fact that I wore them for months a year or two as they progressively became more and more fashionable slovenly, but she would be equally horrified by their current post-mended state.
You see, my mother—now 88 years old—grew up in a time when you did not advertise your mending. If your clothing had rips, rents, holes, or frayed bits, you quietly went about the business of fixing things. Mending was necessary and industrious work, and there was pride in doing the job well, so well, in fact, that the broken parts would be invisible.
So, here, dear reader, is where this post goes sideways. It’s where instead of doing the normal and expected thing—presenting a tutorial for visible mending—I follow a completely different thread:
On the morning of the summer day that I finally mended my pants, I spent hours sitting at the kitchen table with my son’s English-major girlfriend, discussing a letter I was writing to the editor of my local newspaper. My son’s girlfriend had recently completed a course titled Writing for Social Change and I was unashamedly picking her brain.
How do we effect change? I asked her. I was burning with the need to respond to a letter in the newspaper that argued Canadians needn’t bother even trying to address climate change because the collective carbon footprint of our small population is too low to matter.
Do facts work? I asked her. What about shame and blame? How about appealing to self-esteem? What about—and here I peered once again at the letter I was composing on my computer—sarcasm and satire?
After hours of agonizing over every word and comma, I hit send.
And then, dear reader, I was blindsided by a wave of anxiety, sickened by panic that was compounded with a side-serving of shame: my son’s completely normal and well-adjusted girlfriend saw my distress.
Take a walk, she instructed.
And I did: I left the house, walked along the lake, tried to breathe, tried to tell myself that everything—the letter to the editor, the outing of my apparent mental illness to my son’s girlfriend, the upcoming federal election*, the impending loss of civilization due to catastrophic climate change, the not-knowing what to cook for supper—would be okay. But it wasn’t until later in the day, when I threaded my needle with embroidery floss and ran those stitches up and down, up and down, up and down that the anxiety finally eased up.
If you’re a regular reader, you know that things have been quiet around here. I have lots of good excuses, but it all boils down to the fact that I have been allowing anxiety to win.
Two days after sending my letter to the editor, I got a response: Yes, this is interesting and we’d like to publish it, but it’s too long. Can you get rid of 100 words?
So, I shaved 100 words and made the piece tight and focused, but instead of sending it back, I sent an apology. I’m sorry for the inconvenience, I said. But I would like to withdraw this piece. I wrote in anger and frustration, and this will only make things worse.
The editor wrote back with unexpected kindness: He said he understood, said I was a good writer, said if I ever wanted to write another letter, he’d gladly publish it, said—if it made me feel better—that another person had stepped up and written a strong rebuttal to the original writer.
And, dear reader, it felt like such a reprieve—until, you know, it didn’t.
This kind of fear is hard.
Speaking—sending words out into a world that has become unbearably ugly and polarized—has gotten me into trouble over these last few years. It got me thrown under the bus by the PTO. It isolated me. It sent me to therapy.
And yet, if you’re the type of person who sees all the threads of where the world has been and where it is headed—if you’re the type of person who doesn’t see mending as mere stitches in fabric, but instead sees mending as unpaid labour, mending as rebellion, mending as art, mending as care-taking, mending as privilege, mending as resilience, mending as environmental stewardship, mending as lowering GDP, and mending (or the lack of mending) as the perfect metaphor for the unravelling of our world—then keeping silent also takes a toll.
Several months ago, I explained this conundrum to my 23-year-old daughter. I told her that not speaking left me feeling sick with anxiety, but that when I drummed up the courage to speak, worry over the fallout that might arise from speaking left me feeling sick with anxiety.
She said, Better to speak, then.
My mother—if she were aware of this blog—would tell me not to speak. Or at least, she would tell me not to speak about weakness; she would advise me to keep all my rips, rents, holes, and frayed bits invisible.
But I can’t help but think that part of the reason the world is in the state it’s in is precisely because we have fooled ourselves into thinking invisibility means non-existence. We have pushed all the broken bits out of sight, shifted the consequences, and taken advantage of those who don’t have the power—or the ability—to speak. I think if we are to have any hope of fixing this world, we have to make all of our brokenness—and our mending—visible.
*On October 21st, Canada elected a minority Liberal government. This means Justin Trudeau is still the prime minister, but he will have to work with other parties to get things done.
This past summer, my husband and 13-year-old son and I went to the Montreal Science Centre and spent quite a lot of time in the Human exhibit, playing God with an interactive evolutionary tree.
Unfortunately, I didn’t think to take a picture, but I found this in an old textbook:
The virtual tree at the Science Centre was incredibly complex, with branches upon branches upon branches. We could zoom down through millennia in order to see the relationships, but we could also—mwah-ha-ha—wreak havoc: at a touch, we could chop off limbs, sever branches, prune twigs…we could cause entire species to be wiped off the screen.
It was shortly after our trip that I recalled this bit of family history:
My great-grandmother’s first husband was a fisherman who was lost at sea. After the requisite time frame of not-knowing had passed (7 years? 13 years? my mother cannot recall) my great-grandmother got married again, this time to my great-grandfather.
My great-grandparents had several children, many of whom died in infancy or early childhood. The youngest—my grandfather—lived, grew up, and got married. He and my grandmother had five children. Their middle child—my mother—contracted polio at age two. The branch that I was to be on nearly withered at that point, but no, my mother lived. She emigrated from The Netherlands and met a man who had survived a gunshot wound to the leg and a WWII work camp. They had a son, and then a daughter, and because one of each was enough for my father, no one else was born.
At 18, I somehow found myself in a university chemistry lecture. I met a girl who had met a boy who had (years before) met a boy, and because I met that second boy, the tree grew: a daughter was born.
A son was born.
A life was miscarried.
But the loss of that branch meant another got a chance to live—a child who played God with me this summer on the interactive evolutionary tree at the Science Centre in Montreal.
There’s something both humbling and fantastical about the evolutionary tree.
Each and every one of us is the culmination of a line that stretches—completely unbroken—to the beginning of time, billions of years ago. All of us have ancestors who found shelter, foraged edible food, and avoided becoming prey—at least until the time they bore offspring.
It would be easy to imagine that those unbroken lines make us special. It would be easy to believe we’re the ones who are *supposed* to be here.
But of course, the fact that we’re here is merely the luck of the draw.
It’s one man—but not another—lost at sea.
It’s a bit of wind that caught at an arrow. It’s a lost scent, a left turn, a—
(It was a literary stringing-together that my anxiety told me was tempting fate; you get the idea, I’m sure.)
To an over-thinker with anxiety, this trail of thoughts can quickly become debilitating. Not only can you almost start to convince yourself that you can make paths happen, you can also quite easily get pulled under by the weight of responsibility. After all, the last thing an anxious, highly sensitive person wants is to be another creature’s arrow or poison or storm-tossed sea.
Have you seen this video, the one that went viral, the one of the sea turtle that had a straw stuck up its nose, the one that sparked the Ban the Straw movement? I confess I couldn’t bear to watch more than ten seconds of it, but even that small glimpse gave me a visceral two-fold response:
First, wrenching heartache for the suffering of the turtle.
And then, sickening guilt.
Was that MY straw?
(Ah, guilt. My constant companion. And I’m not even Catholic.)
I have, in the past (not often—perhaps only less than a handful of times—but yes, I have done this) precariously placed cups-and-straws on the tops of almost-overflowing bins and told myself that this was ok. After all, the garbage truck would be along momentarily, wouldn’t it? How was I to know the wind would blow and scatter things? How was I to know all streets lead to waterways and all waterways lead to oceans and all oceans lead to turtleswhalesdolphinssharksfish?
We used to have the luxury of being blissfully unaware of our actions.
But that blissful unawareness is no longer possible. It now either takes work—a determined looking-away—or it takes a hard-headed heartlessness that’s born from— well, to be honest, I don’t know what it’s born from. Privilege? Exhaustion? Hopelessness? Complete asshole-ness?
Years ago, when I belonged to the classics book club at my local Barnes and Noble bookstore, the employee who was the book club leader said (referring to something I can no longer remember), “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”
So many of the problems we face seem insurmountable and systemic and way-too-big for individual action. And we can argue about whose fault it is and whose responsibility it is—corporations or individuals—until the cows come home. We can also talk about convenience, and time, and work, and wants versus needs. But all of that clouds the fact that we all possess some power.
And in thinking about all of this—in my constant wondering why it is that some people see everything and some people bag bananas (because those two things are opposites, right?)—I was reminded of the Hippocratic Oath that doctors take after graduating from medical school.
I was going to tie all my thoughts together and find some way to say, Hey, how about for 2019 we all make like we’re doctors? Unfortunately for this blog post, Wikipedia tells us that “do no harm” is actually not part of the Hippocratic Oath.
Yes. There it is: I would rather be hurt—be inconvenienced, be small, be limited, be simple, be quiet—than to hurt.
And maybe that sounds bad.
Maybe it sounds like I’m advocating for martyrdom.
But here’s the thing: Despite the fact that society tells us otherwise, inconvenience and smallness and limits and simplicity and quiet are not actually hurtful things. They’re the things that can expand us—they can breed creativity and thoughtfulness and meaning and purpose and health.
The title of this post, and the promise of a resolution for 2019, is perhaps a bit of a red herring. I have no resolutions for 2019. I only have continuations:
I will continue to keep my eyes open
I will continue to try to live as responsibly as I can
I will continue to seek ways to do less harm
If you’ve been here awhile you know that this blog is where you’ll find plenty of why-to but not a heckuva lot of how-to. So many people do the whole how-to thing so well—and the last thing I want is to contribute yet-more noise to the internet—but maybe my next post should be a list of all the ways I try to do less harm…or maybe it would be nice to talk books for a change. I just finished An Ocean of Minutes by Thea Lim. Next up will be The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, by Dan Egan, and then Samuel Beckett’s Molloy.