Knit One Together

Friday, April 8, 2011
Saturday, December 9, 2017

I was looking for a particular circular knitting needle in my box of needles and stitch holders and stitch markers. It wasn’t there. I found it in my box of projects-in-progress, with about an inch and a half of forgotten yellow baby hat hanging from it.

There are half-finished knitting projects all over my house.

I debated over what to do. It was just an inch and a half of work, not representing much time at all. I could easily unravel the little hat brim, roll the mustard colored yarn back into its ball. Forget that I had ever started knitting this particular baby hat. (After all, I’d forgotten about it once already.) On the other hand, I’ve completed a surprisingly small number of projects in my five years as a knitter.

Not even half-finished. Quarter-finished.

Eighth-finished.

Baby hats knit up quickly. I could just finish it.

While I was still trying to decide what to do, I found myself picking up the needles, winding the yarn around my right hand. I could always stop, I decided, if finishing the hat didn’t seem right.

I crave knitting like I crave bread. (There’s something magical about both: honey and yeast transforming flour into loaf; hands and needles transforming yarn into fabric.)

But when I sit with my pattern and my needles in my lap, loneliness descends.

I cannot knit without thinking of my great-grandmother. Most of my knitting supplies used to be hers. I wish she were here to teach me to knit, so I could move beyond scarves and baby hats.

Her name was Irma. I have a picture of her holding my infant mother in a tiny frame by my bed. (For some reason, it’s one of the only family photos in the house.) She had her babies at home and raised four children. And at the end of her life, she was terribly depressed.

The loneliness of being a point instead of a circle.

Longing to have a grandma
or mother
or big sister
or friend
sitting close by, showing me the way.

Here, hold it like a pencil,
not like a baby holds a spoon.
Not so tense, sweetheart.

You don’t need to pull so tight.

That’s a lot of work for just one stitch.

Lately I’ve been fighting off my own depression…It seems to be working, but a dull sadness comes through every now and then. I guess that would be loss. Which everyone tells me I need to acknowledge. But it feels strange mourning something that may have existed only in my mind (and perhaps not even there).

The wholeness of a circle: yarn wound around fingers, stories wound around tongues, center-pull hearts knit together in the creative rhythm of “women’s work.”

I finished the baby hat. Knitting it felt strangely meditative. It was good to create something, to let my hands be hands for a while.

I crave the connection—knitting, weaving, mending, bringing threads together, cloth into blankets, yarn into fabric—like I crave touch.

As I worked, I tried to remember why I had started knitting this little hat in the first place. I hadn’t been pregnant at the time, although I’m sure I wanted to be. Maybe that was it: a little knit talisman. Something to put in my hope chest, if I had one.

Baby Hat 

Here, sweetheart.
Hold it like this.

Gentle

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The word came to me like so many breaths of inspiration do lately: on a yoga mat.

“Set a soft intention,” said the voice at the front of the room.

Gentle, said the voice at the front of my skull.

I was a little taken aback. When I was angry and weepy in my therapist’s dark office, she would say, “Be gentle with yourself” and I’d snarl back at her, “I’m not breakable!”

My ferocity didn’t even ruffle her hair. “Of course you’re not.”

But deep down, I felt breakable and I hated it.

That was spring. I feel less breakable now. It’s partly because I’m sturdier physically. I weigh [_] pounds more than I did then. [_] is not a lot in the grand scheme of body sizes, but it’s enough that my beautifully tailored “date night” dress is uncomfortably snug.

It goes on, I can zip it, but I look “shrink-wrapped,” as my mother says of too-tight clothing.

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I used to say, “I won’t be gentle with myself, but I’ll be kind.”

Unfortunately, my self-kindness easily veers into cruel-to-be-kind, emphasis on the cruel.

Or, you know, unkind.

But the gentle that came up for me recently was not therapy-gentle. It wasn’t the gentle I hear myself using with preschoolers as they reach for a ceramic keepsake or a new baby, a little patronizing, stretched like caramel: “Gennntle…Gennntle touch.”

No. This was a different gentle. It was a refusal to push and pull myself. A refusal to let it my body hurt, to do movements (and later, eat foods) I hate because they’re the “right” ones, the “best” ones, or the “good” ones.

This was the gentle of treating my body like the animal it is. To let it expand out, be soft, and feel good.

In recent pictures of myself, I see those [_] pounds. I see the places where fat and fluid have “puffed” me up, places where I’m filled out, convex. Soft.

And I remember a bit from Carrot Quinn’s memoir, Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart. She’s cuddling with a fellow hiker:

“Here is so soft,” he says, touching my hip. He strokes my quads. “And here is like a rock.”

“I’m a girl,” I say. “Parts of me are soft.”

That line has stuck in my head so firmly. I’m a girl…Parts of me are soft.

I’ve been push-pulling against the soft-animal-girl-ness of my body my entire life. I’ve questioned everything about it, and I’ve been so damned hard on myself.

What if [_] more pounds on my frame is all right? What if it’s exactly right?

I’ve learned to appreciate and love my menstrual cycle. Having a period used to be a huge source of shame, but I genuinely love having my period now. I love that feedback from my body that the beautiful animal machinery inside is running smoothly. It was a rocky, winding path to get to that emotional point, but I got there.

The challenge now is to trust that I will get to a place where being [_] pounds heavier than part of me still thinks I “should” be is no longer shameful. Trusting that I can fall in love with my body’s softness.

The only way to reach that place is by being gentle.

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Re-writing My Life

Before my children were born, and when they were babies, I wrote about everything in my life. Writing was the only way I could really wrap my mind around the strangeness of it—or, rather, my strange disconnect from the total un-strangeness of it.

And then I stopped writing.

It wasn’t that I got a better handle on things. Far from it. As I continued to not get used to the way life had turned out (the privileged, “normative,” un-strangeness of husband, house, kitty, two cars, two children, stay-at-home-motherhood, cooked-from-scratch meals, deep emptiness) I turned the disconnect against my voice. I let the shame at having so much and feeling so little take over and shut me down.

I was slowly sinking in a swamp of depression and eating disorders. All I could think to write about was my sadness and the size of my body. I’d prided myself on being authentic, but when I ventured into writing about mood and food, the feedback was vicious. There was positive feedback, too. But that didn’t matter when the comments became questions:

How could you do that to your daughter?

Don’t you realize your children are watching you?

If you knew you had mental health problems, why did you even have children?

The final push was an anonymous comment that I’m almost certain came from someone I know. Someone I thought didn’t follow me, and who I hoped would never hunt me down on the Internet found me. (Which, as I write it now, sounds completely naive. Just because someone doesn’t “follow” you online doesn’t mean they don’t follow you online.)

I knew the answers to all of the above questions when they appeared. The authentic, freeing response would’ve been to write those answers. Not for the questioners, but for myself. Tell the story of generational fucked-up-ness about food, and all the “eat as I say, not as I eat” that goes on between mothers and daughters. Write about the little “I”s spying with little eyes, and my elaborate rituals of sneaking and hiding to evade them. Describe feeling broken in my mind, and in my heart—always, every day—and believing so fiercely that motherhood was the only thing that could fix me. Write about the prayer that having children would transform me into a “real” girl—someone lovable and worthy and good.

Tell that story.

But Anonymous’s familiar tone scared me into silence, long after the sting of the questions had subsided.

I let one person—who I may or may not actually know in “real life”—take writing away from me because I was afraid of getting hurt again.

But not writing hurts me more than that one person ever could.

I’m opening back up to the eveyday-storyteller in me, dragging shame out into the light, and re-connecting to myself as a writer.

108

My friend Autumn is many wonderful things, but most recently, she is a yoga teacher. Last night, she co-lead a group of all-level yogis and come-as-you-are oddballs through 108 Sun Salutations. To benefit B4BC. As a celebration of strength. Just because we could.

The “heartbreakthrough” of these past months lead me there. That, and my love for Autumn. Her personal growth explosion (always, but this year especially) tossed a spark into my spirit, even as it dazzled me with its firework-brilliance. Autumn is one of a growing circle of women, rough age-peers all sending these magical sparks toward me, as they throw themselves headlong into themselves.

Women owning their stories with wild abandon have started the fire of inspiration in me: kindred spirits, perhaps; but spirit kindling, certainly.

I drove up to Bellingham last night mostly out of my love for Autumn and the light she’s putting into the world, but also as an experiment in making my own sparks. In my haste to rub two sticks together, I somehow wrote down the wrong address, and I ended up a good 15 minutes north of where I was supposed to be. I arrived at the yoga studio just as the opening meditation was starting. As I rolled my mat out, willing it to be silent, willing myself not to panic, I scanned the rows of bodies in front of me, looking for a familiar warmth. I found her easily: lilac sweater the color of my yoga mat, harvest-blonde hair perched on top of her head in two elfin coils.

Okay, baby, I said to my headspace. We’re in this together. Let’s do this thing.

I’ve never done 108 Sun Salutations. I wasn’t sure I could, but I was willing to try. That “my-friend-is-here-why-not-willing-to-try”-ness got me started. Giving up, and giving in to “I don’t know if I can do this,” and just letting it move through me carried my body through all 108.

The word transformative often tumbles out in conversations about yoga, and I mostly used to roll my eyes and whatever at the two together. But when I chose to see the split in my emotional body as growth instead of brokenness—a seed cracking open, sprout reaching up—I began to feel transformation everywhere. Yoga is proving to be no exception.

Last night, I felt transformation. I gave in to the movement, my body, and my spinning mind. I teared up, laughed out loud, danced in downward-facing dog, dripped sweat down my neck and forearms, saw the scarred-heart-shape of my uterus behind my closed eyes, saw the luminous faces of two friends in the air between my hands in extended mountain pose. One song on Autumn’s playlist was something I’d come across just that morning and had been singing all day; when I recognized the chorus, flowing through up- into down-dog, I almost cried out. Another song reminded me of someone whose humor I cherish, and I smiled with my whole body at the connection.

After years of feeling nothing, really—just “good” or “bad,” not allowing or understanding anything more defined—I got to sample a decade’s worth of emotion in a little over an hour.

The trembling in my limbs this morning as I sat down to write was no ordinary post-workout fatigue. It is the electrical fire of forward emotion.

How Inspiration Feels

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I was walking home on the last Thursday morning in September, having just dropped my son off at school. I was quietly pulling our wagon (filled with my daughter and an assortment of stuffed toys) down the hill on 100th street, thinking about the most recent episode of Big Strong Yes, when Creativity jumped in front of me, grabbed me by the face, and kissed me right on the mouth.

Whoosh. A book, title and all.

I was suddenly very aware of the area underneath my sternum.

About a block from home, ducking under a neighbor’s gnarly rosebush, I felt the tickle of a question from a not-quite-all-me voice in my mind.

Yes. I told it silently, smiling at no one. Yes, I will work with you.

A book.

Holy shit. That’s the thing.

I had joked online about turning my swirling, verbose reflections on the podcast into a series of Big Strong Yes term papers. An acquaintance had (also jokingly, I think) suggested a Big Strong Yes memoir. After I read that, the idea would not leave me alone. Not even 24 hours later, it was in my body, stretching out, its weight draped over my diaphragm. This idea wasn’t planning to leave anytime soon.

I was fine carrying this spark of a book while I walked, but as soon as I got home and set myself up at the computer to announce my new project to Rob and a friend or two, the panicky feeling arrived. My arms developed tingling chills from the elbows down. It felt something like the “my limbs are asleep” pins and needles, under a layer of snow. My feet felt strangely heavy and numb. After sitting with the idea for a few minutes, I started to shake. My legs ached with the ghosts of shin splints.

What the fuck was going on?

A book. A whole book.

My body buzzed at the touch of Creativity. But fear was making its rounds, too: How am I going to do this? I can’t do this, but I can’t not do this!

It’s a totally wild idea. A memoir…about a podcast? Have I invented a new subgenre: fan nonfiction?

Questions swirled around me like a noxious mist, making my heart—my physical heart—feel strange on the inhalation: How do I write the story while the thing is still happening? I don’t know how it ends! What are the “rules” about engaging with a text when that text is the recorded voices of real people, living out their real stories in real time? Is it even memoir if it’s just my story filtered through other people’s stories?

Creativity smiled into the space behind my right ear, not worried in the least.

Okay, I told the inside of my head. I’ll just take notes to start.

Identity Agreement

My resistance to writing is related to my stubborn insistence on having one single “thing” to write about. I thought I needed a focus to give my writing some shape. But the minute I set out to write a “parenting” blog or a “recovery” blog, a wave of Nope would crash over me.

My identity is this bizarre, multimedia collage I’m still learning to interpret. I can’t write about that discovery process if I have to stay “on topic.” How do I bring in mental health? How to I talk about this book club podcast that has been better than any class I could ever imagine? How do I write about just, you know, day-to-day shit? Do I have to relate it all back to my children? To my eating disorder?

Ugh. “My eating disorder.”

I saw my doctor recently, and she said, “I don’t think you have an eating disorder. I think you have had an eating disorder in your past, but I don’t think you do now.” She was careful to point out that it’s imperative that nothing we do in our treatment should reverse that progress.

The most startling thing to me about her statement was that I fucking AGREED WITH HER! In the past, I might’ve resisted internally. I’m not proud to admit it, but as recently as a few months ago someone telling me “you don’t have an eating disorder” would’ve sent me over the edge: Oh, I DON’T, do I?! I’ll show YOU!

But I’ve come to see that I got tangled up in a series of eating disorders because I didn’t have anything else. I thought I needed a focus to give my life shape.

It sounds pathetic, but it’s the truth. I was totally out of touch with any sort of creative identity; I thought a “topic” was the answer to my curious, capable, always-churning mind. I was empty and open, and misogynistic cultural messaging flowed right in. If my children were well-fed, well-dressed, and well-behaved, and I was really, really thin, everything would be okay.

Nope.

Everything was so far from “okay.”

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My children and I started walking to school again this year. The last time we walked to school regularly, my daughter was a baby, and I was trying to subsist on less than a thousand calories a day. I would: walk my son to school, pushing the baby in the stroller; walk home with the baby; research the relationship between binge-eating, starvation, and heart failure; nurse the baby for hours; eat a plate of food; research potassium supplements and wonder if my heart was going to up and quit on me; walk to school again… Not okay.

Last fall, I thought about that four-miles-a-day heart-taxing starvation. I longed to be the not-even-that-skinny, sick person again. Last fall, I was focusing on recovery but feeling empty again. I didn’t understand it. Wasn’t recovery my “thing” now? This year, I’ve given up on the idea of having a “thing”—and I find myself with so much to think about that there’s no room for dangerous nostalgia.

When I was attempting to starve my body into thinness (and binge-eating my way out of it), I was also starving my mind. I fed it calorie-counts and macro numbers and approved food lists and fear and panic instead of pleasure and wonder and curiosity and connection and joy.

Fuck mind-starvation.

I want to devour joy.

When I closed up shop on my old (pregnancy/baby/parenting) blog and opened a new one, my first thought—before I settled on “recovery”—was to write about this strange process of learning about what I like and what I’m like in my mid-thirties. Can I learn to see myself in what I love? I learned the visual language of film, for example, and now I can’t un-see what’s there. I take for granted that everyone is looking for foreshadowing in a movie’s editing or production design, and I’m often genuinely confused when my partner or friends say they “didn’t see that coming!”

Really? It was right there all along!

I’ve got this glass in front of me. There’s been water in it all along. I still see “half-empty” first. (I still see myself as “empty” first.) I want to learn to see “half-full.” To be joyful.

For now, I’m joy-curious.

I Want/What If

I spent most of Tuesday feeling suicidal. Not bottle-of-pills-in-hand, primed-and-ready suicidal; smiling, playing-on-the-rug-with-my-daughter, wishing-for-death suicidal.

On Tuesday, if death had come for me, I would’ve said, “Yes, please. I’m ready.”

I still got my son off to his first day of fourth grade (and quietly berated myself for not being “the kind of mom” who posts a First Day of School picture on Facebook and writes something sentimental about her baby growing up). I still prepared meals and even did some housework. Inside, I wanted to die.

I want to die played on repeat for fourteen hours.

In the evening, after gently pulling myself up out of the downward spiral with the careful application of humor, I realized that my wishing-for-death (when I have no intention of killing myself) thoughts are roughly analogous to the intrusive thoughts that started plaguing me after my first baby was born. Every time I stood on a balcony or high-up bridge, I thought, “What if I drop him?” And then this chilling filmstrip would play in my mind: I saw myself carrying my child over to a railing, dangling him over the edge, and letting go. Over and over and over again.

It makes my chest tighten just to write about it. I didn’t want to hurt my son. I was horrified by those thoughts. But I couldn’t make it stop: What if I drop him? What if I drop him? What if…?

It’s relatively easy to separate myself from intrusive thoughts when they involve another person. I take comfort in the knowledge that finding these thoughts upsetting is a good sign. I never feel compelled to act on them. It doesn’t make them any less disturbing, but at least they’re not dangerous.

It wasn’t until Tuesday evening, having weathered the storm of I want to die, that I realized that the same could be said about my distressing “I want” ideas. I used to be plagued by thoughts of consuming massive quantities of food. In my mind, I’d hear, in my own voice, “I want to eat a whole cake.” At the time, it was deeply upsetting. A whole cake?! Who even thinks that? Something is terribly wrong with me!

When I absorbed that “I” into my identity, the “want” became real and valid. I felt there were no choices beyond acting on the thoughts, or white-knuckling through them.

But did I really want to eat a whole cake? No! Cake is delicious, and while the idea of having as much highly-palatable food as one desires is appealing, All The Cake is not better than some of the cake. In fact, as anyone who has binged or overeaten will tell you, All is emphatically much worse!

“I want to eat a whole cake” and “I want to die” thoughts are similar. They’re broadcast by the same brain-radio station. For me, the phrase “I want” pokes at a part that feels broken, deficient (the part that had to hide her true desires in order to be safe and secure), and I believe it. It’s self-emotional manipulation. Because wanting was dangerous, I believe that any “want” is real and valid and damaging. I lump all “wants” together, and point to them as a sign of my brokenness.

But I’m letting myself confuse “want” with true longing. It would serve me better to think of the destructive “wants” the same way I do an invasive, “what if?” thought. I can dismiss the “what if?” (“What if I hurt my baby?”) because I’m confident that the “I” is not who I am. “What if?” does not represent what I—the true, higher-human-self “I”—want.

What did I really want when my mind said “I want to eat a whole cake”? Several things. Often, I just needed energy, and quickly! I have a growing theory that certain urges to binge may have been my brain pleading for serotonin. Then there was a longing for the freedom to eat something delicious, that I didn’t believe I deserved—and the desire to make up for years of self-denial by cramming in as much as possible. “I want to eat a whole cake” was, in a twisted way, a quest for worthiness: Yes, my love, you are worthy of pleasure. A whole cake’s worth.

What longing is hiding behind “I want to die”? I don’t know yet. When the suicidal thoughts receded, so did the desires wrapped inside them. The next time death sounds appealing (I’m not going to fool myself into thinking there won’t be a next time), I’ll see if I can unwrap it.