On a lamplit evening in January, I tie 267 cast-on stitches onto a thin pair of circular knitting needles.
Lucy helps, listening to me murmur upward by tens in case I skip or backtrack in my counting. Even then, a recount seems wise.
Once the scalloped line is secured, I rummage through the top shelves of the kitchen cupboard for something to serve as a yarn holder, and find a delicate rice bowl with a silver-gray bottom that we haven’t used in years. Yes, this will do.
The knitting itself begins simply; a finely ribbed border of about an inch blooms along the stainless steel needles. I’m still astonished at the magic that can be worked with two basic types of stitches, and call back my grandmother’s patient kindness in teaching them to me decades ago. My knowledge beyond these simple steps is rusty, however, and though I recognize the meanings of “RS” (right side), “WS” (wrong side), and “YO” (yarn over) by rudimentary guesswork, I have to look up two of the more complicated stitches online.
As the weeks pass, I’m enchanted by the feel of the wool-and-silk yarn rumpling under my fingers — by the constant movement of tiny loops from left to right, as if they are queueing up to jump from one silvery ledge onto another. In wonder I point out to Y the pattern of leaves that is beginning to appear.
I also catch myself making mistakes. One dismal evening I discover that I’ll have to unravel 257 stitches if I want the pattern to remain intact. After a firm declaration that I most certainly won’t go to the trouble, followed by a rejuvenating night’s sleep, I manage to do it. After this, thankfully, the pattern becomes recognizable, and I begin to see in 14-stitch units.
As I knit, I pray. This particular blanket of finely spun purple thread is to become a prayer shawl for Little Jo, large enough to carry her into adulthood. Softly murmured prayers weave between the stitches, row by row: petitions regarding the fruit of the Spirit in her, for future years and challenges, for the surety of God’s love, for faith.
And as I knit, I chafe.
The silence is uncomfortable, even when I try to focus on other things while my fingertips fly. I’ve grown wary of my own body this winter, and somehow the act of sitting for a quarter of an hour to knit brings all the unnerving sensations to the fore. Heart palpitations, hot flashes from sciatica, the periodic awareness of a biopsy scar (but there! At this precise moment I’m torn between a writer’s self-critical demand for concrete details and a horror of becoming one of L. M. Montgomery’s old ladies with their laundry lists of ailments): these things bother me like King Tirian’s scratch:
What worried him worst at the moment — for it is often little things that are hardest to stand — was that his lip was bleeding where they had hit him and he couldn’t wipe the little trickle of blood away although it tickled him.
– C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle, Ch. IV
“I don’t like it,” I tell my counselor on a gray midwinter morning. I’m nettled by the small symptoms, by the blasted tendency toward anxiety that’s embedded somewhere in the skin of my soul and refuses to be scratched off for good. “I don’t like it at all — but it does keep me looking forward to the new heaven and the new earth.”
Meanwhile, there are 219 rows left. No shortcut available.
Like the hapless family in the children’s song that goes on a bear hunt, I begin to think that the best way to deal with the anxiety-haunted silence is to go straight through it.
So I do.
Knit 1, yarn over, knit 5, sk2p. I think of the 4-pound baby I held three weeks ago. How marvelous and breathtaking it was to see every feature present in such miniature perfection! The whole length of her curled finger was less than a third of mine. “You knitted me together in my mother’s womb,” goes the oft-quoted Psalm, and though the Hebrew for “knit” isn’t an exact match for the clicking of needles and unspooling of yarn, I’m suddenly glad that the word appears in English translations. (And after all, what is the double helix structure of DNA and the unzipping of messenger RNA if not — knitting?)
I remember the tiny, upturned nose; the rapid infant breaths.
And I remember that my Creator is not like me. With this project, I course-correct by adding or dropping missing stitches as I come across them. On row 88, I still refer to the now-tattered pattern sheet to tell me which way to weave next.
But in Him — ah, in Him! — all things hold together: the infinitesimal dance of atoms to the incomprehensibly large working together of everything for “the good of those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose.” From that immeasurably precious baby’s first day to her last; from the fluttering of her eyelids in the umpteenth cycle of REM sleep to the dreams that no scientist can explain. He holds all things together. Even me.
I know I’m better at remembering this in the spring, when every day brings a new sliver or shoot up from a reawakened earth teeming with new life. The ache for that season rises from the core of my winter-muddled bones, and deeper still, I know I hunger for something even more alive and glorious than a midsummer garden. But until then, I want to say — what?
Until then, impatient self: this.
The work of one stitch at a time, one unit, one row. Through the slow-paced rhythm of purling, yarn-overing and slip-stitching, of interlocking these loops of yarn the color of sugared violets, I wait for the unfolding of beauty that can only be guessed from the dots and lines of the pattern guide.
For He holds all things together, without my aid, and my hands are thus freed to move for the sake of someone else.
Knit the right side. Flip. Knit the wrong side.
Sit at the desk. Send the seasonal newsletter. Listen. Write.
Work with what you have, with the purpose of casting a mantle of warmth and invitation around another’s shoulders, even when the words only come in twists and knots. Work, and remember that in all the fretful unraveling and re-stitching that must be done, underneath are the Everlasting Arms.
I sit and knit; the girls pass by from time to time, gently picking up the ball and turning it in their hands. “What are you making?”
“You’ll see when it’s finished,” I say again, smiling.
As will I.