September 8, 2015 | by Stephanie Danler
There are two kinds of women: those who knit and those who unravel. I am a great unraveler. I can undo years of careful stitching in fifteen gluttonous minutes. It isn’t even a decision, really. Once I see the loose thread, I am undone. It’s over before I have even asked myself the question: Do I actually want to destroy this?
“My mother was a knitter,” my Therapist says. She pauses. We’ve been seeing each other for so many years that we occasionally drift past the doctor/patient boundaries. I know that she is from New Hampshire and was an ice dancer. I know she’s been married for thirty years or so, since her early twenties. Her husband can build a boat. I don’t know anything about her mother.
Maybe it’s the unseasonably mild November weather, or that her hair has grown back and she’s not wearing a wig and she looks like herself again, but she continues.
“I have a story about knitting.” She glances at the clock to my right.
“That’s wonderful because I have to write this thing about knitting. And knitting is like, a whole metaphor thing.”
“A metaphor for what?”
“I think for life and fate. Also comfort. For love. For the divine feminine?”
She smiles and waits.
“So, I don’t know yet. But it’s one huge metaphor,” I say finally.
My Best Friend is a knitter. My Best Friend can do everything. She’s a mother, an entrepreneur, an excellent cook. She’s considerate, spiritual, passionate. I know she’s not perfect because I find perfect people irritating. She works harder than anyone I know. But from the view down here, she seems effortless.
She knits hats for her husband and son. She knit me a blanket one Christmas. It wasn’t the first blanket she’d given me. I have known a lot of temporary beds and couches. The blankets are the comfort, the continuity, in what she calls my gypsy lifestyle.
My great-grandmother was a master unraveler. Her ring, the Snake Ring, is passed down to the eldest daughter in each generation, which it is my fate, my great privilege to be. Let’s examine the Snake Ring.
When David Taylor kissed Adelaide Barton after her USC graduation, she thought she was pregnant. So she married him. Adelaide had gone to college at sixteen and graduated in three years, but for all her precociousness, she was a true Victorian. The sun rose on Modernity quickly and made two girls, including my grandmother. But then Adelaide fell in love with her first cousin, Victor Barton. It helped that he was wealthy. She divorced David, a pharmacist who proceeded to dose and kill himself with his pills.
She married Victor and became Adelaide Barton Taylor Barton. Victor was sterile—“Thank God,” my aunt says when she’s recounting the story. He adopted Adelaide’s two girls. By all accounts, he was a good man and father. They lived in a mansion in Hollywood and as a little girl my grandmother rode her horse onto the Paramount Studios back lot.
The wind shifted again and Adelaide told them she was moving to Vegas, alone. After thirty days she got another divorce. She left her daughters in Los Angeles in the care of friends and moved to Florida with a new lover, a ship captain named Edward Church, who incidentally had been her high school sweetheart. At forty-three she became pregnant and had another daughter. She and Edward put all their money into an oil freighter that ran aground on its inaugural voyage. She divorced him and gave the rest of her tiny bank account to her stockbroker. He was married. They had a twenty-year affair and she always made great returns.
For Adelaide’s eighty-fifth birthday my aunt bought her red silk lingerie. The card said, “You need it.” The retirement facility where Adelaide lived performed an in-house ceremony so she could get “married” to her boyfriend. He was one of three men still alive in the place. They couldn’t make it official or they would both lose their social security. But Adelaide wanted to share his bed, and she did until he passed away in her arms a few years later.
Sometime between Edward Church with his doomed oil ship and her reign as resident tart of the old-folks home, Adelaide took all of the diamonds from her wedding and engagement rings and turned them into a new ring. A snake.
“It’s a phallic symbol,” my aunt said to me. The ring had been hers, the eldest girl of her generation.
“It sounds cursed,” I said. I was eighteen.
“Of course.” She dropped it into my hand. “The curse isn’t the marriages. It’s Adelaide’s sex drive.”
A loose thread is a metaphor. Some examples of “loose threads”:
Men with blue eyes. Men with green eyes. Bartenders with any-colored eyes. Bridge railings. Walks late at night. Perfectly cut lines of cocaine. Married men with blue or green eyes. A full bottle of pills, up or down. Credit cards. Airports, train platforms, bus stations, parking garages. The fourth glass of wine.
You don’t feel that? The titillation of trouble? You must, even as a knitter. You wouldn’t investigate. When you see a loose thread, you tie it off, or weave it back into the larger narrative so it’s unnoticeable.
The loose thread shows us a flaw in what should be a perfectly plotted structure. They remind us of our own flaws—damage calls out to damage. A knitter is humbled by the reminder, but taps their needles together and forges ahead, straightly.
“It’s not that you can’t knit,” said my Best Friend over the phone.
“So what is it?”
“It’s that you don’t even try to knit.”
A real unraveler develops a series of controls in order to live a productive life. Mine are in my spine. When I get scared I sit up straighter. I count my glasses of wine. I don’t miss therapy. Unravelers are often certain that they have been fixed. They will tell you so with their eyes full of conviction. They are usually over informed about their neuroses, and over perform in their profession. But at any second, it can go. Unraveling is all about the momentary pleasure, ignoring the losses unspooling to the ground. I can’t lie; it is a dizzy, gorgeous free fall. The clean up is awful.
When my Therapist’s mother was sick, she started a blanket. She was bedridden and it was a project for when she had the energy. Knowing that they were nearing the end of her mother’s life, my Therapist said, All right, it’s time. I want to learn how to knit. She learned on that blanket as she watched her mother die. Towards the end, friends started to come by to talk and gossip, to say good-bye in that wizened, quiet way. The women that sat with my Therapist’s mother picked up the blanket and added a few stitches. They passed it between them, the blanket expanding, evolving—
Wait, when does a blanket become a blanket? Aristotle would need it to fulfill all its Causes. The first cause is material—the yarn, in this case. The formal cause would be the spread of fabric, the blanket in the sickroom. The efficient cause—or moving cause—would be the knitters, their hands specifically, which cause the material to take form. You would think that makes a blanket.
But it’s not. Aristotle needs it to fulfill its Final Cause. Its purpose, so to speak. Warmth. When my Therapist tells me this story of a room of women knitting a blanket as death approaches, I understand that this blanket became a blanket even before it was finished.
My family talks a lot about inheritance. They mean money, jewelry, real estate. My therapist talks about knitting as a kind of inheritance. The inheritance of the Snake Ring is something else entirely.
Every few years, it seems, I call my Best Friend to have the same conversation. I sit in the middle of my apartment and survey my things.
“I have it again,” I say to her. “There’s a boy.”
My Best Friend drinks a green juice every morning. She doesn’t drink wine or coffee anymore. Her eyes are illuminated. I can hear her son singing Taylor Swift in the background.
“You can just stop,” she says, like a true knitter. “You don’t have to throw your life away every time you get a crush. Just don’t see him. Don’t talk to him. Stop.”
“No, that’s the point. I can’t stop.”
“Even my three-year-old can stop.”
The needles click, click, the threads unravel, they trail on the floor between us while we grasp for a common language.
One might call unraveling “poor impulse control.” That doesn’t sound as sexy, though.
I’m not an expert, but I do have a fair imagination. Women who knit are able to sit still. They can sit with themselves for hours and not want to crawl out of their own skin. They can forget themselves for a minute and pick themselves back up again. They can give and not take.
My best friend tells me about being married: “It’s not easy. But you have to stay focused on the larger picture. We are building something. You can’t always get caught up in the minutiae.”
Click, click go her knitting needles. She’s pregnant again, with a girl this time, and she’s knitting her a blanket.
“But all I see is the minutiae. The minutes,” I say. Watching knitting is magic, the speed with which her fingers move, the way the stitches metastasize. “What if there is no larger picture? What if it’s just these minutes? Minutes piled on top of minutes? I feel the minutes.”
“It’s not a quantity of minutes. The larger picture is a quality—it’s a shape that holds. If you invest yourself in these feelings you’ll lose your footing from one second to the next. You have to believe in what you’re building, even if you can’t make it out yet.”
“Ah,” I say. I sit back, defeated. “Now we’re talking about faith.”
The Fates were flawed knitters. Well, that’s not true. Two of them were great knitters: the one that spun the thread, and the one that measured it. But we all know what the third one was put there to do. Snip, snip.
Myopia doesn’t sound awful. Hi, I’m myopic. It sounds dull, but at least not sociopathic. It sounds like something moths have when they fling themselves into windows, walls, bodies. They have no sense of their surroundings, no sense of strategy. They have other highly developed senses don’t they? Like a maniacal desire for light? Like an ability to find the source of that light and bear its unbearable heat? They certainly know how to make an exit, dusting the windows, walls, bodies with their wing prints and disappearing when the sun comes up, battering themselves—invisibly—into the sky to reach it.
Look, I’m not a total idiot. When I got married, I meant it. And I didn’t marry one of these artistic, blue-eyed fuck-ups that tugged my loose thread.
I once married a green-eyed man. He knew all about me when he picked me up at twenty-three, coked up out of my mind, wearing a key on my wrist so I could take the bumps easier. He knew about my boyfriend. He knew exactly what he was getting.
We thought we were different. He was a man who wore a suit and could see the forest through the trees. My tantrums, my despairs, my ennui, nothing could knock him off his course. He was tall. He never lied.
One winter day while I was cleaning I pulled Hawthorne off the shelf and read “Wakefield” again. “The man, under pretence of going on a journey, took lodgings in the next street to his own house, and there, unheard of by his wife or friends, and without the shadow of a reason for such self-banishment, dwelt up-wards of twenty years.”
I put on my coat and my knitted hat and scarf, and I went to a bar I had never been to, and I ordered a gin martini, which I never drink.
We have lives layered on top of lives. The membrane between them is tissue thin. It was that martini that was the loose thread there. I sipped and could feel myself dropping out of my marriage, my integrity, my home, my career, my potential, and I sank into the barstool willingly.
Yes, my husband was different. I wasn’t.
“How goes the knitting essay?” My therapist asks.
“Not well,” I say. I’ve picked my cuticles and she hands me a Kleenex because my thumb is bleeding. The hangnail, pick, pull.
“Have you figured out what kind of metaphor it is yet?”
I nod. I pull back more dried skin from around my thumb.
“It’s a metaphor for everything I’ve ever failed at.”
Adelaide, your story is a little too cute for me. All that falling in love and jumping ship, all that leave-taking, sealing, lifting, cutting open the boxes, keeping one eye on the exit in every room. I’d like to ask you a few questions.
- Did you get tired?
- Did you ever try to knit your daughters a blanket?
When my marriage disintegrated I wanted to get addicted to Vicodin and fuck any man that told me I had nice eyes. Instead, I locked myself in a room, in a pitiful Bushwick sublet with five other roommates, got two jobs, and wrote a novel.
The secret is that writing the book was unraveling, too. The minutes that turned into months and years were black. I had no faith. But the book will be published. And now people talk to me like I’m a knitter.
“You can fix almost anything in knitting. That’s what keeps me going. It’s not even hard,” she says. “It’s just about persistence.”
“Do you hear yourself?” I ask.
“I know.” She laughs. “Motivational speaking.”
When my Therapist’s mother passed, they held a service. As my Therapist looked around the room, it took a moment for her to notice that many people had with them a pair of mittens or a scarf or a hat that was created by her mother’s hands. For days after the service, people came up to her on the street to talk about how beloved those pairs of mittens, scarves, and hats were—some of these people were strangers. The objects had a second life and probably will have a third.
“Now that,” I say, “is a story about knitting.”
I’ve started to wonder if there is anything in the world you can’t turn into a metaphor. “I’m not a bad person, I’m a prettier metaphor for a bad person.” I think about my Therapist’s mother, and I wish that knitting was just knitting.
When my book sold my Best Friend sent me a text: “EUDAIMONIA”
Aristotle says this is the Final Cause for us, our highest human good. The literal translation is something like having a good in-dwelling spirit. I always thought of it as a full-flowering of the soul. I thought it was joyful. This must be the hardest part of having unraveled a few times: joy can mean you’ve saved your life or you’ve ruined it.
Eudaimonia. I thought it meant to be aligned with your larger picture. I wear the Snake Ring where my wedding band used to be. So maybe, for better or worse, I am.
My Best Friend and I are in yoga. I’m lying on my back and the teacher tells me to shut my eyes. She tells me not to judge my thoughts. She asks me to imagine my best self.
I imagine myself knitting, and it feels like when I imagine myself praying: lonely. I am in a white room, holding needles, and I tell myself to knit a whole new life that will hold its shape even if I turn my back. I want to knit wooly sweaters that will hold bodies—a husband, children, friends—and I want to knit seams that will not tear. But even in my own visualization, the needles are clicking, emptily.
Breathe, the teacher says. Really look at yourself. What do you look like?
I am gold. I’m on a beach, and I’m made of gold. There is a sun where my heart should be. Adelaide, do you know what you looked like? My chest is glowing. And all the people I’ve loved and lost are there. All the people I love and bear with me are there. I don’t need to be touched anymore. My sun/heart pulses. From it comes a love that terrifies me. It rushes away like a tide. It comes back in a bronze, glittering wave, and covers us.
Fuck the fucking knitting, I say in my head, and breathe.
This essay will appear in Knitting Pearls: Writers Writing About Knitting, an anthology scheduled to be published by W. W. Norton in November. © 2015 Stephanie Danler.
Stephanie Danler’s first novel, Sweetbitter, is due out next May.