“You untangle a knot with slow teasing, not sharp pulling, and believe me we have here a knot such as I have never seen. But I will unpick it. I will.” – C.J. Sansom
As I age, I keep trying to get it right. Life, I mean. I have not had a bad life, far from it. But I feel there is more I need to do and be. I work at trying to be a better person, be kinder, less judgmental, more forgiving. To be more fulfilled, more content.
I’ve come a ways, but there are generally a few loose ends to tie up, a few awkward or unsettling situations that require untangling: friendships to mend or restore, miscommunications by phone or email, inaction when action is warranted. Even trying one more time to keep my ancient Singer sewing machine in good condition.
It’s early fall, almost a perfect day. The maple leaves are starting to turn. I’m sitting on my back porch in northwestern Vermont, with our dog Sophie and I’m untangling royal blue yarn. Unlike our two kittens, Sophie doesn’t disturb my every activity unless it is to periodically, gently nudge me for a pat.
This large mess of yarn is cotton. I love the color. I’ll probably never untangle the whole lot. I believe skeins of yarn, like socks, when ignored, cling together and become intertwined. Many lengths of yarn I pick up at garage sales or thrift stores are years, if not decades, old, and they are often a bit of a mess. I love them and try to bring their lives back as I do for many older things, be it dishes, fabrics, or linens. Whatever yarn I don’t use that is in working condition, I donate to a local thrift shop.
What surprises me is that I did not discover the pleasures of yarn earlier in my life. I’m now 70 and always believed I could never be good at crafts, although I didn’t try many. I had no role models. My mother did no handcrafts regularly, although she tells me she made one huge sweater for my father once upon a time.
As I come from a musical family with several professionals, and I played piano and flute, I had artistic rather than craft goals. I did not become a musician, but I became a successful writer and college teacher.
Five years ago my best friend showed me her stash of yarn in a tall wicker basket and, a few weeks later, sent me two of her lovely handmade scarves. Ever since her enthusiastic introduction and loving gifts, I’ve been entangled in the relaxing and addictive habit of knitting.
As I look back, I realize that many hours of private therapy that sometimes resulted in no results, and sometimes in increased confusion, might have been put to better use untangling yarn at a much lower price, financially and emotionally.
For a while, to try to control my growing stash of yarn, I put a safety pin in each piece or skein I re-rolled, but of course, this organized process came to naught as I acquired more yarn. I used to arrange the skeins by colors in their respective baskets or plastic containers. Now they all just hang out together: wool with cotton, mohair with alpaca, wide with thin, ribbon and chunky, blue with red, pink with orange, purple with beige.
Why do some of us love the process of untangling, whether it’s yarn or an important life decision? Do we prefer untangling a small nagging worry rather than tackling our larger problems? I attempt to tackle at least one bothersome issue in my life on a weekly basis—this week, I’m reorganizing our huge library. To address several of my day-to-day problems would be a hugely time-consuming task. It is doubtful this will happen. I no longer have the energy, and since the pandemic, I spend several hours a day immersed in a book. This is how I choose to spend much of my free time. So, I must choose which issues to work on. As I enter old age, despite the many losses, I am trying hard to worry less, to breathe more deeply, to feel more peace. I attempt to no longer act so much on emotion and impulse, but rather I give things longer time to determine what’s truly going on, what’s at stake. I try to be more transparent and honest. Handling my yarn helps me feel I’ve taken at least one step and allows me to sit back and contemplate what my next life passage might bring.
Almost every day, along with reading, I work on unraveling my growing collection of yarn. Sometimes I’ll enter a yarn store that has reopened just to look and touch. I think of the women who made the yarn or sweaters, in barns or in kitchens with wood stoves—spinning, dyeing, knitting, and crocheting for their families. Many of my yarns are remindful of the rewarding parts of our long Vermont winters.
Unraveling has a similar effect on me that knitting and walking have: my active, prone-to-worry mind slows down. I don’t knit just to keep my hands busy—I do it to soothe my mind and, in time, to make beautiful items. This untwining provides contemplative time when I more closely feel the dog’s nose nuzzle me, hear the brilliant red cardinals’ songs, and enjoy the breeze on my face.
Deborah Straw is a writer and college instructor. Now partially retired, she writes essays and poetry, produces book reviews, and is a cat sitter. Her two books are The Healthy Pet Manual (about cancer in our companion animals) and Natural Wonders of the Florida Keys.