Five days after the fire, Sam and I return to our apartment to begin the process of sorting. We had envisioned sorting through ashes, but what we encounter is the apartment that we evacuated last Sunday. The walls are there, the floors, the photos, the rugs, the books, the sofa, the computer, the TV, the potatoes on the stove, the kale in the sink. We tell ourselves we are lucky, that everything is intact. Then it becomes clear that everything is covered in that thick black film of smoke residue, a residue that permeates, a residue that doesn’t come off with dusting or washing or scouring or three cycles at the laundromat. We tell ourselves we are lucky, that our family is intact, and the rest is just stuff. The process of sorting turns into the process of dumping.
Once my possessions are depersonalized into stuff, the dumping process is alarmingly easy. I am ruthless: hardcover books are saved; paperbacks, unless they are school books, are dumped. The dining room table and my bed frame are saved; the IKEA sofas are dumped. Photographs, some framed, some in albums, most shoved haphazardly into kitchen drawers – saved. The massive collection of record albums I have been hanging onto without a turntable to play them on – dumped. The closets are swept of every article of clothing except two leather jackets, my wedding dress, and a blue sequined number that belonged to my mother. Everything else goes in big black garbage bags with the uncooked kale and the semi-boiled potatoes from Sunday supper.
I am zipping along, almost exhilarated, when I come to my yarn. Bags and Bags of soft wooly string, collected over nearly twenty years of knitting. For me, knitting is more than a hobby – it is my comfort, my bubble bath, my martini, my escape. I feel an enormous sense of satisfaction in taking two pointy sticks and those balls of soft wooly string and tangling up something tangible. As I toss out my yarn stash, the thick black film of smoke residue embedded in the soft wooly string, I forget about how lucky I am, and I weep selfishly over my stuff.
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When people approach me while I’m knitting in public, they sometimes ask, “Why do you knit?” My stock answer: “What else would I do with these pointy sticks?” More often they approach with a comment: “I could never do that.” I always assure them they can: “If you could learn to read, you can learn to knit.”
Many of my friends who knit have warm fuzzy memories of learning at their mother’s knee, of knitting as an art passed lovingly down through generations. My own mother thought knitting was a colossal waste of time, that perfectly good sweaters were easily obtainable from the sales rack at Lord and Taylor’s. I was thirty-three years old when I finally learned how to knit after several abortive attempts to teach myself from incomprehensible diagrams in books. I signed up for an adult education class at the old Stuyvesant High School on 21st Street, where my teacher was Mrs. Jacqueline DuPres.
Mrs. DuPres was a tiny, shockingly buxom woman who teetered on 3-inch heels. Warm and fuzzy she was not, but for her day job, Mrs. DuPres taught typing and remedial reading in the NYC public school system, which was part of what made her a perfect knitting teacher. Reading is the purposeful untangling of letters to decipher a pattern; knitting is the purposeful tangling of yarn to make a pattern. For Mrs. DuPres, process was more important than product. The typist in Mrs. DuPres loved the mechanics of knitting. She reminded us again and again that there are only two stitches to master, the knit and the purl, and that once those two stitches are accomplished, they can be combined in an infinite number of ways. In the first classes, Mrs. DuPres scoffed at the magazine patterns we brought to her, hoping to make a recognizable garment. Instead, she had us practice on square after square, ripping them out and starting over again until our stitches were second nature.
In reading, the work moves from left to right; in knitting, from right to left. The knitter starts with a needle full of stitches in the left hand, moves the stitches one by one to the right needle, switches hands and starts again. The needle in the right hand pokes through the front of the stitch on the left hand needle. The yarn is wrapped around the back, coming down between the two needles. The right needle swivels under the left and lifts the stitch up and off. Over and over, Mrs. DuPres recited a rhyme in her nasal singsong, a mantra that runs through my head to this day whenever I pick up my pointy sticks: “In through the front door, sneak around the back, peek through the window, and off jumps Jack.” As the stitches became second nature, knitting became a form of meditation.
Mrs. DuPres taught us to read our knitting, to correct our mistakes. By the end of the course, she allowed us to tackle commercial patterns but actively encouraged us to forget the directions and make up our own. She warned us off scarves, counseling that we would die of boredom before they were ever finished. My first completed, self-designed garment ws a tiny pair of overalls for my tiny son, the beloved baby I gladly fled every Wednesday night to escape to Mrs. Dupres’ class. No pastels for my Charlie – I swaddled him in black yarn shot through with flecks of red, blue and yellow. Sixteen years later, Charlie’s overalls were the one piece of knitting I saved in the aftermath of the fire; I’ve washed them several times but they still smell like they’ve spent the weekend at a Boy Scout jamboree.
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I am lucky to belong to a generous community of people who have rallied around us since the fire. I’ve been offered clothing, food, and shelter, but the most wonderful gift I’ve received is the bag of yarn a woman I barely know left in my office, a woman I barely know but who knits, and who knows what a fellow knitter needs. The other night, when I woke up in a borrowed bed in a borrowed apartment, I retreated to the borrowed sofa with my two pointy sticks and a ball of wooly string. “In through the front door, sneak around the back, peek through the window, and off jumps Jack.” This time, I’m making a scarf. Maybe by the time I finish it I’ll be back home.