Friday, September 08, 2006

Two Sticks and Some String

I picked up my knitting last night for the first time in several days. When I don't knit for a while and then I do, I am genuinely surprised at the pleasure it gives me. My fingers know what to do. The yarn curls through them and cooperates as I wind it around the needle tip and pull it through the stitches. The motion soothes and comforts.

It is hard to explain this to people who either A) go into a panic at the mention of anything involving needles and fiber; or B) think "crafty" pastimes are trivial and simple-minded. It's odd that knitting occupies this "between place"--frighteningly complex to some, barely worth the notice of others.

Each project has a history--for whom, why, how, when and where it was made. My most vivid knitting memories are of where I sat and worked on something--the old couch in the playroom of my childhood home, the bed in my college dorm room, the end of the sofa or the chair in the window. Some projects are connected to events--rehearsals for a certain show, the older or younger son's basketball season, doctors' appointments. Putting on a sweater or even socks I have made recalls the time when that yarn and work filled my hands, my lap and my knitting bag.

I learned to knit when I was eight, and most of the time since then, I've had something on my needles. It may have been languishing in a tote bag or on a shelf without being worked on, but my knitting is there, waiting for me to finish it, waiting for a time when I need to knit.

Knitting creates a kind of industrious peace. It is a way to stay awake while watching TV and a way to calm myself before going to bed. Have I ever fallen asleep with needles in hand? Yes.

Some people say they meditate or pray when they knit. Some knit prayer shawls to comfort the sick and dying and to shield new parents and others embarking on great adventures. Sometimes I knit gifts to mark important occasions for family members and friends, but the finished product often arrives late. I don't knit on deadlines. I do knit for friends to thank them for their presence in my life.

And now a word about ripping. I must interrupt this pleasant post to report that I just ripped out six inches--two full repeats--of a complicated celtic cable pattern. I have finished the left front of the cardigan, and I am working on the right, but when I set up the pattern for this side, I followed the wrong chart. The cables were the same as the ones on the left side, rather than their mirror image. Would this have been noticed by anyone but me? Yes, designs like this should be symmetrical and I'm not the only one who surreptitiously checks other people's garments for this quality. Besides, this is an heirloom sweater for an 18-year-old niece who has been closely involved in its design. It will take as long as it will take.

But hey, it's only yarn. Pull out the stitches, wind the charcoal grey wool back into a ball, and get it right the next time. Give me a week or less and I'll knit those six inches again and enjoy doing it. But now you see why I don't knit for deadlines.

This week I'm knitting to feel more comfortable in my own skin as I take in the changes and look again at the sorrow connected to my husband's death at the end of many years with Alzheimer's. One of the prayers early in the memorial service for him on Wednesday night asked God to knit together his people. I hadn't noticed this in other funerals I'd been to and checking the Lutheran Book of Worship shows that it's not in the text for the Burial of the Dead. Guess somebody put it there just for me.

But here's another confession: I know too much about knitting to go along with the "knit us together, Lord" metaphor. Where does it come from? I ran a search on "knit" and came up with this in Ephesians 4:15-16:

"But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love."

A mouthful, thank you, Paul.

There are some problems here. According to fiber historians, there was no knitting in the first century. So what word did Paul use really? The New Jerusalem Bible says "fitted and joined together," which makes more sense to me. Knitting uses one long strand of yarn to make fabric. It doesn't join lots of parts together (well, there is the three-needle bind-off, but that's a technical detail we don't need to go into here).

"Fitted and joined" suggests a cabinetmaker at work and some trimming, planing, and sanding that has to happen for things to come together properly. "Fitted and joined" also suggests piecing and quilting, where the quilter collects fabrics, cuts shapes, joins them together and makes something new. something that warms, covers and encloses. The designs, even when carefully planned, can surprise you. Paul was a tentmaker. Fitting and joining with scissors and stitches would have been skills that lived in his fingers.

The search for "knit" in the bible turned up another reference in Psalm 139:13:

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I like the idea of being God's project, whether it's quilting, knitting, or cabinetry. I hope the process of knitting me together brings God some genuine pleasure.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

"God will not leave you astray"

My husband, Lon, died yesterday morning after, as the obituaries will say, "a long battle with Alzheimer's Disease."

Those words cover a lot of ground--seven, eight, maybe nine years in which the plaques and tangles of Alzheimer's confused and then destroyed Lon's mind. I should say his brain, because that's where the anatomical disaster struck. Mind is something else, but something hard to describe. Perhaps it's the content encoded in all those neurons and neurotransmitters, content that was obscured by Alzheimer's. Maybe it's the "ether' of the brain, to use a word from the nineteenth century (or earlier). Webster's first definition for ether is "an imaginary substance regarded by the ancients as filling all space beyond the sphere of the moon, and making up the stars and planets." Go small with this concept and you have a mysterious something in the infinitely small spaces between nerve endings, the spaces between brain cells, inside molecules and between the particles of atoms--something that makes structures come to life.

Ether, anatomy, biochemistry--I don't know much about any of these. But I watched while Lon struggled with the complexities of daily life, of a job, of relationships. He lost the ability to understand time, to count money, to write checks and pay bills. He lost the ability to write--to be accurate when writing for the newspaper. Journalism was his career, his passion, his vocation. But rather than journalist, he preferred to be called a newspaperman, or a reporter, an editor, a critic. These words said what he did. They were alive and active, with no pretentious "ism" behind them. But these parts of who he was were stripped away by the disease. He was relieved to stop working, to stop making those demands on his mind.

The world no longer made sense to him. No, that's not quite right. His brain kept trying to make sense of what he saw and of what happened around him, but what his mind created was at odds with what everyone else knew to be true and real. He attacked the pictures on video boxes. Our tall but gentle younger son was greeted with a raised and shaking fist. People wearing Cubs jerseys made him angry. When he wet his pants he blamed the guy who came in and threw water on him.

Through all of this, Lon's mother worried about the humiliation he must have felt. For the Lon of old to have known what would happen to him would have been devastating. He could not have borne becoming an impotent object of pity. In the early years of this battle with Alzheimer's, I was angry with Lon for many, many reasons. He, for his own deeply personal reasons, could not tell me what was happening inside his head. We fought bitterly, with no resolution, and he would sometimes exclaim, "Just shoot me. Why don't you just shoot me?"

The deepening dementia relieved his frustration. The depression lifted. The eager-to-please child that he carried inside appeared as the responsibilities and prerogatives of adulthood faded. The fog of Alzheimer's enveloped him, comforted him. and finally carried him away.

Yesterday evening, I stopped to use the phone at my family's church, where my younger son is an eighth grader in the parish school and where I direct children's choirs. There was an envelope waiting for me, full of die-cut paper angels with messages written on them by students in the sixth grade. Many were addressed by name to one of my three children, and they said things like "God is watching over you" and "You are not alone."

One in particular made me smile. It said, "God will not leave you astray." It's a malapropism, a confusion of words because of the resemblance in their sounds. Did the child mean "God will not lead you astray"? Or perhaps "God will not leave you alone"? This one was addressed to my older son, who at nineteen, has plenty of opportunities to go astray, though I am confident he will come through this great grief in one piece, compassionate beyond his years.

Still, that sentence sticks in my mind: God will not leave you astray. Lon was astray in so many different ways and places through all these years with Alzheimer's. Sometimes literally he was lost and not sure how to get home. He was increasingly astray in the ether of his mind, because the neuron pathways in his brain were twisted and obscured. He was astray spiritually, when the thing he counted on most in life--his intelligence--left him.

But God did not leave him astray. God was there in the fog. God granted him peace and people who cared for him, most importantly in these last days, caregivers at the nursing home who sincerely loved him. And God led him home.