My mother used to tell me that my three best responses to things going wrong were:
1. Learn Something.
2. Clean Something.
3. Make Something.
I was always learning (still am, really)–it almost happens on its own, so it’s barely a chosen response. My mother was, admittedly, not the best at cleaning, and although I do sometimes find satisfaction in taking something grubby and making it shine, it’s not usually my favorite activity either.
So, I’m left with making. I try to do a little making every day. I write a bit, I cook, I knit. All of these have, at one time or other, been a response to things going less-than-well.
This blog itself is a response to a less-than-well situation with the institutional church. As I mentioned in my very first post, this is more for my own benefit than for anyone else’s, even though I’m happy to have companions on the way. I am not only blog-making, but sense-making. I am, right now, very unconcerned about editorial processes (I’ve been through a few, will probably be through at least one more, and they are nothing but necessary evils). On my blog, I have nobody to please or impress, although admittedly, it is nice that a few kindred spirits are reading, commenting, and finding it useful.
I’ve cooked ever since I was eight or so, and got my Girl Scout badge before I was ten. Because of food allergies that weren’t recognized until adulthood (but which may always have been in place), I’ve had to re-learn how to cook for myself twice. Once for a non-dairy diet, and now for gluten-free. I’ve gotten pretty good at making beautiful, nutritious food that I can eat and doesn’t disgust most of the other people I cook for. I am proudly a home cook, not aspiring to win the Master Chef trophy–I have no desire to cook competitively, working at insane speeds, in a noisy or crowded environment. I prefer to work quietly, shop for ingredients in a leisurely (as opposed to pressured) way, patiently, fairly un-worried about results (because I know I can eat anything that is less than a stellar success). I take recipes more as guidelines and starting points than commands, changing herbs and spices to suit my preferences, adding more of things I love and omitting things I am not crazy about.
However, the ‘making’ that has been a part of my life the longest is knitting. I am not sure exactly how old I was when my mother put some needles and yarn in my hands. It was sometime between when my sister was born (I was four) and when I started first grade at age six, so I usually say I was five–that sounds like a fair and safe estimate to me. My mother didn’t knit obsessively as I have done at some stages during my life, and her intention was not necessarily to make me into a great crafter or designer. It was mainly a way to occupy a fidgety child–especially, as I got older, and we realized I cannot read in a moving car without getting sick, but I can do handwork.
Almost two years ago (on my birthday, no less), I contributed an essay to Lay Anglicana about how the church might be more like a local yarn shop. I still like that, but today I want to reflect on how knitting has become an important part of my spiritual and emotional wellbeing. There have been a number of books written on the topic, so I know this isn’t original. But my story is mine.
Knitting had, for a long time, meant more to me than a useful end product. I always found the rhythmic, repetitive movement to be soothing. It helped clear my head and help me see problems in a new light. I would often, in high school, knit a couple of rows as a break from math homework, when I would get stuck on a difficult equation. It was a time-filler: I knit backstage when I was in my school drama club if I wasn’t needed for the scene that was being rehearsed at the moment. About 10 years ago, I gave away a box of knit-in-the-round pullovers that were really ‘idiot knitting’ I had been able to do while reading for my Ph.D. (nice, but turned out not to be so flattering on me). I’ve knitted on trains, planes, buses, automobiles, and the Dover-to-Calais ferry. I knitted in bed when I was injured or sick.
There have been times when I was a little less active as a knitter. England, surprisingly (for the huge amount of sheep there), has a very few really good local yarn shops. I ordered some yarn over the internet, which is always a kind of hit-or-miss proposition (colors appear differently in real life than on screen, and being the texture-fuss I am, I was apprehensive that something would feel miserable and I couldn’t return it). If you had to rely on public transportation to get places, it was difficult to find places that sold yarns of a quality that were pleasant to work with, a variety of patterns and equipment, or had knowledgeable staff. My first location within England was difficult, my second slightly better, because there is a C&H near where my office was. The stock of exceptional yarn was small (they still sell some very low-quality stuff, but there are brands like Debbie Bliss, which is generally nice). Their staff was more geared toward sewing than knitting, but it was conveniently located.
And desperate times called for desperate measures.
My second job in England was on the staff of an Historically Important Diocese Which I Will Not Name. I was the Director of Studies for the diocesan program which trained Ordained Local Ministers and Readers. My responsibilities were somewhat nebulous (I worked without a well-thought-out job description for over a year despite begging for one, and finally refused to meet with my line manager for my annual evaluation until we had agreed the criteria against which I would be assessed). I never figured out what the reporting structure was–I had a colleague who in similar institutions would have been my line manager, but his line manager claimed to be the person to whom I reported. I could summarize my duties as follows:
1. Figure out what needs doing, and get it done.
2. Overcome every objection to accomplishing #1.
3. Upset nobody in the achievement of #1 and #2.
And one day, in the process of attempting the second, I failed at the third. I made a younger, newly-priested colleague cry.
I will freely admit that I did this, and it isn’t the nicest thing to make a young priest cry. It wasn’t my intention. But she was complaining about something for which I was responsible (a large, credit-bearing piece of the training program), demanding that it needed an alternative to the assessment exercise I had written. And she Could Not Tell Me What She Thought Was Needed. My insistence that I would happily add an appropriate option, if she could articulate what she thought it should be, was met, not with a thoughtful response, but with tears.
I was in a meeting that had gone on far too long, I had a headache that I imagined was like having a broomstick driven through my left eye. I was trying to be reasonable. I was ready to put my name on whatever she asked–I just needed to know what it was. After all, I was the person responsible, any repercussions from either church or our validating university would be mine to suffer. And because She Could Not Tell Me, she cried.
And making a new priest cry is, apparently, unforgiveable. She was certainly less than forgiving. I tried to apologize–emails went un-answered, phone calls screened by a husband who refused to call her to the phone on hearing my name. The Colleague Who In Any Other Institution Would Have Been My Boss wrote up the incident to put in my personnel file. He arranged for us to have coffee together, with him moderating and demanding my in-person apology, a week later. The apology was not accepted, and I was told by the Young Priest that she would always need to be ‘wary’ of me.
Thus, I was labeled ‘aggressive’ and a ‘bully’.
I promised myself that, although I couldn’t erase what happened (or what people believed happened), I would do everything in my power to make sure it never happened again. I wanted it to be seen as the aberration it was, not any ‘normal’ way I operate.
I wanted to make sure I never made another gesture that could be interpreted as ‘threatening’. I was told that I had ‘aggressively’ stabbed my finger at the Young Priest, and that my inability to remember having done so must mean that such behavior is so ingrained in my character that I don’t even notice it. (I probably do less ‘talking with my hands’ than just about anybody I know.) I would actively cultivate a persona of what is probably inappropriate meekness for the position I held. I was going to make sure I always spoke in a considered way, not immediately reacting to conflict and drama.
I formulated my plan riding the bus on the way to work a few days later, when I knew there would be another meeting (we, like many church institutions, did far more meeting than doing). No matter how contentious it got, I was going to be the model of serenity and reason.
I was going to knit.
I got off the bus at the city center, went to C&H, and bought a cheapo kit of yarn and needles with instructions to make a hot water bottle cover. It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t fancy. But I wasn’t going to get something expensive and complicated when the real purpose was to self-comfort, keep still, do five more stitches before responding to any bonehead comment, and contain my stabbing to stitches rather than anything ‘aggressive’ in the air at easily cowed colleagues who could bully me by claiming I had bullied them ( a discourse technique that Deborah Tannen calls ‘getting the lower hand’).
I never finished that cover. It may still be in the desk where I used to sit. I purchased other, better yarn, used nicer needles, and during the two years of that job, I produced enough beautiful cardigans to fill a 20 gallon storage bin. Mostly in meetings.
It was more than just staying calm in meetings, though. It was an antidote to all of the ways in which working for the Historically Important Diocese was like acid corroding my soul and my self-worth. Making myself beautiful, warm things that honored my personhood was a remedy for the ugly, cold dehumanization I sustained in working for the Historically Important Diocese. It reminded me that I had gifts and talents when my employment situation was telling me too loudly that I was not worth very much. It reminded me that I needed to love myself when earthly representatives of Jesus Christ behaved in the most unloving ways.
By stabbing into stitches, I could survive the daily stabbing which was directed at my soul.