A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, February 20, 2011
KNIT ONE, PURL TWO
A Meditation On Knitting a Life
For thou didst form my inward parts,
Thou didst knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise thee for thou art fearful and wonderful.
Wonderful are thy works!
Thou knowest me right well,
My frame was not hidden from thee,
When I was being made in secret,
Intricately wrought in the depth of the earth,
Thy eyes beheld my unformed substance:
In thy book were written, every one of them,
The days that were formed for me
When as yet there was none of them.
— Psalm 139 (13-16)
Too many people here seem to have discovered I can be tricked into doing pretty much anything just so long as there’s enough lead-time involved. I fear someone could say, “James, would you jump in a lake? But you don’t have to do it until late August, 2021,” and I very well might get out my calendar. Now, before you try this out yourself, I need to warn you, I’ve been working on that “no” thing. And I like to think I’m getting a bit better at it.
Although, admittedly, not uniformly successfully. When Kathy Ahlquist asked if I’d be willing to be part of a demonstration project on behalf of our knitter’s group some Sunday showing how any idiot can be taught to knit, (I didn’t actually think that one through) but we don’t have to do it before the middle of February, which was at that time about a million years away, I apparently looked in my calendar and said, “Oh, look, we’re celebrating our shared ministry then. That sounds like a good day for something like this.” I think I was thinking as it takes two needles and cooperation between hands to knit. There’s a metaphor in there for how our cooperation with each other knits together something rather beautiful here at church. It’s an image that has the advantage of actually being true. So, I said, yes.
Time passed, as it has the habit of doing. And before I knew it, this Sunday was looming large on the horizon. And I realized I hadn’t actually given any more thought to the matter than it was a good idea, or, at least it had seemed so at the time. My quick resources are a bit thin on the ground. One of my Facebook friends Robyn Love is a big time knitter, even famous in some circles, I remember last year Jan being one of a gazillion folk who helped her to knit a gigantic tea cozy to cover an ICBM missile as an art installation. And, of course Jan does some very nice work with the dancing needles, herself. But, that’s kind of it. They’re pretty much my door into the world of knitting. Oh, and that every once in a while Jan would guffaw over her computer and when asked what’s going on, would say its just something the Yarn Harlot wrote.
I emailed Robyn. But she was in route back to New York from Canada, and apparently not really able to focus while driving. I then hoped for Jan, but she had a major sewing project with a deadline. And when I looked up Yarn Harlot, I discovered while often genuinely hilarious, there is a reason she chose her name for herself, and I didn’t see much that would work here from the pulpit.
So, with a small rush of anxiety helping to focus me, I sent out a request to the minister listserv asking for something spiritual about knitting. Humorous would be okay, but it had to touch on something spiritual. If it took us to a reflection of our commitment to ministering to one another there would be a bonus in their pay packet. Apparently I’ve annoyed a lot of people over a very long time. Like with the Yarn Harlot, which several recommended, few of the suggestions could in fact be said from a pulpit. Many pointed to Susan Gordon Lydon’s “Knitting Sutra,” which appears to be the last word on the subject. While I didn’t have time to get the book, I mention it for your future reference. Lydon, “The Knitting Sutra: Craft as a Spiritual Practice.”
Among those pointers marginally speakable from a pulpit, my colleague Jeff Briere dug up a story. It appears there was a couple who lived together happily for fifty years when the wife took ill. It looked like she wasn’t going to make it. At the hospital she told her husband that she kept an old shoebox in her closet and she wanted him to bring it to the hospital. He did and as he sat in the chair next to her she told him to open the box up. Inside were two beautifully knit dolls and a large pile of cash. She said there was over one hundred thousand dollars there. As they pretty much never had kept a secret from each other in all their years together, the man was confused. “What’s this about?” He asked. She replied that when they married her mother had said the secret to a successful marriage was never to fight. Instead, she should knit a doll to work out the negative energy. The man was deeply moved that after fifty years she only had two dolls. Then he asked, “So, what’s the story with the money?” And she replied, “Oh, that’s what I earned selling the dolls.”
I suppose there’s something to work with. But, you know, I don’t think people should avoid engaging each other, fighting, if you will, if it means one is going to find a real relationship. The needles need to clash with each other for something to happen. Now, the needles need to clash skillfully. We need to bring heart to the matter, and attention. But as helpful as that might be, that’s not where I’d like this reflection to go.
Wanting more, I wandered around the web myself looking for material on knitting as something spiritual. I found the scholar Leslie Luebbers, director of the Art Museum of the University of Memphis, who wrote “Textile metaphors frequent the language of community, and the interlocking structure of knitting is, perhaps, more apt than others. Interdependency is as necessary a characteristic of the loops of sweaters as it is of societies' members.”
The language is a little academic clunky. But she’s pointing right at the matter. There is something powerful, something compelling in these metaphors of textiles, weaving and knitting. I’m particularly taken with how a thread can be looped into not only sweaters, but blankets and shawls, skirts and socks. It is the way of interdependence, and how with care, chaos becomes pattern. This is the way of human life itself.
However in the immortal words of Ron Popeil, the late night television pitchman who brought us Veg-o-Matic and that invaluable phrase, “But wait, there’s more.” I discovered that while one can indeed find good metaphors for community, and more for spiritual community in knitting, what I saw is how this art really does have about it a lot of the marks of a genuine spiritual practice. That part I wasn’t thinking of at the time. But, it’s there.
On the web I found knitter Eleanor Gaston nicely describe how. She says that, “When I was in fourth grade my friend Angela taught me how to knit. The process came easy for me… Gradually… I found that I could sit for hours letting my hands work while my mind slowed down and relaxed. Knitting can be a wonderful form of meditation. The repetitive process of knitting makes it ideal for practicing mindfulness. Knitting gives the hands, eyes and mind something to focus on, but does not impose rigid demands on one's attention. While one is knitting the mind can remain alert to what is going on around it while being actively engaged in the present moment.” Or, as knitter and long time Zen practitioner Jan Seymour-Ford put it, both meditation and knitting constantly recall us to the moment. The practice for both is attention, attention, attention.
Of course, that’s the baseline. There are a couple more ingredients (cooking being another wonderful metaphor. Perhaps for another sermon.) To a fully integrated, fully engaged life, making knitting an authentic and living practice. Knitter Karika Damon observes how, “Knitting is a metaphor for many things in life. It can be a great teacher because it forces us to be in the moment, be patient, undo our mistakes and do “it” correctly.” She adds, “To learn to knit we have to be a beginner, (we have to) accept we don’t know everything…”
With this advice to tumble into beginner’s mind, the way of the open heart, our path ceases to be meandering from this to that without apparent significance and begins to take on the shape of a spiritual quest. Now, don’t get me wrong, it always looks like meandering. We are following our noses. We are following were our toes lead. But once we’ve opened our hearts, however far we may wander, wherever we may find ourselves, we are in fact always heading home.
And going home, finding our true home, is what it is all about.
A colleague, Katie Norris wrote compellingly of her knitting a blanket with her mother who suffers from Alzheimer’s. I think it speaks to this going home quality of the spiritual life rather nicely. Katie explains how “For months my mom has been knitting my son a beautiful orange blanket which has been a joy for her to knit, but also a struggle.” With the disease what would take a week or two now was taking months. Finally, Katie wrote, “The orange blanket was the size of a baby blanket and we thought it was probably done, until we laid it over Jeffrey, who is four years old...”
It was too small. Worried about her mom’s frustration with the amount of work it took to get where they were, some family negotiations ensued. Finally it was agreed that Katie would take over, matching her mom’s style as closely as possible. Katie says that evening she took on her part of knitting the blanket. She wrote how “I sat and talked to my dad and husband about life, religion, and family as I knit the blanket. That night Mom could not sleep and she ended up sitting and talking with us too.” Something powerful was happening around that blanket.
Katie described how for her this practice was not unlike her Zen meditation. She wrote how, “I was letting my mind stay clear, to think of things but not ruminate on them.” And maybe more important in that sitting and knitting, “I was also discovering my place in the universe, as a daughter, a mother, a helper and a person who struggles with sadness and love.” All of it, every bit of it, going into that orange baby blanket, and eventually to everyone that blanket would touch. As Katie concluded, (my mother) “and I were both with my son when he used the blanket. The love and hopes that we have for each other, the love and hopes we both have for little Jeffrey are all in that blanket.” Well, she did add one more thought about those hopes and that love. “It is a prayer for each other that will forever be contained in the stitches of that blanket.”
And that’s the deal. This is, I hope, what we’re about here.
To conclude, another colleague, Jeanne Nieuwejaar told me about something one of her spiritual teachers once said. She wasn’t exactly sure which, perhaps Ram Das. He was “speaking to a large group, mostly students, about his experiences of the transcendent…” But, he “couldn't help noticing a little white haired woman sitting in the front room who kept nodding enthusiastically when he made his most impassioned statements. After the lecture as he greeted folks, she came to him, and he asked what she had been thinking as he spoke. She leaned in close and said, ‘I understand exactly what you were saying. You see, I knit.’”
May we all go out and do likewise.