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1. Animal Comfort
For about ten years I've been going to the Russian River resort area in Northern California at the end of July with my friend Lou and her family. We stay at a place called Summerhome Park, situated at a bend in the green, snaky river. Hills of redwood trees rise from its banks, and the air, carrying the combined fragrances of redwood, bay, and running river water, is so fresh and clean you wish you could bottle it and bring it home.
I sleep in the cabin with Lou's sister-in-law, Tina, and over the years a small group of what I've come to call cranky middle-aged women have emerged as a core of regular yearly guests. Besides Lou, who's been my closest friend for over a decade, and me, the group includes Tina and her longtime friend Theresa, both of them labor and delivery nurses.
Each year I watch the passage and progress of an osprey or a family of ospreys that appears precisely around the bend in the river each morning and late afternoon to fish. It announces its presence with a distinctive whistle my father taught me to recognize on one of our bird-watching trips to the Everglades and is always an exhilarating sight. I once observed the parent ospreys taking their fledgling children on a trial flight, leading them on with a fish skeleton one parent held in its mouth.
Summerhome Park is one of those resorts built in the 1920s or 1930s, when wealthy families from San Francisco went to the Russian River to summer. It is an idyllic place for children, woodsy and mysterious, with a wide, safe beach, a lodge where teenagers can hang out, buying candy and hamburgers and shooting pool, and many secluded spots along the river for canoeing, fishing, and Huck Finn-type imaginative wilderness adventures.
While the kids are hanging out at the lodge or around campfires on the beach, we women play a card game called Spite and Malice. It is a complicated form of multihanded solitaire. I'm sure Spite and Malice got its name from the viciously competitive way it must be played. The game's objective is to get rid of your pile of cards before anyone else does, and one way of doing it is by purposely blocking your opponents' progress. Since Tina learned it from an elderly woman she helps care for named Lucille, we call our game Lucille.
In the long, lazy evenings after dinner at the river, we women play many games of Lucille. I am a bridge player and can endure almost anything with good games of cards. I used to say that the best thing about being in jail was that there were always enough people to play cards with, and in the course of many stays in rehab, I survived by playing spades, a simpler form of bridge, with my fellows. When I was a child on Long Island, and hurricanes or thunderstorms knocked out our power and flooded the only bridge to town, my father would light candles and play leisurely games of canasta or Steal the Old Man's Bundle with the kids.
Theresa came to Summerhome Park as a child. Her aunt and uncle owned a small general and grocery store she helped out in. It had long been boarded up, though still scenic, when we discovered Summerhome Park and began to go there.
I don't know that Tina, who is goodhearted and generous almost to a fault, would describe herself as cranky. But Theresa's eccentricities would make her embrace the description wholeheartedly. Together, the four of us generate a powerful female energy that reminds me of matriarchs in an elephant or buffalo herd. I once saw a buffalo cow give birth in Golden Gate Park. The other females surrounded her in a circle of protection. That is the sort of energy we possess.
Of course I bring my knitting to the river. One year I was experimenting with luxury materials. I had begun to knit with a fiber known as qiviut that had recently come onto the commercial market. Qiviut is spun from the downy underhair of the musk ox, a shaggy Arctic beast that roams the frozen tundra and puts one in mind of a smaller, stubbier version of the woolly mammoth.
The animal is little changed from the Ice Age. According to an article by Donna Druchunas in the Fall 2003 issue of Interweave Knits, the musk ox, which was hunted nearly to extinction in the 1860s, lives in remote areas of Greenland, Alaska, and Canada, "where it grows an underwool that is . . . eight times warmer than sheep's wool. This layer of qiviut protects the animals in --100°F weather; in fact, captive herds must be protected from overheating when temperatures rise to just 70°F."
To the Yupiit people of Alaska, the animal is known as the oomingmak ("the bearded one"). And qiviut, the yarn spun from its soft, downy underfleece, is said to be finer, warmer, and lighter than cashmere. "With each animal producing just five to seven pounds of qiviut each year," Druchunas writes, "the fiber remains rare and expensive." There are cooperatives of Inuit women in the Yukon who make garments from qiviut and sell them by mail order. They are costly and exquisite. But the fiber became available for the home knitter only in the past decade, when a woman named Nancy Bender began raising musk oxen on a farm in Hamilton, Montana, and having the underfleece spun into yarn.
At about the same time, a company somewhere began producing luxurious knitting needles made of rosewood and ebony. I bought a pair of ebony straight needles with rosewood knobs and imagined myself knitting qiviut on ebony in the very height of luxury.
The needles didn't work out too well for me; the wood was hard and hurt my hands. But the qiviut worked out fine.
It was at that time available only in taupe brown, the natural color of the fleece, a color that seemed as though it would be comforting in a cozy animal way. Warmth for weight ratio is a big deal in the fiber world. Mohair, for instance, has a very high degree of warmth for its light weight, and cashmere has been coveted for years because of this quality. Of course not all cashmere is created equal. The diet of the goats, the altitude at which they are raised, the processing of the fleece, and the spinning, as well as the raw fleece itself, make the feel of the fiber vary widely.
Downy fibers such as qiviut and cashmere possess what is called a halo, the fine hairs that surround the core of spun fiber and make it more or less fuzzy depending on the yarn. They are also said to bloom with washing. As the fiber absorbs water and the tightness of the spin relaxes, the yarn fluffs up and softens in an appealing way. This works particularly well with lace patterns, as the halo blooms and occupies the empty spaces formed by the yarnovers or holes in the lace.
By this point I had been knitting so much and so passionately that I had caught up with most new developments in the knitting world, had become current, as it were, and was hungry for novelty and variety.
I found in a book of classic British Isles knitwear a pattern for a lace shawl that was pictured wrapped around a baby. It didn't look very large. I ordered a couple of skeins of qiviut from Nancy Bender and began knitting my first lacy shawl. Did I mention that the yarn was extravagantly pricey? It made cashmere look like a bargain.
The shawl was in the pattern known as feather and fan, or old shale, which makes a scallopy edge to the design. Though it was not the first time I knitted lace, it was the first of many shawls I was to knit and started me on a major binge of lace shawl knitting. This piece had a simple triangular shape rather than the large squares I later made, and it featured only one lace pattern rather than the varying patterns of the others.
Who knows why one pattern feels so pleasurable and comfortable to knit while another feels frustrating and irritating? This for me is one of the enduring mysteries of lace knitting. But the rhythm and feel of the feather and fan appealed to me right from the start. I loved the rhythm of its yarnovers and decreases, the mathematical arabesque of adding and subtracting stitches, the alternating columns and arches that appeared with each repetition of the pattern.
But the quantity of yarn required for the piece had not been precisely delineated in the instructions, and its finished size had been concealed in the folds wrapped around the baby. So I kept running out of yarn. Every week it seemed I was calling Nancy Bender to tell her I needed more qiviut while the price for the project mounted ever upward. Also, since the fleece had been gathered from different animals and was available only in its natural color, the skeins did not match exactly in color, weight, or finish of thread. Some were lighter in color, some darker, some smoother, some fluffier, with a shaggier feel more like mohair.
I was about midway through the shawl when I went to the Russian River that year, in 1997, and the price of the yarn had already soared to about $250, with no end in sight.
Theresa pulled it right out of my knitting bag. "What is this?" she demanded as the shawl fluffed up into its shaggy, lacy animal beauty. "I want this," she said. "I have to have it."
"I can't possibly sell it for what the materials cost," I said. "The yarn has already cost two hundred fifty dollars, and I'm nowhere near finished."
"I would pay you five or six hundred dollars for something like this," she said. Theresa lives near the ocean in San Diego. Both her husband and her daughter are avid surfers. She was already imagining the comforting fluffy shawl wrapped around her shoulders on chilly evenings at the beach.
When it was finished, I sold it to her. To my exacting knitter's eye, the shawl was far from perfect. There were mistakes in the lace, so the columns and arches didn't line up precisely. The color wasn't uniform, as it would be if one were to buy all the yarn at one time, in the same dye lot. It varied from light to dark, from finer to thicker, from smooth to furry in various parts.
The shape was asymmetrical, and the size somewhere between a shawl and a scarf, not the generous enveloping wrap I'm sure Theresa had imagined. I hadn't yet learned how to block lace, so it was lumpy and bumpy. It possessed plenty of that quality the Japanese call wabi sabi, the charm of the imperfect.
But Theresa didn't think so.
"I don't know what I ever did to deserve anything as beautiful as this," she said, "but it must have been good."
In truth the shawl was cozy and comforting, not so very far from the animals that had given their downy underhair to create the yarn, and of course it had absorbed all that female energy that the four of us, plus Tina's other nurse friends, generated on the river.
It was also the first time I was ever paid what I thought was a fair price for my labor and materials.
Theresa loved it. She kept it in a special box. Enshrined, she said, like the relic of a saint. And since she, Tina, and Lou all had grown up in Roman Catholic families, Theresa thought of a singularly Catholic use for the shawl.
"This is the sort of thing," she said, "that I want to be wearing in my open casket."
"I never would have thought of that," I said, "but now that you mention it, it seems fine."
Over the years we've been going to the Russian River all of us have lost members of our families. Lou has lost a brother; Tina's lost both parents and two brothers; Theresa's brother and my father have died. Though we are together for only a short, intense time each year, we have used our connection and companionship to mourn and console, to comfort and succor one another. We have shared the deaths in our families that have occurred between each season.
Theresa, who is from a large Mexican family, liked to regale us with stories about her late brother Louie, who had been something of an outlaw and reprobate. He rode a Harley, trafficked in illicit substances, and had a large number of girlfriends who streamed through the house in a steady procession as he lay dying upstairs of liver disease.
"Louie's fools," Theresa called them. According to her, the women remained devoted to Louie even though she did everything in her power to dissuade them. "You don't want to go up there," she would tell one of them. "Mary is already there, and you know how much you hate her."
"I couldn't really blame them," Theresa said, "because Louie was so appealing. But I'm glad I was his sister, so I didn't have to be one of his fools."
The women mourned en masse at Louie's funeral, a colorful affair that naturally featured the deceased in an open casket. Some of Louie's buddies had thoughtfully provided him with some sustenance for the afterlife, several joints of marijuana placed in the breast pocket of his shirt.
Theresa marched right up to the casket and took the joints out of Louie's pocket, "because," as she said, "he wouldn't be needing them where he was going, and I needed them right then."
Theresa and Tina saw each other between times at the river, and Lou and I lived close to each other at home, but the four of us rarely gathered except at the river. One winter Lou went with Tina to San Diego, and Theresa conducted what she called a showing of the shawl in its special box.
Tina's mother had been ill and on dialysis for some time, but when she died suddenly, Tina was devastated. Theresa wasn't able to attend the funeral, but she offered Tina what, to her mind, was the next best consolation to her presence.
"I told her I was sorry I couldn't come to the funeral," she said. "But I said she could borrow the shawl to wear."
She called it the shawl as though it were the only one in the world and everyone would know what she meant. As though it possessed magical powers. As though it could function as an intermediary between worlds, between animals and humans, between the living and the dead.
For Tina and Theresa, who were so often present at the mysteries of birth, the occasions of birth and death required a kind of animal comfort. The swaddling of the baby. The shrouding of the corpse. The wearing of a magic shawl to ease the pain of grief. All these times demanded a kind of bundling or wrapping that would somehow aid the body's passage between the states of being and nonbeing.
A shawl is a garment to be wrapped around the wearer. It envelops the person in warmth. It is a natural project for the contemplative nature of knitting. Prayer shawl ministries have now sprung up in many areas of the country. They are groups that knit for members in distress, stitching their work with prayer and positive intention. Then they wrap the recipients in the shawls as a blessing.
The last time I saw Theresa, she told me she had loaned the qiviut shawl to her mother. Her mother suffers from lymphoma, and Theresa thought the shawl might ease the pain of the tumors in her neck.
Theresa's mother is something of a fancy lady. According to Theresa, she never goes out even to do her gardening in anything but nylon hose and immaculate Ferragamos. Now she has a shaggy, imperfect, hand-stitched shawl to warm the achings of her heart and her neck. And since the shawl has a life of its own, like a child you've given birth to, she will probably never know it comes to her courtesy of the great, shambling Arctic beasts whose coats provided the yarn, and of the nimble fingers of the knitter that was me.
From the Trade Paperback edition.