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The two Englishmen were staring at the half-finished glove in my hands, aghast. “What is that?” the short one asked.
“I know it's a mess,” I rushed to apologize. I was lying. It was not a mess; it was perfect. But I had just arrived from the airport and I didn't want to offend them, as they were my hosts while I was in town for a small theater's production of a musical to which I had composed the score. The couple continued to stare in reproving silence at the work in my lap. “I've never done a glove before,” I continued desperately, “and the fingers are trickier than I expected, and they—”
“No!” the tall one interrupted, his voice quick with dismay. “It's not that. It’s that you’re knitting. Men don’t knit, young people don’t knit. Knitting is…something your grandmother does!”
My mother's mother was a raging alcoholic who had been married seven or nine times (depending on whether you counted the annulment and the common-law bigamy), including once to a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee and once to a French royalist arms smuggler, so I felt I could safely assert that knitting was not a pastime she had ever enjoyed. “Besides,” I said defensively, “knitting is very fashionable in New York these days.”
“Well, this isn't New York,” the short one retorted, but something in my face must have inspired pity.
“All right,” said the tall one grudgingly. “Just as long as nobody sees you doing it in public.”
But it was already too late, as the tube ride from the airport had been a long one. To mollify them, I put the knitting away, and then we had sex. It was more than satisfactory, as far as that sort of thing goes, but I still didn’t trust them. What kind of people would disapprove of the manufacture of a pair of beautiful cable-stitch gloves, no matter by whose hand?
My friend Cynthia tried to teach me to knit in college. She was a good instructress, but no matter how relentlessly supportive she was I always ended up feeling as if Tomás de Torquemada had taken an especial interest in my hands. It became clear to me very soon that I would never create a garment. I was destined to buy my clothes forever from The Gap. In fact, I thought as I massaged my cramped, searing palms, I would never create anything; I would only be a barnacle on the seedy consumerist underbelly of humanity, sucking up resources and contributing nothing but the occasional second–rate witticism.
But years later, after my boyfriend Tom broke up with me, I thought, Why not try again? In the last two years, twenty-nine weeks, and four days not that I was counting or anything, I had mastered utterly the legerdemain required for the illusion that I was in a healthy relationship. What difficulty could winding pieces of string around each other pose my nimble fingers now?
So I signed up for a course at a yarn store called Gotta Knit. There were six students in the class: five women between the ages of forty-five and fifty-five and me. On the first night the teacher, a young woman named Mindy, put six balls of acrylic yarn on the table and told each of us to pick one. Five of the balls were pink and one was purple; I wanted the purple ball of yarn more than I ever wanted anything in my life, including the time I was at a charity auction and lost a bidding war for an autographed photo of Ralph Macchio and snuck in during dinner and stole it and left cash on the table to match the winning bid. But in Gotta Knit I held back out of politeness and somebody else swooped in and pounced on the purple ball, leaving me with one of the dumb pink ones just like everybody else. My immediate impulse was to push my rival out the window, but I did not want to go to prison—the uniform would almost certainly not be in my colors—so instead I seethed with rage and imagined clawing her eyes out or sending her anthrax in the mail.
Mindy explained the basics and before long we were all knitting miniature sweaters furiously. Or at least I was knitting furiously; I have no idea what emotional state suffused the others, but I wanted to win. I wanted to crush the yarn; I wanted to beat it into submission.
Soon enough, however, my hands began to feel that familiar, excruciating tightness and I knew I would be unable to continue if I didn't find a way to relieve it. When I asked Mindy for help, she bent over, performed a piece of prestidigitation I couldn’t follow at all, and lo and behold! the yarn was wrapped around my fingers in a different direction.
“Your hands should stop hurting now,” she said, “and your stitches will also be a lot looser.” The agony spiking through my palms subsided almost right away, and the piece became much easier to work with, weaving effortlessly around itself.
Mindy asked us why we were taking the class. I opened my mouth to speak, but “My boyfriend just broke up with me and I need something to do with my hands other than Google him obsessively” seemed too revealing, so instead I muttered something about always having wanted to learn but never having had the opportunity.
“My mother taught me how, forty years ago, but I forgot,” said one of the other class members.
“My mother wouldn't teach me,” replied another. “She said there were more useful things for a girl to learn.”
“You, too? Mine said she was going to teach me but she never got around to it.”
“My mother didn't knit at all, and I was so jealous of Sally Pierce next door, because her mother taught her how. So I finally decided to do something about it.”
We all turned to the last woman, the bitch who had stolen my purple yarn, to see what she would tell us about her mother. “My boyfriend just broke up with me,” she said, “and I need something to do with my hands other than Google him obsessively.” I dropped my next five stitches and it took Mindy twenty minutes to show me how to pick them up again.
My mother did not knit. She did not quilt, or crochet, or needlepoint; crafts of all kinds were anathema to her. I took a different attitude, at least in my formative years. At some point in my childhood I came home from school with a birthday present I'd made for her, a mobile from which I had hung stuffed misshapen felt hearts in every color of the rainbow. I would have stitched her a sampler that said YOUR SON WILL GROW UP TO KNOW ALL THE WORDS TO “IT'S RAINING MEN,” but I had yet to discover disco, so the stuffed hearts were the best I could do. If she was unsettled by the gift she didn't show it; it dangled brightly in an upstairs window for months.
However, though she disdained handiwork, my mother was nevertheless a whiz, when circumstances required, with the more consistent sewing machine. At the age of eight I was cast as Helios, the sun, in my school's musical retelling of the myth of Persephone. I got home from practice one day to find my mother smoking, her brow wrinkled in concern as she read the sheet of paper upon which were written the school's costume instructions. She did not show me the instructions but they doubtless called for bedsheets and flip-flops. “I don't know exactly what they mean by this,” she said, which meant “These people are morons and should be put down like dogs; I'd shoot them myself but I have more important things to do with my time.” Then she threw the instructions away, went to her Singer, and actually made me a costume out of gold lamé.
It was in this costume, complete with laurels of gold tinsel—what was she thinking?—that I sang to Demeter, played by our music teacher, about her daughter’s dark and chthonic fate. After the curtain call my mother hugged me and my little brother (who had played Hades’ gardener) and told us how proud she was and took us out for ice cream. In between spoonfuls of Rocky Road I asked her the question that had stumped me at school during recess earlier in the day. “Would you rather,” I said, “go blind or deaf?”
After a few moments' thought she said, “It would be really hard not to be able to see anything, but I’d rather go blind, because if I went deaf I would never be able to hear my children’s voices again.”
Would that I had understood the gift I was being given.
At the end of the first class at Gotta Knit, we had all made good progress on our miniature sweaters. I went home and by the next afternoon I had finished all the pieces, including the front with the difficult low–cut neck. The following morning I waited outside the store for two hours until it opened and then I bought needles and yarn to knit my friend Rob a scarf in a reverse rib pattern with a deliciously soft blue-green alpaca.
The class lasted for another three weeks. There are essentially only two stitches in knitting, however—knit and purl, each of which is more or less the reverse of the other—and so the remaining sessions were devoted to the myriad ways in which these two stitches can be manipulated. I learned increasing, decreasing, ribbing, and cabling. I also learned to say things like “a deliciously soft blue-green alpaca.” I began to shop for yarn as if I were at a wine tasting. “This yarn has supercilious undertones, masked by a patina of enthusiasm,” I would say to the woman behind the counter. “This yarn is $10.95 a ball,” she would reply.
Rob's scarf reached its full six-foot length in a matter of days, and I was hooked. I started knitting everywhere. I knitted on the subway. I knitted at my job. I knitted during the sermon in church.
It is not, of course, Jewish custom to attend church, but I needed the money. In New York, as in many other large metropolitan areas, church choirs tend to be made up not of parishioners but of professional singers, irrespective of faith, so as to ensure the high quality of the music. I've worked at a number of New York churches; at the time I learned to knit I was singing at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Times Square, known around town as Smoky Mary's because of all the incense. I was thrilled to get a job there, not just because Smoky Mary's has no acoustic peer in the Western Hemisphere, but also because the congregation has historically been composed almost exclusively of men who know the difference between beige and taupe. This is the church at which Tallulah Bankhead is reputed to have caught the attention of the thurifer as he walked down the aisle swinging the censer and said, “Darling, I love your dress, but your purse is on fire.”
The most exciting thing about singing at St. Mary's, however, was that the choir sat above and behind the congregation, which meant that nobody could see us. And so, when we weren't singing, we were doing the crossword, flirting shamelessly with one another—at least the tenors and basses were—and, now, knitting. Whoever invented the phrase "preaching to the choir" clearly had no idea what goes on when the antiphon is over and the music folders come down. The choristers at Smoky Mary's were abetted in our delinquency by the sound system, which consisted essentially of tin cans connected by dental floss, so that we could never hear anything the priests down below were saying. It's certainly possible that the sermons preached at St. Mary's would have uplifted my spirit and saved my soul had I been able to hear them, but after five minutes of intense, strained focus at my first Sunday-morning service there, I decided that blissful ignorance was preferable to an inner ear injury, and (since I had not yet learned to knit) opened Mansfield Park.
The music was a different matter. The walls of Smoky Mary's are made of stone instead of concrete, so sound bounces off them and comes back twice as rich and clear—and then hits the opposite walls and reaches the congregation’s ears quadruply refined. Singing in that room is as effortless as breathing; you open your mouth and your voice pours out like water from a jar. Even the worst music becomes beautiful in that space, and the best can fill you with the desire for what is known in Hebrew as tikkun olam, the healing of the world. “As truly as God is our Father,” we sang one Sunday in a gorgeous setting of a text by fourteenth–century mystic Julian of Norwich, “so just as truly is He our Mother. In our Father, God Almighty, we have our being; in our merciful Mother we are remade and restored. Our fragmented lives are knit together, and by giving and yielding ourselves, through grace, to the Holy Spirit, we are made whole.” And then the echo died, and the priest started muttering, “Umpho flumpish klizmar,” and I picked up my size–eight needles.
In our merciful Mother we are remade and restored? I thought as I went back to my first attempt at working in two colors. Our fragmented lives are knit together? Their god may be a lie, but if he's a cross-dresser with good hobbies he can't be all bad.
It was around the time I began my first hat that people started speaking to me on the subway. People had been speaking about me on the subway from the moment I first pulled out my yarn on the uptown A train, and I loved it. There is no joy quite like that of hearing people whisper, "What's he knitting, it's so complicated, I used to be able to crochet but I would never have the patience to do something like that" in the hushed tones ordinarily reserved for apparitions of the Virgin Mary in food. But being spoken to turned out to be an almost invariably unpleasant proposition. No matter how mellifluous the voice that asked, "What are you knitting?" when I looked up I was bound to see someone either wearing a funny beret decorated with plastic flowers or carrying a portfolio brimming with tattered, close-written proofs of the two-shooter theory.
On the crosstown bus one evening a boy of eight or nine leaned forward and spoke to me from across the aisle. "What are you knitting?" he piped.
In addition to dreading that question, I also hate children. One would think that these two facts in combination should have inspired me on this cold December night to a stony silence, but I was feeling generous. "A baby blanket," I answered condescendingly, glad to be able to broaden the waif's horizons.
He sat back in his seat. "I just finished a scarf," he said primly, "in fisherman's rib. Now I'm working on a Fair Isle sweater, but I have to hurry if I'm going to finish it in time for Christmas."
Once I recovered my equilibrium, I responded. "That sounds terrific. Good luck."
What I wanted to say was, "Does your mother know how gay you are?"
From the Hardcover edition.