"So, what's your dinner story?" my older daughter asked me, after she and her sister had shared the excitement and joy of their day. Blank. I was totally blank. After 11 years of suburban life, I was suddenly, finally, completely speechless. Me, the native New Yorker who couldn't go to the corner deli and back without three stories. Blank. Totally blank. And that's about when it happened. When I found the long-lost list full of things I long-ago wanted to do in life. And this is what happened next.
“It’s not the flying you have to worry about,” my friend Chip says, at the edge of the school playground where our fourth-graders are playing. “It’s the crash landings.”
“Thanks,” I answer, now having yet something more to feed my intense fear of ballooning.
At least I have until October, which is really a lifetime away. It isn’t even January yet and I have already plotted out the year—matching up actions from The List with each month in 2005, and even, in true Virgo style, starting research on most of them.
The List. I found the list about a month ago, somehow, between shuttling my kids to karate and chorus, trying to keep the house clean and food on the table, running a writing studio, staying up to date—and dates—with my husband, and squeezing in exercise a few times a week. The List was the last thing I had time for.
Yet…Number seven: Quit corporate America. I had done that, not long after I wrote the list, in fact, in that Masters-level communications class at Georgia State University exactly eleven years ago, when I was thirty. The assignment was “100 Things I Want to Do in Life.” I got an A.
But, in reality, how far had I progressed through it? Number 16: Cheer my husband at his law school graduation. Yes, I’d done that, too. Number 23: Celebrate my children’s birthdays. Yes and yes—for both of them. Number 24: Win a Pulitzer Prize. Well, no. Ditto for Number 26, which is win an Academy Award for Best Screenplay. Number 33: Live abroad. I don’t even like to fly anymore. Not since 9/11. Number 36: Spend time on a kibbutz. See number 33, please. Number 52: Meet my former friend at 9 West 57th Street on 9/9/99 as we agreed when we were eighteen. Yes, we did that, and I’m happy to report that she is back to being one of my best friends. Number 91: Ride a camel. Not yet.
And many other not-yets. Many other not-on-your-lifes. And a handful of well-why-nots? And so now I’m doing it. I’m committing a year to knocking off a dozen or so of the things on The List. And to make it interesting, I chose some things I really don’t want to do. Like Number 40: Study cheese. Huh? Who cares? Number 41: See all the original Star Trek episodes. My husband has been trying to get me to do that for fifteen years and I’ve never budged. Why now? Number 5: Learn the Entertainer on the piano. You know, da da da DAAA, da DAAA, da DAAA …the theme song from The Sting? To date, all I can play on the piano is a very bad rendition of an Irish jig. Number 65: Read Mark Twain’s complete works. Huck, Tom and the celebrated jumping frog of Calaveras County, here I come.
And, of course, Number 6: Go hot-air ballooning at sunrise, followed by coffee and chocolate honey-dipped Dunkin’ Donuts. That’s what it says, and the rule is that I have to do exactly what it says. I’m dreading that one. Although my friend, Brad, gave his elderly mother a gift certificate for a balloon ride three years ago and she admitted that she’s afraid to go. So he’s selling me space in the basket, “a timeshare of sorts,” he said, and I’m planning on going ballooning with Mrs. Catherman, a woman I’ve never met. Although my husband, the lawyer, says Brad ought to be paying me since without me, his gift would just go to waste. We’ll have to work that one out.
I wonder: Would doing any of these things make a difference in my life? Would they teach me any important lessons, or propel me in a new direction that I didn’t realize was an option? Would they make me rich, or at least enrich me with experience? To ensure they didn’t make me broke, I give myself a budget of 100 dollars a month, maximum, for the various lessons, materials and whatnot. Plus, I publicly commit to the project, telling friends and family what I am planning on doing—a sure way to set myself up for success. Or failure.
First, the afghan. I have a knitting lesson January 5th at a cabin in the woods where a lady named Kathleen tends sheep and sells yarn. She tells me to bring number 8 needles, which is not to be confused with any number from The List, and a skein—pronounced skane, apparently—of yarn. She says there’s no way of knowing whether I’ll like knitting until I try. I answer that it doesn’t matter whether or not I like it. It is on The List. She suggests I can always just make a doll’s afghan and that would count. I tell her I don’t think I should be looking for loopholes so early in the game. “So come and I’ll show you how to do a basic stitch and how to cast on,” she says, clearly realizing that any other attempt at reason is futile. Cast on. I’m about to cast on. Come join me on the journey and we’ll see where it goes.
You Have to Watch Your Tension
I head north on State Route 400 in just ten short minutes. If I go right, I hit the mall and miles of strip centers with every super sized box store known to America, but I don’t. I go left and come to the quaint, small downtown of Alpharetta, Georgia—the center of an area that was formerly the largest horse country outside of Kentucky.
The somehow miraculously preserved brick-lined blocks of antique shops belie their location in the shadow of multi-million dollar subdivisions and unbridled sprawl. Just five minutes more, after passing mansions in perfectly manicured neighborhoods with names taken from the farms that were razed to build them, I see the sign for which I’m searching: “Hidden Haven Farm.”
Not a subdivision at all, but a real, live working farm. And yes, it is hidden. Behind huge. Iron gates. All I see are trees and a twirling, twisting road, covered with fog from the light falling rain. I enter slowly, the words, “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderly again” from the classic novel, Rebecca, unavoidable under my breath.
I see the sheep frolicking in a field, and then the sign for the knitting store, in a converted outbuilding. I park the car and stand there in the rain. The door to the knitting store is locked, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t want to go in anyway. I just want to stand there and take this all in. The barns. The trees. The fields. The gorgeous stucco house with a Jacuzzi in a sunroom and the deck overlooking a creek. Who has managed to build this life?
And then I meet her. Kathleen. She’s about my age, 41, which surprises me. Wasn’t she supposed to be a nice knitting grandmother? Kathleen is beautiful in that no-makeup way that I love. Her face is angular and filled with expression, and she talks a lot. I’m here to learn to knit, but I ask as many other questions as she’ll answer: Where did you grow up? How did you get into this? How long have you lived here? How many farms are left? How many people are in your knitting guild? I am fascinated that such a life exists so close to mine.
Her hands whir as her knitting needles clickety clack. She never misses a beat or drops a stitch as she shows me what to do.
“You’ll start with a scarf,” she orders, but I know I won’t. I know it’s the afghan or nothing.
“You’ll probably rip out the first few hours of yarn you knit,” she says, but I know I won’t.
There’s no going back and starting again for me. This is it. This is the beginning. And the only way to go from here is forward. Mistakes are part of life, I realize I have somehow come to accept, and I know I have no intention of trying to undo them.
“But let me tell you the most important thing,” she says, leaning closer. The secret of knitting. Yes, this is why I’m here. This is why I didn’t simply ask a friend to teach me or go to that new little knitting shop walking distance from my home.
“Your tension,” she practically whispers. “You have to watch your tension.”
She, of course, is talking about how tightly you pull the yarn when you knit each stitch, the goal being to have a consistent tightness throughout. However, I almost laugh out loud. She doesn’t know that, completely separate from The List, I started practicing yoga just a month or two ago. I’ve been driving my family crazy with my tree pose and eagle pose and alternate nostril breathing. I have even been coercing my two daughters into starting each day with a sun salutation. The last thing I worry about lately is tension. I
I start to knit. It is awkward at first. I choose to knit right-handed although I’m a lefty because Kathleen says if I want to go on with knitting, all the patterns are written for righties. For just a brief moment, I entertain the thought of going on with it. Amidst the sheep, overlooking the creek, I think that might actually be a possibility. And so, for just a brief moment, I am involved with something bigger than the afghan. I am connected with generations of women who have sat before me with yarn between their fingers and stitched together their lives. Yes, I am now a knitter, and somehow, I am about to stitch together the discoveries of this year. And yes, I can see that my tension is, indeed, good.
Two weeks later, I join my 38-year-old friend Julie at her chemotherapy session. Unbeknownst to each other, we have both just learned to knit. We sit together, talk and knit for four hours straight. I stitch her quiet strength and beauty into my afghan and realize what a gift I have given myself by learning to do this. I have discovered the Zen of Knitting.
Read Part II