Stitch by stitch: thoughts on grief and hope

Five years ago, in the first winter of our relationship, I knit my lover a pair of mittens.

They were perfect.

I bought the wool, hand-spun, from a vendor at our Farmer’s Market on Broadway in New York City. It was a blustery October day, and I bought more of that grey yarn than I needed. And so began the meticulous process of crafting something for the one you love: Edging the gloves with a simple ribbing, two by two. Making them fingerless, with a top that flipped down. Fastening on antique leather buttons. Inside one of the flaps, I sewed a tag, upon which was neatly printed, “Handmade by Alison J. Killeen.”

He loved them, and even better, he used them. Over the years, predictably, they began to wear. The neat little slit in the thumbs, meant for texting and for pulling out his metro card, was the first to go. And so I unraveled the tops of the thumbs and re-knit them, reinforcing them with a stronger thread. But it was an impermanent solution. The palms wore thin, first from grasping at railings on the train, and later, the steering wheel of the car. Moths munched on their edges while they sat idle in summer. Last winter, they found their final days as the thumb slits tore again and unraveled before I took care to mend them, my lover’s triangle-tipped thumbs exposed to the cold.

This fall, five years later, using what was left of the hardy grey wool, I knit him a second pair of mittens, almost identical to the first. Perhaps it was sentimental, but before we discarded them, we held a little ritual for the first pair in our kitchen. I held the mittens in my hands, and my lover held my hands in his. Together, we spoke of the warmth they had provided to the wearer, of what objects they had held between their palms, of all the coffee spills they had endured. As we examined the wear and tear the years had brought to these woolen miracles, they began to whisper of all that has lapsed since we first found one another.

It seems to me that time passes so illegibly. Despite our best attempts to keep things just as they are, in the end, we are helpless to the powers of the universe: to gravity, to change, to chaos, to love.

Most years in November I settle in for the long winter, reveling in my double-pointed needles and indigo-blue dusks. I cut the nights with candlelight, quell the snow with stardust, calm the cold with steaming hot tea.

But this year has been different. This year not only have the nights been long, but my heart is long as well, stretched low as an anchor grazing the bottom of the sea. For whatever reason, though no one close to me has been in danger, I am feeling the losses around me more keenly. A friend’s husband dies, then another, and another. Yet another friend’s mother is slowly losing her battle with cancer. A loved one struggles with addiction. Relationships around me disintegrate and break. And the dark blue night thickens, exposing a bruised and ashen world.

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via New York Times

Then last Friday, in Newtown, Connecticut, a gunman overtook sweet Sandy Hook Elementary School, and like the rest of the country I am blindsided. I am struck dumb by the absence of mercy, by the presence of carnage, by the hot iron of an expired rifle, the tiny bodies riddled with bullets, the silence and the sobs, the blood, the innocence, the flesh, the grief.

Time trods on. The night expands. A star moves across the deep. Our hearts break, our worlds implode, and we are left to ask: what will come of this?

Part of the pain of tragedy is the need we humans have to seek out the meaning in suffering. As one who finds little existential comfort in “eternal life”, I look for a way to make meaning of what is happening in the here and the now. Even a father who believes his child will live on in paradise might not be comforted by his belief. The child is still gone, and he is still left to sift through what to make of a world in which 20-year-old men kill six-year-old girls, and nineteen other children, besides.

In the face of such tragedy, even hope at times is too much to ask. It is too much to petition grief to turn about so sharply, to reverse the path of mourning, to wait for hope, to hope for life.

No, I want mending of a more earthly kind. As a knitter darns a tear, as a physician sutures a wound, so must we go about the process of grief. Slowly and methodically we go, taking care to don the thimble and pin the fabric. Perhaps we set down our work for a time and come back another day. Perhaps we rip it out and start again. We work, knowing our piece will never be as whole as it was when it was new. We work, knowing that it will be prone to tearing again, even in the same spot in which we mend. But the thread and needle must keep working, ever tenderly, slowly onwards, if our hearts are ever to beat again.

The deepest, bluest night of the year is but days away. With the winter solstice will come the shifting of our planet’s tilt, a change so incremental we will hardly notice it, but it will be massive in its power. Such a tiny step lengthens the day by mere minutes, but it has the power to alter the seasons, to melt ice and ignite fire, turn branch to leaf, seed to sprout. Yes, we will hardly notice it. But its shift will lay the groundwork for our whole world to change.

I don’t know how the parents and children of Newtown will fare in the coming days and years, and what awaits our country in the coming months is yet to be seen. What I do know is that our first task must be to tend to our grief, for by threading the needle, by tilting a twirling planet, we act out our trust that hope will return to us one day. Perhaps hope is found just in putting down that very first stitch.

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