Thoughts at the 100th Row

I have been absorbed the past couple of weeks in teaching myself to knit, and I’ve completed my first 100 rows of what I hope will be a wrap or a wide scarf - a simple sheet of fabric in the stockinette stitch (knit one row, turn and purl the next row), which I learned from a book and from the Knit Lab class at My fingers feel awkward (knitting is the epitome of multi-tasking - like washing dishes with one hand and dialing the phone with the other), and rather than fly across the rows, I must concentrate - looking down at my fingers for each stitch, each movement and tell them what to do - where to put the yarn, cross over here, dip the needle, tuck out from the old stitch to transfer the new. Repeat.

I love being a beginner at something. That might sound crazy because in general, being a beginner at anything kind of sucks. Your creations don’t live up to your vision. You make a ton of silly mistakes. You go painfully slowly and everything feels awkward, purposeless, hard.  I’m reminded of this quote by Ira Glass:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

Ira Glass

So you might still be in the sucky phase of whatever it is you just began. I know I kind of am. I have 100 whole rows of knitting under my belt. But being a beginner also carries the excitement of making something for the very first time. The first time at success as a beginner makes you feel like running laps in your livingroom, arms overhead, singing Eye of the Tiger, or whatever it is the kids sing these days. Because you are awesome! You began, and you had some success! YES!

And I love being a beginner mostly because it puts me in the place of my students. As a teacher (not of knitting, thankfully!), it has been a long time since I first picked up mouse and Wacom pen and opened Photoshop to start figuring it out. So that newness, that awkwardness, that difficulty has passed and I’ve moved on to other challenges (this is important: after the beginner phase you just move on to other challenges - it never really does get easier). I’ve forgotten that hands-in-the-air magic of success at something I’ve been trying for the first time, and I think there is nothing more important that a teacher can do than to go be a beginner at something. Remember what it was like when it was hard and painful and awkward to make any movement at all. It keeps us humble, and connects us back to our students, who are sitting in our classes feeling the same way.

Back to the knitting. 100 rows in means I’ve put in more than 6000 stitches, and I’m getting faster. Now the synapses are firing a little bit, so I don’t have to use words when I mentally talk to my fingers. I just have to nudge them - but I still have to nudge them. In here, over with the yarn. Out here. Yesterday Jared took the kids to swimming lessons and rather than sleep or work or play a game on my iPad, I knitted, watching as the shadows lengthened into darkness out my front window, listening to the birds chirping in the trees and the stillness. In here. Over with the yarn. Out here. Repeat. Peaceful.

At 100 rows I have a sheet of fabric about 10 inches tall, and I have stopped many times to run my fingers over the marvel that looks like real knitting. I can’t believe my eyes. I followed directions, and they worked. Cue Eye of the Tiger. Laps in the living room.

At 100 rows I’m learning that tension, just like in life, needs to be kept in balance. Wound too tightly and the fabric can pucker and the stitches go uneven. Wound too loosely and things fall apart. And tension is something you have to control with every single stitch. Every single moment. Let things get in the way of the rhythm and clunkety-clunk down the hill, you find yourself sobbing your face off on the floor of your bedroom. (In knitting, I hope I never get to the last one. Let’s all just hope.) So far I’m at peace with the knitting. I love the rhythm, awkward as it may still be for me. I love half a mind on what the hands are doing, and the other half roving over life, remembering, planning, hoping, but all from behind the needles.

So tell me: what have you begun lately?