It's been awhile since I last sat down to talk with friends.....has to do in part with the arrival of page proofs for my new book (it may well kill me to get it through the page-proofs stage), but also with the visit of the wonderful Sally Melville, with her fabulous workshops and dinner-time presentation in downtown Farmington. Both Larry and I, not to mention Sharon, Ellen, Nick, and the courageous server (the very pregnant Emily, who works for Cowley's Restaurant), loved every minute of it AND dropped in our tracks for two days afterward.
And then came the 24-hour coverage of Pope Francis, and soon (October 6) comes my 71st birthday, which is just plain unbelievable and also a bit scary. These things have converged in my mind. So let me try to sort it all out.
Sally's wonderful talk over dinner, a week ago today, was about working with one's hands -- the way such things heal, offset the horrors and pace of modern life (the stress, the illnesses borne of stress, the ugliness and violence on all sides, the brain's ability to pass on to the body such worries and dark messages). These things have been proved scientifically. I have long thought, after hearing some of Sally's ruminations a number of years ago, that the resurgence of handknitting, crochet, weaving, and other fiber arts has to do with exactly that -- a need to be PRESENT in our own lives, in the world of quiet and reflection and human-paced activity. The need to exist without worry or dread in the privacy of our own bodies -- perhaps in the company of others, but often in our own best company.
Once upon a time, I was a church organist -- began to do such things at about age 12 in Worthington, Minnesota, after having spent 8 years to that point in piano and then organ instruction. My teacher for the piano was a lovely fellow, Prof. J. Earl Lee, at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota -- where we had lived for quite a while until we moved to Worthington. My mother bravely drove me to Sioux Falls once a week for years -- until everyone decided that my hands were never going to sprout fingers long enough to reach 12 keys. You need long, skinny fingers to master, say, the Russian repertoire. So I fell back into church work and private lessons -- in Worthington at St. John's Episcopal Church and then, later, in West St. Paul, Minnesota, at Ascension Episcopal Church, where I finally got to play a pipe organ. I did that until my late 20s, after leaving graduate school for my first professional job at the United States Supreme Court (a documentary editor). I played that organ, in fact, for my father's funeral and, later, my mother's. It was one way to say goodbye, very quietly, sitting on a hard, wooden bench all by myself in an organ loft. In retrospect, I can see that I was also giving something away, but at the time, one doesn't see that.
So, when I listen to Francis, it's only a hop-skip-jump to those early days in the Episcopal Church, which is still in many ways the Roman church done up in English and without celibate priests. The music, the liturgy, the seductive power of ritual, are present just as surely as in Rome's St. Peter's Basilica or the Sistine Chapel -- or, in this case, the New World's Cathedral of Peter and Paul, where Francis spoke so very quietly and brilliantly of the human being's need to sit down, be quiet, help others, connect across lines of artificial division.
Francis speaks of our power to heal one another. He urges us to find our own way, but to undertake such a thing even when it's difficult. We do damage each and every day -- with the ratrace, the incessant looking at clocks, the violence in so many parts of life (competition with one another for no good reason at all -- as with the bizarre competition between yarn shops), rhetorical meanness and spitefulness and savaging. My mother, Gladyce, once said that it was always easier to be nice than to be horrible to one another. Why do we not pay attention? And why -- this is one major point, I guess -- why do I think first of Elaine Clark when I think of my mother's words?
So let's all stop for a minute and ask why we are flailing through life like one-woman (one-man) demolition teams. Where is the JOY? When did joy become something we gave or experienced only at the moment of marriage, at passing the bar, at finding the perfect new coat or shoes? How about at moments of forgiveness? And how do our hands and handiwork advance the search for peace -- the search for alternatives to violence, dehumanization, the computers' tendency to put the mind elsewhere, no longer in the present?
Go to your local yarn shop. Gather some friends when you do it. Speak only of joy-inducing things when you knit or crochet with them. Make something for someone who has nothing. Think of it as an homage to Sally. Or to Francis. Or to Elaine. Or perhaps to my mother, Gladyce Bessie, who was the best person I've ever known. If only she had lived forever. Pick the one you want to memorialize, or come up with your own.... but don't fail to sit down soon and simply be mindful, present in your world, aware of the small joys that can be found every day, if we slow down and look for them. In an E. M. Forster novel, there is a two-word chapter: "Only connect." That's the message, I guess. I apologize for using so many words to say such a small thing.