Wednesday, March 21, 2007

By the book....

Somewhat belatedly, here is my inaugural entry in the Read Your Stash Project .

Before I was an obsessive knitter, I was an obsessive reader. That tapered off a bit when I didn't have a commute. I lived walking distance from my office, and somehow, it didn't seem wise to wander through the Tenderloin and the Financial District with my nose in a book. The former might get my ass kicked, the latter would annoy all the other Fi-Di denizens because I would be in their way. Either could get me hit by a car.

Since I moved to the suburbs and acquired a really quite lovely commute on Caltrain, reading has been back on the agenda. Usually something light and funny, but occasionally I crave something more serious. On my current reading list is Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset. This classic medieval romance was written in 1928, and earned Ms. Undset the Nobel Prize for literature. It is also the first serious work I have fully committed to since finishing The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie two years ago.

The Moor's Last Sigh took a lot out of me. It gave me something, too, but reading it was such a tremendously emotional experience that upon finishing it, I cried good and hard for a solid 30 minutes. It is at once the saddest, most affirming, most vivid and most wonderful thing I have ever read. I think on some level I will never read anything that perfect ever again. It is a difficult thing for any other book to live up to.

After that, I re-read some old favorites, picked up a few authors I hadn't read before (Carl Hiaasen became a favorite), and occasionally tried something serious again, only to put it down after a few pages.

Knitting sometimes works that way for me, too. I commit to something large, time consuming, and/or complicated and spend about 90% of my knitting energies on it until it is done. After that, I alternate among some smaller, simpler projects, with perhaps a mediumish project in the background. At some point, the urge for something on a grander scale kicks in, and the cycle starts anew. It is a shorter cycle, I think, than for books, as I knit a lot more than I read most of the time.

But I have digressed. One of the things that strikes me about Kristin Lavransdatter is the time period in which it is set. Kristin lives in the 14th century in Scandinavia, a time period in which everything was made by hand, and in a place that has given us some of knitting's most treasured classics. Kristin actually doesn't knit (at least not so far), but she, along with her mother and sisters, spins and weaves. The cloth they make marks the significant moments in their lives (a wedding dress for Kristin, her trousseau, swaddling cloths) and is a part of their daily lives as well (bedding, tablecloths, everyday clothing).

For most of the people in the world today, the things we make are not a necessity of every day life -- not in the sense of "if we don't make it, we won't have clothes." In fact, crafting has become somewhat of a luxury, whether that luxury is time, money for supplies, a wealth of options from which to choose, or a combination of these. Happily, handmade things do still mark the significant occasions in our lives. Weddings and babies are both heralded with what most of us would consider our greatest masterpieces (wedding ring shawl, anyone?) and sweetest whimsies (like the watermelon hat I recently made for a friend's baby shower).

The act of making these things, however, might have an element of necessity, in the sense that this act gives us something adaptive and useful that we otherwise might not have. It gives us patience waiting in line, it gives us solace when we are too overwrought to read or listen to music. It puts us in touch with something traditional and handmade in a world that is increasingly detached from tradition and focused on mass production. Perhaps in this last way, making something by hand is a revolutionary act. How many of you have been knitting, crocheting, or cross-stitching in public, and encounter someone observing you who seems a completely shocked?

For me, the solace of crafting (in my case, knitting) has a particular relevance. At its most mundane level, it is something that helps me calm down when I am anxious, or feel better when I am upset. One time, it was a necessity for me. I was at work one morning last summer, when I got a call from my mom. It was a call I had been dreading for weeks, as my grandpa had been in the hospital with cancer for some time. She gave me the news we had all feared, that he had died, and then we hung up. I was literally incapable of speaking through the sobs, so I instant-messaged my boss to tell him I needed to leave.

On the train home, my book was useless. It may as well have been written in hieroglyphics, for all I was able to read of it. I had, however, been knitting my first-ever sock during my commute, and that is what I reached for when I needed something, anything, to keep my eyes downward and the tears at bay until I got home.

Reading Kristin Lavransdatter, I wonder if Kristin finds solace in her work. If spinning, for example, produces something her family needs, as well as gives her solace for her troubles. Ms. Undset does not really say. Kristin seeks solace in her faith, more than anything else. She is pious, and her faith is demanding. It requires obedience, atonement, and self-examination, which seem to add sometimes to Kristin's inner turmoil. Spinning and knitting, even with their occasional snarls and tangles and dropped stitches somehow avoid causing more troubles for the troubled. They soothe by giving the troubled person something external to focus on.


Sarah said...

Sounds like a really interesting read -- and I definitely know what you mean about having to take a breather between "heavier" reads. Some books just take too much out of you -- and give you too much -- it just takes a while before you can fully digest them and move on to the next.

Faith! said...

This is a wonderful post- I felt really fulfilled after reading it. What a treat!