A tale of two needles

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"Madame Defarge took up her knitting with great apparent calmness and repose of spirit...."

Long before I read "A Tale of Two Cities" by Dickens, I noticed that my mother knit like a maniac, a calm maniac. Unlike my mother, Madame Defarge wasn't knitting any baby sweater. Her stitches recorded in code the names of enemies of the French Revolution. That's knitting with a vengeance.

As disloyal as it is to refer to my mother and Madame Defarge with the same pronoun, they both knew what they were doing. In parking lots outside school gyms, or on the bleachers before basketball games, my mother sat and knitted, and, as our behavior dictated, either reprimanded us without looking up from her pattern, or knit without taking her eyes off of us.

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Her face was calm, but there was intensity in the way her fingers darted about the needles. I suspect that if I could decipher my mother's stitches, I'd see evidence enough to incriminate our entire family for one thing or another.

When I was a new mother, I anticipated my son's nap times with determination. Every afternoon I was sure I could read volumes, make phone calls, plan the vacation we kept putting off, do the dishes, work on a paper for grad school, take a nap, knit, and relax.

Eventually, I realized that I would never be as productive as my crazed self had hoped. But by then I could only collapse on the couch with my knitting as my son played on the floor, and fantasize that I could knit, read, and eat Cherry Garcia ice cream at the same time.

Knitting has been essential to me ever since I became a mother, precisely because, while I'm knitting, I am doing more than one thing. I'm knitting, and I'm sitting, and I'm paying just enough attention to my kids so that I'm not guilty of neglect. It sounds deceptively simple.

When I am stuck in a waiting room, or locked in a carpool line, or trapped watching something insipid on TV with my children, I might look glum. But as long as I have my knitting with me, I am more likely gleeful.

I am supposedly wasting my time in those situations, yet for every row I finish, I snatch pleasure and satisfaction for myself.

The knitting puts up a small but substantial barricade between me and the rest of the world. I'm available to my children in some ways while I knit, but my kids respect the act of knitting more than they seem to respect me.

Without the knitting, I'd just be sitting, and to far too many people's way of thinking, that means I should be doing something for them.

Pretending to be absorbed in my knitting takes the edge off interacting with certain other people, too. When a houseguest says for the 10th time that the frozen corn I boiled was marvelous, instead of bursting out with, "It was frozen corn, for goodness' sake!" I tighten my grip on my needles and grimace meaningfully at my last few stitches, pretending I've just made a mistake.

If the pattern isn't too taxing, and if there are no distractions while I'm knitting, I can sometimes enter a fluid state of thinking that is superior to my usual clunky, solid state of mind. I replay conversations I've had, confront people I should have confronted, and visualize cartoons I wish I could draw.

Of course, I keep knitting, so whatever inspirations I've had are usually lost. The world can live with that, but many a solipsistic stream of consciousness notwithstanding, I do sometimes wish that I had Madame Defarge's ability to make the stitches I knit record what I'm thinking.

It might be dangerous, though. I'm not a warm, fuzzy woman; I rely on my knitting to be warm and fuzzy for me. When I give something I've knitted to friends and relatives, there's genuine affection knitted into the baby sweater or hat or Christmas stocking, but I'm concerned that my thoughts would still betray me if anyone could decipher my knitting:

It's so fun to whip something up so fast for your cute little baby, and I wish I had a little one right now, though I don't relish the thought of having a toddler as fussy as yours.... Why did you have to name her that? Do you have any idea how hard that's going to be to fit on a Christmas stocking? .... I can't believe I said I'd knit these hats for the school auction. That insufferable woman got one last year for a dollar....

At least I'm the only person my knitting incriminates.

Perhaps on a smaller scale, I appear generous and friendly when actually I've knit with mixed emotions.

Such is knitting. C'est la vie.

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