KaBooM WritersKaBooM Writers

Welcome to the online presence of KaBooM, a writing group that has sustained the creative lives of a diverse group of women for over a decade. We hope that getting to know us will inspire you, too!Welcome to the online presence of KaBooM, a writing group that has sustained the creative lives of a diverse group of women for over a decade. We hope that getting to know us will inspire you, too!

Welcome to the online presence of KaBooM, a writing group that has sustained the creative lives of a diverse group of women for over a decade. We hope that getting to know us will inspire you, too!


The KaBooM Writers Notebook: Our Blog

Solitaire, Trolleys, and an Artist’s Way

Solitaire

Solitaire

I am not quick.

The air is cool.

A free-write begins.  A list of words shared: quick cool trolley solitaire Paradise . . ..  Four women at a table at Third Street Stuff, in Lexington, Kentucky.  Concrete trucks outside the plate glass window.  A utility ditch being filled.  The street loud with its repair.

No more trolleys

move us past the city’s

edge into seas of grass.

And who whitewashes

anything now, as we did

the chicken house that summer?

Paradise long afternoons

of solitaire—three of us

on Grandma’s bed,

cards tilting off columns.  Each of us quiet. Only the slip and slap of 8 on 9 or Jack on Queen, and later the cool side porch, its concrete smooth and gray, our paints and brushes laid out, Paint-by-Number making us feel like real artists.

What makes me feel like a real artist now, decades later? The time to lose myself in a page, slow sketching or seeing all at once the way sentences fit into a shapely whole, the possible poem inside a scribble. More than what I’ve published or where I’ve taught, what assures me all is well with my artist self is making something.  The never certain motion of pen across the page, picking up speed as I go.

If we weren’t so hard on ourselves, wouldn’t it be easier? Unforced as those hours with the shades drawn, the whir of a fan, turning the cards over and over until something fits.  Okay with losing the game – expecting to lose more often than win in the rhythm of our pattern-making, the order art makes, the way a shadow (the darker brown in our paint-by-number horse’s face) lets us see its rounded eye, the angle of the emerging equine cheek.

These summer days gone – 1956, -57, -59, -60 – stay in me somewhere, breathe with the slow exhale of times when the world was in place and I fit there, 7 always landing under an 8.  Nothing perfect or even okay much of the time. Everyone, even then, torn by grief. The air in those quiet rooms sometimes caught, sharp as a sob. Uncle Russell, steady, sweet, gone at 42 in 1958. A wound that sank through us that year, day by day, though it sealed over like the surface of Aunt Ella’s lake, like the early 1960’s years took her and her one-year-old grandson, too, both too soon. A breeze riffling the water, a cloud shadow on the yard.

A great big paint-by-number, this living – all light and shadow, splotches of white, greens, slivers of blue.  The image, different from the edge of each decade, emerges, even as I sit in this coffee shop writing with women I could not have imagined then. Together we remind each other not to be so hard on ourselves, to write as if we were playing solitaire, for the hush and slip of words, the pattern that sometimes shows through.  Because in many ways Paradise is always Now—if we let go and sink into making, into being.

 

 

Jane Gentry Vance, The Fairy Godmother, The Buddha, and Effie Waller Smith

Buddha peace

 

by Leatha Kendrick

I remember the day that Jane Vance said to me that thinking about working (writing) was not the only thing in her life.  I, who was always fretting that I should be “getting some work done” rather than enjoying the afternoon with a friend.  She said something to the effect that life was for what we were doing — being together, enjoying a day on Morgan Street on her front porch and walking downtown for lunch and a visit to the consignment store on Main Street.  It was about the trees and flowers along the way, the conversation, the sandwiches and saying hello to the neighbors and friends who drifted through the small restaurant where we ate, her excitement at finding a good buy at the consignment shop — this was life.  Life was for living.

Jane had found a peace with the balance of her life, while I was still driven toward “getting somewhere” in my writing: to write more and write better, to publish more, to finally feel that I’d done enough in writing as (and I see now what she must have seen) I had in all aspects of my life.  Too often the “driven” quality reigns in my psyche and, I suppose, my spirit.  “Hungry ghosts,” my therapist used to call is, citing the Buddhist idea of samsara and what keeps us stuck in the materiality of this life.

“What we want” doesn’t always take us where we imagine it will.  I am thinking about Effie again, with whom I feel so often in accord.  Effie Waller Smith, the Appalachian, African-American woman poet I’ve been researching and writing about, who wanted to be a respected writer known for her poems, but also wanted a husband and family, and at one point was convinced she wanted a communal religious life in Wisconsin with the Metropolitan Holiness Church Association (known in their Waukesha, Wisconsin, community as “the Jumpers”).  Effie married twice and twice she divorced the man she’d married.  She and her mother sold all their possessions and land and gave the proceeds to the Jumpers, only to become disillusioned with the sect and want out.  Effie had to sue to get at least part of their money back.  Like Effie, things I have pursued have not always turned out to be what I expected.

I imagine, though, that Effie would look back on her life (as I am doing lately) and decide that on the whole what she wanted had been trustworthy.  That when she (and I) commit ourselves to something — a faith, a family (she adopted a daughter and had the joy of raising her to adulthood), an orderly and nurturing home, and/or an art (writing, but also the arts of teaching, of gardening, of friendship) —it brought us deep satisfaction.  Through uncertainties and blind alleys, life finally comes down to “falling down nine times and getting up ten.”  Each day, the decision is as simple as taking the next step, which is to step into your own life more deeply.

No, I don’t trust magic.  I resist the idea of a fairy godmother.  I am probably a natural Buddhist — and as far as I can tell, Buddhism is a very practical spirituality.  Nothing is going to rescue me from myself, except the gradual awakening that comes from falling down nine times and getting up ten.  My ideal writing life would not look a whole lot different (from the outside) than the life I have been leading.  What I would change is invisible mostly — I would be freed from the despair and angst of never feeling as if I am doing enough.  I would find the peace and inner balance I felt in Jane.

This would mean knowing that I am enough.  This would mean enforcing reasonable boundaries while also fulfilling a commitment to myself.  So, yes, I would make time for my writing.  Calmly and gently, daily, weekly.  I would allow writing to become my practice — spiritual and mediative.  I would trust small changes and incremental tasks, set in motion by reflection and by making the decisions I have to make to ensure that I will have the space, the time — and maybe most importantly, the friendships — that will nourish my work.

Letter to a Poet I Will Never Meet

effiesmith1

 

On the last day of Women’s History Month, I am sending out this letter to a poet I will never meet— Effie Waller Smith: b. January 6, 1879, Chloe Creek, near Pikeville, Kentucky; d. January 2, 1960, Neenah, Wisconsin

First, some of Miss Effie’s words, her poem, “Preparation:”

Preparation

I have no time for those things now,’ we say;
“But in the future just a little way,
No longer by this ceaseless toil oppressed,
I shall have leisure then for thought and rest.
When I the debts upon my land have paid,
Or on foundations firm my business laid,
I shall take time for discourse long and sweet
With those beloved who round my hearthstone meet;
I shall take time on mornings still and cool
To seek the freshness dim of wood and pool,
Where, calmed and hallowed by great Nature’s peace,
My life from its hot cares shall find release;
I shall take time to think on destiny,
Of what I was and am and yet shall be,
Till in the hush my soul may nearer prove
To that great Soul in whom we live and move.
All this I shall do sometime but not now –
The press of business cares will not allow.”
And thus our life glides on year after year;
The promised leisure never comes more near.
Perhaps the aim on which we placed our mind
Is high, and its attainment slow to find;
Or if we reach the mark that we have set,
We still would seek another, farther yet.
Thus all our youth, our strength, our time go past
Till death upon the threshold stands at last,
And back unto our Maker we must give
The life we spent preparing well to live.

—from The Collected Works of Effie Waller Smith, Oxford University Press, 1991.

Dear Miss Effie,

I have only found you and your work in this, my sixty-sixth year of life.  Though you were a Kentucky poet born and raised 50 miles from my home in Floyd County, Kentucky, I had never heard of you.

It was your poem, “Preparation,” that made me write to you.  I heard it read aloud about a month ago when you were inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame in a ceremony in Lexington at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning.  Though the reader, Frank X. Walker, did a fine enough job of presenting the poem, I could not help but wish that a woman had been chosen to read it — any woman, black or white. Though your poem does not declare itself a woman’s poem and could apply equally to men and women, I think that too often it is women who allow the “ceaseless toil” you write of to come between them and “what [they were and are] and yet shall be.” At least when I heard the poem and heard the fact that you had stopped writing at the age of 38 (at which age I was just starting out), I felt that teaching or mothering or other kinds of care-giving had surely pushed your vocation of writing to the side.

Now I have read more about your life — how you moved to Wisconsin to live in a strict religious commune with your mother around 1919, for instance — and I see that your story is more complex than I had imagined.  For one thing, it’s clear that you did not let teaching and supporting yourself, moving from place to place, marrying or divorcing stop your important work of crafting poems.  You published steadily from at least as early as 1902 — when you were 23 and finishing your course work at the Kentucky State Normal School for Colored Persons, now Kentucky State University — until 1917, when as far as I can tell, you were living again in or near Pike County.  You taught in Kentucky and Tennessee during that time.  By 1909 you’d been married twice (in 1904 and 1908), each marriage brief, each ending in your divorcing the man.  You’d lost your only child (I haven’t been able to find out if it was a boy or a girl) when it was a young child.  You’d seen enough violence in the mountains to last you a lifetime, including the murder in 1911 of your ex-husband, Deputy Sheriff Charlie Smith, who had also been a lifelong friend.

Your self-possession astounds me, even from the distance of all these years.  What I have discovered of your life makes me certain that the more than forty years you spent not publishing poems were a deliberate act, at least to some degree, on your part.  Because I am a woman, too, who struggles with how and even whether to continue to pursue publication, after twenty-five years of publishing poems and other writing, I wish I could talk to you.  Your last publication, a sonnet you entitled “Autumn Winds,” was in Harpers, for goodness sakes.  One of the most prestigious places in the nation.  Why did you stop publishing?

Your work itself gives us some clues — its somber mood, its intense religious overtones.  And the fact that World War One was raging and that you had lost your only child may have been part of the beginning of your silence.  You had to have been weighed down with grief.  You moved away from your beloved hills, which has been not only a solace, but a source of imagery and inspiration for you.  Was it the convergence of all of these things?  I have moved twice this past year and often find myself wordless, unsettled in a world that seems more than ever bent on violence and hatred.  Was silence your answer to despair?  I don’t want to believe this.  Was it an act of faith to relinquish your writing career?  Or were there other “hot cares” that kept you from your poems?

Writers and scholars before me have wondered at your disappearance from print, and I am grateful for what they discovered or pieced together about your life.  In next week’s blog post I will continue this letter, using the work of David Deskins, Elizabeth Engelhardt, and your adopted daughter, Ruth Smith — as well as your own words  — to piece together more of your story.

Claiming a Space, Making It Yours

                       “Virginia Woolf has said it: What a woman (what any writer) needs in order to write is a room of one’s own.     It is not simply a matter of space — it is a space of one’s own that is needed.”  —Pat Schneider, Writing Alone and With Others

 Google “writers on their rooms,” as I did, and you will find blog posts, TV series, photo sequences, books examining “where I write.”  Even non-writers seem fascinated by the spaces in which their favorite authors spend their creative time.  As a tourist I have visited writers’ homes — from James Thurber’s house in Columbus, Ohio, to Anna Akhmatova’s apartment in St. Petersburg, Russia, and many spaces in between.  Something in us wants to see the rooms where writers sit doing their invisible work.  As if by entering that space we could enter the artist’s process.

In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard muses, “ . . . if I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamers, the house allows one to dream in peace.”   Writers’ rooms fascinate us because they house the dreaming that is the creative process.  The contours of walls, the angle of light, even the stacks of papers and books become the shape of that dreaming.

The need to understand writing spaces became urgent for me as my husband and I consolidated our family home of thirty years with my separate writing space of more than ten years — combining two kitchens, two sets of everything, including two writing rooms from two different phases of my writing life.  In my relief at letting go of the burden of a home too large for two people and my anticipation of no longer having to maintain two households, I denied what the moves meant for me as a writer:  the dissolution of a space I had slowly claimed in which to do the creative work essential to my wellbeing. Instead of the joy and ease I had expected to feel in claiming our new space, I have felt mostly anxiety — the primal terror of “disassemblage.”

In an essay I wrote twenty years ago I described the writing room I created for myself in our family home.

 But one room of the house is mine alone, reclaimed from Barbies, Little People houses, and the spring- frame rocking horse–Shy Anne (Cheyenne)–where [our oldest daughter] sang to Sesame Street.  Sitting in the quiet of what has become my writing room, rereading Wallace Stevens’ “Idea of Order at Key West,” I understand it at the level of the body: “there never was a world for her/Except the one she sang and, singing, made.”   Here, in what was the playroom for the first six years of this house, my girls sang themselves into existence.  Those years the bodies of my children enfleshed Paradise, ordered the universe.

And beyond that Paradise, this angled space above the garage has become my retreat:  to three favorite chairs, two desks, and half a dozen bookcases filled with poetry, volumes on craft, essays, science, and theology—my  room.   What is distilled here is an inner landscape, a different kind of garden, and one which it has taken me years to claim.  Beyond Edna’s pigeon house and the insanity of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Yellow Wallpaper, I have brought Lessing’s “Room 19” home.  My place of solitude.  To not create this place, I finally understood, was death, a drowning in other people’s needs, a suffocation.  Here writing continues like the heartbeat in the center of the chest, life within a life.  My home.  [“No Place Like Home,” The American Voice, No. 49, Summer, 1999]

Of course, my old spaces, dismantled in the course of moving, are not recreate-able in this very different room.  Everything from the compass to the floor plan make it impossible. I can’t quite find myself in this room I have chosen, and I’ve given up my old writing rooms, which makes me angry as well as anxious.  Above all I’m impatient to get on with work long interrupted by this dual move which has dragged out now for five months.

Tonight, reading and preparing to write, I glanced up and for the first time felt my new writing space taking shape:  the space seemed to gather itself around my ratty peach recliner (reclaimed from that first writing space) and the desk moved from my writing studio, set at  90º  to a scarred work table inherited from my grandparents’ business, and the bookcases along the walls and the lamps I have gathered over years.

Yes, there are boxes to be unpacked and things to be sorted, put away, let go of, but I am making (again), in my intuitive, slow and inexact way, Woolf’s “room of one’s own.”  Inimitable.  Suiting only myself.  A dreaming space.

 

 

The Art of Finishing

 

Blog photoGreat is the art of beginning, but greater the art is of ending.”  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

When we moved this summer, I found these words tucked into a pile of old clothes.  The yellowed half-page torn from a steno notebook nearly thirty years ago had hung on the back wall of our walk-in closet above the small desk where I wrote.  That walk-in closet was the “room of my own” I claimed in our brand new house in 1984 as I mothered three children aged eight to one.  I knew I was good at starting things; I wanted to remind myself that finishing a piece of writing mattered.

Though I have finished books of poetry, an MFA, and a novel since those days of writing in the closet, I still find finishing a challenge.  Most writers struggle to complete a work and wonder if it is our fault that it takes so long to get it right.  The form we glimpsed as we set out on our poem or novel becomes less clear as we write ourselves into the interior.

Thanks in part to Louise DeSalvo’s book, Writing as a Way of Healing, I have learned the value of reflecting on the writing process for each piece I undertake.  I set down what I have realized and what I plan to do next.  Capturing insights and seeing a way ahead has been so important in my work that I’ve incorporated keeping a process journal into the assignments for the classes I teach.

Here’s an excerpt from one of these:

September 16, 2009

And now for my fifteen minutes on the novel — the assignment I gave the Finishing class.

It’s one thing to write about the novel and have its stacks of pages safely out of sight  . . .  It’s another to read those pages and see what’s there and despair of ever making a coherent book out of them.  . . .  But it was necessary for me to see that my coming to know the story, to see its end and feel a general shape for it, was not the same as . . . having worked it out on the page for myself.  What was needed was for me to accept that I still had a period of wandering in the wilderness ahead of me, and that I had to surrender to that if I were to write the novel I want to write.

 

I wish I had made entries like this more systematically as I drafted my novel.  And that I had not buried them in the pages of my journals where I cannot easily access them.  Louise DeSalvo says in The Art of Slow Writing that she keeps her process journals on the computer where she can search them easily.  She accesses them to remind herself of the stages in finishing a work: “Whenever I’m stuck . . . I turn to an earlier journal and . . . learn that I habitually think about abandoning a project just before I see how the book should be organized; this helps me reengage with my current work more confidently.”

I was wise to post Longfellow’s words in that closet.  Finding a way to the end of a piece is an art in itself.  An art that isn’t only about finding the best ending, but also about having the patience to discern the story I’ve wandered into, to receive its wisdom and work out the techniques I need to tell it well.

Finishing

IMG_0227 re

Finishing

 

The goal and the fruit of a true discipline is completion.  The completion of the work of art.”

Pat Schneider, Writing Alone and with Others

            There are icebergs all over my study — piles of paper that represent the mere tips of manuscripts I have begun but not yet completed.  Most days I sail blithely among the hidden masses, maneuvering as if with sonar to avoid a brush with their frigid bulks.

“Frigid” suits these projects, since they have grown icy and remote-feeling.  Their temperature plunges the longer I refuse to approach them.  There’s the novel looming in a corner, the set of essays peeking from the back of a vertical file, a memoir whose weight disappears into a notebook on a bookcase.

Two or three times a year, I propose a plan of action to reclaim one or all of these bergs and melt it down in order to remember  the taste of its refreshment.  I propose.  But I do not engage with the novel or revive the essay collection.  I continue writing bits and pieces, filing them with others of their kind, not even believing anymore that I will really bring one of these books to reality.  My might-have-been books evaporate, directly from their solid mass into mist.

The heavy cold of these unfinished pieces makes me doubt that I will complete the next big piece of writing I begin.  As I age into what I had thought would be more leisurely years, my life remains full and diverse, busier than ever:  there is a new generation of offspring I have a hand in raising; new opportunities for engagement with other artists and with my community; and teaching remains one of my deep joys.  I am reluctant to give any of it up.

I am even more reluctant, however, to give up on the writing projects I’ve begun— at least until I’m sure that I am not interested in completing them.  (After all, I don’t have to finish anything if I don’t want to.  An important point to remember!)

Last month I picked up Gretchen Rubin’s Happier at Home one day as I browsed the library’s non-fiction tableLate in the book, Rubin notes that we overestimate how much we can get done in a short time (a day or a week), but we also seriously underestimate how much we can get done little by little over an extended period.

I have put this wisdom into action on tasks that I dread (like filling out my income tax worksheet).  I wondered if it might work to help address the ice floes in my study.  My strategy is to choose one neglected project (the novel first) and devote fifteen minutes a day to it.  For the first two weeks I plan to not go one moment past the fifteen minute limit.  Fifteen minutes is manageable, no matter how busy my day is.  One way I can make sure the fifteen minutes happens is to do it first thing in the working day, before I have a chance to think about it too much.  I am finding that not letting myself work past my time limit also creates anticipation about what I might accomplish or discover the next day.

I’ve barely begun this regimen, so I am not sure how it will turn out.  My guess is that I will still need some kind of deadline (self-imposed or imposed by a call for submissions) in order to push through to a new draft of the novel.  For now, I am exploring — getting reacquainted with the book.  Getting inspired fifteen minutes at a time.

I promise to report back here in two months (aha! a self-imposed deadline: I’m putting it on my calendar) with a blog post:  Finishing, Part 2.

 

Seeing and Saying

Fog-lacquered,

varnished in thin

pearl glaze,

 

the high dunes unfold,

a smudged sketch . . .

-Mark Doty, “Fog Suite”

 

Lately I have been considering my work.  What do I most need to be doing?  What are my priorities?  Oh, I do the daily tasks that come with keeping a place pleasant enough to nourish my spirit, interesting enough that I am always provoked to thought, and clean enough that I can be at ease there.  And I have other jobs as well — or possibly they’re roles: mother, sister, grandmother, wife.  Each has its delicious duties; each makes its demands.  But my work shapes my life as much as any of these do.

 

The passionate avocation which I am lucky enough to practice as a vocation  for years that work has been two-fold:  writing and teaching.  Artist’s work, each of them — asking from me flexibility and curiosity, patience and steadiness, imagination and presence.  The medium for my art is words.  My materials?  Ideas, insights, observation, the daily walk, my commute, my “down time” reading, knitting.  Nothing less than everything I have learned or wonder about about.  What I am able to take in, to truly see and ponder and then translate onto the page or into that evening’s class.

My job boils down to seeing and saying.

It seems to me that in all arts no matter what their medium — words, paint, lines in pencil or ink, photographs, symphonies, choral music, rap, stone, wood, metal — artists create in order to convey something they have observed.  A photographer takes in her surroundings, alert for shape and light and shadow.  Having seen something she wants to capture and share, she takes aim and uses her tools (not only the camera but everything she has learned about photography) and makes a piece of art.

 

The art I admire and try to emulate observes something closely and renders it vividly.  Ordinary things like the fog along a coast in Mark Doty’s poem.  He likens the fog to “damp scarves/(unhemmed, like petals/of a white peony)” and I know I have seen that very aspect of fog and failed to notice it or to find the words that would (like Doty’s) make it unmistakable.

 

Doty’s poem is partly about this “seeing and saying” I’ve been pondering lately:

 

What I’m trying to do

is fix this impossible

shift and flux, and say

 

how this fog-fired

green’s intensified

by sunlight filtered

 

through the atmosphere’s

wet linens–

 

He says what I have felt on mornings in eastern Kentucky when the fog both veiled and sharpened the colors on the hills.  And he goes on with lines that I have written toward (and never quite reached):

 

Do we love more

what we can’t say?

 

As if what we wanted

were to be brought

that much closer

 

to words’ failure

where desire begins?

 

That edge where my desire to express what I have seen meets my words’ failure draws me on.  It is my work — noticing, trying to say what I have seen.  My work as a teacher.  My work as a writer.

 

“Fog Suite,” by Mark Doty, from Sweet Machine (1998), collected in Fire to Fire, New and Selected Poems (Harper Perennial, 2009)

 

The Joy of the Telling

 

A blue plastic jewel on a flimsy chain — the ring attached nearly too thin to hold anything as heavy as keys.  A fake. A fraud.  A bit of glossy gaudy nothing, that probably has a story or I wouldn’t have saved it.

A souvenir from some misspent afternoon, no doubt.  Let’s say I remember a crossroads country store, laughter and pickled bologna, crackers and some beer.   An impromptu picnic along a narrow two-lane road named for a mill or a creek.  A big oak and sunlight flashing between limbs, me putting the ring on my finger, the light weight of the plastic “stone” bobbing.  One hand to my heart, my face lifted, I declare my undying love for the man across from me.  More laughter and pickled bologna sliced with a pocket knife and eaten on crackers.

Let’s say I can’t resist a coin-operated gimcrack dispensing machine, like the one back at that store, and I’ve wasted my fifty cents on this bauble, dispensed in its plastic capsule, and though it wasn’t what I’d hoped to get from that machine (who can remember what I’d hoped for back then?) I’ve made the best of it, turned it into part of the pale clear blue of the sky and the flash and glitter of that afternoon stolen from regular workdays, and when I got home and faced what to fix us for supper (what lies well atop pickled bologna, my love?), I dropped this trinket into my desk drawer where it has waited until today.  My place is filled with this kind of treasure, whose value is their spark of story.

And did any of this really happen?  It could have, I know that much for certain.  There were those afternoons.  I pushed quarters down such slots, and more that I care to remember I’ve declared fakes to be treasures, taken what’s fallen my way and seen that the light does pour through it all with a certain sparkle, wanting to love what I held for the sake of love itself.

I’ve come to the place in my life where I’m letting the trinkets go (mostly to Goodwill, with hope that they’ll find a new story). It’s the story I’m keeping, the story that matters now, though it be evanescent as breath, though it fade away as that “perhaps” afternoon did.  It’s history that stays in my cells, that wants to rise from the blue plastic jewel, keepsake from a day I might have long since forgotten except for this trinket, spark for a story I tell myself (and share with you) just for the joy of the telling.

What speaks to you?  Look in your desk drawer and find a story.

 

Yarn. Tale. The thread of story.

As a writer who knits – or, on some days, a knitter who stops to write –yarn is, for me, a way into memory and story. One leftover ball, the colors of dusk sky, a fringe of evergreens wound into the horizon, bought at the Midway fair and intended for a baby’s hat, evokes a strand of words, a yarn to carry memory forward.

As I made the hat, the yarn bled onto my hands, onto the bamboo knitting needles. I called the alpaca farm and spoke to the woman who had sold it to me, who said to saturate the hat in salt water, then heat it in the microwave. Soaked and zapped, the seeping color stopped. Poor babe got a blurry, irradiated hat — proving that the harder I try to get some thing that will be so perfect (Kentucky alpaca for an expat infant in Salem, Mass.), so special (I met the alpaca!), so much beyond the generic, store-bought gift (hand-made, stitch by stitch, hand-dyed yarn), the more, in short, my pride demands I be beyond outstanding (is it pride or some other need?), the farther I have to fall.

And yet the baby wore her hat, her mother sent me a photo of her in it, and I have this part-ball left to knit into something else. And the colors still call to me, though I wonder if at the heart of this ball, the dye might still bleed.

And all this talk of bleeding and of winding takes me back to yarn as a tale, a thread of story coiled around itself and holding its heart hidden in the turning of its lines. Like a poem I’ve put down on the page or the turning of calendar pages reaching back and back. There never was a place that wasn’t tightly coiled and threatening to bleed. Even in the womb I was a curled bud wrapped in a cord of blood. “Wee weare within the wombe a wynding sheete” one of the Renaissance poets said, and when I read that line at nineteen, how I hated this assertion of our death beginning with our life, preceding even breath. Yet in that time of plague and filth and language lovely-harsh enough to catch it all, those poets spoke the truth.

I was a foolish girl, determined to reflect only the sun and deny the taste of earth already in my mouth, the sluggish drift of it in my very veins. I am wound up in this ball of yarn in ways I haven’t even come to yet. Its failing, its tendency to bleed or break under stress, its messy stain of color, even its softness and its lovely mix of shades are in my days. It sits in my wicker basket waiting to be taken up and used; if it is lucky, something will be made of it and that something – hat, afghan – will have its uses, elegant, unforeseen, ordinary, then will be tossed onto the trash, burned up in a fire or ruined in flood, folded into a trunk, a cardboard box, and stuck in some unused space.

As I knit (and when I write, as well), the lived experience and emotions of my days and hours are looped and caught into what I’m making. A scarf or hat can bring back the worries or the musings that overlay its creation, as this ball of yarn holds the October day and the fair at Midway, my daughter home for a weekend, our hours in the blue air, how I tried to just soak it up, to believe I really was there, and maybe tried too hard, as with the hat. This yarn holds my daughter’s tall form, her clear blue eyes, her laugh, and the long black eyelashes of the alpaca tethered in the shade beside the crafter’s tent, the percussive rhythm of the steam engine grinding corn into the grits we bought, the breakfast we shared the next morning, her driving away.

This ball of yarn, these words reach all the way back to her baby self and forward to the baby, then unborn, who has already outgrown her hat — and outward now, as story travels.