To Sit With What Is :: A New Year’s Surrender

There is something delicious about standing at the edge of a new year! It feels like starting a brand new sketchbook (oh the possibilities!), or casting on a new fair isle project (the colors, designs and so many knits & purls to look forward to!), or setting out fabric scraps with an eye to what could be collaged and stitched into a lovely fragment. It is also encouraging to look back over the year, scroll back through one’s Instagram feed, and see the making, remember the incredible times of drawing, knitting, stitching, writing. Closing out a year and turning my face to another is wonderful indeed!

It is also overwhelming. The above photograph is a current picture of the many ways my creative head and heart walk through life. The older I become the more I realize this is how I deal with life, this is how I work through all that life brings to me, the pretty and the painful and everything in between. If I  gaze out into 2018 for too long, I want to walk a step or two backwards, look away and just sit down. I think I can certainly do that for a moment, for a day at least. Perhaps even for good.

Last year I began the year with the words Slow & Simplify. I wanted them to guide me, to define or focus my intention about moving through the year. It was lovely to carry those words with me, even in the midst of not-at-all slow times and ever-so-not simple ones. There were places in the year, more than I would have liked, that I wished I had not chosen those words, for it seemed that Life was out to contradict them in every way possible. But towards the end of 2017, even in those crazy final two months filled with holidaying, I came to realize a secret to being slow and simple in life…and that is to sit with what is. I’m pretty certain I’ve heard this phrase from Susan Piver whose meditation guidance has helped me so very much over the last few years. I resumed this practice late in the autumn and it continues to root me in my personal life and in my creative life. To sit with what is is not a giving up of dreams and goals. It is not a curl up under the covers, pull the wool over one’s eyes way of life. Rather it is a strong-backed, head up, soft-bellied breathing into whatever is going on in one’s life. It is a way of sitting down and facing whatever is in one’s lap at the moment. For me, this helps me both with what is in my lap in life at the moment AND what is in my lap creatively. Is life going at warp speed at the moment? Ok, sit with that. Be all there breathing into the blur. Is life complicated and confusing? Ok then…sit with that and breathe space into the craziness.

I don’t know how this strikes you. You may not be like me. In fact, I hope you are not. You see, my default setting in life is to feel that I should and ought to be doing, being, making, creating something other than what I’m currently doing, being, making, or creating. Call it driven, call it striving, call it restlessness, call it passion, curiosity, or creative. It is hardwired into my being for reasons I may not fully comprehend. But there it is. Always striving to reach the next goal, check off the next thing on my to-do list, be everything I need to be for excellence in my personal life and in my work as an artist. That last sentence sounds exhausting. Even in a desire for Slow & Simple, it can become a measuring stick that beats me over the head when life isn’t either of them. To sit with what is, allows me to sink into my life, accepting it, breathing into it prayerfully, whether it is slow or busy, whether it is simple or complicated, whether it is pretty or painful, whether it seems productive or not, whether I am accomplishing anything or just running in circles. To sit with what is, allows me to be ok with whatever is in my lap at the moment, be it a sketchbook, or some knitting, or embroidery, or my writing journal. Any feelings of guilt, should-be, oughtta-be, wanna-be , can be let go of, breathing into the creative goodness at hand. Even when I’m being hounded by the be-better, do-more, do-other thoughts, I can just sit with that, breathe space around it, acknowledging that it is there, a part of who I am, but not something I have to give full attention to. It can just sit there, beside me, while I continue breathing, living, creating.

So this is my intention for 2018. To walk into the year bravely, courageously, and creatively opening my hands to whatever comes, whatever falls in my lap. To sit with it, breathe into it, and prayerfully let go of the striving and drivenness that may come with it.  I will resist and let go of the inevitable desire to make “sitting with what is” my new measuring stick. Thanks be to God that there is now no condemnation for those who live in His love and grace. That’s where I want to be…sitting with what is true, good and beautiful.

Thank you so very much to all of you who continue to visit with me here, who read my words, who purchase and enjoy my art-making in all its various forms. You are so appreciated!! Here’s to 2018…a New Year filled with many stitches, sketches and inspirations!!

Happy New Year!

Artfully Yours,

Jennifer

Drawn To Iron

I do not like to iron. At all.

I seem to be in a place where my heart needs re-orienting. Something is in need of being smoothed out. Yet I tell myself I like the chaotic wrinkles, the jumble of piles of laundry. I’m well aware that I’m speaking in veiled terms here. You’ll just have to go with this.

My husband wears black shirts that need ironing. No starch. Just a simple smoothing out of what the dryer doesn’t do. One shirt comes out of the dryer and is hung up on the rod in our laundry closet. A few days later, a second one. And several days later there’s a forest of black shirts hanging there waiting to be ironed.

My husband is perfectly capable of ironing his shirts himself. And he most often does. He is not waiting around for me to do this for him. For some reason, this morning, I saw those shirts hanging there and I needed to iron them. To sort them out so that they can be used, worn, enjoyed.

My life is needing a bit of sorting out. There’s too much hanging on the rod…mostly in my creative life. I’ve succumbed to the siren song that I can have my cake and eat it too, along with all the cupcakes and pies. Again, veiled generalizations.

What I realize in all this is a need to see. A desire for all of living to be grace. And the best way I know how to connect to this is through the humble act of drawing.

I don’t mean drawings to sell. Or to exhibit in a gallery. Ordinary, everyday sketches of ordinary, everyday things grant me sight that I desperately need. Even sight for the things I don’t like to do. Especially the things I don’t like to do.

I made this page in my sketchbook after I had ironed all the shirts. As I drew the contours of an iron we have had for years, and of plain black shirts that will have a white collar worn with them, I was filled with love. Love for ironing. Can you believe that? It was something about the slow process of smoothing something out and seeing the results.

And love for drawing. This crazy simple daily work of sketching the stuff of life works to melt my heart to what is right beside me and with me all the time – a man of the cloth who works to love and serve his family and congregation.

There is more that I could share, of a smoothing out, a realization of things I have realized numerous times before. That is life, isn’t it? Coming back ’round to what we have surely known before, but have forgotten somehow in the rush of living.

I may need to find a few more things to iron around here (sorry, not taking any ironing commissions! 🙂 …and to draw…

…grace in the stuff of living through the lens of my sketchbook.

When Magic Happens

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It happens at various times along the way. Magic that is. Years ago, when I first swiped watercolor on a white page…I drew in my breath and held it as I watched the color move on the paper, blend with other colors. Something special was happening that was just for me. The magic of watercolor has never left me. It’s oozles and wazzles delight me endlessly.

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Then one day, again many years ago, I got out a wooden box filled with Rembrandt soft pastels that my grandmother had given me when I was  child. Holding a stick on its side, I swooshed the pigment on the page, and there it was again…that feeling that magic was afoot. In neither instance did this magical feeling have to do with WHAT I was creating on the paper. In fact, if you saw these early attempts, you would not be particularly impressed as they looked much like what a kindergarten artist might create. I did not care. The magic was in the process of putting color onto paper. Or was it in the seeing of these colors as they went onto paper? Or was it simply the initial discovery of new mediums?

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I have now been actively pursuing art-making for almost 20 years. Wow! That seems like a long time to me. You might think that the magic has worn off, the blush of first love at swiping color on a page might have become ho-hum over the years. It does, in some sense, become a normal state of enjoyment for an artist…surely this is what keeps us coming back to make more art! But there are still moments when our breath is taken away; we stand back in awe or delight at the page or canvas before us, and simply are amazed at the loveliness. It isn’t an arrogance or prideful thing. It is merely showing up to the page every day, being present for magic to happen. Some days you feel it. Some days not.

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And then there are days when the convergence of something new…or at least it feels new…suddenly hits you and you know that magic has happened once again. Its outside of you. It came through you. And it now exists in front of you. This is what happens when I put my favorite creamy pastels over top of random swooshes of watercolor.

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The first magical moment with this happened soon after our daughter’s wedding this summer. I had pulled out this neglected sketchbook from years ago. I had not made many marks in it for various reasons. Two, maybe three pages had a few half-hearted attempts. So with a what-the-heck attitude, I dashed on some random washes of watercolor, page after page, and let them dry.

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As I was into abstraction over the summer, I swiped pastel over top of one of these pages and knew instantly…I was in love! I couldn’t make any more sketches or drawings that day due to its loveliness. I just walked by my drawing table often to gaze at the soft colors dancing around on top of the watercolor. The next day, I turned the page, and worked again in the same manner. Light touch. Gorgeous color. Again…magic!

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On and on, page after page now in this book, some abstract, some representational. This particular one, made last week after being blown away by the cloud formations at the top of our hill on Silver Dapple Lane. You see, the magic begins with inspiration, with beauty seen, with a desire to lasso it onto paper, or free it for interpretation, or something. But after I stepped back from trying to recreate what I saw and felt up on my favorite lane, I knew…

…magic!

It was there on the page.

I held my breath for only a little while, exhaling gratitude all day.

***Magic may also be due to the tea one drinks while painting! The message on this bag of Green Tea set the tone for this painting. Kinda cool!

Time

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I am realizing anew that there’s a time for every season under heaven.

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(photography courtesy of Hazel Kuehn Photography)

There’s a time for celebrating.

And a time for grieving the passing of an era.

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There’s a time for illness.

And a time for healing.

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There’s a time for making marks.

And a time for white open pages.

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There’s a time for stitching.

And a time for ripping out.

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(photography courtesy of Hazel Kuehn Photography)

There’s a time for gathering.

And a time for letting go.

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There’s a time for making the usual.

And there’s a time for trying something new.

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There’s even a time for going to the beach.

I’m glad it’s that time!

I’m ready for it. I need it.

Looking forward to being with family and the restorative sound of the waves, warm sand in my toes, and days of walking, reading, stitching, drawing…

or not.

There will be time for everything.

An Artful Life Primer

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The topic of this book began to take shape soon after my sickness and surgery in 2013. It was June. I’d been doing a lot of thinking, knitting and drawing as I continued to heal, grow stronger and get used to life without a colon. I stood at the sink washing dishes in the beach house where my husband’s family goes for a week of vacation every year. As I washed dishes, the thought came into my head that I no longer wanted an Art Career. Numerous and varied attempts to find my niche seemed to fall flat and be frustrated by life’s demands. It occurred to me there, with suds and dirty dishes in hand, that what I really wanted was an Artful Life.

An Artful Life, to me, meant that ALL of life would be infused with creativity. Or at least with an eye for seeing the beauty in it, no matter what came my way. An Art Career could be, and was, constantly interrupted by domestic duties and often sidelined by health crises. An Artful Life, on the other hand, would be possible, if I lived all of life as opportunity for seeing beauty and listening to what it had to say to me. I realized there at the sink, that I had already been doing this for many years. I had somehow learned to use my pen and knitting needles to draw the beauty out of my circumstances and knit it into my heart.

After a second, and then a third surgery to deal with issues arising from the first one, I began to pen a very basic outline of what I was doing to live this Artful Life. I realized I had been developing a practice, a daily habit, of showing up to the page, the sketchbook, the wools & cottons, and working out what I encountered in life. It didn’t matter if life was boring or repetitive, exciting or painful…ALL of it could be scoured for beauty. Creating something, ANYTHING, in and through life’s days became a vehicle for seeing, capturing, releasing the beauty that I was convinced was there.

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This little book is all about my practice of creativity. It is very simple, perhaps too simple, in its straightforward three-fold approach. But I wrote this with you in mind. I want you, no matter your creative background or dependence on rulers for a straight line ;), to be able to engage in a practice of living artfully. Indeed, this practice doesn’t even require that you know how to draw or knit! Simple acts of creation are all that is needed. It will change you. That’s fairly bold to say. To practice creativity on a daily, or multi-days-a-weekly basis will transform you in astonishing ways.

Beauty comes to us in many forms and surprising packages. We need to train our eyes to see it, our hands to capture it, and our hearts to be transformed by it. Beauty is everywhere, in everything we do and experience. Even in washing dirty dishes.

An Artful Life Primer: Practicing Creativity to See, to Listen, and to be Transformed

Available on Amazon

Living Now

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The difficulty of living now on this side of sickness and surgery, has been  well…living. I know that sounds crazy and messed up. But there it is.

In sickness or trial of any kind, there’s an intensity to life. A laser sharp focus. No matter how yucky the circumstance may be, there’s nevertheless a funneling of all our faculties to get well, to get through it, figure out how to get to the other side of it, etc. And when we do, the exquisiteness of being on “the other side” (healthy, or pain free) gives way to daily living. This everyday mundane almost imperceptibly scatters dust on our single-minded focus. We begin to use the familiar words “busy”, “scattered”, over-committed” and quite likely we are. We may feel dull, fuzzy-headed, lacking purpose. Re-entering the flow of life after having gone on an adventure (however difficult and painful it may have been) can be disorienting. It might be likened to returning from the battle field. “OK, now what?!” is the question that haunts you , especially when the adventure changed you in some way shape or form. “How do I now live?” is a question worth exploring especially if you want to honor what you have learned and experienced, and not forget the intensity and bits of truth you received while in the trenches.

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There is a hefty amount of verbiage these days that calls us to GRAND living. Living large, seeking adventure, playing big, rising strong, radical living, big magic, finding your passion, defying small, do what lights you up, don’t waste your life. Please, do not hear me wrong on this. I have found and continue to find encouragement in the discussions within these topics. Yet the overall timbre to these calls to arms leaves me a bit perplexed and flat. Is there room in these manifestos for living an ordinary life? For finding beauty and adventure while playing small? For rising from the rubble of difficulty still weak and uncertain? For discovering magic in scrubbing toilets? For being enabled to live your life, just as it is now, right where it is now, with a sense that here, right here, is where I can find beauty and light. Is there a place for radically living your life as it is now without having to sell everything and live in a tent? Is there a way to actually live the humdrum, everyday, same ole same ole in such a way that imbues it with joy, light, and love? Could we, instead of being called to go do something big and radical so that we won’t “waste our lives”, could we actually live the life we’ve got, the day in and day out, the daily struggles and numbing normalcies with an eye toward beauty? Right here. Right Now.

That’s a bit of magic I could go for!!

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I’m headed somewhere with this…stay tuned. 🙂

Join in the discussion in the comment section if you like.

The first drawing is of the waning flower pots on the front steps of our home. I often need go no further than my front door to find beauty. But I have to be reminded of this. Every Day.

The second drawing is of the Ciener Botanical Gardens here in my small town of Kernersville, NC. Again…a bit of Giverny right here where I live.

Seeing

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I woke this morning thinking of Christmas. Not so much an anticipation of the busyness of activities…but rather more a need for Christmas, for the festiveness of it, the music of it, the twinkle and sparkle of it.

Birds are everywhere on the feeder. They fly to and fro, jockey for position, nudge another off, tilt their heads back and forth all the while munching and crunching. The simple act of eating looks like a party complete with friends and dancing.

The kids are home this weekend. Perhaps that is what makes me think of Christmas. Maybe that’s why I’m thinking the simple things have been imbued with sparkle and festiveness. We light the candles on the table as we eat. We talk long after our plates are clean . We go for a walk in the rain. We watch a Disney movie. All ordinary simple things. But oh the twinkle of delight.

I’m sitting in my usual spot. Chair by the window in my making room , the sunroom, the studio. Cat is sitting on the arm of the chair beside me gazing out the window as I am. I marvel at the breaking clouds, like icebergs shifting apart to reveal a crystal blue sea. This is  my life. Ordinary moments strung together and woven into a whole day that somehow, in its ordinariness, will be extraordinary. No trips to France. No fancy outings, no gourmet dining out…just ordinary white clouds shifting to reveal the azure glow above.

There is a melancholy thread that runs through all this. The kids will go back to college, Christmas will come and go, candles will be put away in summer. I must remember the birds. Their daily feasting at a tin-roofed trough, harkening to the Babe’s own trough.  Cardinals, chickadees, titmice, sparrows and more gather for the festivity of daily sustenance.

This is what I look for each morning as I sit here in my chair by the window. This is why I go to church every Sunday. I need the reminder that Christmas is coming. That family and friends gathering around a table or to worship is how I hold Christmas in my heart all year. Daily and weekly rituals as ordinary as icebergs and clouds.

May I have eyes to see the beauty they reveal in their shifting seasons.

A New River

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The second day of “Mom’s Birthday Nature Tour” had us floating on tubes down the New River in West Jefferson, NC. As we plunked into the lime green mammoths, I continued sending up little pleas for sunshine, like mini flares that sputtered and nearly died out as it began to sprinkle. I settled into the River, deciding that no matter the weather, I was going to enjoy this float down a River I have tubed and canoed numerous times in the past.

The River has a mind of its own. Though the current is soft and gentle, it nevertheless guides and directs the human barges down-stream. One of our children seem to fight often against the stream’s chosen path for her. I kept encouraging her just to float, to let the water take her through the little overfalls, to not squirm and strive so much. She would enjoy it more.

I, on the other hand, in my yoga-lovin’ 50-year old self of go-with-the-flow, cease-striving mantras all around me, decided to close my eyes in a sort of crumpled corpse pose on the tube. Ahhh…bliss…

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Trust the River

It will lead you home.

The only problem with this was being rudely wakened out of my river-tubing meditation to a tangle of limbs, leaves and spider-webbed brush along the outer edge of the River. Really? Is this where I needed to go? Doesn’t the River know I don’t want to be stuck here? Obviously not.

I’ll gloss over the fact that this happened to me on more than one occasion. I also found, upon returning to my blissful corpse-pose-in-a-tube that I would open my eyes to what seemed like the same patch of sky as when I had closed them. Looking around, I saw that indeed I was in a very VERY slow moving spot of the River, while my family had floated much farther down. So much for zen. It was time to get moving.

Upon reflection, as I sat at dinner with the family feasting at Shatley Springs Inn and Restaurant, our River excursion had been a lovely blend of effort and non-effort. There are parts of the River that require my partnership with it to get where I need to go, and other sections where I can trust the river to guide me as I rest and relax.

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Of course, all this is a reflection on Life for me. A steep trail becomes a metaphor for pilgrimage. A river float is a picture of life. Even the water itself, that supports and guides my tube embodies the One who upholds and sustains me.

As I am now 50 years old and cannot ever again say that I’m 40-something, I feel that I’m on a new tributary of my life. It’s the same River, but a New branch that is wide and expansive and flows softly and gently. I have no idea what’s up ahead. That is ok. I know that I can trust the River. And with a little paddling and a great deal of awareness and listening, it will lead me home.

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Note on the sketch: I did not dare take my iphone/camera on the tube with me, nor did I venture to take pen and sketchbook. The thought of either of them on the bottom of the River prevented me from bringing them along. So this one is from memory. I often feel that drawing from memory helps weed out unnecessary details one might be tempted to draw if one was actually drawing on site. Try it sometime. You might like it!

Pilgrim

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I’m still feeling it four days later. A tightness along the back of my legs next to the calf muscle, evidence of all the climbing and descending. On Thursday of last week my family and I loaded up a picnic lunch, water bottles and swim gear for a day at Hanging Rock. My son had earlier dubbed our three day adventure- Mom’s Birthday Nature Tour. With our home as our campsite we took off to parts hither and beyond to be outdoors in God’s amazing creation. Thursday would prove to require the most effort of the three day tour.

Passing over the picturesque yet brief waterfall hikes, we decided on the grand dame of all the hikes available at Hanging Rock. Our trajectory: the top of Moore’s Knob to gain a 360 degree view of the world around us. Mind you, we did forego the 5-mile Moore’s Wall Loop which would have gotten us there, but taken longer. Opting for a one and a half mile jaunt through the campground, we found the start of the 770 steps leading up to the Knob. Straight. Up.

It is pointless, in the midst of such a climb, to label the experience with words like arduous, difficult, excruciating, back-breaking. I prefer to say more present-affirming words such as “my heart-rate is greatly accelerated”, or “I’m perspiring profusely”, or “these water bottles in my backpack seem heavier than when we first began.” (And why it is I’m STILL carrying water bottles for all my adult and near-adult children, I do not know!) But nevertheless, frequent rests were needed to sip guzzle water and allow my breathing to return to a more even canter.

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Our son was the first to reach the top. I could hear him, though I was quite a few paces behind…”Oh. My. God.” An apt expression I would soon understand as I too lifted my eyes to a view that took my breath away.

We lingered long up there. Venturing out onto rocks not too close to the edge. Clambering up the staircase of the tower. Trying to keep our bellies in balance as we slowly gazed around. Attempting to take it all in, the height and the breadth of distance, mountains, towns and farmland; sky, clouds, sunshine and shadow.

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Somewhere in all of our oohing, aahing, and picture-taking someone asked if I had any more water for them to drink. We realized we were all just a swallow or two away from being empty and a nagging peckishness pulled us to begin the descent, though each was reluctant to leave such beauty.

Going down a mountain appears to be a much easier endeavor. But I think this is what I’m still feeling in my calves…the jolt and jarring of 770 stone steps DOWN. It is one thing to go on adventures. It is quite another to return from them.

My husband knows of my love for pilgrimages, or at least the image that it invokes in our lives. He commented on the way down how much our hike was like a spiritual pilgrimage. Yes, love, I feel it too. Though my legs were now the consistency of cooked spaghetti, I was strengthened by having gone on a pilgrimage in nature. Not quite the Camino de Santiago, which I dream of walking one day, but every bit as beautiful, heart-rending, body-exerting and soul-filling as a pilgrimage should be.

One day, when I reach the end of the climb of Life, the view will truly and literally be breath-taking. And I will not have to turn around and go back down. There will be no more need for refilled water bottles or food for fuel. Legs will be stronger than ever and somehow I’ll be able to fly off into that vast 360 degree beauty forever. Until then, I’ll count the steps blessings along the way as a pilgrim here, walking my own Camino.

A Lesson in DPNS

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She held what felt like chaos in her hands. Yet to my eye, her teacher, it looked like she had been knitting with double pointed needles for years. She deftly worked the four wooden needles, three to hold the stitches, one to knit across from point to point.

“This is a bit overwhelming, keeping up with all of this. Where to go next, so much going on, I’m afraid I’ll lose some stitches.”

“Just focus on the two needles you are knitting with,” I said. “Let the rest of it just dangle there, trusting the wooden sticks to hold the stitches. When you knit to the end of a needle, just begin with the next one. It will all work out in the end.”

It occurred to me afresh, as I guided her through the puzzle of DPN knitting, what a picture of life this endeavor portrays. Surely our life feels like chaos in our hands. The multiplicity of roles and responsibilities can feel overwhelming and confusing. There are so many things going on, we don’t know where to go next and we’re afraid we might lose something along the way.

It helps so much, in any given moment, to just focus on what’s right in front of me. If I look around at the chaotic landscape, focus is blurred, I start to come unstitched, dropping stitches here and there.

As we spoke of this lesson in DPNS, we marveled at its truth. Who knew that a quartet of double pointed needles could guide us in life as well as produce a pair of socks?