Idle Hands Note:
15 April 2015

I had hoped to get it done this morning, but, as we seem to have forgotten, the car service needs twenty-four hour notice to reserve a van or an SUV capable of carrying boxes. So: tomorrow I’ll load the luggage cart with the twelve boxes remaining in the apartment — nine containing books, three filled with extra plastic bricks for “paving” the balcony; don’t know when we’ll ever need them, but nobody makes them anymore and you never know — and roll it down to the driveway. No further discussion of our complicated storage arrangements, please. The point is that, for the first time in well over six months, I won’t be living with 16x12x12 inch brown cardboard boxes.

Yesterday was overcast, but today, it’s lovely again, and I hope to spend at least an hour out on the balcony, working on a needlepoint project.

It has been years. Four or five years ago, I climbed up to Rita’s, on 79th Street right next to the dermatologist’s office, and bought the materials for remaking a bargello pillow that I stitched in the mid-Eighties. It had begun to fall apart. The colors range from very pale to very deep green, and the pattern is a simple undulating stripe, the sort of thing that you can make up to suit yourself. I stitched one row of deep green, actually not even the entire row,  and then set it aside. Four or five years ago.

In San Francisco last month, Kathleen wanted to go to Needlepoint Inc, a stylish establishment that is now right across Union Square from the St Francis. (We had tried to go in January, but the shop was closed for the holidays.) I went along for the ride, and of course it was I who ended up spending all the money. I was captivated by a set of Lichtensteinish exclamations — BAM, POW, ZAP — in lightning lettering, set against the angular clouds that signify cartoon explosions. These, I thought, wouldn’t be too difficult to stitch, and, made up into pillows, they would make snappy replacements for a set of four pillows that my mother stitched in the early Seventies. One of the pitfalls of growing old is discovering that needlepoint is not forever. My paternal grandmother died, like all my grandparents, when I was young, but I remember her very fondly, and it killed me to throw away a floral piece that had come down to me, only to begin falling apart. I was assured by everyone that it couldn’t be saved. If we’d still had the house by the lake, I’d have burned it. Tossing it down the garbage shute seemed sacrilegious.

I won’t mind doing the same with my own pillow from the Eighties — so I say now.

Another drawback to needlepoint is that it costs the earth to have your work “made up” into something presentable — a pillow, a drinks coaster, even a “picture” suitable for framing (still more expense!). In order to get more bang for the buck, I like to have two identically-sized panels made into one pillow, and that’s what I’ll do with the undulating stripe. I’ve decided to start off with that. It will awaken all my sense memories of stitching, so that when I turn to the BAMS, which have to look great to be in the living room, my pace will be steady and the tension of my stitches will be even. When I got back from San Francisco, I conducted a rutheless triage session, and got rid of everything in my dusty work bag except for the undulating stripe, another piece of free-style bargello that was intended to be quite large but that will now be “lumbar,” and an initial “R” composed, origami-like, of folded Japanese paper printed with contrasting patterns. (Such is intended to be the illusion.) These projects, together with the three cartoon pillows, will keep me busy for a very long time.

But that’s just it: they won’t keep me busy. They’ll keep me quite calm. On Sunday, I spent about three hours on the undulating stripe. As is typical of projects that are either new or taken up after long neglect, I had to rip out a lot of work. One of the mistakes I had just made; the other was in the original stripe, stitched four or five months ago. Had the missed stitch been off to one side of the panel, I might have let it go, but it was going to interrupt the flow of the undulation right up and down the center of the piece. I minded the ripping out horribly — at first. It took a while to understand that ripping out is just another way of going forward. The mistake that I made on Sunday was really a lesson unto me. I had pulled the needle up through what turned out to be the wrong hole, and instead of pulling the yarn off the needle and tugging it back through the mesh, I tried to stitch my way out of the situation by aiming the needle back through a corner of the wrong hole. That was dumb; dumber was blithely stitching on without looking at the back of the panel. When I reached the end of the length of yarn and prepared to tuck it in, I was horrified to see a dustball of tangles back at the wrong hole. So all of that had to come out. But when it had all come out, I felt quite clear and cleansed. By the time I stopped working for the day, I liked the look of the back of the panel better than that of the front. It was neat as could be. I had never done such presentable work!

And as I stitched, my mind wandered in the most agreeable way. If it hadn’t been for the ripping-out, which I had to pay attention to, I’d have floated serenely above myself, calm and collected. The causality here is somewhat shaky: it may well be that stitching just isn’t on in chaotic circumstances — not on for me, that is. For me, stitching seems to be a kind of weather check: if I can do it at all, my house is in order. If I can do it well — but I can’t generalize on that yet, as I’ve been too erratic to do it well as a matter of course. But stitching is as close as I am ever going to get to meditation.

I think of Penelope. The problem that I have had with needlepoint in the past — and I’m aware, by the way, that it is no longer the done thing to use “needlepoint” as a verb, meaning “to work at tapestry stitching”; but doing so quietly brings my mother and my grandmother into the room — is the word “project.” The whole point of a project, in America, is to get it done, to finish it. Good craftsman deal with this inane pressure by setting high standards for their work, but, to me, high standards always meant difficulty, and difficulty was inconsistent with recreation. I was simply too impatient.

A cognitive cure for impatience, a non-medical technique for relaxing the highly strung: how different such a miracle would have made my life! But age seems to have done the trick for now. I can almost imagine stitching away but never finishing anything.