Joy comes in the morning … with knitting needles

  • Knitting fingerless gloves for Christmas gifts the first year in The Epic Van.

We ran into another pair in the laundromat yesterday. A couple whose eyes burned with unfulfilled desire as they peered into the van. “You live here?” “Really?”

As we give them a tour, extolling the virtues of our “Minimal home, maximum life,” listening to their longtime dream of a life on the road, talking about where we camp, how many miles we’ve driven, all the places we’ve visited, we gently broach the subject of hobbies.

It’s the one subject that can kill the dream. If you like to garden, you need a patch of dirt. No go in The Epic Van. Although I have seen campers with hanging plants outside their rigs. Totally weird to me. You’re a woodworker with a lathe? You better hang onto your workshop. Taxidermy. Not enough walls.

Our hobbies – books, hiking, history, yoga, museums, food, photography, blogging – neatly tuck into our home on wheels. Almost. There is the knitting challenge.

I relearned how to knit when Tom got neck cancer and I couldn’t sleep. I stayed up all night, most nights, watching Becker, the Ted-Danson-as-a-curmudgeonly-doctor reruns and playing knitting tutorials over and over and over again until I mastered each knit, purl, slip/slip/knit. At first, knitting was a way to make each minute of torture pass. You can read about that in a piece below, Stitches in Time, which I did for my writing group, Mothers Who Write.

Happily, there was a happy ending. Now, about 12 years later, we’re rolling in The Epic Van, hiking, museuming, cooking, and yogaing and, after Tom’s recovered health, knitting is one of the purest of pure joys in my life.

I love the puzzle-like nature of figuring out a complicated pattern, the feel of the luxurious wool, cotton, silk, cashmere and alpaca, the beautiful hand-dyed colors, the delightful unpredictability of color pools that swim from multi-colored skeins, the candy-store nature of yarn shops with shelves and cubbies and racks and walls of skeins and hanks and balls. I love watching something miraculously grow off my needles as, day after day, I create a thing both beautiful and useful with my own two hands. I love the feeling of connection with generations of women who knitted out of necessity to clothe their families, but pumped in amazing creativity to express their artistic souls. I love the bits of straw that I find wound in the wool, reminding me of sheep in the field who created this wonderful fiber. I daydream about having a couple of sheep to love and sheer. (Oops, off The Epic Van rails.)

Knitting in the van wouldn’t seem to be a big problem. It’s just a few balls of yarn and some needles, right?

Well, the first year, I brought tubs (yes, multiple) of yarn. One held a rainbow of cotton yarn that I used to knit my intricate baby hats that sold in an old-town Scottsdale shop for $60 apiece. Another held more than a dozen skeins of wool that I was using to knit my son, Nate, a striped sweater. Yet another had projects for Christmas gifts. There were bags and pencil boxes and baggies, filled with straight needles, double-pointed needles, circular needles, scissors, tapestry needles, measuring tape, stitch markers, needle sizers, crochet hooks. And a veritable library of patterns I might want to use.

This year, I left with one bag. In it, a sweater I’m knitting for Tom, an intricate mass of cables and moss stitch in a smoky gray wool with flecks of white, with a beautiful collar for his lovely, functional neck. There were also several skeins of wool I’m using to knit baby hats for Periwinkle Polka Dot, the business I have with my friend Tami. (I use the word business sheepishly, because it implies making money, which is somewhat questionable in our regard.) Periwinkle Polka Dot is an example of what WON’T fit in The Epic Van.

It started with Tami and I, when we were still working, getting together on weekends to stitch and bitch. We set up our sewing machines on facing tables in her patio room and started making clothes for little girls while we complained about things at work. We would sew for a few hours every Saturday or Sunday, Tami making beautiful pillowcase dresses, me trying out circle dresses and rompers. We started buying kids’ overalls and denim jackets and upcycling them, decorating them with fabric, lace and tulle. Over a couple of years, our inventory started piling up, and we decided we better sell some of it.

Periwinkle Polka Dot was born. We incorporated, started going to a few small craft fairs, setting up our awning, a few wobbly racks and hanging out our wares. Each time we sold a little, then a little more. Meanwhile, I retired, then Tami took a buyout. And Tom and I started our nomadic life.

When we came home for the holidays, Tami and I would sew and do small fairs. We decided we needed more customers because we had to find the subsection of the crowd that had a little girl in their lives.

We applied for the Tempe Arts Festival, a huge leap for us. It’s a juried fair, so you must be selected to participate, which was not a foregone conclusion. We learned we were accepted, paid the $750 booth fee, and then I panicked about production. I threatened to buy a sewing machine to have in the van, which made Tom blanch. Instead, that year, we went back to Arizona a few weeks early so Tami and I could prepare for the sale.

We put together better clothing racks made from PVC pipes, ladders and boards. We bought sides for our awning, so we could close it up at night. And we sewed like demons. The sale was a raging success for us, and the second year we did both the December and March shows. We upgraded our soccer-mom awning to a professional booth, honed our inventory in on upcycling denim, vintage linens and trims, and bulked up our inventory. We snagged child-size dress forms when Gymboree went out of business, along with armloads of sweaters, jumpsuits and jeans to upcycle, and scored piles of upscale materials from a friend of a friend. All of which is making Tami’s house and garage bulge at the seams.

Back to the yarn. Because I can’t jam a sewing machine into the van, I figure I can do some baby hats and scarves. Just one bag of yarn, right?

Well, earlier this year, when I lost my mojo, it seemed yarn was the only antidote. I bought yarn for a shawl and more baby hats in Pacific Grove, California. And then I had a really brilliant idea: We could buy cloth doll bodies and make doll clothes for them from our vintage materials and sell them in the booth. I ordered the doll bodies from the Ukraine, and bought some more yarn in Portland to knit doll sweaters. Then, when we drove through McCall, Idaho, I had to stop and buy some hand-dyed yarn from the shop where I’d seen it two years earlier and dreamed about ever since. And now we’re headed for New York and I’m drooling about going to Purl Soho, and there’s a shawl pattern and amazing yarn that I’ve wanted to buy for maybe six years, so no telling what will happen. Or maybe you can guess. And my friend in Maryland wants to take me to her yarn shop. And I read this wonderful book this year, Handywoman, by Kate Davies, and I want to try one of her yoked sweaters, and, sigh.

Now I have two yarn bags, maybe soon to be three, that I shuttle from my bed to my seat up front at night, and I’m determined to finish Tom’s sweater before we get back to Arizona, where I have multiple tubs of yarn and patterns just waiting for my next brilliant idea to strike.

Maybe next year, I can get it down to one bag. But I doubt it.

Stitches in Time

“Metastasized cancer,” he says. He had promised the lump on my husband’s neck was a cyst, but now his disembodied voice says, “Metastasized cancer.” And something about finding “the original site.” He gives Tom smelling salts. I think I might vomit.

     At 3 a.m., when I cannot sleep, I teach myself to knit. I watch videos until I master “slip 1 knitwise,” “purl 2 together,” and “yarn forward.” I make baby hats of bright cottons, with stripes, bobbles and curlicues, for fuzzy, fresh heads I will never know.

“Expect a year of hell,” the surgeon at Mayo says. Neck dissection. Tube feedings. “You might not be able to swallow, or lift your arm.” He advises saving chemotherapy for the “last resort,” a relapse. Tom’s neck is held together with Frankenstein-like staples.

     I cast on a ribbed scarf in soft orange tweed, unending rows to wrap the empty space that used to be muscle and lymph nodes and saliva glands. I wish it were chain mail.

We make daily visits to the radiation machines in the basement that shoot particles into Tom’s neck. A mold holds his head motionless on the table. They say the effect will be “cumulative.” I hear other patients cry out in pain as they are moved into position.

      I work in black wool, a sweater I choose to consume larger chunks of time. I knit bottomless black seas that wash across my lap onto the arms of the institutional chair.

Another day-month-year. Another check. Gloved fingers probe his throat, making him gag. A tube with a camera on the tip slides through his nostril down to his vocal chords.

      I don’t have my knitting. I don’t know what to do with my hands. I try to hold them still in my lap. I try not to scream.

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