Sunday, March 09, 2008

Tying Knots

From time to time I’ll feel a vague, inchoate desire to make something. Sometimes it finds expression in baking bread, making red sauce, or having friends to dinner. Sometimes (all too rarely) it results in me emptying my mending bag, sewing on buttons, closing up seams. I can remember a time when it took expression in sketching on pretty much a daily basis, but sadly I’ve fallen out of the habit, and the ability has atrophied. I still make masks, but they are more often motivated by specific projects or commissions these days; less often do I turn to it as pure impulse. Sometimes the house gets cleaned, lemon and lavender scents clearing my head and my mood, clean, uncluttered surfaces letting my eye come to rest.

And once every great while, the desire to make will find expression in making friendship bracelets. You know what I’m talking about, right? Well, maybe if you didn’t go to a pinko-commie-Quaker-pacifist-hippy-dippy-crunchy-granola college, you didn’t come across them. They’re those colorful little ribbons of macrame, made with embroidery thread. They're given as gifts to someone special (not exclusively romantic partners), tied on the wrist, or in some cases, ankle, then worn until time, sweat, and showers causes them to break off. Almost everyone in my school wore one or two at some point.

From the very start they satisfied some deep needs in me. First of all was the need to play with color in a very basic way. I love rich, deep, super-saturated colors, more jewel-tones than neon. I don’t usually care much for pastels; I like colors with the courage of their convictions, and usually pastels just look watery and wimpy to me (as in all things, there are exceptions). I’m generally disappointed in the colors of men’s clothing. Maybe there will be an ultramarine blue, a tomato red, a green once in a while, less often a lavender – and even then they are shades I find boring or unappealing – but most of what one sees is black, grey, khaki, white, the least interesting browns one can imagine, and of course, navy blue; this is what real men, at least in the United States, are allowed to wear. Anything else runs the risk of making one look frivolous, if not downright faggy.

I like blue. I wear blue. I wear a lot of blue. But the colors that really get my juices flowing run more towards pine green, deep violet, Tuscany yellows, and copper reds just to name a few. In recent years I’ve come to appreciate fire colors like never before, reds, oranges, yellows, (I think coinciding with a lifting in spirit, and greater willingness to be seen) but even then I don’t want them to look like they came from a Crayola box. A SMALL Crayola box. Primary colors in general bore me, especially the most basic blue and red that exist out there (often even in the plaids). I think I would like them well enough, if they weren’t so damn ubiquitous.

So anything made with embroidery thread is a good antidote to all this. They were meant to be used purely for decoration, so there is no need to bow to utility. Every possible color and shade, is available. Just browsing at the store is a delight to the eye. What’s more, the bracelets allow you to explore colors in combination. How will this teal look next to this magenta? How about if a lavender is placed between them? Can a yellow be added, or will it just spend the whole time screaming at the lavender? And what about pattern? The repertoire of the friendship bracelet is limited to angled rows, chevrons, diamonds, and something I call alphas (basically diamonds with an inverted V attached), but that still opens up an array of possible color and pattern combos.

Maybe this need for color would be equally satisfied by finger-painting, but that’s not the only need it fills. I also find a great satisfaction in making knots. In the simple act of joining threads, the image of healing is never far off for me. Then there’s the pleasure in watching the pattern take shape, rows of knots slowly accruing, like weaving but with much quicker results and fewer equipment needs. Also like weaving, the process of tying knots becomes a great gateway to a trance-state, what Abraham Maslow called ‘flow’. At the very beginning of the process I may need to focus on the task so the threads get put in the order I want, but once I’ve made it through the first complete sequence, my hands can take over with only minimal attention paid by my eye and conscious mind. This is when things often rise to the surface, questions I’m grappling with, confusions I’m feeling, all the clutter in my brain that needs shaping, organizing, purging. Occasionally when I’m aware of feeling this way, I’ll choose to make a bracelet. More often than not though, the impulse to make one, even to some extent the choice of colors, will come first, and only after I’ve started do I begin to see what is lurking in the depths.

I used to have this joyful, timeless experience in a lot of different ways; like I said above, drawing used to provide it; so did putting the layers of paper mache on the mold of a mask. In 1992 though, when I had just ended my first serious relationship, I was asked to make some masks for a production, and realized that while I was working, instead of my welcome trance-state, I was tapping into a whole lot of anger. Fights were replayed, irritations relived, I wrote new scenes where I explained why his ‘let’s be friends’ approach was unwelcome and insulting... not the peaceful meditative state I was used to having during this task. I no longer envision my poor ex-boyfriend’s head on a platter when I make masks, but neither have I regained the sense of flow I once had. Someday, I hope it will return.

I never lost it with these silly little bracelets though. And that’s another part of their appeal, I think. They’re completely pointless. Wearing them until they rot off, that's the closest they get to having a purpose. Occasionally I will tie one around a gift bottle of wine, or a vase, but attempts to use them like actual ribbon, i.e. for tying up packages, rarely works. I’ve sometimes offered them as bookmarks, but they’re ill-suited to that purpose as well, for all but the biggest, thickest hardbacks. I made a big one once, just for the hell of it, and ended up sewing it into the bag I made to carry my tin whistles. It does the job okay I suppose, but something else would have probably been better. I rarely give them away these days because people feel obligated to put them on, then they worry I’ll notice it missing the next time I see them. I explain that unless they’re surfers, skate-boarders, or under the age of 20, I don’t expect them to wear it, but they don’t believe me. There was a time when I had a plethora of them, and left them tied randomly to poles and fences in Greenwich Village. I figured I’d recognize my own patterns and color choices well enough that if I ever saw someone with one later, I’d recognize it and strike up a conversation, but so far that has never happened. Chances are good most of them got thrown in the trash by disgruntled supers.

No, they’re utterly pointless, and frankly, I don’t make them for the finished object, but for the process. Sometimes life fills me too full of experience, and I need the clarifying, organizing energies the making of these things gives me.

Last night I found myself needing to stay home. I thought it was simply wanting to take advantage of having the apartment to myself, but soon I realized that I was feeling the desire to make a friendship bracelet. It’s probably been years since the last time. I think I’d been feeling the desire for a few days, so my unconscious finally just made me sit at home, declining all invitations.

Right off the bat my color choices indicated new thoughts. Black, white, sunny yellow, a dark, not-quite-wine-colored red were my choices. I got two strands of each, for a V pattern. These are not colors I would typically combine. Normally I would have seen them as the the easiest choices in graphic design, striking yes, but maybe dull from over-use, in newspapers, logos and posters all over the place. I went with it though, and soon into the pattern realized I liked it, perhaps needed the message each color had to give me.

The white thread warned me of my perfectionism, rigid thinking, my fear of looking foolish, my need for there to be absolutes. The yellow reminded me to notice the simple, quiet, daily pleasures, especially the ones I think I don’t deserve. The red spoke, yes, of passion, love, committing deeply and fully, taking risks, but also of seeing the bigger picture, and committing fully to that as well. The black spoke of mystery and nighttime (when I often feel my creativity is at its most free), of the seed planted deep, committed to its own secret growth. It reminded me to be patient, truly patient, not just pay lip-service, to the secrets working underground, according to their own rhythms.
I felt for a number of years that I was spinning my wheels professionally and artistically; in recent years I felt like I wasn’t even doing that much. This black thread told me to have faith, to trust that things have to work at their own pace. I must tend the soil, water and feed the seed, but mostly I need to leave it alone, and trust I will know what to do when the next step presents itself.

The knots spoke to me as well. They tied me to so many people in my life; to my family and college friends of course; to the new friends I’m getting to know on and off-line; to the old friends who show up out of the blue - even from out of town - with an uncanny sense for when I need them; to the cautious optimism a treatment plan is providing a loved one; to the celebration of a deep bond being made deeper, where I drank too much and kissed too much and gave straight guys noogies that they took with admirable forbearance; to the new friends and gracious hosts who once again opened their home and lives to me, revealing themselves a bit more through older friendships; to the death of a wonderful old man who had helped liberate Bergen-Belsen, and let the horrors of what he saw there move him to connect, to befriend, and to nurture; to another celebration of another impending marriage and the joy I felt in being included; to the cooling words of a good friend reading my first draft of an enraged letter, less than a week after I had done the same for her; to shared meals and late night talks that nourished me more than the missed sleep; all these bonds, all these connections were recorded and celebrated in the tying of knots.

A sense of gratitude has been growing in my life in recent months. You can see it in my blog, I think. I’m sensible enough to know that it isn’t enough however. If the only thing my gratitude leads to is bits of macrame and cheerful mooning about in my apartment, then it hasn’t done me much good. I am ready to take action, but I know I haven’t yet. It’s odd too, because the fact is I like working. At least I think I remember feeling that way. I agree with G.B. Shaw when he says "I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake." I dance with Rumi as he sings "everyone has been made for some particular work, and the desire for that work has been put in every heart." I nod with recognition – and cringe at the unwitting accusation -- when Thoreau says "be not simply good – be good for something." I say this with no self-pity, and with no need for loving denials (Seriously, I’m not fishing), but in recent years I don't think I've been good for much. I’m wary of the ego’s need for adulation being the secret motive for my work (a constant bugaboo for actors), just as I watch his tendency to insist that not doing things at all is better than doing them badly. But the need for work, the need to do, to make, that isn’t ego. It’s recognizing responsibility to life.

Goodness. What a lot to hang on a tiny piece of ribbon. By the end of the evening though, I felt like something important had been rediscovered. There was a sense of grounding: of coming home even. I don’t know what the next step is. But I think I will when I see it.


Anonymous said...

The ribbon art that you show in the picture looks great. When I was growing up I wished I would have paid more attention to how they were made. I was into too many other things. I also respect what certain colours and shapes and forms have in regards to significance for you. When one looks at the wrist band, it reminds us of what each stands for and I enjoyed your explanation of each. If one could humbly continue the thought of Thoreau, one could also say, "be not simply good - be good, simply."

I also gather you play your whistles in Celtic music? Great! We have that genre in common though I am not a whistle player.

I also noticed you were wearing your Claddagh Irish friendship ring in the picture. Did you have it resized? It's hard to tell from the picture.

Thanks for your many thoughts, as it gives me more to digest when rereading your entry.


Java said...

This is a rich entry. You gathered the loose strings of various colored thoughts. You wove and knotted these thoughts, ideas, emotions, confusions into a pattern that makes sense, even if there is no direct application for it. Making that ribbon brought together your thoughts, and writing it down here is the patterned ribbon of those thoughts.

You make my heart go pitty-pat when you use words like "inchoate." One of my favorites. ;-)

Jess said...

Looking first at the bracelets in the photos, I thought they were lovely works, further little bits of the world being brighter for your presence in it. Then I kept reading and saw how they are so much more. I'm not surprised. Knowing you brings a special joy. There is a spirit in you that brightens the day. Whether you're examining deep thoughts or enjoying the day around you, you have a wonderful way of seeing things and an innate ability to let those whose lives you touch share in the special way you have for seeing the world. Anyone getting to wear one of your bracelets, whether they do so 24/7 or just on occasion, should count him/herself very lucky indeed!

Joe Jubinville said...

Gandhi took up spinning thread late in life and did it every day til he died. My friend Walter, on a whim, bought a small loom, and they were soon inseparable. Gawpo is returning to his potter's wheel. There is something in this sort of meditative hands-on work, in its repetition, its patterning, its tactile and steady accumulation of results that is deeply gratifying. Maybe on some primal level it replaces the world, substitutes another, comprehensive and appealing, and takes us outside ourselves.

Your friendship bracelets are lovely, my pinko-commie-Quaker-facifist-hippy-dippy-crunchy-granola-mask-making-dramaturgical and inspiring friend. Have you ever made a belt with one? They look like they would make a groovy belt.

dantallion said...

I've a feeling that the vibrant mosaic of colours you're weaving together with your hands are the perfect metaphor for the life you're weaving together for yourself. It's all very beautiful.

Patrick said...

Butch: If you ever want to learn how to make these, it will take you all of five minutes. I'd be tempted to give instructions here, but that would make it sound much more complicated than it should be. My suggestion, if you're still interested in making them, is to find an adolescent girl and ask her to show you. You'll be knotting in no time.

I think Thoreau would appreciate your variation.

Yes, I play the whistles in Celtic music (along with the bodhran), but I' woefully out of practice. Occasionally I've been asked to play them in productions, but I've rarely gotten to play with groups. I hope to change that soon.

And good eye: yes I'm wearing a Claddagh ring, but not the over-sized one. I may just have to save that for someone with bigger hands.

Java: Thank you my dear, I'm always glad to trot out the fun words with such a warm response. I almost titled this entry "tying up loose ends" but that phrase will forever have a delightfully specific meaning for me, thanks to you, that wouldn't have really made sense here.

This was one of those interesting entries that revealed itself as I wrote. I was surprised to end up where I did, but accepted the journey.

Jess: You're a sweetheart, but we already knew that. You have been one of the many bright gifts this blogging extravaganza has given me. You, Marc, Mandy, Bernice and Dodger have been wonderful new discoveries, colorful new threads to my world.

Joe: In fact I've been wanting to return to the pottery wheel, and loom as well, though my experience with both is slight. Never thought about spinning, but I bet it would have the same appeal. I definitely find there is something deeply satisfying, necessary even, to rhythmic, repetitious tasks done by hand. It seems worth noting to me how few of them I indulge in of late. There seems to be a salubrious ordering of the mind/body/soul for me in it. The pottery wheel in particular felt like it used my whole body, making me dance the clay into shape
Actually I haven't been in a dance class for a while either, and with my chronic pain abating, it might be time to do that again. You're reminding me of some valuable experiences.

I hadn't thought of a belt, but that might be a great idea. The wide one on my whistle bag started life as a dog collar. For an actual dog, I mean. It didn't really serve that purpose well. I'll have to experiment with belt-making. The first successful one is yours.

Dantallion: that's a lovely image. I hope you're right. Certainly I feel like some clarity is seeping in lately, and this Saturday night meditation may have helped me synthesize a lot of stuff. The colors in my life are feeling brighter lately, and I'm trying to see and appreciate that.

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for the idea regarding finding someone who could show me the technique. I liked all the ideas on how they could be used as well.

Take care,



ps ah, yes, the bodhrán is considered the heart of the music.

Patrick said...

Butch, a' Chara Dil,
You can put in the fadas! Do you have a special keyboard for that, or is it something I could learn how to do?

SlA~n (just experimenting, that clearly didn't work.)

I love the bodhran, but it's an even odder one to play by itself. I mean one can, and there have been plenty of occasions when I have... but after a while one starts to run out of things to do with it... Well, I do. I'm not that good. I love it though.

Do you play any instruments? I meant to ask before.

My word verification is jmcrqaiy. J. McRqaiy? Okay, maybe not as Irish looking as I thought, but my eye first picked out the Mc.

Cooper said...

I think I get the same sort of meditative patterning from quilting. The very motions of blocking and arranging the pieces of fabric produce a deep inner peace within me.

You have gathered the Loose Ends of your thoughts and woven them into something very lovely here, Patrick.

The whole cosmic and social mystery of life is a continuous tightening and loosening. I think we spend much of it trying to discern where we should tighten and loosen knots of complicity and belonging.

I would consider myself blessed to wear one of your friendship bracelets, darlin'. Just sayin'.


Sh@ney said...

The friendship bracelets look great, I am not sure my varying level of patience these days would allow me such a task! Thought I would drop by and say Hello and I enjoyed your thoughts.
Especially the GB Shaw statement!
Just how to action it may use me up entirely...*giggle*

Anonymous said...

"Butch, a' Chara Dil,
You can put in the fadas! Do you have a special keyboard for that, or is it something I could learn how to do?" - Patrick
Go raith maith agat!

I have no special program though, here is a way ( though tedious ) to put in the fadas.
(apologies to anyone else reading this as it may become very boring for you.)

With the Alternate key depressed, one can type in a set of numerals, let up on the Alt-key and the symbol ( in this case a letter with a fada over it ) will appear.

Here are the fada letters with their appropriat numerical:

á - Alt-160
é -130
í - 161
ó - 162
ú - 163
Á - 0193
É - 144
Í - 0205
Ó - 0211
Ú - 0218

I have come full circle musically speaking. I started out in Folkmusic, sang leading roles in opera and concerts (tenor) and now I am in a Celtic group and cofounded an Irish seisiún here in Olympia, Wa. I play quite a few instruments, the Celtic ones are ( some might not agree that they are Celtic but what can I say. ;-) )
guitar, Irish bouzouki, mandolin and harp. I do the singing for the group as well. One of the other members and I write our music and arrange it as well. We're presently working on a CD. ( in one of the sets I wrote, I named the middle piece after one of my favorite people who happens to write for Cooper's Corridor. ) ;-)

Regarding those pesky word verifications: I usually get these long and difficult to see letters that I rarely use, smunched together. I only hope I get it right the first time. Today, mine is: xbrbser ( definitely not Irish )

Hope the "Rosetta Stone" on fadas is helpful.


Greg said...

What a beautiful post, all your beautiful threads weaving together in a metaphor noting by many previous, including yourself.

But thanks for sharing it with us here...reminds me of the way my mind works when I lose myself in the garden, or while painting a room...or mowing the lawn...I've always enjoyed the tasks that almost do themselves, so we can spend some well-needed time in our heads.

And I'm with Coop...a friendship bracelet by Patrick would never see the inside of a trashcan!

Jeff said...

Oh, Patrick. You've got you a lot of friendship bracelets to make now. ;)

Wonderful wonderful to read this. May your spirit fly.

Joe Jubinville said...

Lay it on me, bra. I'll think of you whenever I take my 505s off.

One summer, I must have been nine-ish, ten... I learned how to weave mats out of old newspapers. I got so into it I was going around to houses begging for old newspapers, going through the trash, the basement. It was almost a fever.

There's a guy at the beach who makes beautiful hats out of palm fronds. You can watch him work, and he sells every one almost as fast as he makes them.

Perhaps there's a craving, in the midst of our digital bliss, for something tactile, a hunger for the raw materials of the earth in all their variety, texture, depth and glorious presence. We can't go back, and the electronic age has brought many blessings. But a restoration of some kind of balance looms. :-)

Patrick said...

Cooper: My mom started quilting when Reagan first got elected president. She made one for each of us, a few more, then she stopped... until 9/11/01. It's very much an act gathering in, repairing, healing for her.

I'd show you my quilt, but I'm ashamed of its state. It's well-loved, but it's also well-used, and well-traveled. The seams I can resew, but the places where the cloth has simply worn away... no idea what to do for that.

And I'd be honored to make you a bracelet, Darlin'... I have never tried to make one long distance before though. I usually let the person pick the colors and the pattern. We'll have to figure out how to to do that :)

Sh@ney: Welcome. I'm finding the bracelets to be a good way to regain patience, if that is any help... Yeah, I'm trying to figure out what to do with old GBW's words too. Keep me posted on your journey, I'll do the same.

Butch a Sto'r: (nope, I'm still doing something wrong)

How cool! And yes, I consider all those instruments Celtic. I'm hoping to get out to the PNW again, I'll have to stop by Olympia on a seisun night. Please keep me posted on your CD, I'd love to buy a copy. Cooper should have lots of songs written for/about him.

Greg: it's wonderful how many different tasks there are out there that can induce this state, and it's always interesting to learn what one does it for people. "The tasks that can do themselves" is a lovely way to put it.

See above re: making bracelets. I'd be delighted to do it, I've just never done it for a virtual friend before. So many new frontiers we have here...

Jeff mon Nuit: Thank you, dear friend. We'll see what happens. So were you asking for a bracelet too? Want me to make your wedding bands? THAT would be an interesting look... until they rotted off your bodies.

Patrick said...

Joe: (you and I must have posted simultaneously, you weren't there when I started) you always find ways to increase incentive. I'm calling in sick to work tomorrow.

Yes, I definitely think there is a craving for tactile experiences among a lot of us. I know I sometimes turn to the masks etc. when I'm feeling like the evanescence of theatre is proving to be just a bit too much. It's nice to spend time on something, and be able to hold it afterwards. Hadn't thought about it in connection with the digital age, but I think you're right. See my comment to Cooper re: my mom. She certainly saw the need for something to be rebalanced. Not that this was the only reason she made them, of course, but it seems like it was a strong motivator.

Anonymous said...

"Butch a Sto'r: (nope, I'm still doing something wrong) . . . -Patrick
Hmmmmm . . . Do you own a PC or a Mac? ( mine is a PC ) The only other thing I can think of is that you need to keep the Alt-key depressed whilst you type in the numericals. Be sure and use the calculator pad on your keyboard and not the numericals above the letters. Give that a go and see if it corrects the situation.

Slán Leat,


Patrick said...

Go raibh maith agat, a Stórín. That did the trick. I was indeed using the numbers up top. This alone might get mo thóin back in Irish class. My computer feels like a new toy all of a sudden.

slán agat.

Anonymous said...

" . . .I'm hoping to get out to the PNW again, I'll have to stop by Olympia on a seisun night. Please keep me posted on your CD, I'd love to buy a copy.. ." -Patrick
Sorry, I totally forgot about responding to this part of your post. Your visit in the PNW would be great. Our seisiún falls on a Thursday evening. When you know you will be in the area, do let me know. ( I'll let you know more about the CD when it is completed.) We're right in the middle of recording so it will be sometime this summer I would imagine.

I just noticed that you had success with the fadas, good!

Well, ( he switches to Irish for the penultimate time this evening ) "A phéarla atá breá glégeal," ( you and I both suffer from this trait ) ;-) Talk with you again.

Céad slán leat,


Patrick said...

Oh, Sh@ney, I meant GBS, not GBW (which was probably me getting my loathesome leader's initials screwed up in my head). I'm sure you figured that out...

Butch, I knew it wouldn't take long, but you've out run my meager vocabulary and inadequate dictionary. Breá is the only word I know... could you give me a translation? I want to know, especially if it's a trait we share. ("100 good byes" I got.) :)

Anonymous said...

Conas a ta tu, Patrick?

I picked up on a comment you made on Joe's blog about having Irish skin ( which I have as well )and I thought I would add to it here by making a puerile attempt at humour referring to you as: "A phéarla atá breá glégeal," or in our native tongue, "O fairest,
(or fine) pearly white one" loosely translated. ;-) This is the Irish trait we share.

I am not a native Irish speaker and my Irish is limited but when I run into a problem with pronounciation, etc., I take an Irish lesson or two from a wonderful woman who teaches at the local college. She's been most helpful with some of my songs that are in Irish.

Fadsaoil agat. (Long life to you)



Eric said...

What a great post, Patrick. I started spinning wool last year. I really enjoy it immensely.

As far as the whole "meaning and purpose" thing is concerned: yeah, I sort of find myself in the same place. But I've also learned to understand that I'm where I'm supposed to be: not in any kind of predestined way, but in the sense that this is where my journey has brought me and I will continue on that same journey until it's end. The whole "meaning and purpose" thing will come when I'm ready, able and willing to accept it.

Either that, or I just need to drink more Scotch.

Greg said...

Happy Saint's Day, Patrick!