Wednesday, October 04, 2006

the Shedir and the Spider

I posted the Shedir hat as a finished object last week, but I wanted to tell its story a little bit. And in light of what Ann's post yesterday in response to the horrific events in Lancaster County, I wanted to share this now.

Pepe started preschool this year, and his teachers are an incredible team of warm, funny women, who enjoy their families, their three year old classes, and clearly enjoy each other. One of them, J, has been in treatment for breast cancer since March. She is finished with chemotherapy and is receiving radiation. Can you believe that this brave woman stood up in front of the parents gathered on back to school night to explain how her radiation therapy will not interfere with her being at school?? I think after radiation therapy, people earn the right to go home and pull the covers up over their head, but clearly, this is not J's style.

Of course, my response was to immediately go to the closest LYS and buy yarn for a chemo cap. I chose Berroco Ultra Silk, an incredibly soft yarn (I never thought I would be saying this about Berroco, but it's true. I loved it) in J's favorite pink, and I immediately whipped out the cable needle and began knitting Shedir.

As I began knitting, Mr S noticed how lovely and complicated this hat was. I think he said something like, "that's not an ordinary thing you are knitting there." It truly bordered on the exquisite, not the normal, stockinette-roll-brim-done-in-one-night kind of hat. I mean, this was one beautiful piece of knitting. If you ever want to impress yourself, knit this pattern.

But that's when the doubt started the creep in. I wondered if it seemed strange to give this truly exquisite, silk hat to a virtual stranger. And then I remembered one of my dear friends, S, a cancer survivor, who was an avowed scarf wearer. No chemo caps for her, thank you very much. And then several blogs began encouraging knitters to knit pink for October, and I thought that I could just anonymously donate to someone else. Maybe J liked her cotton caps just fine, and would think it was strange that I went to all this effort for someone. Or maybe it wouldn't fit...I had a million reasons to not give her that hat.

I gave it to her anyway. After class last week, I popped my head in, and offered it to her, wrapped in tissue paper. I tried to be as casual as possible. I told her that if she liked it, great, but if it wasn't "for her," or didn't fit, that she was under no obligation to keep it, my feelings would not be hurt. I told her that I had intended it for donation, but wanted to offer it to her with my best wishes for her recovery. If she didn't like it, I could donate it to any number of organizations that collect chemo caps. She seemed surprised and touched, and promised she would take it home and model it for her family and let me know.

I don't think I ever gave anyone a gift with so many caveats and explanations in my life, and I felt strange about the whole event. I really surprised myself by feeling strange about being kind to another woman, like somehow this would not be appropriate. I shared this story and all my doubts with the incredible SpiderWoman. If you do not read her blog, you really should. Her knits are beautiful, but it is her soul that I admire the most. And, as usual, she had the perfect thing to say (with her permission):

I think what you did was so wonderful. Knitters are so nurturing. So often I have a similar instinctual reaction to people I come in contact and honestly I just say go with your feelings. Think of it as a random act of kindness. I don't mean that to sound cheesy or new agey but I think we doubt our kindness more that we do our selfishness and I view that as a huge societal problem.

The way you offered her the cap and gave her an out if it wasn't her thing was fine. There are two possible outcomes that I can foresee. She loves the hat, is touched by your gesture, and uses it with joy. Or, it might not feel right on her, she might not know you well enough to give it back and she may not use it but I am sure that she will keep it. Even having it around will give her joy. The hat whether it is on her head or in her house will be a reminder that people acknowledge the challenge she faces and that they care enough to let her know they are thinking about it. That is a huge thing. People need their feelings validated. Having seen your friend go through treatment I am sure you know that. The hat you knit while useful takes on the symbol of communal care and that is it's most important function in my eyes.

I work with a lot of people from the Ivory Coast of Africa and the hardest adjustment they make coming to America is leaving their culture of care behind. Lucky for us they bring it with them. It wouldn't be unusual in some of the villages I have been told about to not only bring goods like your hat to someone you know is facing a challenge but you would also visit that person on a daily basis and check in to see if anything was needed. What a contrast to our culture where you just nod and wave at neighbors.

You know, it's really funny because I want to knit things for people I don't know so well all the time. There is a young farmer in my area who has started raising hogs and works really hard to provide the community with organically raised meat. He also sells chickens and eggs at the farmers market. Every time I see him I think, "He needs a watchman's cap". Last year I knit mittens for the couple who has an orchard in our area. They only know me as a customer but I wanted them to know I appreciate their work.

Don't doubt your gesture for a second. It was a beautiful thing to do.

At no point did I consider whether it was important if she actually wore it or not. As an obsessed knitter, I was too focused on the knit, on the actual use of the object and whether it pleased the receiver, not the feelings or the sentiment behind the gift. What was important is that she felt supported by her school community. What was important was my family's best wishes for her health, and for her to feel ackowledged during her ordeal.

So this week, J gave me a big hug, said that if she turns the brim up a little bit, it fits her great. She repeatedly called the hat "cute!" and said she loved it and so did everyone in her family. I don't think she saw the complicated twisted stitches, the luxurious yarn, the pages of instructions and days of knitting; she just saw a cute pink hat that a student's Mom made her when she needed one. In SpiderWoman's very wise words, it was a "symbol of communal care and that's its most important function."

I don't know if this has really anything to do with what happened in the Amish school. Is this kind of horror ever preventable? Mental illness is not cured by kindness and community. And what community cares more for each other than the Amish and their neighbors?

Maybe all I can do is counteract the violence and fear and indifference with a kind gesture. During times like this, it doesn't feel like enough.


Jersey Shore Deb said...

I made the Shedir hat for a dear friend of mine who was going through chemo last year. Thankfully, the treatment seems to have worked and she is fine now. But I can't tell you how much she and her husband were impressed with that hat--not only the gesture of providing a handmade gift, but the skill and workmanship involved. For me, the hat was a challenge but I poured prayers into every stitch and making it helped me as much as it helped my friend.
I think you did a wonderful thing..

Ann said...

As a former counselor, I believe that the road to intervention and often recovery for many, many people is lined with generous, compassionate assistance from family, friends, and the community. Sometimes it's as simple as listening to and believing in a child. Sometimes it's reaching out and gifting someone with a gorgeous, handknit hat. Your compassionate act says "I am bearing witness to your life and you are not alone." Well done my dear friend.

Anonymous said...

great, thoughtful and thought-provoking post. i too never thought about the fact that your true gift-giving objective -- making her feel better -- was achieved regardless. it's a great sentiment and one to consider in so many areas of our life. thanks for taking the time to share it all with us :)

Jillio said...

wow. kinda tugs on your heartstrings a bit....

i think knitters make the world a happier place, one FO at a time. :)

in something totally unrelated to your post, we SERIOUSLY need a Target here. I miss it :*(

Dorothy said...

You did a beautiful thing. Even the smallest of kindnesses can bring out the biggest boost in energy and hope.

Anonymous said...

I think you did a wonderful thing. I oftentimes want to make and do things for people I don't know that well also and I have to admit that I have the same argument in my head as you did in yours: "should I do it? will they think it's weird? is it over the top? what will they think?" But when I go with my heart and follow through, I never regret it and always feel uplifted by the act of it! It's a wonderful thing to do something for someone else out of kindness and thoughtfulness and for no other reason. I say we should do it and do it often! These may be little acts of kindness but our world would be just a little bit brighter and a little bit warmer for it.

Susan said...

I think that the biggest part of all of this is not the knitting of the hat -- it's the reaching out to another human being and making a connection. Parents tend to know more about their children's teachers than the teachers know about the parents, so it's especially nice that J now knows that you were listening when she spoke and that you did more than nod your head and sympathize.

Carol said...

Thank you for a lovely post.

Hannah said...

What a beautiful post. Wow. I'm off to reread it now. Thank you.

Anonymous said...


What a wonderful post you have written, a wonderful gesture you have made, and a wonderful person you are.

I hope you know that I didn't tell you anything you didn't already know.

There are so many mind boggling (bad) things about our society that you can get overwhelmed by thinking about them. But I believe that small gestures can heal little bits at a time and are among the most important actions we can take. People who do things like knit a hat just because they care, even for a new person in their world like your sons preschool teacher, are heroes in my book.

Thank you for sharing what you have done.


Anonymous said...

Hi! Just wanted to let you know that this submission made it into this month's Yarnival! You can view the issue on my blog. Thanks for submitting! Have a GREAT DAY!

Laura said...

liz, not totally sure how i missed this post when you first posted it, but glad i saw it through yarnival. really beautiful. i will think of it every time i knit for others! :)

Carol said...

I used to think the way you did about knitting for someone in need, until I read this. Thanks so much for sharing your story. This puts a whole new & lively perspective on knitting for others, wether we know them well, or not.

Anonymous said...

Lovely story and what a beautifully made hat! I'm adding that pattern to my To Do list and your blog to my list of bookmarks.


Anonymous said...

I found this through Yarnival and I can not tell you how deeply your post touched me. Thank you for posting this. :)

Anonymous said...

what a wonderful post. i'm a firm believer in the power of handknits to express love, and positive vibes, prayers, compassion - all the feelings we experience when we're working on the piece, and thinking of its intended recipient. i made a couple of hats for my uncle when he was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Sadly, he didn't make it, but when my aunt was asked to choose a special item of clothing for him to be cremated in, she picked one of those handknitted hats.

Anonymous said...

I'm sitting her at work tearing up - I too found this through Yarnival - I feel so blessed to have read these words which apply to every area of our lives in addition to our knitting!

Stell said...

I to came here via Yarnivale, and think this is one of the nicest things to do. the big C is such an intimidating thing that many acts of kindness are needed to give strength. Knitting such a hat with all its myriad of stitches is a wonderful way to to that.