Yesterday my friend J gave me a knitting lesson. (She'd offered to teach me while I was housebound after the stroke, though we didn't manage to meet until yesterday.) She arrived with a bag of yarn and projects, and she left me with a copy of Stitch 'N Bitch, my first pair of needles, and my first two skeins of yarn. (I'm planning to practice with the big fuzzy stuff; the soft variegated Icelandic wool will have to wait until I have some skill.)
In theory I learned how to knit years ago. When first I visited my alma mater as a prospective student, I stayed with an old friend whose room-mate was an avid knitter. I spent my visit drinking coffee and discussing philosophy and pop culture with a group of jazz musicians (some of whom remain my dearest friends, fifteen years later), and while I was there I learned how to knit. I made a single simple scarf, in garter stitch, and then never picked up needles again.
Until yesterday, when I fumbled my way through making a test square. It's imperfect -- I managed to both add and drop stitches when I wasn't paying attention -- but I made it with my own hands, which feels good. J tells me knitting can be calming and restorative. Plus, at the end of a project one has something tangible to show for one's time, so the work is a kind of double blessing. (Thinking of my knitted prayer shawl, I have to agree.) We have a date for another lesson soon, and in return I've promised that next summer I'll teach her my favorite useful craft, pickling and preserving the harvest from Caretaker Farm.
Yesterday I also began preparing to read from Torah at mincha (afternoon services) two Shabbatot from now. I'll be at DLTI, and I'm hoping to leyn. Like knitting, leyning is something I knew once, many years ago, but haven't done since; I began learning it again in December, but lost a few weeks of learning time to my recent medical adventures, so now I'm scrambling a little. It feels like a clumsy uphill climb, and it's definitely teaching me humility. Kind of like the knitting.
My co-reader and I are doing three aliyot. All in all, I'm only planning to chant a scant seven verses; I imagine my friends and readers who leyn regularly would find this laughably easy. But for me, it's slow going. I stare at the page; I parse each phrase; I sing the trop markings, pausing every time I can't remember how a melody goes (usually I have to mentally sing back through the list in the order I learned them); and then, haltingly, I sing the melody into the words.
I get stuck a lot. I falter, and have to start over. It's frustrating to feel so inept, to lose my stride so easily. I'm used to being good at things -- and, as a corollary, to doing things I'm already good at. Sure, my working life poses challenges all the time -- it wouldn't be interesting, otherwise -- but on the whole, these days, I tend to stretch by aiming to do better at things I already do reasonably well. Neither knitting nor leyning falls into that category, and it's humbling to see how easily I can be reduced to abject frustration.
But there are moments when I'm not so hobbled by my inexpert status. I still find purling counterintuitive, and casting on and off are going to take some practice, but there were a few moments yesterday when knitting felt almost comfortable, and I was even able to look up from my needles to converse. By the same token, while some of these verses make me want to bang my head against the wall, some of the others already roll gently off of my tongue, and I can imagine what it will feel like when I don't have to fumble for bits of melody.
Worthwhile skills often take work to master. The challenge is finding enough pleasure in the journey to keep oneself headed toward the destination. And with that, kindly excuse me; I have some practicing to do...