Crossover revelation

For Read Your Stash:

Immediately after finishing my brioche-stitch hat, I cast on for a hat, and — yes, another hat. No, it’s not a problem; I can stop any time. I choose to knit hats all the time, OK? And that one lost weekend where I went on a bender and woke up in a pile of hats I didn’t remember knitting, wincing at a fresh and stinging tattoo on my bicep of a fist holding five double-points, was just a youthful indiscretion. So drop it already, and stop staring at my arm.

The Adventures of Baron Münchhausen
The Adventures of Baron Münchhausen

Anyway, the brioche-stitch hat came with an alarming revelation. I put the hat on my boyfriend when we were at Taco Bell the other day, and that hat suddenly seemed — well, not underwhelming, exactly, but — subtle. I had spent a month banging my head on my desk trying to invent a way to decrease brioche stitch in pattern in a simple, one-color spiral, and you’d never guess how hard it was by looking at the gentle, curving lines along the crown. It looked easy, dammit.

That night, the boyfriend and I read to each other in bed. He laboriously read me the first chapter of his Swedish copy of “The Brothers Lionheart,” trying to translate what he calls a “caveman language” into recognizable English. I read the first chapter of Daniel Pinkwater’s Lizard Music. Justin was skeptical at first, asking “Is this a kids’ book?” I told him to be quiet, knowing that no matter how simple the language seemed, it would hook him. Pinkwater is a master story-spinner. His stories always start out a little slow and mundane and slide deeper and deeper into ludicrous, hilarious and unlikely worlds.

I own a whole shelf of children’s and young adults’ books like that. The skinny, short books look out of place next to the stacks of Richard Brautigan and Raymond Carver and nonfiction books on cults. My novels skew dark and often Canadian, with lots of Margaret Atwood and Douglas Coupland, and I have loads of serious and grim graphic novels. On the surface, I look pretty morose, except for this oversupply of kid stuff.

Look a little closer at the kid stuff, though, and you’ll see lots of Roald Dahl, who put his young heroes through almost as much hell as the baddies. You’ll find Pinkwater, whose child heroes are complex and unsettlingly mature. The classic children’s lit that it seems nobody else read but my English teachers — Black Beauty, National Velvet, Watership Down, A Little Princess, Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island — had cruelty in spades and death counts in the dozens. The tattered and spine-damaged “Book of Goodnight Stories” I’ve had since I was small is filled with murderous stepparents and siblings, children crying so hard blood leaks from their eyes, and talking horses whose heads are chopped off and nailed to fences.

Look at the dark stuff for grown-ups, and you’ll find intense lyricism and passion. Atwood’s books take twice as long as any others for me to read, since I often find myself pausing and rereading sentences or entire paragraphs to soak up the beautiful and evocative language. John Cheever drew his dark and cynical stories about civilized life with a sharp and hilarious wit. David Sedaris draws from a well of deeply twisted and painful memories and makes me laugh until my sides ache. And Carver? He makes my heart swell with remembered love and possibility before he breaks it in half again.

My yarn stash, when I dug through it, looked a lot like that. It’s all black and brown and gray and red. There are occasional flashes of color, mostly bought as gifts or at criminally low fire-sale prices, but for the most part it all looks the same: dark colors, medium weights. There are maybe two balls each of super-bulky and lace-weight. Everything else is worsted or sport-weight. Nothing in it could be described as “fun.”

Touch it, though, bury your hands in it, and you’ll notice something: it’s wonderful. It’s all buttery merino, frothy alpaca, smooth wools, slippery cottons. A big hank of matte black yarn is actually lush cashmere. A sack of plain black yarn throws off silver-blue flashes when you look at it closely, and thin fibers of silk gleam and catch the light. A brown yarn shifts colors from from fawn to coffee to wet earth, looking like the ground underneath redwoods.

There is no novelty yarn. The acrylic I started my stash with is gone, except for one skein each of black and white. When I go to my stitch ‘n’ bitch, I bring a sack of yarn to give away and try to sweet-talk fellow knitters into taking it home with them. When I organize my stash, one or two balls of yarn always land in the giveaway pile. I’ve already unloaded every yarn I’d never use, just like I’ve weeded out all but my favorite books.

Useless things aren’t welcome, except for two very specific treasures: one book, and one ball of yarn. The book is a German copy of The Adventures of Baron Münchhausen I lifted from my parents’ place, a huge collection of useless things. Thanks to my mom’s constant trolling of thrift stores and her magpie’s eye for valuables, the house is crammed to the rafters with antiques. Ranks of ugly, fantastically valuable dolls with “flirty” eyes and real human hair stare from every corner and tabletop. Dismantled, half-repaired porcelain heads loll on the kitchen table, shedding bits of wire and flakes of paint. Thumb-sized brass figurines and tiny stuffed animals filled with sawdust perch on piles of price guides and squeeze bottles of the acne cream my mom uses to bleach out stains on the dolls’ skin.

A wolf with a horse's head in its mouth, pulling a sled. From The Adventures of Baron Münchhausen.
A wolf with a horse's head in its mouth, pulling a sled. From The Adventures of Baron Münchhausen.

One day when I was there to fix yet another of my parents’ computer problems, I spied a yellowing book tucked into a plastic bin full of doll clothes with ripped seams. My own inner magpie, honed by a childhood spent in Goodwill and Salvation Army stores, knew it was something good. I picked it up, the cracking Mylar dust jacket flaking in my hand, and checked out the illustration on the front.

I don’t know any German, but being the good Terry Gilliam fan I am, I could recognize the Baron anywhere. I gingerly opened the book to the title page and noted the date of publication: 1905. Not bad! I flipped gently through pages and pages of prim calligraphic type until I landed on a delicate illustration of a man in a sled being pulled by a wolf. The wolf held in its teeth the head and neck of a horse with one leg still attached. Other parts of the horse were scattered on the ground around the sled.

I had to have this book. I casually palmed it, knowing my mom would never notice one slim little book gone missing in all that chaos. It was probably destined for eBay, just like all the other stuff there eventually was. I took the book home and perched it atop the CD shelf, knowing I would never be able to read it. The Baron peered down from the front cover, gravely overseeing as I purged the house of clutter and useless things.

RYGJA Norwegian wool

Only one yarn that survived all those purges is completely useless. There was a single ball of it at the thrift store and it was a dark, hairy brown, like what you’d get if you spun spider’s legs into twine. It was definitely dead old lady yarn — the stuff that surviving relatives pack into garbage bags and dump into donation bins after taking the good jewelry and the furniture.

Yarn label dancersThe creased and cracked label, though, was as bright and cheerful as the yarn itself was dull and scratchy. Its old-school, sensible design and primary colors popped against the mud-colored yarn. Three crowned women in striped dresses danced together above the brand name, Rygja, as a blocky little man next to them sawed at a violin. “FROM THE WOOL OF THE STURDY NORWEGIAN MOUNTAIN SHEEP!” the text crowed in capital letters capped with an exclamation point.

The label text, knowing the yarn wasn’t especially inviting, was brightly reassuring. “The women of Norway enjoy knitting with this ‘Natural Yarn,’ and so will you!” it read. “Their men like to wear their sweaters and so will yours.”

Their men must be as sturdy as the Norwegian mountain sheep, I thought, to wear sweaters made of what felt like baling wire, but it would take a tougher woman than myself to resist that cheerfully anachronistic label and a 50-cent price tag. I bought the yarn and wound it into a ball that looked and felt exactly like a small coconut, buried it at the bottom of one of my yarn boxes, and tucked the label into a box where I keep bits of yarn, F. Scott Fitzgerald notecards and the instructions that came with my 30-year-old hairpin lace loom.

Throwing away the yarn and keeping the label would be like stripping the illustrations from Münchhausen and trashing the rest, and that doesn’t sit right with me. Maybe one day I’ll frame it and hang it, or start a collection of old yarn labels, so I won’t have to feel bad about squirreling away something I know I’ll never use.

After a lifetime as a pack rat, I’ve finally started to pare away the excess and keep only what’s useful, and that means being ruthless about getting rid of everything else. I don’t want to end up like my mom, with guest rooms piled with crates of old toys and an office filled with so many dolls that she has to hang them on the walls with string like little plastic sides of beef. But somehow, my book and my ugly-as-mud yarn still feel welcome. In a home that’s holding less and less, it’s nice to own a couple of things that are good for pretty much nothing. It means they must be there because I love them.