Roberta Branca

Archive for the ‘Support’ Category

Algebra and Knitting

In Knitting, Support on October 21, 2011 at 8:40 am

I took Algebra for the first time in 7th grade. I got a zero on the first test. So my mother sat down with me and watched as I reworked a few of the problems on the test. She stopped me during the first problem and asked, “Where did you put the N?” (Or X, or whatever the letter was. It’s unnatural to mix numbers and letters.)

“I don’t need it until the end, so I took it out.”

It seems I misconstrued a shortcut the teacher taught us. I don’t remember now what the shortcut was but after that I never questioned the unholy alliance between numbers and letters.

It took me three tries to pass Algebra, but eventually I got the concepts and the application. I had to work hard on the details, though, checking my work carefully, working through problems more slowly. The year I finally passed Algebra was the year I had a friend tutor me just to make sure I wasn’t inadvertently inventing any new “shortcuts” as I learned new concepts.

Knitting is a lot like Algebra for me. In fact, it turns out you have to do a fair amount of math if you want your project to turn out right.

I’m not at a point of following a pattern yet. I’m knitting a scarf using a simple two-row repeat: one row of knitting, and a second row of Knit-4, Pearl-4.

I’ve unravelled my work three times now, and my wool/mohair single strand yarn is starting to get ratty. But I persevere. And along the way, I’ve sought the help of other knitters. Couldn’t do it without them.

I learned the basic knit stitch, and later the purl stitch, from my sig-other’s mom Sandy. I supplemented this with some book-learning and an attempt to fly on my own with simple patterns. Sandy re-taught me everything about three times. The very last time was because she noticed I was working the wrong side of each stitch. Knitting backwards. It was striking to both of us, because in spite of this I happen to knit a very even stitch. Or so I’m told.

Then there’s Kristen, my college roommate who lives on the West Coast. We follow each other faithfully on Facebook and talk on the phone about once a month. She’s shared with me her knitting stories, like how she first learned to knit from a friend who was dying of cancer. At the friend’s funeral, most of the people wore a scarf this friend had knitted. True to her outgoing nature, Kristen has emphasized the importance of socializing with other knitters. She says knitters are forgiving of mistakes, and it never hurts to ask for help. She has provided me with a list of knitting websites as well.

My friend Elizabeth in Minnesota is a champion knitter. Literally. She carts a plethora of projects to the state fair every year and wins ribbons. I can email her any time or rely on a well-informed Facebook comment. She pointed me to a knitting social website called Ravelry where I can log every pair of knitting needles I own. If I can find the time.

Then there’s Jennifer, a friend of mine since we were 6 and 8 years old. Today we’re two middle-aged broads trying to pick and choose what traits and habits we inherit from our mothers — including knitting. It was Jen who first gave me the idea of learning to knit. I inherited my mother’s sewing notions, including 25 or so pairs of knitting needles. When Jen read this in one of my previous blog posts, she immediately offered to teach me how to knit. Jen lives 45 minutes away, and is the mother of a teenager and pre-teen. Sandy only lives 20 minutes away and is retired.

So I learned the basics from Sandy and practiced on my own, in private, until I felt confident enough to try knitting in public. I arranged to meet Jen for coffee, and we both brought our yarn projects. Jen finished off one crocheted potholder and started a new one in the space of about an hour and a half.

I proudly pulled out my purple wool/mohair scarf project and showed Jen the stitching. From afar, she said it looked like it was too tight. I held it out across the table so she could examine it further, and she said, “Nope, it’s fine. You don’t need my help.”

I confided my fiasco with the backwards knitting, and admitted that I was worried I was doing the same thing with my purling. I told her what I was doing, and asked if I should be doing it differently. She said it sounded like I was doing fine, then she demonstrated a couple purl stitches for me so I could be sure.

Then I pulled out my “cheat sheet,” an index card on which I write down which row I should start on when I pick up my work. She titled her head and looked at me quizzically. “You haven’t learned how to tell by looking at it yet?” She then explained how one stitch is flat, and the other is bumpy, and I’ve already forgotten what she said.

Nonetheless, since that day I’ve practiced comparing one set of four stitches to the next set of four, so I can understand how knit-purl stitches look compared to a row of knit stitches. And, after perusing a “knitting dictionary” and reading instructions on how to pick up stitches, I’ve added a crochet needle to my project kit and I now patiently pick up stitches I drop. The overall project still has rough spots. For one thing, I’ve noted that the stockinette stitching that comes from knit-purl alternations doesn’t show through evenly. Somewhere along the way, I repeated rows of knitting when I should have done some purling.

The day after meeting Jen for coffee, I sat at the beach, pulled out my knitting, and examined the work I’d done while talking. I found a lot of dropped stitches so I unravelled a few rows. It was then I decided to teach myself how to pick up stitches.

A few days after meeting with Jen, she sent me a package. A beautifully worked potholder with a note: “For you!” It made me glow for days.


Moment By Moment: Stepping Out and Getting Started

In Private Musings Gone Public, Procrastination, Support on October 4, 2010 at 4:00 am

Today marks the end of a weekend of stepping out of my shell. On Friday and Saturday morning, I spent two hours volunteering at the state Democratic offices in Portsmouth, making phone calls of all things. It’s a more worthwhile endeavor than I anticipated. For one thing, elections for all the Democratic candidates in our state are expected to be really, really, close. And the majority voters are not only registered independent. They are really, really, truly independent. Most informed me that they were still researching the issues and weren’t ready to make up their minds. One or two did not want to discuss their voting preferences. I was surprised how many people were willing to listen to my views on why I think they should vote to re-elect Carol Shea Porter as a Representative. I think the honesty of my approach goes a long way toward securing the ear of the person on the other end of the line. That, and a “smile in my voice.”

On Saturday afternoon, I had the chance to meet the other congressional representative, Paul Hodes, who is running for the U.S. Senate. He was personable and warm when I spoke to him, yet fiery and committed when he spoke to us all as a group.

On Friday night, my sig-other and I had dinner with his mother and brother, and spent a couple of hours in good conversation with them afterwards. Friday night, I am proud to say, I sat right down to my writing. After all, the night’s conversation turned several times to writing, and what my plans were for the near future. Peer support is a strong motivator. I reached an arbitrary word-count goal before I knew it, and found myself with an entire scene I’ve been trying to put together coherently for several weeks.

Saturday night was not so productive. I have a much harder time visualizing myself at the computer with a blank canvas of time in front of me, and I hemmed and hawed about starting a writing session and finally just settled for watching PBS. On the upside, there were back-to-back mysteries on Masterpiece Theater so I told myself it was a form of “research.” Particularly watching an Agatha Christie story unfold — A Pocketful of Rye.

On Sunday, I attended a service at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Exeter. It’s only the third time I have attended since moving to the Seacoast five years ago, and the second service I’ve been there to this fall. I arrived just in time for the end of coffee hour, which gave me the chance to say hello to the only other person I know at the church, an old friend who used to attend First Parish UU in Cambridge. I was greeted with a huge bear hug, and although she had attended the earlier service and left when the bell for the service rang, her presence was with me throughout the service.

None of these activities comes easily to me. I am shy, and an INTP on the Myers-Briggs scale. I was wracked with guilt that I wasn’t using my free time writing. I worried that getting up earlier would mean spending fewer late-nights on my writing. The thought of meeting new people caused a lot of anxiety on my way to all of these events.

But, during the church service, I was sitting next to and behind a group of women who were obviously all good friends, enjoying listening to their chatter about the upcoming year in religious education, etc. They kept drawing in a couple seated two rows in front of them. During the meditation, we were all asked to stand and touch the backs of our hands to the hands of the people on either side of us. These three rows of people formed a circle with their chain of people, and still managed to connect with all the other people in the row. Partway through the meditation, I noticed that the two women next to me had stopped merely touching hands, and were holding hands instead.

Witnessing that moment of connection, and being clear-headed from meditating, helped me realize that the nervousness I feel about anticipating new people or crowds generally goes away once I am in the moment with other people. Although I may never be a social butterfly, I generally enjoy a sense of connectedness with other people. It hit me then to approach my writing the same way: if I can channel the initial anxiety about getting started, and just sit down to the task, I can then just proceed moment by moment.

What made writing so successful Friday night was that I didn’t mind if I stopped for a short break, to make tea, or pace a bit. I felt good about the day’s events, and just didn’t think so much about the possible failure of writer’s block or procrastination.

In short, it’s the moments that make up the writing, not the blank page being filled with words.

Don’t Be A Writing Diva

In Procrastination, Support, Writer's Block, Writing Practice on September 18, 2010 at 11:18 pm

All writers face this scenario: You’ve made the time to write. Maybe you turn on soft music, make sure the dog/cat/other pet has their needs taken care of so they won’t bother you, etc. And you stare at the computer screen/blank page/chalkboard utterly unable to get going.

Or, you’re typing/writing away and you know it’s crap. Just utter blah. So you decide to call it a day until “The Muse” comes to you again.

Recently I was whining to my significant other about writer’s block, and he responded in his usual frank way.

“You don’t have enough publication credits yet to be a writing diva.”

We were in a lovely Greek restaurant so luckily I was in a receptive mood. Plus, there was a lot of truth to it so it seemed only right to take it in good humor. I have two short stories published online, and another published as an electronic book. I am already working on a mystery novel in spite of these thin credits.

For one thing, my production rate is not high enough to worry about whether I have anything to say or not; I have to write on a daily basis even if I have to unravel all the work later and start over. Everything I’ve ever read about writing from published writers says that you have to write nonsense every day just to stay in practice. Spit-and-polish comes later, after some more disciplined work with your editing hat on.

What I take away from this brief conversation is that my writing practice won’t happen in a vacuum. I need supportive yet honest people around me who have the right to share in my failures if I expect them to revel in my joys and empathize with my sorrows. Also, while it may be true that I have a sixth sense that I was born to be a writer, the act writing itself will only happen as an active, daily choice.

As Stephen King says in his book On Writing: Even Thoreau stopped staring at the pond and wrote a book.