Friday, January 15, 2016

Many Warm Welcomes Into the Family of Knitters

Want to know something crazy?

While I was in Peru, a woman I hardly knew danced in front of my table at a restaurant because she was so overcome with joy. Another bought me gifts so that she could help me, and we became so close that we both teared up a few days later when she suddenly had to leave the hostel where I stayed and she worked. After returning to the US, yet another dear lady, having just met me for a few minutes a year earlier, gifted me many more wonderful things, again in order that she could help me - all for free. What prompted all this generosity and warm feeling from middle-aged and elderly women?

I expressed an interest in knitting.

And I might not have understood what was really going on if I hadn't read a book earlier this year called "The Continuum Concept", by Jean Liedloff.

The Continuum Concept

The Continuum Concept is the idea that every aspect of every living being exists in expectation of some experience that living being will have in its life. To quote from the book:

Expectation, in this sense, is founded as deeply in man as his very design. His lungs not only have, but can be said to be, an expectation of air, his eyes are an expectation of light rays of the specific range of wavelengths sent out by what is useful for him to see at the hours appropriate for his species to see them. His ears are an expectation of vibrations caused by the events most likey to concern him, including the voices of other people; and his own voice is an expectation of ears functioning similarly in them. The list can be extended indefinitely: waterproof skin and hair, expectation of rain; hairs in nose, expectation of dust; pigmentation in skin, expectation of sun; perspiratory mechanism, expectation of heat; coagulatory  mechanism, expectation of accidents to body surfaces; one sex, expectation of the other; reflex mechanism, expectation of the need for speed of reaction in emergencies.

What's more, this same idea extends to our emotions and social relations to each other. A child expects to receive a mother's milk as she expects to give it. Children expect to have older peers to observe and learn from, as older children expect to lead by example and mentor younger ones. Each person expects to laugh with others, to listen and be listened to. A child cries when she/he feels deeply upset, and adults find this sound very grating and saddening, and desire to care for the child in response.

The Continuum Concept goes on to discuss these needs/expectations in humans' very early life and how in civilized societies, those needs are often systematically unmet, and what effect this has on those children as they grow up.

However, for this essay, the set of mutual expectations/needs I confronted in South America was the expectation of elders to share their wisdom and knowledge with youth and the expectation of the youth to receive this wisdom and knowledge from elders. This is where the knitting came in.

Finding the first latent elder-teacher

I began an extended fast in mid-July in a space I found in the jungle, and after about a week, I decided to move into a friendly hostel in a small town nearby.

There I met Nancy, a sister of the owner, who often worked the front desk. She was bored as could be much of the time, her only job to wait for the odd tenant to happen inside. Mostly she just watched TV.

And I thought to myself, so long as I feel too weak to do much more than sit in a chair, how about learning something new? So I asked Nancy if she knew anyone who knitted and would like to knit with me and perhaps teach a little.

Wow, did she brighten up. Nancy knew how to knit but hadn't done it in years. She was so excited to teach me that she insisted on going into town that evening and buying me a pair of needles and my first yarn. Sure thing, when she arrived the next morning, she gave these to me, refused to accept payment, and then we started our first knitting lesson. We had a few more sessions, either in the courtyard or near the front desk where she worked.

I smile to remember - Nancy wanted to show me how to 'cast-on', putting the first row of stitches onto the needle to begin a new project. One way to do this involves wrapping the thread around the fingers in a certain pattern, then threading the needle through that web of thread in a certain way - the picture below gives an idea of it.

Casting-on new stitches as Nancy showed me
The first time she showed me, she hadn't done it herself in years. Either she wrapped the yarn around her hand incorrectly, or she put the needle through it incorrectly. Then hesitated for a moment, inspected it - just for the briefest moment! - and then quickly undid the work, redid it correctly, and went on creating the first row of stitches at warp speed. However many years her knitting skills had laid dormant, she still had the muscle memory, and it all came flooding right back.

It felt so good to learn from a person rather than a book as I'd tried 2 years earlier, working with my hands with someone else doing the same, to make something beautiful and useful.

Sadly, a family emergency drew her suddenly away from Satipo, and in her last half-hour in Satipo she gave me a crash-lesson on changing colors and offered a few more pointers. We hugged goodbye, both of us tearing up a little bit, and she told me she expected to see a beautiful scarf upon returning.

I never saw her again, but I did her one better than a scarf: I made a multi-color scarf, folded and knitted the sides together into a shoulder-bag, and lastly added on a 3-colored shoulder strap. Sadly I have no picture of this, but the hostel owner mailed it to her with a goodbye/thank-you note I wrote before leaving Peru.

Knitting in the Town Square in Satipo, Peru

Knitting that bag/scarf took a lot of hours, and I spent a lot of them in the town square.

These two images are of the Satipo, Peru town square. Each "U" shape in the top image is a bench as shown below. I didn't take either picture.

Now, in many areas in Peru, knitting in public is associated with impoverished, short, malnourished, dark-skinned women sitting on the pavement with their small children selling low-margin items. Knitting is not associated with well-fed, tall, white, male foreigners. So I turned a lot of heads and had lots of fun conversations. One thing I learned was that almost no one below the age of 30-40, male or female, had learned to knit in that region. A few women in their 30s or 40s claimed they'd learned as young kids but had long forgotten and had no interest in it. They were content to work for money to buy fashionable, branded clothes.

The only knitters were women in their 50s, 60s, and older. Literally every single woman I found in this age group had learned to knit or crochet as a child from the older women in her life.

And as I met more and more older women, I started to see how invested they were in their ability to create clothing and how sad they felt that there was no one to teach.

In continuum terms, the mothers/grandmothers had an expectation to teach, to give. But no child showed a complementary expectation or desire to learn, and so the continuum was broken. When I met older women who became super excited to help me learn to knit, I was fulfilling a need their own kids and neighboring children hadn't filled for them.

I cannot do one of my favorite stories about this justice in text form, so here's this video of myself telling the story:

Yet another warm welcome into the Family

Then disaster struck: upon returning to my family in California, my knitting needles from Nancy in Peru broke on the plane flight!

My grandmother mentioned this sad fact at a church social function to a friend of hers named Debbie, and Debbie went into overdrive! She invited herself over to my grandmother's home the very next day and gave me a box of yarn, a gorgeous collection of knitting needles and case, and a great book on how to knit. THEN she offered to teach me to knit socks. A few days later, she brought her own knitting with her, and after getting me started on the sock, she began her own work, and we just sat and chatted and knitted, the conversation veering from light-hearted to intimate to profound and back as easily as a meandering stream flows downhill.

Debbie confirmed the continuum-break in her own life: Debbie's in her 50s or 60s I'd guess, and her only local knitting partner is a 93 year old woman, the other knitters in her life living far away. Debbie loves to teach knitting and said she has no one in her life ready to receive from her. When she heard of my interest, she jumped at the chance to help along a new knitter. And I received an education in knitting for free that many people pay $100-$200+ for (where it's available at all), not including the value of her lovely gifts. And of course, I now have a new friend.

In my thank-you note to Debbie, I told her how much her warm welcome into the family of knitters had meant to me, and how I intended to repay her: by passing on the skills, generosity, and warm welcome to other young knitters in the future, and by telling the story of the warmth Debbie had shown me. Long live the continuum!

There is of course an interesting parallel: this is how children 'repay' their parents. Each generation repays the previous by passing on to the next. That this can happen within nuclear families, extended families, and outside the blood-family is awesome, and gives a whole new meaning to the idea of family lineage. I've had a few knitting mothers in my knitting family now! And perhaps someday I'll be a knitting daddy, passing along the tradition as I live it in my life. And perhaps I'll be able to pass on other traditions as well.

Healthy human cultures: fulfilling everyone's mutual expectations

A core part of the continuum is the idea of mutual or complementary expectations, for example the ear and voice 'expect' each other, having co-evolved to operate together. In human cultures, emotional needs co-evolve: the babies need for nurture + the mother's need to nurture; individuals' need to express themselves + individuals' need to feel emotionally close with others and cooperate. Likewise, I have a need to learn a wide range of skills, and now, in knitting and clothing-work, I've found people with the complementary expectation of teaching and mentoring, and so we've instantly bonded.

Learning to recognize mine and others' needs and how they can be met in healthy, mutually-enriching ways will be crucial to shaping the sort of community I wish to be part of in the future. I feel excited to have a framework for thinking of this - the concept of the Human Continuum.

Extra Knitting Stories

I have a few other funny or meaningful knitting related stories from Peru, though not really tied into the Continuum theme:

1) One sunny morning I was out in the courtyard of the hostel, knitting shirtless and enjoying the fresh air and view of the surrounding mountains.

A cute girl leaves her room, and a few minutes later goes back in and comes out with a camera to take a picture of the mountains behind me. I smile at her, and she at me, and I motion for her to come over and say hi.

That's when I learn that I was the scenery - she took the picture of me! Without proof, she said, none of her friends would believe a white man would ever knit, apparently. We chatted for an hour until her bus was about to depart... bummer she left so so soon.

2) After Nancy left, I asked the hostel owner, David, if he knew anyone who liked to knit who might like to work with me. He walked me across town after dark one evening after making an appointment with an elder friend in her 70s or 80s. When we arrived, my knitting and crocheting bag in hand, a woman in her 40s or 50s opened the door and said, very curtly, the elderly woman would not be able to work with me.

She was clearly quite upset, and David asked a question or two and got her to spill the beans: her son had just been scammed out of probably 1-2 months' family income, and she was really worried about their financial situation. After she had told a little about the situation and we listened, David had a brilliant idea: he said, (in Spanish): "Will's come so far, and he wishes to learn from our culture, and he brought his things with him tonight. Will, take out your work and show her." And I took out my knitting project. "See, he's learning."

And the woman said something like, "You knit? Knitting's no good. Crocheting is much better." And instantly I had my crocheting needle and thread out to show her. Then, as we talked, David took the crochet needle from me and handed it to her, along with the thread.

Still in the doorway barring us from entry, she started crocheting. Within minutes, she'd calmed down dramatically even as she vented more, and then she invited us inside. The elder woman wasn't home or available, but this lady invited us to the back area, continuing to crochet rapidly while paying her project little direct attention. After an hour of hearing her express her concerns and catch up with David, calming down the whole time, David asked if she would teach me something, which she finally did. I can't say I learned a ton from her, but the evening was a great testament to the power of hand-craftwork to sooth (as well as a big dose of empathy and listening).

3) I found a place in Satipo that sold decent masato, a fermented, alcoholic yuca drink, and the owner and I agreed that if I came by and got a drink of masato every day, she'd teach me crocheting while I drank. This didn't last long, sadly, as I ended up leaving soon. Still, I discovered that crocheting with a very slight buzz, the most I ever got with her light masato, was quite agreeable.

While I was in that store, it was common for boys aged probably 8-20 to hang out and kill time. They showed tons of interest, coming over and asking questions. The younger ones would practically stick their noses in my lap watching me crochet away.

4) While I was in the market knitting and enjoying a fruit drink, a woman came up and said she was happpy to see me knitting, and did I know of the group of women who knit together in the market every day? I said something like, "No, but thank you extremely very much, and where do they meet and when?" With Nancy gone, I had neither mentor nor book to learn from.

I followed her directions very deep in the market and sure enough, found a woman knitting. Others joined later. I said I liked to knit and could I join her. She paused a moment as if this was a brand new possiblity that needed processing, and then offered me a seat. We knitted together a few times while I was turning my scarf-shaped cloth into a handbag, and the woman who owned the stall where the knitters gathered occasionally looked over and said, "Why are you doing it that way?" Then I'd ask how she'd do this part of the handbag, and she'd show me a more effective technique.

I felt super sad to leave Satipo just a few days after finding this club!

5) I meet so many people knitting in public, I decided to take the knitting out in the evenings when I went drinking.

Haha, not that kind of drinking. At nightfall, lots of (mostly) women set up little roadside stalls where they sell hot drinks made from local fruits or veggies. I loved loved loved the quinoa drink.

I found one woman selling drinks, probably in her 60s, who was very welcoming and actually filled the glass to the rim each time. I'd take my knitting out around 7:00 or 8:00 PM, and often stay until she closed at 11:00 PM.

Individuals, couples, friends, and families would come and go, sometimes staying for an hour or more chatting with me.

There was a common opening theme, here and in the Satipo square: "You're knitting.. you know you're a guy, right?" Even if they didn't say it explicitly, I could tell I was ignoring a bunch of social norms! But I never sensed scorn or condescension, though a few folks asked me if anyone had called me gay. Luckily I avoided such people, and had lots of fun conversations with folks. And when there wasn't conversation, I got to knit!

The woman at the stall, whose name I never got, often comped me drinks and little sandwiches, sometimes comping me for the whole night's drinks. It was a beautiful gesture, especially for someone living on sales of low-margin drinks and food. It was also probably good business sense, as my strangeness and willingness to converse invited people and kept them at her stall for quite some time! I was happy my Spanish was up to it; I was also aggressively practicing my Spanish in preparation for entering indigenous communities a little while later.

My last night in Satipo, I gathered flowers from various roadside plants and brought them to the woman running the stall. She was a very quiet lady, but seemed happy to receive them. A lot of people, especially men, would bark curt orders for drinks from their vehicles while driving past with nary so much as a please or thank you. Interestingly, many young children treated her the same way, especially ones not accompanied by parents. I imagine a warm gesture from someone was a nice change. As I offered her the flowers, the guy sitting on the stool next to me exclaimed, in Spanish, "See, Americans aren't all bad! That's what I keep saying!"

Thanks, dude.

The morning after I wrote this essay on the train, I was knitting away at my seat, and I met tree-hugger (forest, river, and wildlife-saver) extraordinaire Rudi Bega. He admired my knitting and offered to teach me to crochet. Super generous, after teaching me the basics, he offered me a beautiful golden-colored crochet hook and rich red thick yarn he'd taught me with. Within 24 hours I had a mostly-done slipper to show him! At first I tried to turn down his gift of yarn and hook, but he insisted he wanted me to have it, and so I promised to make beautiful things and to pass on his generosity to others.

As I write this PS a week later, some fellow neighbors on this organic farm in Appalachia have said they want to learn to knit and crochet from me, and I'm excited to share with them soon. The continuum continues!

P.P.S. In the first draft of this essay, I typed the entire chapter of the book Continuum Concept which discusses the Continuum and how it evolved. I described it briefly above, but if you'd like a more complete description from the author, I offer you the chapter below:

For some two million years, despite being the same species of animal as ourselves, man was a success. He had evolved from apehood to manhood as a hunter-gatherer with an efficient lifestyle which had it continued, might have seen him through many a million-year anniversary. As it is, most ecologists agree, his chances of surviving even another century are diminished with each day's activities.

But during the brief few thousand years since he strayed from the way of life to which evolution adapted him, he has not only wreaked havoc upon the natural order of the entire planet, he has also managed to bring into disrepute the highly evolved good sense that guided his behavior throughout all those eons. Much of it has been undermined only recently as the last coverts of our instinctive competence are rooted out and subjected to the uncomprehending gaze of science. Ever more frequently our innate sense of what is best for us is short-circuited by suspicion while the intellect, which has never known much about our real needs, decides what to do.

It is not, for example, the province of the reasoning faculty to decide how a baby ought to be treated. We have had exquisitely precise instincts, expert in every detail of child care, since long before we became anything resembling Home sapiens. But we have conspired to baffle this long-standing knowledge so utterly that we now employ researchers full time to puzzle out how we should behave towards children, one another, and ourselves. It is no secret that the experts have not "discovered" how to live satisfactorily, but the more they fail, the more they attempt to bring the problems under the sole influence of reason and disallow what reason cannot understand or control.

We are now fairly brought to heal by our intellect; our inherent sense of what is good for us has been undermined to the point where we are barely aware of its working and cannot tell an original impulse from a distorted one.

But I believe it is possible to start as we are, lost and handi-capped, and still find a way back. At least we might learn the direction in which our best interests lie and not go on making efforts that have an equal chance of leading us further off the track. The conscious part of the mind, like a good 'technical advisor' in someone else's war, when it sees the error of its ways, ought to work to put itself out of business, not move deeper into alien territory.  There are, of course, plenty of jobs for our ability to reason without its usurping the work which has for many million years been managed by the infinitely more refined and knowledgeable areas of the mind called instinct. If they too were conscious, they would deluge our heads out of commission in an instant, if for no other reason than that the conscious mind, by its nature, can only consider one thing at a time, while the unconscious can make any number of observations, calculations, syntheses, and executions simultaneously and correctly.

"Correct" in this context is a tricky word. It implies that we all agree on what we want the results of our actions to be, when in fact our intellectual ideas of what we want vary from person to person. What is meant here by "correct" is that which is appropriate to the ancient continuum of our species inasmuch as it is suited to the tendencies and expectations with which we have evolved. Expectation, in this sense, is founded as deeply in man as his very design. His lungs not only have, but can be said to be, an expectation of air, his eyes are an expectation of light rays of the specific range of wavelengths sent out by what is useful for him to see at the hours appropriate for his species to see them. His ears are an expectation of vibrations caused by the events most likey to concern him, including the voices of other people; and his own voice is an expectation of ears functioning similarly in them. The list can be extended indefinitely: waterproof skin and hair, expectation of rain; hairs in nose, expectation of dust; pigmentation in skin, expectation of sun; perspiratory mechanism, expectation of heat; coagulatory  mechanism, expectation of accidents to body surfaces; one sex, expectation of the other; reflex mechanism, expectation of the need for speed of reaction in emergencies.

How do the forces that put him together know in advance what a human will need? The secret is experience. The chain of experience that prepares a a human being for his time on earth begins with the adventures of the first single-celled unit of living matter. What it experienced in the way of temperature, the composition of its surroundings, available nourishment to fuel its activities, weather changes, and bumpings into other objects or members of its own species was passed on to its descendants. Upon these data, transmitted by means still largely mysterious to science, the very, very slow changes came about which, after an unimaginable passage of time, produced a variety of forms that could survive and reproduce themselves by coping with the environment in different ways.

As always happens when a system diversifies and becomes more complex, more precisely adapted to a wider variety of circumstances, the effect was greater stability. Life itself was less in danger of extinction by natural catastrophe. Then even if one whole form of life was wiped out, there was lenty of others which would carry on and also carry on complicating, diversifying, adapting, stabilizing. (It is a reasonably safe guess that quite a few "first" forms were extinguished before one survived, perhaps millions of years after the last one, and diversified in time to avoid being snuffed out by some intolerable elemental event.)

At the same time, the stabilizing principle was at work in each form and each part of each form, taking its data from its inheritance of experience, from its contacts of every kind, and equipping its descendants in ever more complex ways to deal more efficiently with those experiences. Therefore, the design of each individual was a reflection of the experiences it expected to encounter. The experience it could tolerate was defined by the circumstances to which its antecedents had adapted.

If the evolving creatures had been formed in a climate that never exceeded 120 degrees for more than a few hours nor fell below 45, the going form could do the same; but no more than its ancestors could it maintain its well-being if exposed to excessively long bouts at the extremes of its tolerance. the emergency reserves would be drained and if relief was not forthcoming, death would follow, for individual or species. If one wants to know what is correct for any species, one must know the inherent expectations of that species.

How much do we know about the inherent expectations of man? We know quite well what he gets, and we are often told what he wants, or should want, according to the current system of values. But what his evolutionary history has conditioned him to expect as the latest specimen in his ancient line of inheritance is, ironically, one of the darker mysteries. Intellect has taken over deciding what is best and insists on sovereignty for its vogues and guesses. Consequently, what was once man's confident expectation of suitable treatment and surroundings is now so frustrated that a person often thinks himself lucky if he is not actually homeless or in pain. But even as he is saying, "I'm all right," there is in him a sense of loss, a longing for something he cannot name, a feeling of being off-center, of missing something. Asked point blank, he will seldom deny it.

So, to discover the precise character of his evolved expectations, there is no point in looking at the late-model, civilized example.

To look at other species can be helpful but may also be misleading. Where the level of development corresonds, comparisons with other animals may be valid, as in the case of older, deeper, and more fundamental needs that antecede our anthropoid form, like the requirement for air to breathe, which arose hundreds of millions of years ago and is shred by many of our fellow animals. But to tudy human subjects who have not left hte continuum of appropriate behavior and environmnt is obviously more useful. Even if we manage to identify some of our expectations which are less evident than air to breathe, there will always remain a great mass of more subtle expectations to define before we can even call on a computer to help us catch up with some small fraction of our instinctive knowledge of them. It is therefore essential to keep a constant watch for opportunities to reinstate our innate ability to choose what is suitable. The clumsy intellect with which we must now try to recognize it can then occupy itself with tasks it is bettered suited to do.

The expectations with which we confront life are inextricably involved with tendencies (for example, to suckle, to avoid physical harm, to crawl, to creep, to imitate). As what we expect in the way of treatment and circumstance becomes available, sets of tendencies in us interact, again as the experience of our ancestors has prepared them to do. When the expected does not take place, corrective or compensatory tendencies make an effort to restore stability.

The human continuum can also be defined as the sequence of experience which corresponds to the expectations and tendencies of the human species in an environment consistent with that in which those expectations and tendencies were formed. It includes appropriate behavior in, and treatment by, other people as part of that environment.

The continuum of an individual is whole, yet forms part of the continuum of his family, which in turn is part of his clan's, community's, and species' continua, just as the continuum of the human species forms part of that of all life. Each continuum has its own expectations and tendencies, which spring from long, formative precedent. Even the continuum that includes every living thing expects, from experience of it, a range of suitable factors in the inorganic  surroundings.

In each life-form, the tendency to evolve is not random, but furthers its own interests. It is directed at greater stability - that is, at greater diversity, complexity, and therefore adaptability.

This is not at all what we call 'progress.' In fact, resistance to change, no way in conflict with the tendency to evolve, is an indispensible force in keeping any system stable.

What interrupted our own innate resistence to change a few thousand years ago we can only guess. The important thing is to understand the significance of evolution versus (unevolved) change. They are at diametrical cross purposes, for what evolving creates in the way of diversification, ever more precisely adapted to our requirements, change destroys by introducing behavior or circumstances which do not take into account the entire range of factors concerned in serving our best interests. All change can do is to replace a piece of well-integrated behavior with one that is not. It replaces what is complex and adapted with what is simpler and less adapted. As a consequence, change places a strain on the equilibrium of all the intricately related factors inside and outside the system.

Evolution, then, gives stability; change brings vulnerability.

Social organizations, too, follow these rules. An evolved culture, a way of life for a group of people which fulfills their social expectations, can be any one of an infinite variety of structures. The superficial features of these structures are the most variable, their basic tenets the least, and in certain fundamental respects they are bound to be identical. They would be resistant to change, having evolved over a long period of time like any stable system in nature. It would also follow that the less the intellect interfered with instinct in the formation of behavior patterns, the less rigid the structure would need to be on the surface (about behavioral detail, ritual, requirements for conformity) and the more inflexible at its core (in attitude toward self, attitude toward the rights of others, sensitivity to the signals of instinct that favor survival, health, pleasure, a balance of types of activity, an impulse towards the preservation of the species, economical use of the plants and animals in the environment, and so on). In a word, the more a culture relies on intellect, the more restraints on the individual are necessary to maintain it.

There is no essential difference between purely instinctive behavior, with its expectations and tendencies, and our equally instinctive expectation of a suitable culture, one in which we can develop our tendencies and fulfill our expectations, first, of precise treatment in infancy, and gradually of a (more flexible) kind of treatment and circumstance, and a range of requirements to which adaptation is ready, eager, and able to be made.

The role of culture in human life is as legitimate as that of language. Both begin with the expectation and the tendency to find their content in the environment. The social behavior of a child develops among expected influences and examples set him by his society. Innate drives also impel him to do what he perceives is expected of him by his fellow humans; the fellow humans let him know what they do expect, according to the culture. Learning is a process of fulfilling expectations for certain kinds of information. The kinds increase in a definite order of complexity, as do the patterns of speech.

Suitability to the standards of our expectations, maintained by each individual's continuum sense (encouraged by pleasure, kept on course by natural revulsion that mounts as the limits of aptness are approached), is the foundation of the viable culture's system of rights and wrongs. The particularities of the system can, again, vary infinitely so long as they remain within the essential parameter. There is plenty of room for differences, individual or tribal, without transgressing those limits.