Making String

Back in my craft show days, I used to bring my smaller spinning wheel to the venue to while away the hours between customers. Spinning fascinates children; at the shows, I was a child-magnet and soon I realized I was also the babysitter.

            “Look kids,” the mother or father would exclaim pushing sweaty hair out of their eyes, “she’s making string!”

The kids would gather round and then the parent, after a pause, would slip away, no doubt figuring their children were safe for a bit while they had a few moments to themselves to maybe check out the hand-blown glass booth. At first I was surprised that parents would leave their kids with me, then I felt flattered. Then I felt a surge of parental responsibility. Heck, I figured, I ought to educate these kids. So I would explain how “in the old days” people spun fiber to create thread—not string—to weave into cloth to sew into clothes.

            “Why don’t they just buy them at the store?” one little girl asked, unimpressed.

            “They didn’t have so many stores,” another child replied. “They only had stores that sold barrels of flour.” (Apparently a devotee of the “Little House on the Prairie” TV series.)

One day I was spinning mohair—the fiber from the Angora goat. The usual crowd of kids was around, so I launched into my spiel. “This is mohair,” I said. “See how lustrous it is? It’s used for—“

            “—what’s a Mo?” a boy from the front row interrupted.

Another time, I decided to give them the whole shebang. I began with the carding combs, demonstrating brushing the fibers into line and peeling off the rolags to be spun. Since the children looked so dumbfounded (which I interpreted as amazement) I began to explain the principles of spinning, explaining how the microscopic scales on wool fibers caught with each other—sort of like Velcro—and that was what allowed the thread to form, and was also what was responsible for felting. About this time, a scrawny boy with ill-fitting clothes and scuffed sneakers moved closer to the spinning wheel. His eyes flitted from me to the spinning wheel, back and forth, with more and more urgency as I continued to lecture. Finally, he couldn’t take it anymore.

            “Just do it, already!” he burst out.

 His unwashed face and dark-circled eyes, so different from the scrubbed and well-fed faces of the kids who lived in this prosperous town, looked intense; his eyes burned. I began to spin.

The other kids eventually drifted away, or were picked up by their parents, but he stayed, rapt, watching the spinning wheel create thread, as if seeing magic in the world for the first time.

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Transitions

Monday, September first, I took my spinning wheel outside on the deck and placed it so I could spin the merino I am working on and watch the pond, like I do almost every pleasant morning in summer. I have placed a thistle seed feeder near the deck (in defiance of bears) and I like to listen to the noises of the summer morning as the thread accumulates. This morning, though, seemed more than usually still—and then it hit me. The phoebes were gone. Those tail-wagging birds who perch on the canoe line or the dead branch, then swoop out in a rush over the water snatching at insects; those feisty April arrivals who build a nest under the eves on the light fixture of the cottage next door, and raise two, sometimes three nestfuls.

They were gone. Nary a one to perch and swoop and wag. I felt like a child whose summer friends—you know, that noisy family with kids your age who come every year—had left, taking with them the golden bubble of summer and signaling with their departure the sure and concrete message that summer is over.

Unwilling to take this in just yet, I strained my eyes and ears for summer sounds. Whew, I could still hear the catbird and was that two cedar waxwings flying by? I hoped they would stick around a bit longer since we’ve had a bumper crop of blueberries. And then I heard the chickadees, goldfinches and cardinals who are year-round residents. But so many had already quietly left. The kingbirds—when had they gone? The scarlet tanager, the orioles—gone. A few weeks back I had a glimpse of warblers—a blackburnian and a black-and-white—and I realize now they were migrating through.

No, they’re not all gone, the summer birds, but they will be, as their time comes. I was fond of those phoebes, dammit; it’s hard to let them go. But there, a plump hummingbird just careened by. Mary Oliver understood.

Of course.

To live in this world

you must be able

to do three things:

to love what is mortal;

to hold it

against your bones knowing

your own life depends on it;

and when the time comes to let it

go,

to let it go.

phoebe fledglings