A Ball of Yarn: A Meditation on Place

It is Friday night and I’m sitting at home alone, rolling balls of hand-dyed yarn.

For just a moment, I step beyond myself and consider the scene, as if I was outside looking through the windows.

The living room with its large, wool tufted rug is softly lit by a single bronze table lamp with an old-fashioned, Tiffany-style glass shade. On the narrow wooden table by the front windows, a pale yellow beeswax taper flickers softly, reflected in the glass against the dark night. That same table is piled with several twisted, figure-8 looking ‘skeins’ of woolen yarn in natural hues—cream, butter, blue sky, chamisa, harvest gold, black. Some have already been rolled into softball-sized spheres, the sort of thing a cat would love to bat with its paws and chase around the floor as it rolls and unravels.

In front of the unlit fireplace and brick hearth, an upright Navajo-style loom stands with a thick sheepskin pelt placed on the floor before it. A few feet away, in the old upholstered chair beside the table with its bright candle and yarns, a man with greying but thick, unruly hair sits silently. A cup of tea within reach, he gradually unloops the skein draped over his knee and winds its freed yarn into a ball that, when finished, he will place beside the others he has completed.

It is a scene from the early 1900’s. Earlier, even. Remove the electric lamp, and the time frame blurs further. Winding yarn into balls in the quiet of a candlelit cottage is pan cultural and nearly timeless. This could be the wild, elemental west coast of Ireland, a hut in the Peruvian Andes, or an adobe casita in the high desert of New Mexico. Wherever its actual location, it seems a long way even from the neighbors along the street, those brightly lit houses with the ghostly blue glare of television illuminating their windows.

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Skeins and balls of churro yarn

Somewhere in space and time, here I am. Unraveling a skein and winding it into a ball is a gently repetitive process, one that easily becomes a meditation, hands traveling repeatedly in a circular motion, slowly building the wooly sphere with each pass round its circumference. Most folks would probably be doing this while parked in front of the television, distracted and entranced. I don’t own a TV, and I am utterly content in my quiet, unhurried ritual.

Suddenly I chuckle out loud, causing my two Whippets sleeping on the sofa to look up.

“This is so damn manly, sitting at home alone on a Friday night, winding balls of yarn and drinking tea. Just call me Grandma.”

Artists tend to be unconventional people. Certainly, some of us are more peculiar than others. The cultivated quietude of my life suits me, and while it appeals briefly to the harried and oh-so-busy, after a day or two, most people would run screaming back to their noisy distractions.

As the soulful poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in Letters to a Young Poet, “What is needed is, in the end, simply this: solitude, great inner solitude. Going into yourself and meeting no one for hours on end—that is what you must be able to attain.”

Amen, Rilke.

I’ve only recently begun weaving. As a writer who spends long hours stringing words together, rearranging and polishing them like colored beads on a necklace, I often yearn for something less mentalSomething tactile and sensory. Tangible. That which I can step back from and actually see that I’ve created something more ‘real’ than a paragraph.

I have long adored handmade ceramics and textiles, and one day, the rustic simplicity of a Navajo loom reached out to strum something in my old-fashioned soul. In the craft/hobby/art field, weavers are predominantly women, so I’m upholding the minority. I’ve long ago tossed aside those stale notions of what constitutes ‘masculine’; I’m simply interested in whatever expresses and nourishes my soul in a creative, authentic way.

In our modern world, most of us ‘do’ but few of us ‘make’. Our paper economy has turned us into consumers rather than producers, and the once valued practice of having a ‘craft’ (as in craftsman or true artisan) has largely been abandoned. It seems mainly just the artists who have hung onto the idea of craft, keenly aware of its importance to the soul—which is inherently creative—and that it offers a deep sense of value and identity.

Certainly as an author, my craft is writing rather than weaving. Yet working with the Navajo loom is not only a timeless metaphor for life, it offers a sensory meditation, a welcome respite from pushing words around on paper (or the computer screen). In yoga-speak, it’s a ‘counterpose’, flexing me into a different expression while stretching an opposing, counterbalancing group of muscles.

Weaving on a hand loom is slow, patient work, requiring one to be present in what he or she is doing. I love it.

Weave in beauty, say the Navajo.

There is also something in weaving that I savor as a communion with place. The yarn I use comes from a sheep ranch near Taos, New Mexico that raises the heirloom Navajo-churro sheep whose wool is traditionally used in this sort of textile weaving. It’s purchased from a small shop in Arroyo Seco nearby, where they know the rancher and hand-dye the yarn themselves.

Patiently laying in the ‘weft’ threads of natural colors and beating them down with a polished, wooden Navajo weaving fork held continuously in my hand, somehow connects me not only to craft, but to earth itself. I know where this yarn came from. I have twice lived in northern New Mexico, and that wild, arid landscape of fragrant sagebrush beneath a wide turquoise sky still sings in my bones like an ancient chant.

More than ‘craft’, more than a respite from writing—and more than a social Friday night—this yarn weaves me into the larger story in which we are all connected.

May we all live and weave in beauty.


[a version of this was published in elephant journal as “An Unconventional Man’s Meditation.”]

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