I scroll through Facebook, seething with jealousy. My talented friend has knit yet another gorgeous sweater.
And what is this? Someone else knit a Christmas gnome? My confidence plunges.
Life mocks me and keeps going.
My sister-in-love, Kristi, and niece, Makenna, crochet an enchanting hedgehog doorstop ...
...and the world's most adorable bumble bees. Despair creeps in.
The solution seems clear: I need to surround myself with less talented people.
Me and crocheting - we have a thing. And it's unequivocally not a good thing.
If you already know this woeful tale, feel free to skip ahead. If you like stories about underdogs, stay with me.
When I was very pregnant with my oldest child, I was put on light duty and told to stay off my feet. Having made exactly one below average scarf a decade prior, I decided to make a baby blanket. How hard could it be? You just go in rows right?
Before reporting to the couch, I went to JoAnn Fabrics. The cashier rang me up and, in a pleasant, conversational tone, asked, "What are you making?"
Hand rubbing protruding belly, I answered, "A baby blanket."
Confused, she looked into the bag and then up at me. "With two skeins of yarn?"
Reg flag #1, ignored. Doped up on surging levels of estrogen, I commenced. The problems began immediately, the blanket seeming to shrink and narrow as I progressed, each row somehow smaller than the one below.
Red flag #2, dismissed. No problem. I could just even it out by adding stitches to the other side.
Problem. I ended up with what can only be considered a crocheted canoe for my baby. I became the butt of family jokes for years to come.
(Oh, how I wish I had a picture of my infant in this contraption.)
It was so terrible, so laughable, I saved it in her childhood memory box right beside a swatch from her first haircut and her first pair of shoes.
A decade later I decided to try again. I crocheted a potholder that looked like it had been made by a kindergartner with poor motor control and no attention span.
I am unclear why I’m so compelled to learn this craft. I suppose I believe that those who can do it easily and well, are privy to some secret I am not. Just like those who can sketch a human face, build a bridge, make a pie crust, fix a car or program a computer.
Surely, with all that is unknowable and outside my domain, making something out of yarn could be plausibly within my reach.
My other sister-in-love, Trish, started crocheting purses around this time. CROCHETED PURSES, people. I asked her to teach me the basics.
Maya was going to do it with me but changed her mind. I don't blame her. When you hear the rest of the story, you won't either.
Armed with a one hour tutorial and a dozen skeins of yarn, I was off. It started out great. I was on fire, a crocheting savant. I was going to make a real blanket! Next up a hat, maybe a koala bear, someday even a purse.
The problems started right away.
I unraveled it and started over.
"I don't actually know how you are doing this," Trish said. "Maybe you should count your stitches so you do the same in each row?"
But numbers have a way of getting misplaced in my head and I decided counting was for wimps. How hard could it be to follow my lines all the way to the end?
For me, very difficult. The same thing happened on the next attempt. I unraveled it and started over. Balls of yarn littered the house. I stared to mistrust the color blue.
I had issues not only with edges but with consistent tension. Some stitches were too loose and others were too tight. I was the Goldilocks of crocheting and just as unlikely to succeed.
The whole thing turned conical again. Maybe I should go into headwear?
Unraveling my blanket became a past time; I spent hours yanking the stitches free and recoiling the skeins. I began to picture my epitaph: died still trying to crochet in straight lines.
"Again?" my family would ask.
"Again," I would answer.
At this point, you might be wondering what this is all about. Why, in the face of indisputable failure, wouldn't I just stop? After all, isn't this supposed to be a fun and relaxing hobby?
The truth is I never once considered giving up. The stakes felt too high. If I gave up on crocheting just because it was hard, what else might I give up on?
And that's when I realized this was about my dream of being a successful, published writer. Behind each stitch, each attempt, sat the question whose answer I feared: Was I going to give up on myself?
How long is it reasonable to dream?
I’ve been writing seriously for eight years and full time for three. I’ve written two books, a short film screenplay, blog posts and have started a memoir. I’ve written letters of admiration to my role models, strongly-worded letters to companies, limericks, bad poems, cards of encouragement and endless journal entries. Writing is part of everything I do, how I express, how I digest the world and try to navigate the messiness of being human.
Catch me on a good day and I'm proud of my tenacity, my belief in myself. Catch me on a bad day and I'm trying to outrun this plaguing feeling of embarrassment that I am still indulging myself with this dream. (Maybe it's time to face reality and move on?)
I write because I love to, because it is joyful and true to me. If I had one day left to live, I would spend a handful of hours at dawn in my chair with a cup of tea and my laptop.
If I never got paid to write, never got published, would I still write?
But I was raised to believe that success was what could be measured and evaluated, raised to prove my worth through my achievements. How do you get out from under that narrow definition?
By rethinking success. And while we’re at it, failure, too.
Our social narrative says that success is strength and failure is weakness. Success is arrived and failure is lost. Success is the chandeliered great room and failure is the damp basement.
But what if we define success for ourselves? What if we rig the game so we win every time, every day? Not in some conflated, everyone-gets-a-trophy way, but in a way that honors our hard work and dedication. After all, we are the experts on ourselves. We are the only ones qualified to know our victories.
And so success can be:
-getting through the day when you're battling depression
-getting through the day, period.
-walking away from a heated argument
-negotiating for higher pay
-walking into a group of strangers
-riding a rollercoaster
-signing up for a class you’ve wanted to take
-quitting the job you hate
-selling your art on Etsy
-setting a boundary
-learning to make a soufflé
-driving through Manhatten
-a thousand other things that change day by day
And what if just being is a success? What if there is nothing to prove or accomplish?
Defining and building our own success is not a self-ingratiating practice. It is not going to make our heads swell or make us insufferable. Instead, it will strengthen our belief in ourselves. It will help us silence the insistent “no, you can’t” so we can reach toward what we truly want.
But what of this risk of believing — this breath-stealing high point with a long drop down . How do we dare stand here? What proof do we have that it’s wise? Or safe?
Well, none really. That’s why it’s so hard. It’s also the point. Believing without proof — before life validates us and says, “Yes, you have the right. Proceed.” — that’s the work. It’s stepping out on that limb, claiming our right to be there, owning our voice.
But what if we’re wrong? What if we fail?
Ah, yes, failure. The rockbottom, the villian. We are taught that it’s a thing to avoid or at least to overcome, the part of the story told later, from the safe perch of success.
Fear of failing is a fear of being humiliated, compromising our image or pride, costing ourselves something irretrievable.
It’s a powerful fear. One that causes us to side-step risk, to stay small to stay safe, a dodging that turns us into performative, anxious perfectionists who squash our inspiration and temper our passion for fear of the fall if we get it wrong. It makes us unsure, self-conscious and disconnected.
And so we miss the gifts offered in the shadows.
What if failure was a destination in itself? The place where inspiration sparks and ignites. The place where we find perhaps the truest, most real version of ourselves. The place where we are stripped of pretense and ego and pressure, emptied out and ready to be filled.
What might we reach for if we weren't afraid to fail?
There is so much possibility here. This is a the space into which miracles enter.
Behold the majesty of a straight edge.
I stopped unraveling and started raveling. (That's a thing, right?) Soon the rows of stitched yarn covered my legs as I worked, a real blanket taking form. As it grew, so did everyone's surprise.
It took me over a year and somewhere between twelve and a hundred attempts. Perhaps no skeins of yarn have been used so thoroughly.
Hope runs deep in me. I've started another blanket.
Confession: two nights ago I unraveled more than half of it. The edges were getting wonky again, slanting in, migrating toward the center like a teenager toward a phone charger.
I felt that familiar pang of inferiority and judgement. Had all those hours of crocheting taught me nothing?
So I asked myself: do I truly care if I mess this up, if I have to try again, or have I been trained to judge myself, to overvalue product over process?
It’s almost always the latter. Turns out my true inner voice is much kinder and she’s pretty chill. She likes the ride and thinks this crochet struggle makes for a better story anyway.
She encourages me to look at the cyclical nature of growth and learning, one where there are second, third and thousandth tries again.
Deconditioning is a long game, one that takes extraordinary patience and compassion. We are allowed to not know, to try anyway, to get it wrong, to perhaps never get the hang of it. We are allowed to believe in ourselves and nurture our dreams.
We deserve this kind of grace.
The possibilities from here are endless. My aforementioned talented, sweater-knitting friend? She's agreed to teach me to knit. Hopefully she's patient.