How knitting is like dying.

This month our parish women’s book club is reading Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.” I finished it this morning, in an old anthology from 1947 that I had kept from our homeschooling years, when twice my late husband and I taught a short story course to our children. That collection is A Treasury of Short Stories edited by Bernardine Kielty. When I closed that volume I opened The Norton Reader, Seventh Edition, to see if it included any Tolstoy stories, but when I saw the title “From Journal of a Solitude,” I continued reading the first few excerpts taken from the book by May Sarton.

Her musings in the first paragraphs were on topics that were also among those so powerfully treated in the story of Ivan Ilyich: depression, dying; the perceived absence or presence of God, both “too frightening.” I don’t have any comments on those themes, but I would very much recommend Tolstoy’s story to your own reading. I thought I had read it before, but maybe I only started once. It is powerful.

I don’t know anything about May Sarton except what I read just this morning, but I appreciated the thoughts below; these came just down the page, after she’d moved on from writing about her dying friend. They are not so obviously linked to the Tolstoy story, except perhaps by their highlighting the need for patience in every stage and situation in life, not least at its end. “By your patient endurance you will gain your souls.” (Luke 21:19)

“In the mail a letter from a twelve-year-old child, enclosing poems, her mother having pushed her to ask my opinion. The child does really look at things, and I can write something helpful, I think. But it is troubling how many people expect applause, recognition, when they have not even begun to learn an art or a craft. Instant success is the order of the day; ‘I want it now!’ I wonder whether this is not part of our corruption by machines. Machines do things very quickly and outside the natural rhythm of life, and we are indignant if a car doesn’t start on the first try. So the few things that we still do, such as cooking (though there are TV dinners!), knitting, gardening, anything at all that cannot be hurried, have a very particular value.”

-May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude

18 thoughts on “How knitting is like dying.

  1. What is the date of the very relevant comment by May Sarton? ‘Instant gratification’ appears to be the order of the day in the lives of many people now and yet, books continue to be printed and sold (very heartening). Knitting appears to be making a comeback in some circles, although I find it disappointing that magazines no longer feature knitting patterns – it was through being exposed to these that my desire to learn was whetted. I am currently finding pleasure in knitting squares, each with a different motif, with which to make a blanket – a peaceful activity that can be picked up during odd moments between other tasks during the day.

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  2. I love May Sarton’s writing, and have several of her books. “At Seventy” is a favorite. In fact, I used her title for my own blog post when I turned seventy, and wrote about it. There’s more about Sarton and some selections from her work included in that post here.

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  3. And yes to patience. It was something the spirit impressed on me this morning. I was thinking about how God is without a doubt in my mind first and foremost Love, and secondly perhaps comes patience—a type that is beyond our grasp as humans in general, but humans in this day and age especially.

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  4. Hi Gretchen,

    The title of this post gave me a chuckle, as I am knitting a blanket that is taking a l o n g time to finish— I am, indeed, losing a bit of my life to it!

    I have a couple of May Sarton’s books on my shelf. My favorite is Plant Dreaming Deep in which she writes about renovating her house in New Hampshire. I think I tried reading Journal of a Solitude at the wrong time in my life, because I found it depressing. If I remember correctly (and it is quite likely I do not), the passage you quoted comes from a section where M. Sarton complains about her readers being presumptively familiar with her in their letters; as if they knew her because they had read her books. I imagine responding to fan mail can become arduous for a writer, but something in her words seemed mean to me. Anyway, I ended up putting down the book.

    I read “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” a few years ago (loved it!) and wrote about it on my blog. If you are interested, you can find it here:

    Love and roses,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How interesting. Journals are usually a personal kind of writing and if you put yourself out there in public — as I do on my blog, also! — wouldn’t you expect readers to respond in kind? But I do often wonder if I am being too familiar in my responses to blog writers, especially those whom I haven’t read for very long. Perhaps Sarton would think so.

      Thank you for linking me back to your blog post that looks worth contemplating not just for the Ivan Ilyich part but the hay farmers – I want to read that article. And I hope that springtime will inspire you to share of your garden and your reading again on your blog.


  5. I do agree that most slow things are of great value, and perhaps the most valuable thing of all is suffering, and it is usually slow. Isn’t that why the Lord tells us so often to wait on Him? Not that HE is slow, but that we are impatient. The hand skills, really all physical skills that some people make look so easy — all are learned over much time, patience, and practice. I find it difficult to communicate to piano students or their parents how many years it takes just to play the piano decently, much less, well! They are always shocked at how hard it is at first.

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  6. Good flow of conversation in the comments.
    I read May Sarton’s , A Journal of Solitude, years ago. I knew I copied one of her quotes from this book in my own commonplace book, but after going back and looking it is not the one you quoted here, yet this one is worth quoting. I might just copy it.
    Tolstoy should be added to my growing lists of authors/books I want to read. You have expanded my interest once again. As far as being too familiar in your responses, oh, please do not stop!

    Liked by 1 person

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