Time Under Tension

As the weeks go by with no indication that we will be returning to normalcy anytime soon, I find myself struggling to maintain the balance of tension in life that allows me to be productive without slipping into anxiety. One day I will be enjoying the sunshine and the progress of nature – sweeping up the last golden blossoms of the now green forsythia, listening to the soulful coo of the mourning dove punctuated by the cheerful chatter of robins – so much so that I find it difficult to muster the discipline to sit at my makeshift desk and answer email. The next day I am pursuing publishers with a frenzy as if all opportunity will be lost if not acted upon immediately.

This seesawing of anxiety is reminiscent of the many months post treatment when I lived with fear of recurrence and ongoing uncertainty. Some days I was able to relax in the conviction that my cancer was gone, dispatched forever, becoming ancient history. But other days, triggered by scheduling a follow-up test or an unrecognized abdominal twinge or an approaching cancerversary, I was equally sure the tumor was back, the disease was spreading, and I would never be healthy again.

A Stitch in Time

I recently picked up crocheting again, something my grandmother had taught me to do many years ago, and found my stitches to be as uneven as my mood. Some were so taut I could barely pull the hook through. Others were loose and sloppy, the kind Nana would have told me to pull out and do again. And while knitting and crocheting, like other types of repetitive activity, are supposed to be meditative and calming, I grew frustrated with my inability to establish any sort of regularity in my stiches, reminded again of the highs and lows of my cancer emotions.

Luckily, Nana gifted me with many legacies. In addition to teaching me how to crochet and the fundamentals of Italian cooking, she taught me strength, resiliency, determination and the satisfaction that comes from helping others, something she first experienced at age seven when she translated for a doctor who couldn’t communicate with an Italian patient whose life he credited her with saving.

Nana was always calm. During our crochet lessons she never showed her impatience as I struggled to master the movement, to control the tension of the yarn, to generate even rows of stitches. She sat across from me for hours, holding my hands in hers and repeating the motions until I had the muscle memory to do it myself. She taught me how to wrap the yarn around my fingers and let it slide through with just the right friction to facilitate steady and consistent progress. And she was there with a reassuring hug when I was ready to quit, giving me the comfort I needed to persist despite my doubts of ever succeeding.

Greater Good

Now, as I remind myself of Nana’s calm voice, and her skillful techniques for maintaining even tension on the yarn, I find my crochet stitches have evened-out and my work resembles its target. But more importantly, I find I can apply her lessons in yarn management to life. Establishing the right balance is tricky. Too much tension and life is unnecessarily hard. Not enough tension and things get a little sloppy. When things get too sloppy, rip out the stitches and do it again. And if it’s still not right, put the work down for the day and come back to it later. 

Knowing when to say enough, to put down the work and quit for the day seems as important for my sanity as it is for the work product. Living with uncertainty makes it hard to know if I have done enough — enough exercise and healthy eating to keep the cancer away, enough work to consider it a productive day, enough stitches to feel confident I will reach my goal. The normal bounds and expectations are gone, and new ones left for me to set. 

I’m thankful that the pandemic creates the wiggle room in life to redo the sloppy days as I continue to practice maintaining the proper tension. Setting daily, achievable goals gives me a sense of progress and accomplishment, a regularity to my days that like the even stitches of my crochet work, slowly build towards a finished product. But the tensions of life under pandemic conditions, so reminiscent of the emotional volatility of living with cancer, require a gentleness and an ability to forgive oneself that, like Nana’s loving hug, make it possible to try again another day.

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