Knitting Heaven and Earth is one woman’s honest telling of her coexisting journeys of craft and cancer, of how they collide and merge. Susan Gordon Lydon recounts enticing and painful dramas of samsara as she finds them and as they find her. Her writing is funny, sassy and poignant, with marvelous turns of phrase such as “bikers who knit” and “some men should come with a warning.”
Both Lydon’s living and her telling are made more alive by her awareness, revealed in the final chapter, that her earlier bouts with cancer have metastasized to her liver and are at stage four. She may live to see the publication of Knitting Heaven and Earth; she may not. But she has, she says, experienced in her life
a tremendous healing. The stitches I’ve made with my hands, one following another, have carried me to a peaceful landscape within, a place of spacious presence and luminous hope.
I set out to write a book about various types of love: familial love, parental love, romantic love. But the events of my life intervened, and I had to go, as my spiritual teacher, Oscar Ichazo, describes it, “deepier and deepier.”
And so rather than talking about love, Lydon shows the immense joy, frustration and inevitable loss love brings. Along with stories of her knitting are stories of her loves—her godchild, her own child, her father, her difficult lover. The simple practices of handcraft, of knitting and needlepoint, both enabled and grounded her internal journeys. Since it takes considerable time to complete a handmade piece, each one is also connected to a phase of life: lace shawls to a romance, an emerald-green baby sweater to a godchild-to-be, needlepoint with wavy underwater themes to an attempt to decide between cancer cures.
Lydon’s mastery of the craft of needlework is matched by her mastery of the craft of writing. Never does she slide into the error of assuming that her topic is an established universal metaphor and that all related experiences are potential teaching tales. When she talks about yarn, that’s what she’s telling you about, and you learn amazing things. One of the most expensive yarns, for example, is qiviut, spun from the underhair of the Arctic musk ox. It has an extremely high warmth-to-weight ratio and, like cashmere, a halo of fine hairs surrounding the core of spun fiber. That halo blooms and softens and fluffs during washing, giving the finished product its luxurious feel. I think I would recognize the shawl Lydon knit out of qiviut. It ended up in the hands of her friend, who not only loaned it to others in need of comfort but also declared it as the sort of thing “I want to be wearing in my open casket.”
Not only does knitting heal the knitter, it can also heal the world. Lydon describes “yarning,” winding wool among trees slated for clear-cutting in the Pacific Northwest. The yarn gets into the chain saws and disables them without damaging either the loggers or the trees.
The title of the book, Knitting Heaven and Earth, is apt and subtle. Birds are often intermediaries between Heaven and Earth. While knitting grounds us, our spirits soar with birds’ wings. In the Shetland Islands, Lydon tells us, young girls are taught to knit on the stripped spines of seagull feathers. Too much tension on the yarn and the feathers collapse; too little tension and the yarn falls off. Only when they can successfully knit on the feathers are the girls given needles.
Lydon writes straight truth, simple and present. She praises the activities of the hands that both draw us into the phenomenal world and quiet the rattling mind, allowing wisdom, insight and healing. But she never preaches. She just tells us what she did and what happened next. Describing her last conversation with her dying father, she writes: “We couldn’t even speak our minds in words, we had to speak from our hearts and through our eyes. The words were about nothing but Brooklyn.”
Because Lydon’s writing is so clear, and the book is about so much more than knitting, you need never have interacted with yarn or even identified yourself as a craftsperson to benefit from reading it. But after you’re done, you might find yourself looking for a craft to enrich your ordinary life and your spiritual endeavors.
Susan Gordon Lydon lived to see the June publication of this book and died one month later. A writer and journalist for most of her life, she wrote about topics ranging from her own drug addiction to fashion to music. She authored Take the Long Way Home: Memoirs of a Survivor and was a founder of Rolling Stone magazine. Her benchmark essay, “The Politics of Orgasm,” is considered a classic in women’s studies classes across the country.