I cannot count the number of times I have read the story, told by Homer, of Penelope--"the matchless queen of cunning"--weaving a shroud by day, only to rip out her handiwork by night. She was warding off a decision about which of her rapacious suitors she would marry, waiting, as she wove, for her husband, King Odysseus, to return from war--if he were still alive. The weaving and unweaving bought her time.

The story has been on my mind; I've been mourning the death of my friend Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, preparing for her memorial service on Sunday, April 1, and rereading some of her books. Elisabeth was Hannah Arendt's biographer, and Arendt often wrote about Penelope at her loom as a metaphor for thinking. Elisabeth, too, explored this image frequently. There is no end to the weaving and unraveling--just as there is no end to thinking.

The ways of life (and death) are strange. At around the time of Elisabeth's death, I learned also of the death of a college classmate, of heart disease. A friend of his, Nat Needle, was organizing a musical tribute for Sam Lowe; I was on his email list. We all had been (too) long out of touch. Nat's address was so intriguing that I googled it, and that was how I learned about Saori weaving. Nat and his wife run a studio in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Though I could offer Nat nothing by way of musical entertainment, I became fixated on the idea of weaving a banner. I kept emailing Nat about it, until he gently suggested, as I was so interested, that I visit his colleague, Yukako, in New York, at Loop of the Loom.

I didn't realize, until I walked into the place--whose walls were festooned with gorgeous, gossamer handiwork, made by a young weaver named Mari Nakano--why exactly I had become obsessed with sitting at a loom, something I have never done. Of course everything was rolling around in my heart--death, Elisabeth, Penelope, thinking, memory....all of it.

Yukako set me up at my own small loom; the warp of strong black cotton thread was already set up. She asked me to pick a bobbin of colored yarn, and showed me how to move the shuttle back and forth, comb it into place, and use my feet to change the warp to set up the next row. Then she showed me a large bucket full of snippets of yarn, and told me just to paint with them. And then she left me on my own.

The first thing I noticed was how uncomfortable I was--leaning in to reach for the shuttle, getting the rhythm of my hands and feet, finding a center of gravity so that I didn't fall into the loom, settling into a perch on the stool. I immediately understood something new about the Penelope story: Weaving is hard work.

And Penelope ripped out her weaving, voluntarily, each and every night. That is how much she wanted to slow down time. That is how desperate she was to keep alive the hope of her husband's return. Whatever pride she may have taken in her accomplishment was transient--and, I noticed as my small rows accumulated, one does take pride. One does look over the handiwork, and judge. One does feel accomplishment. To undo the accomplishment, which appears inch by tiny inch, is no small matter.

Before too long, I noticed an upwelling of criticism: What a mess you are making! Why would you put that color with this one? Rip that out! That Voice... That critical voice, with me always--sometimes useful, sometimes punitive, hindering.

It is wrong-headed. I like to think, after all these years, that I am developing a different head. So I hauled out one of my Useful Tools, a well-honed mental adjustment. I said to myself, Judgement is irrelevant. I will make this for someone else....it will be a gift, so what is important is the love with which I am weaving. (No way was I ripping anything out.)

Soon I left Penelope behind in my thoughts, and dwelled on conversations I had had with Elisabeth. Death is not only the unraveling of the weft, but the unstringing of the warp. My thoughts then drifted into the ocean, perhaps back to Homer and boats sailing the wine-dark sea. And that brought me to seaweed, and winter cliffs....

All the while, I was reaching into the tub of yarn, and spooling new yarns onto my bobbin, and weaving. I found the right rhythm, my rhythm, and relaxed. The pain in my neck and back began to melt away. I thought about my children at the beach, how we loved to explore tidal pools and surf the waves--the threads became lighter and the patterns began to roll with the energy of those memories.

Two hours sped by. I wasn't ready to stop. I had to buy more time at the loom--and spent two more hours weaving, drifting along on an ocean of thought, longing, joy.

Later I learned that Saori is a hand weaving program founded by Misao Jo in 1969--she started weaving when she was 57 years old!  It is "a Zen art of weaving from Japan that is dedicated to free expression and self-development....it lets us celebrate the beauty of our imperfections..."

The next day, in an act of defiance--because I knew she would disapprove--and because I am not really 56, I am still 15--I wore my new scarf to lunch with my mother, who took one look at it, rolled her eyes, and asked, where did you find that thing? did you make it?

And because I had my friend, Elisabeth, in my heart--because conversation does just weave in and out of our lives--because I knew exactly what she would say, in her psychoanalytic mode, about such an exchange, I smiled serenely at my mother. And thought, how nice to feel 15. I believe, in lay women's terms, this is called Not Taking the Bait. I felt very proud of my weaving. So I'm not even 15. I'm 5. So what? My scarf turned out to be more than seven feet long, but smiles of beautiful imperfection turn out to be longer.


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