Three years ago I decided to buy an acoustic guitar with the notion that I would learn to play to awaken my creativity and exercise my brain. I freely confess that I have never before played a musical instrument, cannot sing, and cannot read music. I go on to purchase an entry-level guitar and a DVD instructional. The first night with it, I get a crash course in stringing as I break the thinnest string while trying to winch it to the right sound, in the process learning that metal strings can cut. Over time I acquire a tuning fork, an assortment of picks, an electronic tuner and blisters on the fingers of my left hand.
The DVD makes of me an adequate tuner and with my fingers positioned just right I can believably string together three or four chords, getting used to the bite of metal strings on tender fingertips. Eventually my right arm strums with the correct sweep of a windshield wiper and my fingers can transition chords without interrupting my strumming. I can make sounds, just not music. My guitar is now in the custody of a friend who wishes to learn, and who has previously played an instrument, has sung in a choir, and can read music. The guitar, no doubt, is in a better place.
The following winter I sign up for a two-session knitting class after watching friends and family churn out hats, scarves and mittens like a Nordic sweatshop. It might be nice to do something with my hands during these long northeastern winters, and I’m still looking for a creative outlet and exercise for my brain. During this beginners’ class we learn your basic “knit” stitch, knitting along row after row until you have a scarf. There are the tell-tale holes from dropped stitches (failing to wind the yarn around the needle properly to complete a stitch), but the instructor is impressed with my tension (the uniformity and tightness of my stitches) and by the end of the second class kindly comments that my hands seem to know what to do even if my head does not. Upon completion some months after the class, my scarf has charming “first scarf” holes and is somehow a full two inches wider at one end.
Scarf #2 for the husband is a furious autumn of knitting, tying off the last stitch barely in time for Christmas. It is flat, it is orange and it is warm, so he says. In the meantime, a family member has given me a set of different gauge needles (for different thicknesses of yarn) and a booklet of different knitting projects. Apparently, knitting is a simple matter of counting types of stitches to create all manner of cozy garments. (I’m supposed to be counting?)
Scarf #3 takes a full year to complete. I have to consult YouTube for how to “cast off” (i.e.: finish) because the time between projects is so long I forget how to do it. I find that alpaca wool sheds fibers all over my darker clothing and it itches. But there are hardly any holes from dropped stitches and it is only slightly wider at one end.
Master Of None
Guitar was fun noise-making, but even after months of practice I could not envision a future where I could pick it up and strum a song. Knitting is a practical art, but my goal of having a scarf of the perfect length and width, without shedding or itching, is not terribly ambitious. Just about anything can be learned, but to master a craft is something else entirely. You either have it or you don’t. Being mediocre is not worth the time and effort.
A Taste of Greatness
Julia Child was 37 years old when she first tasted French cuisine and set out to learn the craft. Her cooking skills at the time were fairly lacking, but that did not stop her from enrolling in the world famous Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris. She went on to author or co-author sixteen cookbooks, beginning with the revolutionary Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and is the undisputed pioneer of televised cooking. It is said of Julia Child that “she loves to cook because she loves to eat.” Her mastery of French cooking is inextricable from her love of eating French food, which she could not have known until that first meal in France. It was always within her, waiting.
We know when we are good at something, and when that something is good for us. That knowledge comes from a place deep within, where there lives a spark waiting for a special brand of oxygen to fan the flame. When that happens, it is Julia chopping onions, it is Tiger connecting with the ball, it is Grandma Moses running a brush over canvas and it is Einstein dreaming of space and time.
New Sparks Light The Way
Setting letterpress type and block cutting are both new sparks for my creativity rather than the wilt of spirit I feel when I know that I haven’t got the music in me, or when I admit that I just want to make for myself one decent scarf. With guitar and knitting, there was no spark; I dutifully learned, performed well enough for a novice, but there was no love in it. Meanwhile, I am already thinking of a new design for block cutting and I’m preparing the budget for a Letterpress class later this year. And I will continue to try new experiences, because of those glorious days when I try something new and a spark inside me flares up, saying, “what took you so long?”
Now tell me, what’s your spark?