Skill Exchange

I loved the proposed makes for this week, so of course I did something different.  In my own defense, I posted in the theme of Sara’s suggestion here, and I still think the connected learning model is 100% Illich inspired.  I also blogged about a physical representation of my de-schooled work when I took the New Media Seminar, and I still love my space-dog egg-ship.

But for this week, I’m offering the following memory of a time when a skill-exchange helped me see the world, a cross-country plane flight, and a purple sweater in a whole new way


Common Language

Finished sweater aka Educational artifact / fiber art
Finished sweater aka Educational artifact / fiber art


The trip began badly. All of the flights to Chicago had already been cancelled when I arrived at the airport at 9 am. It took an hour to get rerouted, and then there was a three hour wait for the first flight. No nice dinner on the Pacific coast for me. By the time I got on the San Francisco flight in Atlanta my expectations for the day had scaled back considerably.

I made my way to the back section of the plane. At least I’d finished writing my paper and I had an aisle seat – and a new novel, the current issue of Yoga Journal, and my knitting. I’d been looking forward to this trip for months: a conference at Berkeley that started with a tour of a famous hyena facility, with a sojourn in Santa Barbara tacked on the front end so I could catch up with friends.

Settling into my seat I stashed the salad that would substitute for the good meal I had hoped to share with my college roommate that evening. Then my neighbor arrived: A neatly-dressed older woman speaking what I thought was Korean but turned out to be Chinese. She seemed to be part of a tour group, and it was soon clear that she did not speak English. My mood brightened as I contemplated the quiet flight ahead. The only baggage my neighbor had was a purse with a stiff curved handle. She held it on her lap and stared at the seat back. I started my book.

After we reached cruising altitude I noticed lots of people were watching the World Cup match: North Korea v. Portugal. I am not much of a soccer fan, but I cued up the game on the seat back screen anyway. The great thing about soccer is that they replay the goals over and over, so there’s no reason to pay attention until something happens. I kept reading. I noticed the woman next to me was intently watching the soccer game on my screen. I gestured and spoke the way people speak to me when I don’t speak their language, offering to find the game on her video monitor. My neighbor accepted with a vigorous nod and a smile. She watched the game, still holding her purse. I went back to my book, which just wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be.

When the beverage trolley rolled up I pointed and gestured again, hoping I could help her identify a drink. More nodding and smiling. I pointed at the cola can. No. Sprite? Yes. Ice? No. She seemed pleased. I ordered Cranapple Juice with ice and gave the book another try. A few minutes later she gently tapped my arm and pointed at my glass. “It’s cranapple juice,” I said, as though it mattered. “Cran-apple juice.” She pointed at the glass again and nodded. “You’d like some of this?” I asked, moving the glass toward the aisle and the retreating beverage cart. Vigorous nodding. As I headed down the aisle, there was an intense exchange between my neighbor and a man in the row behind us. “He wants juice too?” I asked, pointing at my glass and nodding at the smiling man. Ok then.

“Could I get two glasses of cranapple juice for the people back there who don’t speak English?”

“Oh, did I miss them?” the flight attendant asked.

“No, they just didn’t realize cranapple juice was an option.” I smiled.

“No ice, right?”

I returned with the two glasses to a warm welcome of nodding and lots of Chinese.
“She-she,” I repeated, thinking that meant “thank-you” but not at all sure what “you’re welcome” would be. I do speak German and Russian, and can parrot simple phrases in some other languages, but this one seemed most intractable. I started thinking about what it must be like to travel in a country where you can’t read or understand the vernacular and marveled at the bravery of this group. Then I gave up on the book and pulled out my knitting.

I’d started working on the sweater a couple of weeks ago. The yarn was a lovely cashmere-silk blend. Smooth as butter and feather light. Even at 50% off it was a splurge, but I knew I’d wear the soft purple cardigan forever. I was knitting the back and sides together from the bottom up. The back was done. I’d finished one of the front sides that morning, so now I moved the stitches on the other front side off of the waste yarn and back onto the needles. My neighbor quit watching soccer and stared at the knitting. I dug out the sweater pattern, and the pattern for the leaf inset I was using as a border. As I flattened out the sweater and picked up the needles, the woman leaned over and nodded approvingly. “Knitting,” I said. “I like to knit.” She touched my arm and pointed at me, the sweater, and the pattern, nodding vigorously. “You like this?” I smiled. Lots of nodding and words I didn’t understand. I moved the sweater over closer to her. She caressed the fabric, sighing in a way that confirmed she knew good fiber when she felt it. When I held out the ball of yarn she squeezed it and squinted. Hmmmm. More nodding on both sides. I said things in English, she said something in Chinese. We agreed that knitting was good and that knitting with lovely yarn is fabulous. She watched intently as I carefully worked my way across the next row, and the next row.

Leaf-pattern inset. I followed a pattern. My collaborator showed me how to work without one.
Leaf inset for left front. I followed a pattern. My collaborator showed me how to work without one.

Then I handed the work to her. She glanced at me, nodded, and purled across the row so quickly I barely had time to process what was happening. She hesitated at the leaf inset, made two stitches slowly, saw my nod of approval, and blitzed on through to the end of the row. For the next two hours we took turns working on the sweater in this way – completely absorbed in the work and savoring the collaboration of what is often a solitary kind of creativity. I don’t know what she learned from me, as I remained vigilantly attuned to the pattern chart the whole time, but I learned so much watching her work with just a mental image of what the finished project should look like. We held the yarn differently, and our hands moved in very different rhythms. Usually if you knit on someone else’s work the stitches look different – they bear the stamp of the hand that held the needles. But my sweater is flawless. You can’t tell which rows were knit by the historian from Kansas and which were made by the vacationer from China.

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