Making Something Out of Nothing

If you knew me in my twenties, you probably remember me as a KOW (Knitting Obsessed Woman).  I didn’t learn how to knit until I was 19, but after that I was rarely without a pair of knitting needles in my hands.  My PR is knitting a pair of mittens in 5 hours the night before Valentine’s Day as a gift for my future (and current) husband. Because I learned to knit as an adult, I distinctly remember how difficult it is.  You feel awkward as you struggle to make the needles do what you need them to do. It’s difficult to make sense of the stitches and frustrating to decipher the patterns, which seem to be written in secret code.  If you make a mistake, you have to rip out your work and start over.  But what I absolutely love about knitting is the satisfaction that comes from taking what is basically a couple of sticks and a ball of string and, through sheer effort and determination, turning a bunch of knots into something that is beautiful and useful. You are making something out of nothing.

I haven’t done much knitting in the past decade.  There are several half-finished projects at the back of my closet,  hidden behind my boots so I can’t see them and feel guilty about them.   But last weekend my friend Amy showed me some mittens that she is making for her son.  They are My Neighbor Totoro mittens and they seriously could not be cuter.  I saw them and my fingers started itching – literally – to knit them.   You can find the pattern for Totoro Mittens on or by clicking on this pdf. (Special thanks to brella for allowing me use both the image and the pattern in this blog!)

For the first seven years of my career, I represented people who were fleeing persecution and seeking asylum in the U.S.  Though I may not have seen them for years, I often think about my former clients.  On the day that Amy showed me the My Neighbor Totoro mittens, I happened to think of James and Julia (not their real names). James and Julia were politically active in their native Kenya, speaking out against an oppressive government.  They had a little boy who I’ll call William.  When the police came to their house to arrest Julia, a police dog had bitten William on the head.  You could still see the wound a year later when, having left everything they owned behind to escape Kenya, they were seeking legal assistance with their asylum claim in the U.S.  

In police custody, Julia had been brutally and repeatedly raped.  Only a few times have I seen an asylum officer (specially trained federal officials who make decisions about asylum cases based on a written application and an in-person interview) actually cry during an an asylum interview.  Julia testified about her experiences in a straightforward manner and in excruciating detail, but with such poise and dignity that both the asylum officer and I were in tears.  I remember well how James sat next to her, utterly still. Anguish is the only word that could possibly describe the look on his face as he listened to her testimony.

Years later, after they got their citizenship, James and Julia had a party to say thank you to all of the people who had helped them.  In addition to their attorneys, there were people from their church and other members of the Kenyan community. They now lived in a big, new house out in the suburbs. Julia was close to graduation from nursing school  William, who I hadn’t seen since he was three, was now in middle school.  He was a straight-A student and talented musician who had just gotten braces.  They had had another child, too – a daughter born here in America.

It had taken a lot of hard work for James and Julia to get to where they were.  I’m sure that they were frustrated at times with life in this strange, new country.  But they persisted and, through sheer effort and determination, made a new life for themselves and their family.  In some ways, they had even followed a pattern – the American Dream.  It wasn’t easy, but James and Julia had done it.  They had made something out of nothing.