A History in Scarves

In the back and forth of this winter’s weather, from 34 degree mornings to 78 degree afternoons, I’ve been using a lot of scarves. My scarf repertoire is pretty extensive, but also relatively new.

The first scarf I ever owned was blue, downy, fluffy, and given to me by a middle and high school friend named Chelsey. I still have it and used to wear it to cold Georgia Southern football games. I also wore it skiing, along with my bright blue snow bib and pale blue ski jacket and Tarheel blue gloves, which is when I discovered that my scarf was quite ineffective against actual cold.

The first scarf I bought for myself was on the street in Barcelona. Okay, actually we were in Parc Guell by the bus parking lot. I wouldn’t have stopped but several of the others in my group had, so I felt safe doing so. I fell in love with the lightest, shiniest pink polyester scarf. Plyed with a “buy two, get one free” deal, I also bought a rich sky blue and a red and orange ombre. The pink and the blue I let an acquaintance borrow four or five years later, along with several dresses, because she was going to the same area of West Africa that I’d visited the year before. The scarves would cover her head as local custom demanded and and the dresses, which I’d bought there, would ingratiated her more quickly. She never returned them. I keep my orange and red scarf hanging in my closet, wearing it only once or twice a year.

I bought my next scarf—black, and currently hanging from the coat hook at my desk—from a vendor outside Primark on Oxford Street in London. I also bought a white one, possibly because of some sort of sale. I draped them over my shoulders in chilly classrooms and crisp evening streets. I draped and swirled and knotted and loved them. Where I wore hoodies in high school for warmth and armor, here was an elegant alternative suitable to a wider temperature range. I wore my scarves to the theatre and stuffed them into my bags.

That same summer, I bought a light, wide lavender scarf I had to fold many times to avoid blanket dimensions and to provide a touch of warmth. I wore it with a white blouse and grey skirt to Les Mis. At Javert’s suicide, I clutched it to me like Fantine and stumbled down the stairs from the Upper Circle, coughing so roughly that an attendant from the bar on the top floor and the coat checker from the lobby took to the staircase to search for me, one descending and the other ascending until they met each other, and me, in the middle.

My mother bought me an airy pale pink scarf from The Gap, so soft that I ran my fingers through and through it, still wanting it even thought we found a hole near one end. And because I wanted few things so much, she bought it for me. I liked to wear it to poetry readings and student panels in college, along with jeans, a white long-sleeve shirt, and my black pleather motorcycle jacket.

A very dear college friend returned from a year in China and gifted me a bamboo compact and a short silk scarf depicting the letters of an ancient poem. I keep the compact on my vanity and hardly ever wear the scarf. It is the most precious of all.

When I returned to England after I graduated college, I bought scarves quickly, cheap or expensive, to match outfits and coats, to warm and shield me, twice just to make me feel better, and once because my flatmate told me a lilac scarf gathered into puffs and waves didn’t look like me. When moving home again, I gave a few away. The rest, including the often-worn lilac-colored one, I stuffed into the corners of my suitcases until each seam held its breath.

The first scarf I completed was too irregular and short for an adult, so I gave it to a hot-blooded boy I babysat. Other than the moment I passed it to his mother and she tied it around his neck, I don’t believe he ever wore it.

The second scarf I made was more even, every stitch tight, especially when my flatmate (who’d taught me) was speaking. I never could regulate modest tension with her there, complaining and criticizing (even if it wasn’t about me). I’d pull my stitches so tight with unvoiced frustration, then she’d exclaim “watch your tension” and I’d want to hurl the entire thing, skein and metal needles and all, at her face. So I tried not to knit when she was in the room. Rather, I knitted while watching Merlin after she went to bed, in Edinburgh while she napped, on the bus to see the friend she didn’t like, in the kitchen while she Skyped with her boyfriend in her bedroom. I even took my needles on the plane home, getting the most done during the layover in Newark. I had five hours to eat Frosty’s and knit and reacquaint myself to the accents of so many Americans. But I never did finish that scarf.

I can’t regulate tension well wherever I am, so I asked a student at a later employment to teach me to crochet. I graduated from hats to scarves and taught others. In the four years since I first learned, I have gifted and been gifted scarves. Red knit, pink linen, gold crochet hang in my closet or lay rolled in a drawer. Two-toned reds with gold thread and ribbons of coral and cream appear in photos taken in cities I’ve never visited. My friends have frequently asked me whether or not I made the scarf I’m wearing. I learn new patterns, working and working the material between my fingers, working and working to keep its softness from the dog’s mouth, playing with colors and volume, keeping the skeins off the floor and away from the dog hair (so much dog hair).

I don’t crochet much anymore. There’s too much dog hair. I most often miss it when I’m at work, wishing I could spend my lunch break in the armchair by the window, intricately knotting yarn, my fingers worked as I listen to something soothing. But my work is always at home, with boxes and bags of skeins I haven’t touched in months. And at least one scarf is rarely far from me, at work, at home, in my car, if not around my neck.

A Single Woman’s Valentine’s Day

If you’re a single woman, Valentine’s Day probably goes something like this.

Wake up, wear red or pink. It usually doesn’t matter what you wear, but you want to be festive. Plus, you don’t want people to think you’re bitter or lonely or pining (especially if you are). I remember the Vtines day in high school when I accidentally wore black. I wear black all the time, but that day my outfit got looks and questions. Thankfully, I’m an adult now, but it’s still the sort of thing people notice and read in to.

Go to work. It’s a normal day, after all. When someone asks your married and dating coworkers what their plans are for the day, the married usually shrug and mention going out to dinner. They might talk about the Daddy-Daughter dance at church. The dating are more likely to have elaborate plans. They may or may not ask you about your plans, because you are single, and everyone around you seems to feel a little uncomfortable with that today.

The thing is, you do have plans. You are a single woman on Single Awareness Day. You are cooking your favorite chicken marsala or marathoning Jane Austen movies or getting together with your cohort of single female friends for excessive amounts of ice cream. One year, my roommate and I watched Fried Green Tomatoes with the biggest sundaes Baskin Robbins offered. The next day, we took a day trip to Juliette, where the movie had been filmed, for antiquing and lunch at the Whistle Stop Cafe. Another year, I babysat friends’ small children so they could go out. But you, like I, definitely have plans.

On your lunch break, you may buy yourself flowers or a new candle and stock up on cheesecake and cookie dough. You’ll come in for the half-priced candy tomorrow, but you need a plan for your break, too. So you go shopping. Or meet a friend at Panera. Or start a new book, something sweet and swoony or maybe a murder mystery. You do not scroll through your ex’s timeline. Not even once.

When work is over, you refuse to look at Facebook or Insta or Snapchat. You might even turn off notifications before your feeds are taken over by people live-tweeting their fancy dinners and snapping kissing selfies. A swath of big-rocked rings will appear before midnight. You’ll have to say something nice about those—and you are happy for those couples—but you can do that tomorrow. Tonight, it’s you and your plan of choice, which you embrace with gusto.

It’s not a sad day, but it is kind of an eggshell day. And the hardest part is bedtime. You laughed so hard during your marathon of The Good Place, or your chest broke open during A Walk to Remember, and all those emotions have exhausted you. Maybe you were comforted by the kids (or girl friends) who cuddled with you on the couch. And now it’s quiet. Your friends aren’t here. And no matter how worn out you are, no matter how much fun you had, it’s still Valentine’s Day. And you still didn’t have the kind of day you’re supposed to have, whether or not you even want that kind of day.

It’s hard. It’s not the hardest thing, but don’t beat yourself up for feeling lonely or annoyed or angry. Try to be generous, with yourself and others. Try to have fun. But remember: you aren’t “sad” for not having a romantic partner today and you aren’t “pathetic” for not having a gaggle of friends to spend it with, either. You’re having the best day you can, and you are awesome.

On Mongols and Walls

One day last week, I spent my lunch break in a tree-lined parking lot, eating a salad in my car and listening to the audiobook of The Secret History of the Mongol Queens. That day’s chapter was about the political, military, and environmental factors that went into the building of the Great Wall of China. That Mandukhai Khatun (Queen Mandukhai the Wise to us English-speaking peons) was a credit to her ancestor Ghengis Khan, as almost none of his other descendants were. Also, Commander Wang Yue of the Ming Dynasty was quite the poet in his military reports.

Here’s the gist. The Mongols were in the habit of raiding the fertile pastureland of the Yellow River (also called the Black, Green, or Red River, depending on which people group you ask). The Mongols had once held this territory and wanted it back, in part to provide good grassland for their horses. But it wasn’t grassland at the time; it was farmland, because the Chinese were using that area to feed their empire. The Chinese had to trade with the Mongols for horses because they were farming the pastureland and prices rose. The Chinese military leaders were incapable of defending the border towns and spent most of their time either waiting for news of an attack or futilely chasing after the Mongols, always one town behind.

So, once a favorable cost-benefit analysis was presented to the Ming court, a Chinese courtesan basically said, “Yeah, this is definitely the best option. It’s much more civilized than posting more soldiers up there…or feeding them adequately, or paying them adequately, or training them at all.” This statement was followed with a chorus of, “We’re incredibly civilized! We’re so super civilized, you guys.” (The Ming built entire tribute system on encouraging others to become what the Ming considered to be “civilized,” which just meant being as much like the Ming as possible.)

“A wall is far more humane than killing the poor barbarians who we can never seem to catch, let alone defend against,” reasoned some courtesan. “The wall will keep our farmer-soldiers from deserting us and the Mongols from raiding us. It’s brilliant! So simple.”

And that kind of double-speak to justify a wall sounds rather familiar, in tone if not in words. And walls are such good ideas! Walls solve everything. There’s no problem a big, strong wall can’t fix. Just ask the Chinese, whose wall may or may not have directly contributed to the Ming dynasty’s fall. (No, really! Historians and economists disagree about how much the wall had to do with the empire’s fall. This wasn’t my area of emphasis in my history degree, either, so I’m not going to weigh in. However, most historians agree that the wall served as a symbol of the dynasty’s downfall, and still does today.)

That’s basically what I remember about the Great Wall from my school days. I learned that the wall was built in parts first, then connected, and lots of people died in the process. I learned the great wall isn’t straight because the Chinese believed that evil spirits follow straight lines, and I learned that the wall didn’t really work.

Now, to be fair, the region did stabilize economically after the completion of the wall and a failed Mongol raid in 1482, but the stability likely had as much to do with the legacy of Mandukhai Khatun’s rule (remember, she’s the really cool Mongol queen directly descended from Ghengis Khan) as it did the wall. In terms of repelling invasions, though, the wall did precious little in the 130 years between completion and the dynasty’s fall.

So, to anyone wanting a new wall, literally or figuratively, let me point out a few things that the Ming didn’t know when they built theirs.

1. Racism hurts everyone. That includes you, no matter what ethnicity you are. You may not feel the effects in the short-term (though Chinese and Mongol people died because of that wall), but you better believe that future generations are going to shake their heads in frustrated disgust at you. And no one loves to tear things down more than the young, jaded idealists who grew up in a big wall’s shadow. (Berlin, anyone?)

2. There’s no such thing as a simple solution. Not in border disputes, not in economics, not in policy, not in life. The complex problems that people build walls to try to solve will not be solved once a wall is complete. Rather, the problems will morph, affecting new aspects of society and causing entirely new problems, or they will swell until the wall can no longer hold back the flood.

3. Avoid building symbols of power. They are too fragile to maintain and protect, but become too important psychologically to let fall. If the symbol goes, so does the illusion of your strength. You’ll invest immeasurable amounts of time, energy, money, and other resources defending your symbol, and you’ll have to continue long after it’s outlasted its original usefulness. Or long after you realize it never fulfilled its original purpose. You won’t be able to defend it from others or get rid of it yourself (ie, US sanctions against Cuba, maintained until after Fidel Castro’s death).

Clearly, I’m not outlining my own complex solutions to the world’s ills. But I am cautioning us to really think through the literal and figurative walls being built in US foreign policy.