The Ghost & the Machine

A soft, knitted, brown textile cascades down the page, rolled up along the edges. A face, drawn lightly in pencil, emerges from a hole towards the top of the fragment.

Listen to this article



Grief month. December is hibernation season in Chicago, and it’s when my father died, five years ago to this day on December 28th. I’ve just published a book, my first, about the aforementioned dead dad, my bipolar, and yо̄kai—monsters and ghosts and creatures of all stripes. I have traveled all over talking about these topics. My mouth is tired of forming shapes that have meaning—I desire only to yawn, or to yowl.

My favorite holiday, Halloween, is long over, but still I feel haunted. During the day I obsess about my daughter’s fish, Betta-y—my daughter is five— whose fins are rotting away. At night I dream of its death, over and over. Here it is, leapt out of the tank and shriveled like a potpourri petal; here it is, shrunk in its tank to the size of a pebble. I sit in front of the tank for hours, my body unmoving, watching it swim in circles around the ten-gallon container.

When I am not watching the fish I scour subreddits for answers on how to fix Betta-y’s fin rot. R/bettafish tells me that this is a common problem, that they were bred to be like this, that the thing that people love in bettas—their long, beautiful, vibrant fins—is what makes them susceptible to sickness. The fins are too heavy for their bodies. It is unnatural, and it is their downfall. The internet suggests this medication, that medication, salt baths, more frequent water changes. The internet suggests that all of this may not work anyway. I search and search and all I find are photos of sick fish, mutilated fish, finless fish, and as grief month goes on, as we march ever closer to the shortest day of the year, these images of fish become all I see. They pop up, unbidden, over and over in my mind. Intrusion after intrusion. By the time I decide to save me from myself—I block Reddit, block Quora, block all aquarium search terms—it’s too late. The images are burned into my mind, and churn there.

I am unwell, I tell my therapist. I can sense it early enough by now, this feeling of slipping into some other place. I call my psychiatrist; he adds an antipsychotic to my litany of medications. While I wait for this to work (or not—every medication is a crapshoot) I withdraw, all my group chats unread.

There is only one thing that soothes me, and it is this that I spend most of my waking hours on, now that I have decided to avoid the corner of the house with the aquarium. When people ask me what I am doing, now that the book tour is over, I tell them the truth: I knit.

They probably imagine me curled up in bed, a ball of yarn and a pair of needles in my hand, sobbing perhaps, or watching a ’90s teen movie. And this is sometimes true. But more often than not I am sitting downstairs in the family room, upright, in front of my machine.


My machine is named the LK150, as if it were a friend of the Star Wars droids. My LK-150 is made of white plastic with pink decorative accents and is approximately the size and shape of an electric keyboard. It possesses 150 long metal hooks, laid side by side—imagine the strings of a grand piano. To knit with it, I must push a plastic carriage, strung with yarn, back and forth. Imagine a movement like ironing. I have to explain these motions, compare them to other things, because most people have never seen a knitting machine, or imagined how it works.

It is this machine with whom I spend countless hours this winter. In front of the machine I do not see mutilated fish. In front of the machine I see nothing at all except for my yarn, slowly accreting into a garment; I feel nothing but the fatigue in my arm as it pushes a heavy carriage back and forth, back and forth, hundreds of times. When my body moves like this, when I have to focus, my mind is blessedly silent.

The LK-150 is decidedly low-tech for a machine. Unlike the other knitting machine I own, which lurks in my basement—both passed down to me by my eighty-two-year-old mother-in-law, bless her fiber-arts-loving-soul—the LK-150 does not have a mechanism to read punch cards (for patterning), nor does it have a plug. It is not electronic. And yet, compared to hand knitting, which essentially involves making loops with two sticks, it is extremely high tech.

And therein lies the rub. My LK-150 is much faster than knitting with my own two hands. Speed is the reason it exists. It has limited capabilities—there are many things that I can do quicker with hand knitting than on the machine, such as designs and shaping—but for basic knitting, in a rectangle, I can do in minutes with the LK-150 what would take me over ten hours by hand. The speed is the blessing of it, and its curse.

Because for knitting, slowness is sometimes the point. Knitting with my hands is meditative; I have to pay attention. I have been trying to teach myself other skills in fiber arts: dyeing, spinning. Earlier tools and technologies.

Last summer I grew a dye garden and then dyed my yarn with what I grew or foraged from my neighborhood: pokeberry, indigo, walnut, acorn, buckthorn, Black Knight Scabiosa. It required, at times, precise science. I weighed chemicals by the gram. I had a specific area in my garage for the dyeing, complete with extra burner and Crockpot and pots and pans and buckets for fermented matter, which I do outside while wearing my KN94 mask to keep from inhaling. Dyeing also allows for playfulness. I dumped a bunch of marigolds in and steeped them for a while. You can slow the process down even further: sometimes, instead of using a stove, I used fermentation, which is longer, more low-tech, and more energy efficient.


My mother has always made things with her hands. Pots. A shoyu pourer. A teacup. Slow. Methodical. Her father, my grandfather, also always made things with his hands, in his garage, with his saws and his hammers. The things they make are beautiful, works of art that also function.

In Japanese folklore, there is the idea that tools or other helpful items can gain a spirit after ninety-nine or one hundred years; some tools, on the other hand, are discarded by their owners before this time period elapses, cutting off their ability to gain a spirit. They must become animate by other means, and become tool yо̄kai, who are vengeful, bitter at their previous owners.

But most of the everyday tools and items of today will not live to be ninety-nine or a hundred. They will not gain a spirit. Instead, they will head to the dump after a few years because of planned obsolescence, fast fashion. The items cycle in, cycle out.

In DIY garment making, slow fashion is in—a panacea to the fast fashion of the textile industry—and there are numerous books focusing on process, versus the product of the garment itself. Emphasis is on making heirloom items, things that will last generations, become one hundred years old.


When the turn of the year comes, something lifts inside me. The medicine, maybe, or the idea that the days are now getting longer, or the fact that I made it past another December 28th. It is easier to look at Betta-y’s fins without spiraling. (Though everything comes in waves. By spring, the dreams occasionally return: the betta fish, sometimes as big as a whale, sometimes chasing me, sometimes tiny and dead and tucked into a corner.)

The fish will not live forever. It will last a few years, at best; its lifespan is short. My goal, then, is to keep engaging with it: to not withdraw or obsess. How difficult it is to maintain this equilibrium in all things.

I continue to knit, both fast and slow. (I myself run at these two speeds. I hate muddling about in the middle area. I want to be dancing or I want to be lying in bed.) Both high-tech, with the machine, and low-tech, with my hands. These tools I use every day, these tools that help me get through the day. If this is the way I can keep my mind together, so be it. I have tried so many other things—mindfulness meditation, regular meditation, apps. Nothing soothes me so well as knitting.

I believe in the process, in watching my hands knit stitch by stitch, but I also love sitting in front of my machine and watching my sweater come together in just a few days, versus the months it can take me to hand knit.

Many garments I make are hybrid: I knit some parts by hand, some parts on the machine. I hope no matter what I make, and no matter how I make it, these items too can gain a spirit. Can become alive.