Nature made me nervous as a child, so I spent a lot of time avoiding it. It was the 1990s, and the great indoors offered so much: Nickelodeon on TV and “art” projects galore. (It seems a stretch to call the papier-mâché of a Café du Monde coffee can art without quotation marks.) It got messy around the house, with glue adhering to fingers and flaking off on the floor, oil paint rubbing into shag carpet, and the smell of turpentine lingering like bad cologne.
These pursuits, which demanded vast swaths of space and time, could not be packed for the road when my parents wanted to, say, take a family trip to Yosemite, which was my own kind of prescribed hell. I was more moved by the music playing on my Discman than by the towering sequoia groves. That’s why I took up needlepoint: as something for my small, idle hands to do while in transit.
For the uninitiated, needlepoint is a form of embroidery in which thread is stitched, according to a pattern, through a stiff, open-weave canvas. It was big among beheaded queens (Marie Antoinette and Mary, Queen of Scots) and remains so today with modern American royalty (Jonathan Adler, Mario Buatta).
It’s not lost on me now that because of it, I probably missed out on a lot of life experiences, weaving a vaguely Aztec pattern of sea-foam green and burnt sienna into a needlepoint-your-own-eyeglass-case kit. But that’s the benefit—while it doesn’t physically remove you from your surroundings, needlepoint shifts your consciousness elsewhere, allowing you to focus on the facile task of completing the pink petal of a rose. I’ve been yearning for it lately, at a time of screens and talking heads and institutions breaking down or changing too fast. The needle comes up through the canvas, then loops back down. Up and down. Rhythmically, forevermore.
Needlepoint had a kind of fusty connotation when I took it up. I put my embroidery floss aside when I went to college, and my hobby remained dormant for 13 years until, while wandering through a boutique—a kind of indie Urban Outfitters—in northern California, I saw, hanging on a wall, a spare, embroidered message in a gold rococo frame: It’s not mean if it’s hilarious. (It was not your grandma’s change purse.)
Instead of the florid hummingbirds and chintzy florals that proliferated through the needlepoint kits of my youth, this said more with less. The kit had come from a website that specialized in snarky, subversive patterns, ideal for those among us still in touch with his or her petulant inner child. I needed one. I ordered a PDF template for , made a trip to Michael’s, the big-box crafting store, and ran my fingers over the little loops of silk floss, so sensibly packaged, nicely in a row. This is a form of art—no quotation marks—that makes sense in a world that frequently does not.
I wish I could say the project was done, complete, hanging on my wall in a gold rococo frame. Alas, that’s not the case. I worked on it while watching reruns of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations and moved apartments shortly after; sadly, the template and threads got lost in the process.
These days, loath to spend my free time glued to yet another device, I’ve been eyeing a new kit, for a throw pillow, that’s subversive for a different reason. The pattern features hunks of jagged aqua and amber meant to resemble an archipelago, but one that’s out of this world. One that’s removed from reality, the way we all sometimes yearn to be. I picture myself on my couch, working my way through one vaguely oceanic splotch after another, a glass of wine by my side and a car alarm sounding in the distance, so faint from this place where I’ve brought myself that I can barely hear it.