The Distance Between is an Unbroken Line

Written by  Shena McAuliffe

The line breaks and separates from itself.
                                                          -Joanna Drucker tells me that the distance from my house to the building of Language and Communication (LNCO) at the University of Utah is 1.11 miles. The weather widget on my computer screen tells me it is 27˚ and cloudy. Today's predicted high is 39˚. Out my window I can see that it is partly cloudy and that the streets are dry, although the yards are still covered with snow.

The distance between my house and LNCO is slightly longer than the length of yarn it takes to knit a child's sweater1.

In my backpack I have 5 skeins of turquoise yarn (Red Heart brand, 100% acrylic, medium, worsted), 2 extra pens, my phone, my keys. In my jacket pocket I carry a small ball of "natural"2 merino yarn left over from knitting a pair of fingerless gloves last winter. (The resulting gloves look like therapeutic bandages or casts. Suspiciously medical.)

The plan: walk the usual route from my house to the Languages and Communications building on the campus of the University of Utah, trailing behind me a line of turquoise yarn, which will become a map of my walk3. I will tie bits of merino to the main line at landmarks, encounters with other people, occasional thoughts, etc. These flag-knots will correspond with the notes I will take while walking, which I will later attach to the yarn in the appropriate order at the corresponding distances. A cartographic walk4.

I am fortified with:
3 whole grain pancakes
1 egg (over easy)
1 mineola orange (surprisingly seedless. Genetically modified?)
3 cups of black coffee

(Such sadness for vegans: no butter. So pleased I am not vegan.)

What if someone or something cuts the line? What if I run out of yarn?

Maybe I will shape the resulting yarn ball like a brain5.

It is 10:20 am on Sunday, February 27, 2011. Traffic on South Temple is light, as usual on Sunday mornings.

Tie6 yarn to bus stop railing at 1001 E South Temple. Begin walking. Discovery: I will have to walk backwards to unreel the skein smoothly. Discovery: I need scissors. I leave the yarn alone on the sidewalk and go back inside for scissors7. Resuming my walk I recognize a surprising degree of self- consciousness. First encounter: a dog walking couple. They turn around before allowing our paths to intersect. (Avoidance?) I recognize the woman from the bus (Monday and Wednesday mornings, 8: 18, Route 6 to the University. Snowy days only8. ) The harp shop. I have figured out how to walk forward and still unreel. P Street and South Temple. P ST pressed into the sidewalk on each side of the intersection. I think PoST. Then PaST. Then PeST. Heaven Cupcake Truck: Strawberry Chocolate. Lemon Zest. (We Take Credit Cards!) I first saw the cupcake truck in a blizzard, heaped with snow and thought it had broken down there, stranded and full of unsold cakes, freezing, or growing soft fur. But it has been parked there for at least 2 months now. I guess the owners live here and the truck doesn't drive around much during the winter. The giant house where they have fancy looking parties on Friday or Thursday nights. Like Clue. A Murder Mystery. Yellow lit glam. Q Street. Q ST. QueST. QueSTion. Is QuiST a word? Rebecca's house. I hear she has been sick. R ST. RoaST. ReST. RuST. The pedestrian tunnel beneath South Temple, between the elementary school and its playground, is locked, which means me and my yarn will have to cross at U Street, above ground. END OF FIRST SKEIN. * A tangle. A couple walks by, says nothing. But then, my back is turned to them and I am crouched on the sidewalk knotting and scribbling in my notebook. I feel vaguely nervous. People don't tend to like unrecognizable acts. Who knows what I might be plotting? The handprints of Michaela and Sean, pressed into the concrete in '95. This project would not be possible in a busier city or a place with more pedestrian traffic. It may not be possible here later in the season, or even later in the day9. On another day the landmarks may remain the same but the topography of my brain would change. S Street. S ST. SiSTers10. LOOK LEFT & RIGHT WHEN CROSSING. FOR ADDED VISIBILITY CARRY ORANGE FLAG ACROSS WITH YOU. (There are no orange flags11. Blown away or stolen, waved all along the street, discarded in some yard, some ditch.) A nicely dressed man—tie, black slacks, lavender shirt—pulls a suitcase past without pause. His shirt is untucked. I get out of the way for him. I turn and watch him walking. He pulls out his cell phone. If you see something say something. Windchimes. Yarn like kite string. T Street. T ST. ToaST. TwiST. TerroriST12. I think about man Y. His upward curling eyelashes. Geraniums in a window. Blowing Snow. Anticipation of crossing South Temple. Will the yarn make it? Will it be marked by tires? Will it tangle on someone's car? U Street. U ST. One of the toUgheST. UlSTer is a place in England, right?13 Crossing South Temple. Watch cars run over the line. Reservoir Park, where there is no longer a reservoir.14 This park becomes that other park, the small park in Seattle, where I saw a couple walking (a June evening, twilight) and I recognized I was lonely, despite that I was living with man X. How I became like Rapunzel in his apartment, playing guitar for twenty minutes a day15, the steel strings building calluses on my fingertips. I repeated after the speaker: Buenos días, señor. Buenos días, señor. First serious snarl. Hands freezing while I try to untangle. Drop my notebook in the snow. Blue yarn on white snow=*!*!*!*16 END OF SECOND SKEIN. * It takes four skeins to make a sweater for a small child17. Large tree. Swingsets. Sled tracks. Cross University Street. Xeriscaped yard: yucca, prickly pear, sagebrush. On a bicycle, or in a hurry, this hill is a bitch. I know where the yarn is behind me. I can see its line, running along the sidewalk downhill, around the curve. Am I still tied to the bus stop out front of my house?18 I know the line the yarn makes, but I cannot see the line until it is behind me19. No dogs have barked at me. No one has spoken to me. Dripping sound of snowmelt. Smell of cigarette smoke. House with beautiful, strange mortar work. Haphazard bricks painted gray. Hidden by tree branches (larch?). The weird surfacing of images is like gasping out of a lake: people used to practice tai chi beneath the West Seattle bridge. I rode past on my bike, where the paste paper wolf20 was stuck to the pillar somewhere between the recycling stacks and the shipping containers. The traffic lights were long. Snips of white yarn on the sidewalk look like a small heap of pasta. Third skein now the size of a penis gripped loosely in my hand.21 Flaccid. Crossing 100 South.

On campus. END OF THIRD SKEIN. * Stairs by the South Physics Observatory. The yarn takes shortcuts by pulling taut against obstacles. By cutting my corners. By refusing straightness and hard angles. Because I am walking more slowly than usual I detour to a concrete keva, where there are tables with umbrellas and the glass shape of a skylight rises vertically from the ground in a column, like a giant crystal. Through it I can see down into the building below: a table with work spread across it. Some kind of library? And behind me, on the roof of the South Physics Observatory, is a dome that would open to see the sky. An oculus22. BUILDING AIR INTAKE. NO SMOKING. Pigeons winging. Fans. I encounter a dog. A boxer. Its owner apologizes for its bark. She leashes it. Maybe the dog is the only one honest and curious enough to admit it thinks I am weird and behaving suspiciously. Icicles on the railing of the Student Services building: Counseling Center23, Financial Aid, Registrar. I have cried too much on the balcony level of this building24. Part of Laura Veirs "Spelunking25," a song I have been learning on guitar: (Capo 7. A minor) A large part of me//(D) Is always and forever tied//(G) To the lamplight. END OF FOURTH SKEIN. * I have walked the distance of a child's sweater. Student Union: I have to pee. Campus is very empty today. Clouds on the mountains behind campus: snaggy and sunlit. Have to cut and retie yarn due to a tangle. Encounter a curious brown Chihuahua26. Its owner, a woman, asks what I'm doing. "A project," I say. "For school?" "Yes.27" She says she likes the color of yarn and I thank her, as if I had dyed the yarn myself? Is she complimenting my taste? Serious yarn entanglement. But I am so close to the end point. I cut and retie the yarn a number of times. Somehow running smoothly again. NO MOTOR VEHICLES BEYOND THIS POINT. Again the skein grows limp and hollow in my hand. LNCO: I have to try three doors until I find one that is unlocked. I leave the remaining skein collapsed outside the bathroom on the first floor of the LNCO. On the way out I cut the yarn. I will go no further.

The winding begins. The return. It is very slow progress. I'm on my way out of the labyrinth, but the yarn ball grows too large in my hands, a growing mass of overlapping strands. I am building the labyrinth as I return, taking it with me, the coiled line of my walk. Theseus couldn't forget the labyrinth, either. Maybe it was because he was distracted, or traumatized, that he hoisted the wrong color sails. White meant I have succeeded. I am coming home. Black meant Theseus is dead. At home, his father looked out across the surface of the sea and saw the black sails blowing toward him. Grief-stricken, he leapt to his death. The labyrinth is heavy. The yarn ball gets very difficult to handle. I may have to roll it on the ground as if I am making a snowman. Near the oculus I watch a runner pause where his path intersects the line, ahead of me. He leans over, breaks the strand, then continues on his way. This solves the problem of the yarn ball being too large to handle. I put the first ball in my backpack and begin winding a new ball. The yarn is broken in five more places, at each busy intersection: at 100 S and Butler Ave, Butler and University, South Temple and U Street, at T Sreet, and at P Sreet. I wonder if it is broken by the force of too many tires driving over it, or if it tangled in a tire and snapped. If it was pulled taut across the street and someone got out of their car and broke it. If someone waiting for a bus found it dangerous, or just irresistible, and broke it. I wonder how long my line has been broken. How long I have been disconnected from that bus stop railing outside my home. How long I have been disconnected. At each break I am able to resume the line on the other side of the street. A group of people (3) wait anxiously for me between Q Street and R Street. We're dying to know what you're doing. I fear that my answer is a tremendous disappointment to them. A runner sidles up to me and we talk about my project as I reel and he wipes his nose. He asks if I have cats (I have one). He says he hopes I do not get carpal tunnel syndrome. Another woman passes and asks if I am knitting. Sort of, I say. The yarn is broken again at P Street, one block from my starting point, but the final block of yarn is gone.



1 The yarn packaging informs me that "Every child needs a sweater knit with love." (I have no children. Perhaps I am the end of my family line.)

2 Undyed. In this case, the shorn sheep were cream-colored. The color of a sheep's wool is genetically determined. White is the dominant gene, and black wins out over brown. In Genesis, cunning Jacob strikes a deal with Laban, his father-in-law. Jacob shepherds Laban's flocks, but he's ready to move on. Don't pay me, he says to Laban. Not with money. Just let me keep any brindled or spotted sheep, and you will keep the white ones. He then selectively breeds the flock, separating the all-white animals from the spotted ones, letting the spotted ones find each other. He builds himself a rapid fortune.

3 A map of my mind. Thoughts all in a line.

4 While Odysseus was away, Penelope sat at her loom, weaving a burial shroud for Laertes, Odysseus' father. Odysseus was gone for twenty years. It seemed he was probably dead. When the shroud is complete, I will marry again, she told her hopeful suitors. Each day she wove; each night she undid her work. The suitors waited. This would be some burial shroud! Twenty years of work! While Penelope wove, Odysseus traced an aimless line around the Aegean, falling under spells, listening to the sirens, playing wordgames with a Cyclops, swimming in the wine-dark sea.

5 Women must write through their bodies, writes Helene Cixous. Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time. Write yourself. Your body must be heard.

But what does it mean to "write through your body?"
I walk.
I breathe.
I write "coffee" and "oranges."
I'll string this yarn along the sidewalk. A pathway. A barrier. Step over it. Duck under it. Follow it to the end. This blue line from here to there. I will be the weaver and the traveler.

6 The walk begins. From here, the body of the text (annotations to the walk) will be attached to the line and rolled, note by note, into the resulting yarn ball. Sights, sites, thoughts, encounters, strung and furled.

7 Footnotes break the line. Walking forces the thoughts along. A sentence fragment is an incomplete line, but I'm stringing these sentences together like fish.

8 Dry days I walk or bike.

9 Or it would be different. The yarn broken more often. More people to talk to. Slower progress. More self-consciousness.

10 I have two: an older and a younger. The youngest is a video artist. Married. Growing a garden. The oldest is the black sheep. Engaged in Miami. You're all a bunch of hippies, she says. After Thanksgiving dinner, she turns on the television to watch the football game.

11 In the middle of the night, suffering from insomnia (the days ands nights an unbroken line), I have seen a worker in an orange vest adding new flags to the intersections, distributing them like bouquets.

12 Too many letters to fit between the T and the ST, and chalk is too clumsy, but they my fit if written with the finer tip of a Sharpie.

13 A province in Northern Ireland

14 It's been filled with dirt and turned into a level playing field, but when it rains or snows, the field turns swampy with mud. Andalthough this is a city (such a small one), in winter deer wander down from the mountains to graze here, leaving behind their tracks and droppings. I have seen them running together all along South Temple.

15 I tried to structure my time with routines, a self-imposed schedule.

16 Vivid

17 If I knit scarves from the resulting yarn ball, who would wear the segments of my walk? How many scarves could I make? Of what length and width? All knit, no perls, for consistency of stitches, for continuity of the lines. A scarf like a block of text.

18 When I wrote letters to friends, I imagined my words as filaments like spider silk, extending from my fingertips across great distances, stringing me to Togo and Italy, San Diego and St. Louis.

19 But I can't see who intersects with it, or when, or how it shortens its own path as I continue, pulling it taut.

20 I looked for it all over the city—the wheatpasted wolf with long legs, its head turned to three-quarter view, watching. Its best hideout was in the shade beneath the bridge, in the forest of concrete pillars.

21 When Ariadne fell in love with Theseus, she gave him a ball of thread and a sword to carry into the labyrinth, where he would facethe Minotaur. Let the yarn unwind behind you, so you will know from where you came. He promised that if he killed the minotaur, her half-brother, and found his way out of the labyrinth, he would take her with him back to Athens. The minotaur was sleeping when Theseus reached it, but it awoke for the fight. Theseus killed it, and followed the thread back to Ariadne. He took her and her sister to his ship in the harbor, but at dawn he left them sleeping on the beach and sailed away, unfurling his old black sails.

22 A small dome opens to let a telescope look into the sky. I've never been there, but would like to draw my own constellations, draw my own lines between stars.

23 Where I learned to practice various modes of meditation, including walking in labyrinths. You cannot make a wrong turn in a meditation labyrinth. All steps lead to the center and then back out the on other side.

24 After therapy sessions I tried to collect myself in private before leaving the building. It isn't acceptable to cry in public, to walk around tearstained and weepy. It makes other people uncomfortable. When one doesn't care, crying might be called a subversive act.

25 Don Quixote was lowered into the Cave of Montesinos where he fell asleep and dreamt a world of adventures and he saw his true love. He emerged from the cave like a swimmer, shaking off the underwater world, like a reader who has finally closed her book. Like a footnote, a cave is a pocket, an underworld, a digression from the line.

26 Dogs get away with things people can't, but they're also a point of connection between people; they break personal space, open up little gaps through which conversation enters.

27 I am not forthcoming.

Additional Info

  • Location: 1001 S. Temple, Salt Lake City, UT