Untangling the Mess

I have children. I also love to do crafts. Unfortunately, sometimes these two don’t mix very well. So when my three-year-old somehow got a hold of one of my nice balls of yarn, it wasn’t good. Luckily I was just seconds behind, catching the first few moments of her grabbing handfuls of the soft threads and pulling it all apart into the worst mess. 

I’m an experienced mom now, but I wasn’t always. Years ago when this first happened, I made a few mistakes. They were honest mistakes, of course, but they cost me hours of time and lots of frustration. The first time I encountered a mauled ball (say that 10 times fast) of yarn, I panicked and cried out immediately. My child, like an animal, responded with fight rather than flight (as I’d hoped) and she kept pulling and tearing on the threads, making it worse. Then, as I reached for my precious yarn, attempting to salvage what I could, my child kept handfuls of the stuff in her tiny, sticky hands. I had to pry open her fingers before I could successfully retreat, knots and threads trailing behind me.

And that wasn’t even the worst part.

As I began searching for an end to help me begin the long journey back to a neatly woven ball, I yanked and pulled, letting out all of my frustration. “How could she do that? She’s ruined the whole thing!” After failed attempts to find an end, I just started winding and pulling at the knots, trying to at least organize little sections at a time. New knots formed from all the pulling, knots that were hard to undo and required tears in the threads. As I stubbornly tried to rewind my sad, messy ball, I could see that the more I worked, because of how careless I had been, the ball of yarn was now useless. The yarn had been too fine, too fragile. Now it had too many frayed sections and too many too-tight knots. Rather than the beautifully knitted garment I had imagined, it wasn’t good for much. I did eventually wind it all back up into a ball, giving up on knots I couldn’t untie, but only after hours and hours of work. In the end, I had to mourn the loss of my quality yarn.

This time, though! Yes, this time, I knew exactly what to do.

No aggressive movements, no yelling as I responded swiftly and decidedly to my daughter’s destructive hands. I kept the ball loosely mangled and set it gently and carefully on a high shelf until I could take care of it calmly and with space to spread out. Once the yarn was safely tucked away, I patiently turned to my daughter and explained that she couldn’t pull at the yarn like that. Knowing I’d have to repeat that about 50 more times, I diverted her attention to something she could play with and moved on. Later in the evening, I gently took the mess from its safe place and spread the whole thing out on my bed. I made sure to keep everything loose and flexible. Within a few minutes I found an end. From there, I began carefully winding, pausing anytime my pulls drew up a larger mess. When addressing a particular mangled section, I carefully separated the threads and followed them over and under each other. Several times the process was easy since I had preserved sections of the original ball. Other times I had to patiently and gently undo knots and tangles. What had taken me hours and hours years before, now took less than an hour. What had resulted in a worthless, tattered ball, now produced a beautiful, picture-perfect ball of yarn. 

The process of untangling yarn is so much like politics. I observe over and over again the frustrated, angry responses of people who approach the tangled mess with blame and righteous indignation. They yank and pull at threads, certain that they know what they’re doing and what the conclusion should be. They bellow and invoke fight responses in others. And what do they get? Worthless balls of knots and frays that are good-for-nothing. 

It takes care and patience to untangle the mess. You can be decisive and confident, but you can’t assume you know where all of those threads will lead. Take care and keep the threads of discussion loose and flexible. Be willing to admit when you’re not sure of something. Be willing to admit when you’re wrong. Undo the knots you encounter. And as counter-intuitive as it may seem, the process takes less time and is more efficient than the “yank and pull” method.

I guarantee you’ll be happier with the results too.

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