July 29, 2020 – Roger W. Lowther
Globally, there has been 15 million cases of COVID-19. Over 600,000 are dead and hundreds of millions have lost their jobs. These are scary numbers! They are especially scary for artists, as I keep hearing from my friends, here in Tokyo. Musicians, for example, depend on performances to share their art and get paid. No event means no income.
People are scared. They are scared of the future. They are scared of going outside. They are scared of wearing a mask and scared of not wearing a mask. They are scared of one another.
In a crisis like this, what can an artist do?
My friend, Shannon Johnston, started The Scarf. It started back in 2011 as a direct response to the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster here in Japan. It was a way for people to knit their hopes, thoughts, and prayers together for the people of Japan.
The earthquake struck in March when it was cold, still snowing, and people needed scarves. They were some of the items we carried to the disaster area.
Scarves are something you wear around your neck like a hug. The Scarf was a way people could give hugs without actually being physically present in Japan.
I wish I could show it to you. The colors are beautiful — red, yellow, blue, pink, purple, and so many others. It makes you happy just to look at it.
There is symbolism in its size. It is 2 feet wide to express forward movement. You can’t walk with just 1 foot. And it’s long! By the time I saw it, when it came to Japan, it was over a 100 feet long. The sheer number physically represented the number of people giving the hug.
I remember when Shannon first brought The Scarf to Japan. It was a year after the earthquake. We visited temporary home complexes, one after another, for memorial events taking place up and down the coast. These were places where people lived while waiting for new homes to be built.
We carefully decorated the community rooms with this 100 ft scarf. We put it along walls and windows, above the door frames, and over chairs and tables.
As you can imagine, it got people’s attention everywhere it went. They would see the scarf, and just out of sheer curiosity they would come closer. And they would want to add to it themselves.
They would gather around it. They would talk to each other. They would laugh together, and you could see the community being built right there.
A little disclaimer: I don’t know anything about knitting or sewing. But one time, there was a Japanese woman sitting there, knitting away, and she said, “Hey, you should try this too!”
And I was like, “No no no…大丈夫です。はいはい、ごめんなさい。大丈夫です。できません。”
But she would not take “no” as an answer. So here I am trying to find my way out of this, while she’s holding up the knitting needles and the scarf to me…
What could I do?
I sat down, and held the needles in my lap, and had no idea what to do next. I looked pretty helpless, pretty pitiful. Until she showed me what to do.
And we laughed together. And she kept teaching me. And it was so much fun … you know?
While people chattered around me noisily, I concentrated. I didn’t want to make a mistake. What if I ruined the whole scarf? I supposed that part could be cut off, but I really wanted to add at least a few inches to the length if I could. I wanted to be part of this project.
So, here I was, knitting away, concentrating and another woman asked me, “How’s it going?”
I proudly held up my pitiful little addition, with a big smile on my face, as if to say, “Look what I did!”
It was nothing. It may have been a couple of inches at most, but I’m being a little generous here. It wasn’t very much. I can say that much.
But she laughed, and I laughed. It was just like a party.
Here we are, in this disaster zone, surrounded by mud and piles of debris and broken buildings. The whole town is in shambles from the tsunami. We’re in a temporary home complex with people who can never go home…And here we are laughing.
It was so special. It was so life-giving.
I felt bad about hogging the chair for so long, so I stood up and handed the knitting needles to the next person, and took some time looking at this thing. Through length alone, I could feel how many people had worked on it. I could almost feel their presence.
Some sections almost looked like they were falling apart (maybe they were made by people like me!) but they weren’t falling apart. They were being held together by other sections. It was such a wonderful picture of how we are not alone. Our stories are stitched together.
We are not alone. Our stories are stitched together.
Disasters continue to threaten this world. Unfortunately, the 2011 earthquake was not the last one, but symbolically, The Scarf will never be finished. The knitting needles will always remain connected at both ends.
After Japan, The Scarf traveled to New England for Hurricane Sandy, and then to Western Australia for wildfires. Then there were tornadoes, floods, and now, this pandemic.
Even now, when we can’t gather together, people are knitting and adding on to the scarf. They are making their parts in their homes and sending them to Shannon.
Next year, we plan to bring The Scarf back to Japan for the 10 year memorial of the earthquake.
How long will the scarf be at that point? How many people will have been involved?
Watching the world unravel before our eyes, art can draw us together and encourage us. We will never stop making beautiful things. And we can always bring this beauty to those who need it most.
God knits us together in beauty and in love. Where there are hard situations, where there are global crisis, beauty will show itself in unexpected ways.
May we all get to experience it together.
Learn more about Shannon Johnston and The Scarf, including how you can participate in this project, here.