Peggy Orenstein was in a rut. Her fifties were ending. Her dad was dying. Her daughter was leaving the nest. That's when she decided to change her life... by shearing a sheep.
It came as no surprise to either Peggy Orenstein or to me that our planned Zoom interview had to first be rescheduled then conducted from a makeshift studio in a tiny corner at the end of a hallway on the third floor of Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, where my mother lay recuperating from two pulmonary embolisms, AFib, and a kidney infection following surgery. At our age, Peggy and I get it. They call us “the sandwich generation,” which the Pew Research Center defines thus: “Those who have a living parent age 65 or older and are either raising a child under age 18 or supporting a grown child.” Check, check, and…check.
For Peggy this meant watching her only child apply to college as her 94 year old father declined from dementia. Then Covid hit. And that’s when the idea of knitting a sweater from scratch hit Peggy: “Scrolling by all those loaves of bread, tie-dyed sweat suits, and DIY knockoffs of Harry Styles cardigan, I began to think, Why stop there?” The nearly 60-year-old author of such runaway bestsellers such as Girls & Sex and Boys & Sex (the latter a big hit in my house, just sayin’) suddenly felt “an inexplicable, unquenchable urge to confront a large animal while wielding a razor-sharp, juddering clipper; shear off its fleece; and figure out how to make it into a sweater.”
What she learned by shearing her sheep, dyeing her yarn, then turning it into a sweater could fill a whole book. Has filled a whole book, in fact, which is on one level about sweater-making, sure, but really? Unraveling: What I learned about life while shearing a sheep, dyeing wool, and making the world’s ugliest sweater is, at heart, a philosophical manifesto—and a hysterically funny one, at that—about learning to do new things at our age and loving if not the outcome (“the world’s ugliest sweater,” as Orenstein calls it) then the process itself.
And process, says Peggy, is everything.
So yes, you can hear all kinds of hospital background noises in our video interview below, but frankly? Peggy and I could care less. It’s the process, baby! Who cares if it has flaws? It…exists. And we enjoyed doing it. In fact, though I’ve only met Peggy in person once, when I went to a book signing for Boys & Sex just before the pandemic hit; and by phone many years before that, when I was given her number in the wake of a confusing breast lump diagnosis about which she’d written, I feel as close to her as to any friend I’ve ever known, and not just because I’m an avid reader of her books and journalism. And no, I’m not a stalker either.
So why this feeling of closeness? Process! Allow me to explain.
At the beginning of Covid, when Peggy first started dreaming of shearing a sheep, our mutual friend Ayelet—who’d given me Peggy’s number back in 2013—invited the two of us to her daily 7-minute Zoom workout club, made up of a whole fleet of us sandwich generation, middle-aged ladies and two honorary dudes, all stuck in our homes and aching for community to get through the loneliness of isolation. Suffice it to say, most of us grew up writing on typewriters. Home video wasn’t even a thing until our late adolescence. Phones were attached to the wall. The fact that any of us who were born into the rotary phone era could now talk face to face over a Jetson’s style video phone every day—and that we have all become close friends as a result—was and still is pure magic.
So is Peggy’s book. I hope it inspires you, too, to do the seemingly impossible.
I asked Peggy what I thought was a throwaway question about female life stages, since she is an expert on this subject. Her long response, via email, floored me. So I’m publishing it below in its entirety.
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