Don’t be put off by the word “knitting.” Even if you’re not crafty (and I’m not!), even if you’re a guy who’d rather build a brick wall or try for a perfect grouping with your best rifle than (heaven forbid) knit. This is about that process common to so many things.
You know how you sometimes open a book at random looking for guidance? For some it’s the bible. For somebody else, one of those Chicken Soup things. Could be Ayn Rand or Herman Hesse. But you hope if you just open and read there’ll be a message there, just waiting for you?
I have to laugh. I just picked up Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, not because I had real interest but because it’s one of those must-read books and this is a good time. I opened near the end to a chapter about self care and the art of just being still and listening.
Then I took my old copy of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience off the shelf and arbitrarily opened to a page that heralded the value of 16-hour workdays, but with the work so integrated with free time that you can barely distinguish one from the other.
Yup. And of the contradictory two, I must admit the latter appeals to me more than the former. Not, mind you, because I’m some virtuous workaholic. Far from it. I favor the latter because the former is harder.
Knitting — and a host of other creative and constructive activities — offers the best of both worlds. Or perhaps a good transition between worlds.
When you’re knitting (or carefully inlaying pieces of wood or building intricate models), you’re absolutely “in the moment” (that “moment” so beloved of meditation gurus) because you can’t be anywhere else. You don’t have to make an effort to be in that moment because you know if you slip out of the moment you may make a mistake that’ll take you hours to undo.
At the same time, you’re working.
Working productively is another thing. Since beginning this little retreat, I’ve been “knitting for the soul” with no goal in mind. I have one poor abused ball of gray wool that I’ve knitted and unknitted endlessly for the last two weeks, just for the sake of knitting.
At first I was goalless simply because I had to remember how to cast on, knit, and purl. It’s been a couple of years. The muscle memory was still there, so that didn’t take long. Then it was just a matter of doing it well again. That took longer, and many re-dos.
I wanted to be ambitious. I wanted to do cables and fancy knit-purl combos and lace knitting and entrelac. I quickly realized I just needed some time to knit rows and purl rows first. I was never all that good and now I have a lot of catching up to do.
Especially, I want to do cable. When I first learned to knit, just 10 or so years ago, cable knitting was like the holy grail. It was the most beautiful possible knitting to my eyes, and it seemed almost impossibly complicated.
The local art gallery owner who taught me (and several friends) to knit kept assuring me cabling was easy. But then, she’d been knitting since she was nine. Her fingers flew so fast she clearly hadn’t known “difficult” for decades. Cabling. Easy. Ha. It requires three needles, row counters, stitch markers, and about seven fingers on each hand. How could it possibly be easy?
But when she finally persuaded me to try … it was easy. Yes, it does take three needles, row counters, stitch markers, and at least seven fingers on each hand. But that doesn’t stop it from being easy.
That very, very elaborate form of knitting is not hard. Even for fumble-fingered me. What it is is an activity that requires total, extreme consciousness. You must know exactly, at all times, where you are in the pattern and whether it’s time to knit or purl and whether that third needle takes the yarn to the back or to the front of the fabric.
When cabling, you can’t talk, watch TV, update Twitter, tend your cooking, think about tomorrow’s deadline, be mad at your best friend, worry about whether that little lump is cancerous, or fret about how the mortgage is going to get paid.
All you can do is sit, breathe, and cable.
Meditate and work.
(And sit. 🙂 )
The same is true in many activities. Particularly ones done out of love and ones requiring both precision and repetition. Laying brick upon brick while building a studio. Crocheting an afghan for the new baby. Putting the last little curl on a piece of flameworked glass.
I’ve said before that it also helps if the material you’re working with is earthy: rock, dirt, wool, cotton, wood, vegetable, stone, clay, etc. (I once heard something about these materials and negative ions; that might be BS, but whatever’s going on, it works. Natural materials are more calming than others).
I haven’t gotten back to cabling yet. I’m not ready for that depth of concentration and besides, I don’t know where I hid all those special “third needles.”
I finally found a pattern that’s both mindless enough for the level I’m at now but produces a fabric with a little pleasant variety in it. So that, for now, is what I’m doing that lies between sitting (so very painfully) still and attempting (so fruitlessly) to listen and working away the day.
Final note: It’s funny and sad that guys are usually put off by knitting. Knitting was very likely invented by men and has at times been a male-only occupation.
I’ve watched several people learn to knit, including one who struggled mightily for months until she got it. She had no aptitude and in her shoes I’d have given up in despair in weeks. But she pushed and pushed and eventually became a happily skilled knitter.
I’ve only taught one person to knit and that was a guy. My hermit neighbor Joel, when I was down there in the desert hermitage. And that gave me a look at why knitting was originally such a natural male art. Joel took to knitting as if he was born to it. He learned the four basic things (casting on, knitting, purling, and binding off) in half an hour. Not only did he know them, but he did them flawlessly, with perfect tension in the stitches, without dropped stitches, and with an ability to recognize patterns that it took me months to acquire.
When I left the desert, Joel had a hank of cheap but cool wool from the Navajo res and I hoped he’d do a project. But I guess it wasn’t for him. Too bad.
I once had a boyfriend who did needlepoint — some of it very elaborate and beautiful. he’d needlepoint while watching NFL games (which was kind of appropriate, since Roosevelt Grier, NFL football player, member of the Rams’ Fearsome Foursome, and the man who tore the gun out of Sirhan Sirhan’s fist — was the macho man who told the world that even tough guys could do needlepoint). As to my old boyfriend, it calmed him down. He was otherwise more than a little antsy-crazy. Prone to do some excessively “interesting” drugs. Needlepoint was much better.
Although I don’t expect any male readers to suddenly find their inner “Yarn Harlot” or take up lace tatting, well, it’s out there. And might even serve as a form of meditation.
(P.S. Treat yourself to wooden needles.)