It’s hard to stop doing things, to slow down and simply be a body for a bit, mentally at ease. Our minds are perpetual motion machines — brains love to obsess, ponder, analyze, and examine Facebook every few minutes. I had trouble relaxing before Felix, but especially now, as a dad to a four-year-old (talk about perpetual motion!), pausing for a moment feels like a waste of too-precious time. I only sit still in front of the television or curled up with a book, an hour or two each night of “winding down” before sleep. However, these pursuits occupy my mind — distract it, really — and my head is not truly at rest.
Some people meditate, eyes closed, cross-legged, but I’ve never had much success with that. When my body goes slack my thoughts start racing! In order to quiet the mind, I need busy hands. Yoga — not in a class setting, where my competitive instinct kicks in, but alone — used to help; these days cooking, under the right conditions (solo, blaring hip-hop), provides moments of Zen. Following a procedure I’ve done a million times — slicing onions and garlic, mashing tomatoes between my fingers, simmering up a sauce — creates a bit of head-space, the equivalent of a mental deep breath.
Many find serenity in knitting, and a new anthology edited by Ann Hood Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting — celebrates this phenomenon. Hood, bestselling author of The Knitting Circle and, more recently, The Obituary Writer, came to knitting after the tragic death of her five-year-old daughter Grace from a virulent form of strep, an experience she describes in heart-rending detail in her essay collection Comfort: A Journey Through Grief.
Besieged by grief, so much so that Hood found herself unable to read or write, a friend suggested she take up knitting to get out of her head. In her lovely essay, “Ten Things I Learned From Knitting,” Hood writes, “When I knit, everything else vanishes. Sadness, anxiety, anger, confusion. It’s just me and the yarn and the lovely sound of my needles clicking together.”
Elissa Schappell, author of the acclaimed story collection Blueprint for Building Better Girls, describes how, facing too-high blood pressure, she picked up knitting to relax her, “dammit!” She writes that “…though I’d never know if there was indeed a pose called ‘The Knitter,’ there should be. A modified lotus, energized arms at right angles, a look of purpose and bliss.”
Andre Dubus III, author of the bestselling novel House of Sand and Fog and the just released Dirty Love, says that, “knitting required me to focus and it allowed me to drift too, the way running a long distance required my feet and legs to do one thing while my mind could do another.”
Knitting, like cooking, yoga, woodworking, running, and a myriad other so-called past-times, is a basic, human activity. There’s something about repetitive motions, a steady busyness of the body that, paradoxically, calms the consciousness, and makes us feel less alone. Hood prefers projects that can fit in a bag, that she can easily take with her when she travels. When knitting away from home, Hood feels connected to the people she loves. I thought of this when reading musician Laurie Andersen’s remembrance of her husband, rock genius Lou Reed, in Rolling Stone magazine. Anderson described how Reed took solace in tai chi while fighting liver cancer. She said he was moving his hands in the water-flowing 21-form of tai chi as he died.
Unlike yoga or exercise, knitting doesn’t even require changing the patterns of your day — my wife frequently has a project going while we watch TV, and plenty of folks knit on the subway or bus, wherever, whenever. Hood describes “the knitting hour,” when she drinks a glass of wine and knits while her daughter Annabelle does her homework.
It’s essential to create opportunities during the day to unplug from the screen and mute the cacophony of contemporary existence — the emails that need attending to, the calls made, the lunches prepared, the homework done, whatever — and just be a human being, hands busy, body and attention singularly focused, mind content.