I’ve begun knitting again, after a hiatus of over ten years. It’s a tonic, in these carnival times. I don’t think I could tolerate another debate freak show or election return without yarn in my hands to pacify me. The green wool feathers as I handle the work, nubby stitches, knit one, purl one. And so it grows: one stitch, one row, one skein at a time. I’m making an infinity scarf in a deep vibrant green. I can wear it next year when we sing at the Celtics, or for the occasional excursion with John up to Hanover for a Dartmouth football game. I’ve never had anything appropriately green for either of those gigs.
When the work is long enough, I’ll give it a twist and seam the bound off edges. The stiches bubble into rows under my fingers as I go. Can it really be that I made each one? I am uninterested in each little loop-wrap-pull for its own sake. It amazes me how these modest seeds add up to a whole piece. Sometimes, I drop a stitch, or twist the wool, or make some other rookie mistake. A veteran knitter, like my kids’ handwork teacher in elementary school, could diagnose my messes in a snap, “Oh look, you picked up a stitch from the row below,” or “you purled twice here.” But it takes me many rows to notice the glitch in my pattern. It’s a drag to undo the work, the yarn squiggly like an old-fashioned landline telephone cord. There is an ever-present danger of unraveling more than I intended and being unable to thread the loops back onto my needles. Sometimes, you have to make a choice: pull five rows to get back to that one dropped stitch that now winks at you like a toothless gap in a child’s smile; or carry on, choosing to view the bare spot as beautiful, an inevitable part of the hand-made whole. You can always darn it later. But old perfectionists die hard, so I usually opt for the fix.
The other day on the train home from New York, I was knitting while also watching a video lecture for my neuroscience course. (By the way, I’ve learned that multi-tasking is kind of a myth. We are simply single tasking in slivers, rapidly switching from task to task. It feels as if we are doing many things at once, but in reality, we’re just micro tasking. It is less efficient, brain-wise, than doing each job on its own with full attention.) The lecture was the first in a series addressing the topic of plasticity: what happens to our neurons when our brain “rewires,” for example, when a stroke victim relearns how to talk by utilizing a different part of his brain? What activities should we choose if we want to cultivate the “plastic” ability of our brains?
In the video, our professor announced that this week’s homework is to select a long-term project that retrains our brain. Learning to juggle is a classic brain training activity, but I assume this would entail dropping a lot of balls, not a good choice when you live with a two year-old golden retriever. Since I was already knitting, I thought, why not teach myself to knit left-handed, right here and now? And I leapt in, connections in my brain as tangled as fingers and yarn. Not such a swift idea. Not only did I grasp next to nothing from the lecture, I made an unholy mess of my scarf. I wound up pulling out about two inches of stitching. I felt infantilized by the task, which is actually good news from a neuroplasticity perspective. Challenge, even (or perhaps especially) to the brink of failure, is a critical element of brain rewiring.
Rather than ruin the scarf, which is two-thirds finished, I’ve decided to teach myself to crochet left-handed. I have never so much as a held a crochet needle before, so this should be interesting. It’s a little granny-like, I grant you, but in my minds’ eye, I’m creating lacily hipster tea cozies and darling stuffed animals for my wildly successful Etsy business (is there such a thing?) At the very least, a crocheted blanket for my baby niece seems like a project that can take me through Election Day. Before we get to that point, there will be much unraveling, I’m sure.