Authors: Stephanie Pearl-McPhee
All Wound Up
copyright © 2011 by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of reprints in the context of reviews.
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THIS ISN’T WORKING
itting in an office, not too long ago, I was knitting away while I waited my turn. There was a woman opposite me, about my age and station, who was waiting as well—or I should say “was waiting also,” because she really wasn’t waiting well at all. While I worked, turning useless wait time into a few inches of a sleeve, she rotated through a series of activities that included complaining, pacing, flipping through magazines, and, finally, sighing frequently and loudly. I’ve mothered three teenaged girls. I’m used to a flounce, a flop, and a sigh actually meaning that someone wants to talk, so when we got to the sixty-seventh sigh, I caught on that it might be a form of communication. “The wait’s getting to you?” I asked, smiling and continuing to knit.
“It really is!” the woman exclaimed, while slamming another elderly magazine back onto the table. “This wait is way past stupid,” she pouted, then rearranged her hands in her lap again, wringing them briefly, and then finally crossing them across her chest. “You have a lot of patience,” she said, looking at my knitting.
“I don’t really,” I replied, glancing at my chart and then back at my knitting. “I’d be out of my mind if I didn’t have something to do. The knitting really helps me be patient. Without it I’d have harassed the receptionist or rifled your purse for something interesting by now.” We laughed and chatted for a few minutes. She asked me what I was making, if it was hard, and whether it took me long to learn—all the standard questions—and then slouched in her chair, trying to be civil despite the fact that we’d been trapped in a government office for so long that we were visibly aging. Eventually she leaned forward, looked at my knitting, and said, “It looks like fun. I wish I had time to knit, but I’m just too busy.”
There it was. That sentence. The one that puts me right over the top. The one for which I’ve yet to figure out a snappy comeback. Every time someone tells me that they don’t have time to knit, I come almost publicly undone—and it happens all the time. I can handle it when people say it might be too fiddly for them. I point out that it’s child labor in much of the world and that if a kid can do it, so can they. I can handle it when they tell me that they don’t think they’re smart enough. I repeat the child labor thing and point out that it’s really only two stitches, knit and purl, and that if they’re smart enough to read and write, a system with twenty-six movements and pieces of code, they should be able to manage a system with only two. If all else fails and they still look at me with doubt, or imply that I, as a knitter, possess more general skills than they do, then I point out that there are whole societies where everyone knits, and this means that it can’t be a skill that only a few genius souls can do. Anyone can knit, I tell them. A few people show a lot of talent for it, and they’ll knit better, but really, knitting is far easier than being literate, and our cultural expectation is that almost everyone be able to read.
Those thoughts I understand, and I can talk with people about them without feeling anything other than a profound sense of boredom at the repetition. People honestly don’t know anything about knitting; it looks way trickier than it is, and they don’t think about how many smart things they already do each day and what that likely means for their general ability to manage string with a couple of sticks. I can handle being a walking public service announcement right up until someone says, “I wish I had time to knit,” and then the purple creeping rage starts to seep in, usually because the person who has just said this to me is almost always doing what I’m doing. This lady and I were both sitting in the office waiting room for almost an hour. I was knitting, she was sitting there, and she says she wishes she had time to knit? It was all I could do not to scream, “Newsflash! You have time right now, just like me!” but I didn’t, mostly because I think it would have been awkward after that, and I didn’t know how much longer I’d be trapped with her. We fell into an uncomfortable silence, me slightly pissed off, her with no idea why. I knitted. She sat. I thought.
I know the lady probably didn’t mean to be disrespectful, and certainly didn’t intend for me to spend as much time thinking about the words “I wish I had time to knit” as I am now, but really, what was she saying? All I could hear is that because I was knitting she perceived that I had more time than she did, even though we both appeared to have the same amount of time available to us. If I had told her that I knit for several hours a day (which I didn’t—I thought I was in deep enough already) I could perhaps have understood it, but really, for all this lady knew, I only knit in government waiting rooms. Had I told her that I knit for several hours a day, she probably would have been absolutely gobsmacked at the huge amounts of time that I must have available to me.
This woman was—or at least knew—someone who spent a lot of time just sitting passively in front of a screen, riding the subway, waiting in line, or being put on hold. In fact, she was almost certainly going home to plunk herself down on the couch to watch back-to-back episodes of
America’s Next Top Model
. She must have understood the concept of waiting or sitting idly for hours on end, but having something productive to fill all that idle time? She couldn’t understand that. She was reduced to saying, “I wish I had time to knit.” How did doing something productive become a symbol of having idle time, while being idle is seen as having no time? What’s driving that perception, and am I the only one who is confused by it?
A couple of months ago I was knitting on the bus, and a lady (who was, by the way, just sitting there, without even a book or anything—it boggles the mind) did the whole knitting quiz thing with me. She asked what I was doing, what I was making, and, after I told her it was knitting and I was making socks, she asked how long it took to knit a pair of socks. I said it depended on a lot of things, but it took me about sixteen hours for a pair. Her eyes bugged out of her head, and then she shook her head at me like becoming a knitter was now completely out of the question. If it was going to take actual time to knit things—you know, time that she could use to sit on the bus doing absolutely nothing—then she couldn’t relate to it at all. She shrugged her shoulders, looked at me like I was the biggest wingnut she’d ever come upon on a public transit system (which I’m totally not, I assure you), and said, “Well. It must be nice to have that kind of time.”
Nice to have that kind of time? What kind of time are we talking about here? She was talking as if we had different sorts of time, but near as I could tell, I was on the bus and she was on the bus. I was knitting and churning out a sock, while she was sitting there doing an impression of a rock, and somehow I was the one who had a bucket of free time? That wasn’t the only thing: That lady had a tone, and it was a tone I hear all the time. It was the tone that says that if you have enough time to knit a sock, then you must be heading to a joyless, empty home, devoid of all interest and companionship and comforted only by cats. (For the record, I do have a cat, but I bet that woman does, too.)
It is mind boggling to me that, in a culture where the average person spends four hours a day watching TV, knitting is perceived as doing less than nothing. Knitting is obviously productive. It’s making something, like woodworking or cooking. You can prove it by waving around a bunch of sweaters and half a hat you whacked out in one morning while converting useless time into clothing, and still for some insane reason, that actual production, which is no different than building a bookcase, is seen as an indicator that you have time, or sometimes even that you are wasting time. Bizarrely, this happens even though knitting has lots in common with other activities that we don’t think of as wasteful—and it is even more productive than lots of other things that are normalized entirely, like watching television while you sit as inert as dirt. I think about this all the time. How did the world around us develop this attitude?
I’ve wondered if it’s because of how far removed most people are from the clothes they need. Not so long ago, at least relative to human history, knitting was seen as work. If you needed a pair of mittens, you either had to knit them or had to pay someone to knit them for you, but either way someone sitting and knitting certainly wasn’t seen as wasting time. They were either producing an item that they needed for their family or contributing to their family’s economy. Enter the Industrial Revolution, and mitten making started being done by machines. In no time at all, we’ve managed to become such a consumeristic, product-driven society that people have stopped thinking that it’s a waste to buy something you could make yourself and started thinking that it’s wasteful to make something you could be buying. All of our emphasis shifted to the exchange of cash for products, and maybe mitten making now isn’t worth the time. Is it because there’s a perception that the mittens we’re getting aren’t really made? That they just spring into being and so knitting mittens seems bonkers when you can simply buy the ones that grow on trees? I try to break it down, but it’s just such a crazy argument: “I don’t want to waste time making mittens; I want to spend time buying them.”