Not pictured: several other WIP. It was getting out of control! Photo credit: Jennifer Brown

Once upon a time, I loved to knit. I was what some people would call a little obsessive about it for a while: I would knit hats and socks and gloves and scarves and give them to everyone I knew, donate them to charities, keep them for myself. I had probably ten pairs of fingerless gloves at one point, that being a favorite little project of mine, perfectly portable and quick. I knitted while watching TV, in the car if I was a passenger, at work during faculty meetings and assemblies. Like many people who knit or crochet, I scoured places I visited on vacations for yarn stores and learned where to find beautiful and discounted yarns online. I hoarded a stash, enough yarn that it would take me, even at my peak rate, years to use.

After several years of improving my technique and learning to read ever-more-complicated patterns, I was knitting so much that I gave myself tendonitis and had to cool it a bit, which mostly meant that I bought some wrist braces and kept going. Even at that, when the hobby caused me pain, I didn’t really delve into what was driving me to keep my hands constantly at work, but I’m sure you can see (as I eventually did) where this is headed.

I would have told you then, at the height of my handmaking frenzy, that one of the things I liked so much about knitting (or crocheting — I didn’t discriminate) was that it allowed me to turn time into a tangible product. It feels sort of like alchemy to watch a movie and by the time the credits roll, have the wrist and palm of a glove complete and ready to branch into fingers. How could you ever be accused of wasting time if you had a scarf or a hat to show for it? I could even read a book while knitting, as long as the item was fairly simple. And although I would never be one to say that reading anything is a waste of time, it felt like I was getting one over on the universe to read a book and make a pair of socks at the same time.

Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle), Once Upon a Time (ABC)

But as every fictional depiction of magic assures us, nothing that seems magical is free. The universe requires a balance. That two-fer of time spent reading and time spent making something had to be paid for — sometime. Somehow.

During all the time I was knitting, I was also a teacher. And as anyone who’s been a teacher or who’s spent some time with a teacher knows, teaching can consume much more time in one’s real life than it may appear to on paper. Like so many jobs, teaching feels as though it’s never finished; even when you turn in the final grades at the end of one year, you’re thinking about the classes you’ve been assigned to teach the next year, and starting to plan them before you head to a conference or workshop for some professional development. But even more insidiously, teaching starts to take over your daily recreation time — and I don’t just mean the infiltration of your evenings by paper-grading and test-creating. What I mean is that you start to watch movies and TV shows that relate to your subject, looking for that two-fer of PD and entertainment. You figure that you might as well read that biography of an author you’re planning to teach next term, since you want to read, anyway. Why not make it a two-fer and get some work done while you’re enjoying a good read? And so, you put that enticing Octavia Butler novel on hold — unless you think you might be able to squeeze it into next year’s curriculum.

That became my life. But the fact that I was a teacher is incidental to the picture as a whole: I’m sure many of you can relate to the feeling that you “should” be pulling off a two-fer by somehow combining work and the rest of your life and telling yourself that whatever you come up with is enough of a break. It seems that a lot of us are doing that, when we’re not just straightforwardly working long hours. Culturally, it seems that we’ve embraced the idea that working more is not only better for us, but it’s also necessary proof that we’re good people.

And so, gradually, the work exceeds its boundaries and begins to settle into the rest of your life. Without realizing it, you start to schedule your off-hours the way you would schedule your work-day. The two parts of your life begin, as they say of couples who’ve spent a long time together, to resemble each other.

It crept up on me over a decade, at least. But the early warning sign was not what I would’ve thought, and for a long time, I didn’t know how to properly interpret it.

I stopped wanting to knit.

You’d think the injured wrists would’ve been what made me dial back my obsession, but they weren’t. At the time, I couldn’t have told you what made me leave the needles and skeins behind. At the time, I would just find that I felt too tired even to do a few rows. I’d finish one glove — and never start its partner. In a rush of renewed zeal, I’d make half of a scarf. I found it in a bag the other day (along with a single sock, half a glove, and part of a hat). “I don’t know,” I’d say to my partner, “I just don’t feel like knitting much these days. I’m sure I’ll get back to it.”

But I haven’t. For a while, I changed what kept my hands busy: I took up doodling with colored pencils, pastels, and paints. Then, I found I was too tired for that, too. In the year before I quit teaching, I didn’t do much of anything in the hours I wasn’t working. I just couldn’t.

And that was what finally woke me up. When I felt so worn out that I no longer wanted to create anything, and when even the nagging voice cautioning me that life was too short to waste time couldn’t move me to do something “productive” when I wasn’t working, it hit me.

Life IS short, and if you’re lucky enough to live in a time and place and circumstances that allow you to have some choice, you should allow yourself to exercise it. The solution, for me, wasn’t to double up in my free time, so that I was always doing, always knitting up or doodling some tangible proof that my time was well-spent. By that strategy, I had worn myself down to a numbed zombie.

I had become someone who thought she needed to justify her every waking moment with proof that she’d done it right. And I had followed through on that misguided belief to the extent that nothing I did felt either fully relaxing or free. That’s not healthy; it’s unbalanced.

For me, the solution was drastic: I quit my job and began consciously working on “reprogramming” myself. Teaching wasn’t the problem, in itself; in fact, my time in the classroom was deeply rewarding and stimulating. But the whole culture of work, with its emphasis on busy-ness and optimization and productivity, came to taint the rest of my life. That mindset was what I had to change.

So I can’t offer a “hack” or a set of clearly delineated steps that will rebalance a life gone askew. What I can suggest is that when you get to the point that you believe every moment of your life has to have either a paycheck or a beautiful, handmade sweater to vouch for its worth, you owe it to yourself to take a break — a real one, that will give you nothing at all to show for the time, except yourself, living your life. You deserve that.

Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Brown. All rights reserved.