It has been forever [FOREVER] since I’ve written anything here. I’ve basically just been working on this little phd of mine. While loads of scholars and phd students use blogs and online writing forums to talk about incredibly productive and thought-provoking concepts related to their topic, that’s not something that makes me entirely comfortable, personally. I’d much rather use this space as a writing exercise and a place to talk about my work in the abstract: the act of researching, what I do outside my work, etc. I am not the first, nor likely the best person to write about this. But it’s what is going to happen.
When I left my part-time job, I made the decision to stop working on my PhD during the weekend. Previously, I felt that I needed to make up research/work time that I lost while in the office. Now, my weekends are so precious and essential to a work-life balance. More often than not, I do end up tweaking some writing, or reading a segment of a book in the never-ending pile of ‘books-I-should-have-read/need-to-read-but-haven’t-yet’. But it’s because I want to work on a little something and the action is free from the stress of worrying about falling behind.
So my weekends are now incredibly lazy – at best, a load of laundry or two happens. We start the day with a delicious breakfast (Saturday is always crepes and coffee – lemon and sugar, please). I’d rather not binge on Netflix and the five MILLION shows that I need to watch, but haven’t. It would be amazing to say that I go for a bracing walk, regardless of the weather, but I’m a massive chicken when it comes to weather. So a walk happens in that perfect Goldilocks-moment when the weather is not too cold, not too hot, and I’m actually interested in taking a walk. Needless to say, a run is NEVER on the agenda. More often than not, I’m curled up on the couch with a mug of tea.
I’ve been an on-and-off again knitter since high school. And when I say that, I mean that I knitted scarves in various simple stitches and a hat that didn’t actually stay on my head. I was the kind of knitter that could proudly wear a scarf I knit but was never actually brave enough to move into something that I might possibly fail at. With a basic single pretty stitch scarf, if two stitches ended up as one stitch it was ultimately not that big of a deal. But anything bigger or more complex than that, accuracy and precision is integral and as someone who identifies as perpetually impatient this did not seem like something for me.
It does, however, seem like something for my sister. She is unfailingly thoughtful in just about every activity she approaches. She is an unfailing perfectionist in just about every activity she approaches. This attitude serves her very well in her profession as both an editor and a writer, and transfers over to her work as a maker very neatly. She very quickly began creating perfect (and I mean perfect) knitted projects in patterns and shapes that I never dreamed of trying. Baby sweaters, cowls, socks, mittens, A GROWN PERSON-SIZED sweater. This naturally inspired me (or, my naturally competitive nature inspired me . . .) to aim higher where my knitting is concerned. In August I started to knit a shawl to wear in the obscenely chilly libraries and archives I frequent (British Library, I’m looking at you). I moved slowly and cautiously. The pattern wasn’t too complicated or more advanced then previous patterns I’d worked with, but it was more. More pattern shifts, more increases, a border – and several stitches I’d never actually worked with. (Are you started to notice a parallel here? I hope so.)
I found knitting to be a GREAT weekend activity. The slow, methodical work kept the front of my mind engaged but allowed the back of my mind (side of my mind?) to be set adrift. I began thinking about my work in a rather non-linear way and my work benefitted from this time where a) I could sit and think without the pressure of SITTING and THINKING and b) I sat down and produced something with a MEASURABLE result. So much of the PhD is piecemeal and scattered until suddenly you have (I’d imagine) a doorstop of work. It’s a real pleasure to be able to see a visual progress.
Then, right around when I went home for Christmas, I realised that I made a mistake in my knitting. The number of stitches no longer added up. Had I been at home, I probably would have just knitted the extra stitch back into the work and dealt with the piece being less than perfect. Luckily, my sister was also at home and convinced me to tink back. Tink, for those not in the knitting know, is knit backwards and it stands for the process of individually knitting back to a mistake. This is juxtaposed by frogging, which is when you remove the needles and rip rows out to go back quickly (rip it, rip it . . . get it?). So, she tinked back most of the stitches for me but, like me, was having difficulty seeing where the problem was. So cut to this afternoon, when I’m staring at my knitting. Not really sure where I was in the pattern and not sure where the solution to the problem was.
I should say now that writing about knitting is very often just a way of writing about another, similarly cerebral, activity.
So I tinked back and while the number of stitches on my needles was correct, the actual knitting process still wasn’t working. So I considered just dealing with it, but decided to tink back even farther. And the final row that I tinked back was just . . . I described it in an email to my sister as knitting schmutz. It was just lazy, inattentive stitching that fifteen rows later caused major problems. And as I tinked back, I started thinking about how knitting is (surprise, surprise) like research. Inattentive research leads to research schmutz. Thoughts that should be great and lead to amazing ideas, but don’t because I didn’t make myself stretch farther at the time.
It also made me think about processes. It’s easy to forget that things that seem perfect have usually benefitted from at least one long drawn-out ‘tink back’ at some point. Things become thoughtful when you’ve taken the time to look at it over and over again, sussed out all the problems, and fixed them. And yes, this is SO ridiculously obvious. I know. But sometimes you have to start thinking about knitting to end thinking about research/history.
Now the problem is fixed. I still don’t quite know what was wrong. But the important thing is, I can move forward.
So there you go.