Zen & Sereknity

Posted by on May 2, 2017 in Knitting, Life Strategy! | 0 comments


It was complete chance that I got a chance to speak with Bernadette Murphy, author of *lots* of books, including Zen and the Art of Knitting and, most recently, Harley and MeOver the course of our conversation, I learned that while Bernadette and I have very similar feelings about the spiritual power of crafting.

The thesis of SereKNITy is that the act of knitting or crocheting is meditative, is peaceful. This seems, well, fairly obvious (unless you live with a knitter or crocheter, and then you know that it also includes a lot of cursing and ripping out. But set that part aside). Of course knitting and crocheting are peaceful activities. But in her memoir Zen and the Art of Knitting, Bernadette dives more deeply into the questions of why and how.


Bernadette and I each came to really embrace knitting at the same point in our lives–when we became mothers. Because the thing is, parenting can sometimes be really boring. Sitting at the park while your child runs around on the jungle gym is just not that interesting. You can’t read, not while they’re little–you have to just sit there, staring at them. It would be nice to have something to do.

And then there’s that thing my friend Anna always says–“cleaning with a toddler is like brushing your teeth while eating Oreos.” Everything you do, as a parent, is undone by the end of the day–sometimes by the end of the minute. Bernadette said, “I wanted to do something so that, at the end of the day, I could say ‘see, I did something that didn’t get undone.’ Even if i had to rip back my project, at some point it would be finished.”

I think that probably resonates for every  mother ever.

But Bernadette and I noticed that over time, it became so much more. “Something about knitting mellowed out my need for adult stimulation,” Bernadette said. “It allowed me to be present with my kids. I’m really grateful for that.”

Yes. That is what I found. Because honestly, I can’t play ponies for more than ten minutes without wanting to pick up my phone (or pick up a shot of tequila)…unless I’ve got my knitting. The rhythm, the tactile qualities, the feeling of accomplishment all allow me to let go of the need for the kind of stimulation I normally crave, and be there with–and even enjoy–the kind of stimulation my daughter craves. I can do a mean Pinkie Pie impersonation, as long as I’ve got my needles in hand.

So that’s the motherhood thing. But just as there’s so much more to life–and to being a woman–than just being a mother, there is so much more to the power of knitting, too. Bernadette’s story is a particularly poignant one. She had, as she puts it, a “difficult upbringing.” Her mother was mentally ill, and she raised her two younger siblings. Visiting her mother’s sister in Ireland, she learned to knit, and in  so doing learned that she could literally “make warmth for myself in a world that felt very cold. Life is really rocky and oftentimes ugly and harsh, and this was something I could do that allowed for the possibility of something different, something much more hopeful.”

This was knitting as self-care, in the deepest sense.


I didn’t have anything like that kind of journey into knitting. For me, it was always just a nice thing–something I was really very, very terrible at for a long time. My scarves were full of holes and dropped stitches and weird shapes and I would tie random knots here and there. But there’s that high of making something, of accomplishing something so unlikely as turning a bunch of string into something you can wear–and I’ve been chasing that first high ever since.

When you first learn to knit, that high is constant. As with any drug, the more you do it, the harder it is to achieve. In this case, as you get better at it, it asks less of your brain. And you crave the sense of accomplishing something harder. From that point on, there are two different types of knitting. The first is what I call tv knitting, and what Bernadette refers to as “swimming laps.” The second type includes the more complicated projects, the ones that invoke curse words and lots of ripping out.

They are both incredibly valuable, and they give us very different things. Bernadette is currently working on an aran island sweater that is insanely complicated–so hard that it can take her an hour to do just one row. I just started Joji Locatelli’s Boxy, with its short row-ridden shoulder construction (yeah, ok, that’s not that hard. But right now it’s as hard as my brain is willing to accommodate. I’ll take on a complicated lace shawl soon enough). Why do we do this? Is it just another way to achieve that first high again? Is it just looking for another mountain to climb?

Well, sure. “There’s a sense of accomplishment,” Bernadette said. “There’s a sense of creating something really remarkable. There are so few people that can do what I just did there–and sure, most folks will just think ‘pretty sweater’ and not recognize what it takes. But I know it. I don’t do it to show off, but to remind myself of my strength, my intelligence, my capability. It makes me stand up taller. I’m capable of a lot more than I sometimes think I am.”

This ties into Bernadette’s newest book, Harley and Me, which is about embracing risk on the road to a more authentic life. Bernadette learned to ride a motorcycle at age 48, following a painful and difficult divorce. She went from being a staid, suburban professor mom, to riding a Harley across the country. She did to remind herself that she’d gotten very comfortable.

“If you look at the neuroscience of risk-taking, to understand how our brain changes when we do something that challenges us, like knitting, or learning to paint, singing, traveling–each of those develops new neural pathways, allowing us to keep our neural plasticity as we age.”

The funny thing was, Bernadette said, that she thought she was writing a very different book from Zen and the Art of Knitting. Harley and Me was about adventure, about riding motorcycles, about ice-climbing and scuba-diving and open-water kayaking (please note: I am not adventurous enough to do anything of those things. Tip of the hat to you, Bernadette). But the thing is…it’s basically the same book. “They are both about doing things that are out of my comfort zone, to find out what my strengths are, to get more in touch with what I’m capable of.”


OK, you say, but what about that other kind of knitting? You can’t tell me that something you call “TV knitting” is spiritually profound.

Well, it depends what show you’re watching. I mean, I get a lot of spiritual sustenance from Buffy, and American Gods seems pretty promising…

I kid, I kid. (Kind of.) It’s true, I don’t experience much of that first high knitting a garter scarf anymore, but I can’t play ponies while reading a lace chart, you know. It’s nice to do something you don’t have to think about.

But again, there’s more to it than that. When we pick up our needles, we feel our breathing slow, our shoulders drop. “I can feel a psychological change that brings me back to center,” Bernadette explained. “I realize that I’m connected to that sheep that grew the wool I’m knitting. I’m connected to the ground the sheep walked on, connected to the wood of my needles. I can let go of this deadline, this task…when I knit I lose that self-focus, and realize that I’m just a small part of a whole. It’s such a relief.

“When we get caught up in being and doing and accomplishing, we lose track of our connection.”

You can’t really feel that when you’re checking a chart or swearing at your yarn. You can’t meditate while counting–or I can’t, anyway. But then again, I can’t really meditate without my knitting. Another word for tv knitting might be meditative knitting. You’re not counting, you’re not concentrating, you’re not stressing, you’re just…being. Yarn is my path to meditation.

“Both types of knitting put me back in touch with myself,” Bernadette told me. “One reminds me what I can do, and one allows me to relax with who I am.”

So, in conclusion–just knit. Or crochet or quilt or spin or paint or ride motorcycles or skydive. Just do the thing, in whatever ways work for you, to connect with your full and best self.

The kind of self that has Rarity’s mysterious accent down perfectly.








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