There’s no such thing as wasted time, the wise ones say.
There is also nothing like being stuck in traffic, waiting to board a delayed flight, or being stuck on a train to make you wonder just how true that is.
I’ve spent years getting cozy with that idea, practicing staying present, being patient, and trying not to add unpleasant rising emotions to a frustrating experience with travel and commuting. When I learned to knit in January of 2018, that concept was quickly and permanently cemented in—I learned that when I’m armed with knitting needles and yarn, I can almost guarantee that those “wasted” hours can be used to both create something beautiful and keep me calm when forces out of my control keep me locked in my seat.
It was around this time last year that my husband and I were heading out to a press trip to Houston, Texas in the middle of an Eastern hurricane warning. We sat through a two-hour delay at the airport, and, after we finally boarded and sat on the tarmac for two hours while the plane swayed back and forth in the wind, we were eventually told to get off the plane. Turns out, no flights would be leaving the airport that day. I found that we could be re-routed to another airport still sending flights out, so we took another car to another airport (literally practically passing our home in Lower Manhattan once again, and going in the other direction) and took another plane, whose gate was then changed four miles deep into the airport at the last second. After leaving at 9am that morning, we arrived close to midnight. We could have flown to Japan in that time. The next morning at our press breakfast, it was revealed that we were the only ones who made it—at least, the only Americans. One Canadian journalist had also shown up.
If it weren’t for the fact that I could knit my way through that very frustrating 16-hour-travel day, I don’t know what I would have done. Make no mistake, I didn’t smile and breathe deeply through it all for 16 hours, but had I not been armed with knitting, I might have made a bigger mess than it needed to be and got myself to a level of panic I couldn’t come back from because of how triggering it all was.
Luckily, it didn’t come down to a divorce and a night in airport jail, which I would attribute in part to the advice I got from knitters from across Facebook who told me that indeed, they never had a problem travelling with their knitting. I had thought to bring several projects with me, specifically on rounded wooden needles, which were best for the plane and getting through security. I checked the TSA website to be sure they were permitted. I went without any real patterns in mind, just a few skeins and loose plans to turn a few 2-row repeats I’d learned into scarves (I barely knew how to follow a pattern back then anyway, let alone identify right side and wrong side, or fix a slipped stitch).
Even more to my surprise, I unraveled and re-started those projects several times that day, not with frustration or anger, but with this new Zen attitude of indifference and impermanence—it wasn’t painful to “undo” hours’ worth of stitches. There was no wasted time. It was keeping me occupied. It was keeping me calm. All of it was a learning process.
A little more about just how big of a deal this was for me personally: I’d spent years in recovery from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and planes were already a bit difficult for me. Somehow, the sheer act of knitting kept me calm from one chaotic and stressful circumstance to the next. Ordinarily, where I otherwise might have panicked on top of panic and been angry, I just kept bringing myself back to the thought, “Oh well, more time to knit.”
For anyone, though, travel can be stressful and frustrating, so throughout the process, if you’re sitting, you should, indeed, be knitting.
There’s a science to it all, of course. I was familiar with the benefits of left-brain right-brain stimulation and activation after doing EMDR therapy to target and process trauma.Bilateral activities—ones that stimulate both sides of the body and brain through movement— are healing, and are considered by many now more than ever to be a tool for relaxation and recovery. There are many medical studies toback the science behind how knitting can help us feel calmer and happier, and otherstudies have found that people who engage in hobbies like knitting have better overall cognitionand decreased rates of memory loss. It also soothes anxiety and is known to lower blood pressure.
To be sure, knitting, for me, still comes with its own brand of crazy and a bit of obsessiveness. For example, I recently spent hours the night before a trip last month deliberating which three projects to start and take with me specifically for the plane, casting on, unraveling, restarting, picking a different color, going through my projects spreadsheet and mixing and matching and retyping. People, my spreadsheet has tabs called ”immediately next” “less urgently next” and “for the fall,” with project pattern names paired with yarn and about 50 entries in each tab.
There are a few things I’ve learned, too, when it comes to travel:
I’ll be 30 years old on Sunday, and as I look around my otherwise chic and orderly home peppered in about 14 PHDS (Projects Half Done), I laugh as I think about the hundreds of garments I’ve made in the last 18 months, and the giant bookcase I have that doesn’t even fit all of my yarn, and realize that in a way, I’ve created my own brand of controlled chaos. But for me, there is no such thing as “wasted” time anymore. The act itself has contributed, along with many other literal and figurative tools I use, to an overall calmer me. When everything is a little too much, having yarn and two sticks in our hands can change everything.
Helaina Hovitz is a journalist, knitter, mental health speaker and author of After 9/11 (click here), and she is part sheep.
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