Saturday, May 27, 2017

Lucia on knitting, Lyme Disease, life & other creative constraints

Hello all, Lucia here. I’ve been thinking about my past a lot lately since Lisa and I have been planning our future as knitwear designers with lisa lucia. In particular, I’ve been reflecting on when I (re)learned to knit, which turned out to be a far more transformative life event than I was aware of—or prepared for!—at the time. I imagine the same is true for a lot of knitters, but I’d like to share my version of that plotline, which tangles themes of illness, self-care, and life obstacles as creative constraints.  

Tiny, studious Lucia & grown-up Lucia knitting in public, everywhere, all the time.

It was the year I turned 30 and I was approaching a critical juncture during which my health, identity and career path as I knew them would go kablooie. But first, two other significant things happened: I was diagnosed with ADHD during my last year of PhD coursework (in media studies) & I quit smoking cigarettes. (I also adopted a cat and met the man who is now my husband, but not everything is about you, boys.)

To understand this story (to understand me), you first need to know that I am a lifelong overachieving nerd who has historically harbored a related distaste for activities that I’m not already good at—a nerd who’d unwittingly spent 20+ years chasing those intoxicating gold stars & straight-A report cards hampered by an unmanaged disability. Over that time, I’d also whittled my focus down to the area where I most consistently excelled: academia, specifically scholarly writing and analysis. The art classes were the first thing to go sometime around middle school, then in high school I dropped the piano, and come undergrad I’d also given up acting in plays and doing a lot of fancy cooking. (I’d never really given sports a chance, save that one season of JV Field Hockey I played under duress.) Quite unsurprisingly given all that, when I came down with a massive, long-overdue case of writer’s block over the summer of 2009, its existence threatened my sense of self-worth and left me without my most cherished coping mechanism: the catharsis of the writing process.

So what did I decide to do? Well, naturally, I thought this would be a great time to quit smoking! Yeah, I went cold turkey on tobacco, alcohol, and sugar all at the same time and then was somehow shocked that I couldn’t stop crying. I found a psychiatrist who almost immediately had me fill out a questionnaire which revealed that many of the things I’d always thought of as personal failings (procrastination, disorganization, anxiety) or strengths (creative thinking, intellectual energy, intermittent hyperfocus) were all indicators of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.   

What does any of this have to do with knitting? I’m getting to that.

See, the smoking had been a naive form of self-medication, because nicotine is a stimulant (just like ADHD medication) but also because the actual practice of smoking involves aspects of some key non-pharmaceutical methods for managing ADHD; for example, “smoke breaks” inject routine and ritual into one’s daily life while cigarettes can function as fidget or “stimm” toys. Smoking fills up interstitial waiting-time; it subtly reinforces the connection between body and mind when those two might drift apart; it gives your hands something to do.

Unfortunately, it also gives you cancer. Luckily for me, knitting does not, and I soon discovered that it similarly soothes my twitchy fingers and mind.

Knitted cigarette pattern from Angela Jeffs's amazingly wacky book, Wild Knitting, c. 1980.

I’d been taught how to knit & purl a couple times as a kid, but never stuck with it. On a whim that December I asked my mother-in-law-to-be to teach me to knit so I could make Christmas presents for her son, and almost as soon as she put the needles in my hands I found that my body remembered what to do.

The timing of the re-emergence of this deep-down muscle memory seems particularly poignant in retrospect because at that time I was also beginning to experience symptoms of what would later be diagnosed as Chronic Lyme Disease, one of which is short-term memory problems accompanied by “brain fog” and difficulty with word finding. Two years later I would be so sick that I’d have to go on medical leave from the University (eventually I'd withdraw altogether), and while my dissertation writing sputtered and stalled, my knitted output became increasingly prolific. I made sweater after sweater, brashly taking on new patterns and unfamiliar techniques despite the fact that for years before I’d always insisted that I “wasn’t crafty” when other friends picked up yarn & needles as part of the DIY trend. I can’t possibly overstate how devastating and disorienting it felt to have my relationship with language—with my own creativity—in such crisis. But at the same time, while my illness limited capabilities I was used to relying on, it also opened up space for me to explore a new skill without the crushing pressure to capital-A Achieve I’d imposed upon myself within academia.    

With knitting, I made mistakes and it wasn’t the end of the world. As I would later tell students in “Learn to Knit” classes I taught at the wonderful yarn store Lisa used to own, I’ve gained most of my deeper, structural understanding of knitted fabric construction through the process of deconstructing yarny snafus and fixing dropped stitches, etc. In turn, these students, some of whom were at least a generation older than me, helped me reconnect with the joy and freedom of taking a class purely because you want to learn how to do something. This was profoundly refreshing after years of teaching college freshman who were often indifferent and/or highly grade-motivated.

I’ve skipped ahead a bit here from when I was stuck in bed laboring over my very first sweater: Amy Herzog’s pullover adaptation of Elizabeth Zimmerman’s gull lace “February Baby Sweater” - and yes, that was hilariously ambitious considering this was only a month or two after I re-familiarized myself with garter stitch.

Lucia modeling that inaugural sweater in Feb, 2010. Also featured: her cats Logan & Samuel.

Anyway, after a couple years of fiendishly knitting on my own, I walked into Lisa’s store, Sifu Design Studio, and found a community. I’d been pretty lonely, with much of my contact with the outside world consisting of going from doctor to doctor to acupuncturist as my grad school friends finished their dissertations one by one and scattered the globe for tenure track teaching jobs. It was also a relief to spend time with people who hadn’t known me “before,” people I could just talk to about knitting—or Mary Todd Lincoln, or the ridiculous scifi movies we watched together every Friday night at the store, or recipes, or even film or feminist theory—but not feel obligated to discuss my lack of progress on my dissertation or the particulars of my aches and pains. (To be clear, I mean no slight to my grad school friends, many of whom were above and beyond supportive during this time. I was the one projecting my grief and anxiety every which way.)

As my health slowly began to improve, and as I became more accustomed to managing my illness, I spent more and more time at Sifu, helping out, teaching classes, and falling into friendship and creative partnership with Lisa. Editing her knitting patterns brought me back to words and to writing in a new way while she also supported my own design efforts with practical advice born of years upon years of experience, as well as her straight-up confidence in me. Perhaps most importantly, Lisa encouraged me to—or rather she demanded that I claim the title of designer for myself. Synchronistically, she was in the process of reaffirming that identity for herself while she also went through the painful decision to close her yarn store and struggled with carpal tunnel that limited her ability to actually knit. That’s her story to tell, but it’s one that I suspect dovetails with my experience of having my body’s limitations block familiar creative outlets, pushing me to find new or previously neglected routes to self-expression.

Now, as we work together to build lisa lucia into an enterprise that’s successful and personally fulfilling for both of us, I'm putting these words out into the world as a reminder to hold onto the kind of radical courage it takes to keep learning and to keep trying to turn even life’s challenges & difficulties into opportunities.   


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