There are some undertakings so overwhelming that, if you knew too much about them before diving in, you might never embark on them. Having children, for example, is way too daunting if you think about the time and money spent, the income and sleep lost — you'd never do it if you drew up a detailed budget beforehand. Writing a dissertation — or a book — is a similarly unmanageable project that might cow anyone who really thought hard about how long it would take for how little reward. Sometimes I think the academy, or the human race, reproduces itself only — to borrow Samuel Johnson's quip about second marriages — through the triumph of hope over experience.
Recently I had a revelation about why we keep on doing things that might not pay off, though my experience was of far less significance than the ones I outlined above — I made a knitting mistake and kept on knitting for several more rows before I saw it. Some four and a half rows — or, say, 1300 stitches — had to come out. Neatly, so that I could reknit the pattern without losing a stitch. Believe me, I didn't count those stitches before I started in on the repair.
I happened to be a passenger in a car en route from Connecticut to Virginia at the time — another of those projects one might not want to examine too closely before beginning — and it was somewhere around Baltimore that I discovered my mistake. I thought about putting the project away. I thought about leaving the mistake and calling it a "design feature." I thought about how "sticky" mohair yarn is, how much it prefers to be knit together rather than to come apart. And I thought about how much I really wanted to be able to wear this thing one day without apologizing for it.
And so from Baltimore to Alexandria I sat in the passenger seat and slowly un-knit the project I'd been knitting. Stitch by stitch. More experienced knitters than I may simply rip out several rows, pick up the stitches, and get right back to work, but I don't trust my picking up skills — especially not while seated in a car, with no table to lay out my work. And, really, I had nothing much else to do.
We sat in a terrible traffic jam just south of DC — all the other spring break travelers returning, no doubt — and I continued un-knitting and thinking about my work. Lots of things I do require time, patience, and attention. Some of them require a considerable amount of revision — tearing out words, paragraphs, whole pages at a time — to get them right. Parenting requires all of the above and more, though it's not as if one can simply re-do to correct mistakes. But, of course — as I realized while watching the yarn I liked so much slip between my fingers for a second and then a third time — it's really not about the end result. Most things that are worth anything aren't, I guess. We often focus on the product — the book, the job, the graduation picture, the finished sweater. But it's the process that keeps us invested, keeps us coming back. As I unknit the yarn, I remembered how much I enjoyed knitting it, and how much I would enjoy knitting it again, more slowly and carefully.
I cannot, no matter how I try, extend my analogy to the nine hour drive to (or, somehow worse, from) my parents' house — that process is merely to be endured for the promise of renewed family time at one end and the return to routine at the other. (Well, except for that uninterrupted knitting time, I suppose.) But for most other things, whether it's reading to a child at bedtime, teaching a class, writing an article, or even knitting and unknitting a sweater, it's the process that makes it worthwhile. There are moments of discovery — or at least potential moments — in all these things, and those moments are, in the end, what really matter to me. It was a fine spring break, judged on that basis, full of all kinds of process, all kinds of moments of discovery. And even some knitting.
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Anthropology Open Rank (Assistant, Associate, or Professor) of Anthropology in the College of Liberal Arts