There seems to be a cacophony of voices out there with advice about what we should all be doing during lockdown. We are being bombarded with recommendations: we should learn something new, a language or a skill; we should embark on new creative projects; we should learn new culinary skills and cook three meals from scratch each day; we should bake sourdough (I mean, we should, if we want to, because it’s wonderful – but it’s not obligatory!); we should make banana bread; we should clang pans on our doorsteps at 8pm on Thursday evenings; we should focus on our fitness; we should (re-)read the Lord of the Rings, War and Peace, or some other worthy volume(s); we should start a new business or side-hustle; we should meditate; we should start writing that novel… And we should showcase these achievements, accompanied by artfully-filtered photographs, obviously, on social media so that all our friends can approve of how productive we’re being and how we’re not wasting this time we have been given.
Honestly, it can all feel rather overwhelming – particularly when these directives bump up against the reality of lives where childcare, remote working, financial and practical restrictions, and worries for our own safety and for that of our loved ones are all competing for our time and attention. I know a lot of us feel like we have less energy and capacity than ever, despite apparently having more time. Instead of feeling inspired, we feel hectored and hassled by the advice, evidence that we’re ‘doing it wrong’ somehow.
For all that, most of us know instinctively and from experience that some of these things (which specific things will vary from person to person) can help us feel better – more calm and centred, settled, more able to cope with the fears, anxieties, and individual challenges of these unprecedented times. Certainly, for me, holding something tangible that I have made – whether it’s a craft item, or a loaf of bread, a meal, some fresh produce I’ve grown in the garden, or even publishing a blog post – gives me a real feeling of achievement. The process of ‘making’ grounds me in the moment, it can be a very mindful process, and promotes a state of flow, where we can escape from our other concerns. Then again there are times when I want to do nothing more than sit on the garden step in the sunshine, listen to the birds and watch the butterflies, curl up on the sofa with a mug of tea and listen to a record, or enjoy a bubble bath – and if we have the blessing of the time to do these things, wonderful! A moment enjoyed – especially in times like these – is never wasted.
And so, (recognising the irony that I’m becoming yet another of those voices – sorry!) I have an alternative suggestion. You can take from it what you like, or ignore it completely. It’s a simple idea, actually: instead of something new, do something old. Don’t start something, finish something. Revisit what you’ve loved in the past, and build skills you use every day.
All makers and crafters, in my experience, have three things in common. The first is a stash – of fabrics, yarns, papers, pencils, paints, ingredients, books, tools and equipment – relevant to the art(s), craft(s) or making we enjoy. The second is a file (physical, digital, or mental) of projects we’ve thought of starting. And the third – unless you’re one of life’s completer/finisher personalities (and if you are, God bless you, where would the world be without you?) – is probably a modest (or less modest) collection of projects that you started but never quite finished.
Now, I am definitively *not* a completer/finisher sort of person. Perhaps, like me, you’re a gannet for new ideas and techniques and find yourself picking up a new hobby every few years. Just thinking back over the last decade, I have to own up to taking up home brewing, curing and smoking, sourdough baking, candle making, crochet, embroidery, dressmaking, upholstery, a range of smallholding tasks… each time to solve a problem or try something different. So, tucked away in corners of the house and shed, I have tools and equipment for each of these, a little stash of materials, and, often, an unfinished project or two.
There are, I think, three main reasons we abandon projects. Distraction (certainly if you’re me!). A change in our circumstances leading to lack of time or attention – going back to work or school, starting a new job, or welcoming a new family member. And sometimes, we walk away from something we’re making because it stops pleasing us – we decide that we don’t, after all, like the pattern or colour, or we feel a mistake we’ve made has marred the item and we struggle to enjoy the process or the item as a result, because we’ve ‘ruined it’.
I would like to recommend this – find something unfinished, and finish it. You may well not even remember why you gave it up, but you probably do. If it’s down to that tricky final reason, it’s really worth trying to overlook whatever it is about the item you’re unhappy with, and continue. Why would I invest time and effort into something I may not like any more, you might ask? It’s a fair question, so I’ll give it the best and most thorough answer I can: Firstly, because the sense of achievement you will get from finishing it off properly is truly its own reward. Secondly, taste is a very individual thing, and I’m sure with a little thought you can choose a friend or family member who would be delighted to receive your handmade object as a gift, even if it no longer appeals to you the way you hoped it would (and I promise they will be completely blind to whatever you regard as its imperfections). Finally, and probably most importantly for me – because nothing in this world is perfect, and nothing we make as imperfect human beings can ever *be* perfect, persisting with and completing an imperfect project is a powerful act of acceptance, both of our imperfect selves, and of the imperfect state of the world. In this particular moment, I can’t think of many things more valuable than that!
(It is said that both Amish quilt-makers and Persian rug-weavers introduce an intentional ‘mistake’ into their work, because imperfection is Human, but perfection is the preserve of the Divine. I have no idea if it’s true but it’s a lovely idea.)
On a practical note – it may also be that you stopped because you were missing the next thing you needed to continue – whether that was an item or a skill. I would encourage you to be willing to improvise! Think about how else the item might progress with the equipment and skills you already have. Can you re-purpose what you need – for example using a zipper or some fabric from some old clothing or bedlinen too worn-out for the charity shop? It may not be ‘perfect’ – so what? It adds character! It might even evolve into a rather different, more interesting item than you expected!
Now, if you have no unfinished projects (I mean, I believe you, many wouldn’t…) you could instead re-explore an activity you’ve enjoyed in the past. There’s every chance that if you loved something once, you will love it again. You can probably think back to things you’ve enjoyed doing in years gone by. Did you love drawing or painting as a child? Is there a musical instrument you have neglected in recent years? Did you used to enjoy writing songs or poetry? Have you got a sewing machine gathering dust at the bottom of the wardrobe? Is there an old favourite recipe that you haven’t made in years? Whatever you decide to pick up, just think that it’s only for you, you have nothing to prove – don’t worry about being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at it (which is, sadly, often one of the reasons we give up things we enjoy) just see where it takes you, and who knows, you may be surprised by the results!
My final suggestion is this – if you don’t feel like making something, why not take some time to strengthen a skill you use frequently? We all, I think, have everyday skills that we’ve taught ourselves as we’ve gone through life. Nearly all of us cook, but few of us have been to culinary school. Most of us type, but few of us went to secretarial college. What tends to happen is that we bootstrap ways of doing things – typing with two fingers on each hand while looking at the keyboard, for example, or the way we handle our kitchen knives – and these serve us well but leave us neither as fast nor as accurate as we would be if we could touch-type, or had ‘proper’ culinary knife skills. But why is this?
There comes a point when our self-taught techniques are pretty quick and effective. Effective enough that ‘going back’ and starting to do things an even better way is slow and frustrating and infuriating in comparison.
When I first taught myself to crochet, I fell into the habit of holding both the yarn and the hook in my right hand and the work in my left hand, using my fingers to loop the yarn over the hook the way you would when knitting. I got pretty good at doing it that way and made a few big projects. But because of the ‘double-action’ looping of the yarn, I couldn’t get any faster. Not only that, several friends asked me to teach them how to crochet and I really struggled to demonstrate technique to them because mine was so wildly unsuitable. To get over that hurdle, I had to ‘force myself’ to do things properly. I started a new scarf project, nothing too complicated but with enough technique and variation to keep me interested (I know myself well enough to say confidently that if I’d started crocheting a ‘test’ rectangle instead, I wouldn’t have got four rows into it before putting it down and never picking it up again), and made myself to hold the hook in one hand and the yarn in the other. It was slow, clumsy, and cumbersome, and I kept having to correct myself when I picked up the project and reflexively went back to my old way of working. At the beginning, I wasn’t just slower than I was used to, I was worse – the tension was uneven, I struggled to manage the yarn in my left hand, and I made mistakes with the pattern because I had to concentrate so hard on what my fingers were doing, all of which led to a lot of really frustrating pulling-down and repeating. But with time I got faster. By the time I’d finished the project, I was just as fast as I had been doing it the old way. I’m even faster now. And Mum loved the scarf when I gave it to her for Christmas!
The point, more succinctly (sorry, if you read this blog regularly you’ll know that I’m a sucker for tenuously-related anecdotes) is this – sometimes to go forwards we need to first go backwards. In our busy, everyday lives there often isn’t time to do things more slowly for a while in order to be faster and better later. Right now, there might be.
I’m not going to promise you’ll enjoy it, at least not to start with! But ‘future-you’ will thank you for your efforts. So maybe it’s time to break out Mavis Beacon (is she even still a thing?) and teach yourself to touch type properly. Or find some good YouTube tutorials and start to (re-)learn some kitchen knife skills. Learn to fillet a fish, break down a chicken, or dice an onion like a boss. Maybe there are some drills and scales you ought be doing on your instrument, which you know would improve your playing but you never quite seem get around to? Every one of us (with obvious allowances for disability) has the capacity to do these things well. If you start doing them correctly right now, you’ll be doing them correctly and slowly (OK, sometimes very slowly, and not so well as you might like, initially!). Doing them correctly and fast comes with practice – there’s no alternative to repetition! Keep stubbornly doing it the new ‘right’ way and the rewards will come, and they’ll come faster than you expect. And the benefits will last a lifetime.
Thinking of you all, wherever you are around the world and whatever life is throwing at you at the moment. Do what works for you. Ignore what doesn’t work for you. There’s no right or wrong way of coping with unprecedented times. Be gentle with yourselves. Cherish the small wins and the every day joys. Stay safe. You’ve got this!
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