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Grateful, Intentional, Mindful

By JuliAnne Pardon Diesch

Reading has been a passion of mine for as long as I can remember. As the youngest among my siblings, I had the advantage of being a reader even before I entered school. The worlds I can explore through fictional tales engage the creative side of my mind and the knowledge I can gain through reading non-fiction books enhances my knowledge base and helps me live a more informed life. It is, however, difficult to read a book while I am knitting - unless I am "reading" an audiobook. 

Just as I will not "give up" actual physical printed books to hold and enjoy for the convenience and compactness of reading electronic versions of books, I recognize that there is a time and a place for each of these modes of reading. When my Vs were little and we were flying over four hours from Seattle to Detroit in order to visit family, accessing the entire "Curious George" collection electronically was an effective way to keep my children engaged but not have all carry-on bags be filled with differently-shaped and -sized books (many of which were hardbound). Likewise, there is an application for me to employ audiobooks in order to "read" and get other things done with my hands (knitting, cleaning the house, driving to the knit shop or some function for the Vs). As with my printed book reading, I enjoy a variety of different genres in my audiobook listening library.

I recently finished a series of lectures from The Great Courses entitled "Your Best Brain: The Science of Brain Improvement" by John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist who also teaches at the University of Washington (U-Dub, to those in the Seattle area where we lived for seven years). Medina guides listeners (audioreaders?) through a series of lectures that includes various developmental stages as well as some practical "exercises" one can do to maintain your best brain health throughout all the stages and for your entire life. Having the opportunity to learn from amazing and renowned instructors is something for which I am grateful. 

There were a few key points that Dr. Medina made in the lectures that I absolutely want to be certain are components in my life always, and I was struck by how they link to activity already being carried out at Stitch In Time. One of the concepts that he identified that helps to maintain the brain and its function is the idea of taking intentional action for the benefit of others. Another is the benefit of mindful action (and specifically mindfulness practices).I will, as you can expect, elaborate.

Researchers have found that people who engage in intentional activities to benefit others have lower incidence of brain function deterioration as they age. Whether the action is volunteering at a food bank, spending an afternoon each week helping young students improve their reading, or making useful items for charity - the intention to act for another with no expectation of personal reward is the key. On September 21, Charlene of Stitch In Time encouraged the knitters familiar with her shop to "cast on a white wool sweater" in honor of Anne Frank having written in her diary on that day in 1942 that *she* had done so. Stitch In Time has collected the baby sweaters (and hats) knit by some who chose to cast on that day in order to donate them to the Pregnancy Help Center. Like so many good ideas in the knitting community, this one is spreading and will not only be an annual knit-along [KAL] at Stitch In Time, but Charlene has indicated that several shops in other states have committed to hosting their own KAL in 2020! There are numerous opportunities for fiber enthusiasts to engage in this intentional, altruistic behavior. Any time you find yourself putting something you made into the hands of another, you are creating this connection and firing up brain cells that will pay dividends in the long term!

If you are like me, you have likely seen the phrase, "Knitting is the new yoga." I happen to be particularly inept at yoga - between my inflexibility and my being frustrated that none of the yoga classes I have found would welcome my chattering - but Dr. Medina's explanation of the benefits of mindfulness practices help me to see the connection between the two activities. When I did a little more research on beginning mindfulness practices, I found the following numbered guidelines on [and added my thoughts in brackets]: 

  1. Take a seat [somewhere calm and quiet. This is helpful for a new knitter or even an experienced one who happens to be working a more challenging pattern].
  2. Set a time limit [start small for a beginner, but also build time limits in as you gain experience, as having a variety of activities is important for overall AND brain health].
  3. Notice your body [Carson Demers, author of "Ergonomic Knitting" stresses that knitters should have comfortable and stable seating, and should also strive for the most effective posture for the craft time].
  4. Feel your breath [just about every new activity I try to do, an instructor reminds me to "BREATHE!" It's important. And it is equally important to take a moment to notice the small actions that are involved in the bigger picture of your fiber art. Paying attention to the discreet actions of the knit or purl stitch is akin to the practice of feeling your breath].
  5. Notice when your mind has wandered [whether knitting garter stitch, stockinette, or a more challenging lace or cable pattern, the mind sometimes wanders off; redirect to the pattern or the project].
  6. Be kind to your wandering mind [when you notice your mind wandering, simply redirect without negative judgment. Perhaps this is your brain explaining that it is time for a change - in posture, breathing, or activity. It might be time to stand, stretch, use the facilities, or go squish some different yarn].

Looking at the guidelines and filling in how these may relate to a knitter or other fiber artist, I completely understand that knitting IS the new yoga!

Throughout the lectures, Dr. Medina referred to "prosocial interactions," which he defined as positive interactions with others in one's social group. The community that gathers at Stitch In Time is resplendent with these kinds of interactions. Even when I can't make it into the shop, I see the encouragement and celebration carry over into the social media platforms, with people commenting positively on a finished object or a new yarn purchase. It is a wonderful feeling to be part of a community that provides such positivity to anyone who comes into the group. I am, indeed, grateful to have found the intentional and mindful people who flock together at Stitch In Time. You make me a better person for knowing you - and it turns out, you're helping my brain to be better too!