I’ve been scheduling fun since my freshman year of college, because I’m neurotic and thrive on work-related stress. I guess in some ways I respect deadlines more than I respect myself? I don’t know. The fact of the matter is, I have two natural speeds: two miles an hour, and 200 miles an hour. At both speeds, I’m pretty much incapable of enjoying myself. Accordingly, I put a lot of time and effort into finding balance. Those effort have taken different forms over the years, with varying results. This blog post is about a technique I’ve used over the past year that’s actually worked: forced fun.
This past year, a dear friend of mine had her first child. At the time, I was teaching my first course on my own (146H: Sex in U.S. History) and hadn’t found a good work rhythm. In practical terms, I doubt I was working more than the average instructor, but I was worrying about the class constantly. I was basically leading my students on a guided tour of my wheelhouse, but I found myself in a state of constant doubt. Instead of doing my own research, I kept, for example, reading books that I might, one day, assign to future students. “Applied imposter syndrome” was taking up all of my time, and the psychic stress it caused was seriously harshing the mellow that is summer in sunny Southern California.
Lucky for me, babies are magic. My friend called: did I want to meet her daughter? She’d delivered less than twelve hours previous. I walked into the hospital with a gift bag full of stuff, and—after a couple hours spent getting to know this amazing miniature person—walked out with a new perspective on things.
Instead of trying to find ways in which my syllabus was deficient, I started thinking about how I could schedule myself to see her more often. I started to believe that my best had to be good enough, because life is too short, and I never wanted my adoptive niece to forget what I looked like. I wanted to be an amazing teacher, but I also wanted to have a life defined first and foremost by love.
And I wanted to knit.
It had been years since I last picked up a set of needles. My beloved grandmother (who I wrote about extensively in a previous post) taught me how to knit in my teen years. Thing is, we were really casual about my “lessons,” and I was easily discouraged. I got to the point where I could do a basic knit stitch in my sleep, but the purl stitch (essentially the next level up) gave me fits. It was enough to make me throw my needles down in frustration. I was content with knitting 101 for the time being. Then my grandmother unexpectedly passed away.
When Granny died, I stopped knitting. Of course, that’s the opposite of what she would have wanted, but it somehow felt wrong to me to go on learning without my teacher. Every once in a while I’d knit a scarf or something—something that neither challenged me nor enhanced my skill set—but by and large my grandmother’s old knitting bag sat unused in my closet.
Thing is, babies don’t appreciate imaginary blankies.
I picked up knitting again, and discovered that (now that it was really important) I actually did know how to purl. I could do it… well enough, in fact, that I should be able to make something really lovely.
I wanted this blanket to be high quality—no experiments here—so, while it’s not terribly creative, I decided to replicate the same square over and over again. It would provide me the kind of practice I needed to get back in the game, and, realistically, the tiny baby wouldn’t know the difference.
I told myself that I would have a big baby quilt done by my adoptive niece’s first birthday. That deadline meant I was going to have to start knitting on the regular. And knit I have. I’m finishing the quilt this week, and sending it off to be put together (I’m not ready to attempt crochet yet). The next time I see the little angel, she’ll be both one AND the proud owner of a baby blanket.
Knitting is both relaxing and enjoyable for me. As a PhD student, I rarely come home at the end of the day with something concrete to show for the time and effort I’m putting in, so being able to sit down with some yarn and quietly create something is incredibly rewarding. Up until now, however, it’s also always been the first thing to go when I get busy.
Setting the first birthday deadline was not unlike scheduling fun. I made a promise to my friend and her infant daughter, and I keep my promises. I essentially forced myself to have a lot of fun this year, even when it didn’t feel like I had the time for it. The result? Not only have I finished my first truly major knitting project—a feat I’ve attempted several times since high school—I’ve gotten over the mental block that told me I could never improve without my grandmother here to teach me. I’ve made time in my life for personal enrichment, and learned how to use my neuroticism for good.
What’s next? I’m going to teach myself a new stitch, and immediately set to work on a new blanket. I found a group that will assemble and donate what I send them. If there’s better motivation than knowing that somewhere out there a baby is cold, I don’t think I want to know about it.
So there you have it. I’m using my fear of letting people down to force myself into activities that I enjoy and wouldn’t otherwise make a priority. Because babies are magic.
“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.