The ecstasy of turning learning into a habit
Penelope caught unravelling her day’s weaving (Photo: Alamy)
All it took was a single, decisive tug. Before my eyes the penultimate round of my 38-cm crochet doily began to unwind. As my fingers made their peace with the gesture, I settled into my chair, poising myself in the warm glow of the mid-afternoon autumn sun at Krokodil, my favourite bar in Kaltern in the Italian Alps. Soon enough the owner’s partner came by with my drink. As I swirled the straw around the glass I had the premonition that this would be the year’s last ‘Hugo’. I discovered the cocktail in early July, soon after moving to South Tyrol to live with my partner and his family. I fell instantly for the unique sour-sweet flavour of Elderberry flower syrup—the key ingredient. As an aperitivo, it appealed to my tastes more naturally than an Aperol spritz. The effervescence of the Prosecco and the tarty sweetness of the syrup ensured a breezy high while the torn mint leaf and the wheel of lime uplift the palette. It made settling in slightly easier. I liked not having to over-think when a waiter asked what I wanted to drink.
I returned to unspooling more than two or three hours’ worth of labour. It wasn’t an easy decision given that I had technically completed the doily I had begun mid-September on the train from Bozen to Graz, in Austria. Only an expert with a trained eye would have been able to discern the small miscalculation I had made somewhere along the circumference of round 24 that perpetuated its way into the final round, assuming the form of a mistake. I knew, though. And I couldn’t shake off my knowledge of the error. I didn’t want to erase it so much as allow myself to learn from it.
A moment of inattention was responsible for this imperceptible asymmetry. I had got tangled up in my thoughts and lost count and had breathlessly continued without pause, causing a glitch in the pattern. Since crochet is a forgiving craft, allowing for easy undoing, unlike embroidery, I decided to return to the scene of my mistake, thus going back in time. The unfurling revealed how the mercerised yarn had already assumed the form it was assigned through my single and double stitches. I was suddenly releasing it from the tense entanglements within which it had been framed. The unspooled thread piled on the table like a heap of crimped noodles. I had to pause between my tugging to wind the yarn against its source ball so it didn’t yield to the temptation to knot itself. In this back and forth, in this returning to source only to later re-draw, I had a sudden flashback to a scene from the film Cinema Paradiso which I saw when I was 18—a mother figure walking towards a door, the string from her knitted yarn mistakenly in tow, the yarn subsequently unfastening. More than the cinematic specifics I remember grasping a conceptual feeling of the word umbilical.
Learning to crochet was my way of being with my mother, trying to inhabit the gestures I’d seen her make while in the throes of needlework. Her craft of choice was embroidery, but in the days preceding lockdown in Delhi, a 2.5mm crochet needle and a ball of yarn was all I could manage to string together. Craft items didn’t constitute essential commodities. Meanwhile my parents were in Mumbai. We were engulfed by distance. It was difficult to process how visiting them could be detrimental to their lives. Meanwhile I had, back in February, made the decision to vacate my rented apartment of eight years since I had to return to Italy by June, at the latest, to honour the conditions of my stay permit. Meanwhile, I decided not to take on new assignments. Instead, I threw myself into full-time learning. I asked my partner to teach me two things—his strength training workout and his language. When I wasn’t wrestling with these, or needed a break from packing, I watched YouTube tutorials on crochet.
Except, the paucity of yarn prevented me from actively making anything. I was compelled to make-unmake; make-unmake; make-unmake, as if on a loop. This was surprisingly not frustrating. In fact, I liked having room to make mistakes, since I knew I would in any case be unravelling and re-beginning. My stitches acquired a consistent tautness. After much trial and error I learned I had misunderstood what it meant to go into a stitch. I had been exclusively working front loops. Eventually it became easier to recognise and count stitches, especially as I allowed myself to accrue rows. I began to feel an almost pleasure in building and then dismantling; allowing for materiality to surface before facilitating the disappearance of the texture. On April 2nd, I crocheted my first flower. Before I could undo it, I made a picture which I later posted on Instagram, declaring how the minor achievement was momentous because we are living in Penelope time. ‘And so it is fitting to knot and unravel, knot-unravel as she did and experience the uncertainty of ‘waiting for deliverance’, as she did, weaving her shroud by day, undoing it at night, labouring to bide time and exert agency over the unknowable.’
I was referring to Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, her feminist retelling of Homer’s Odyssey through the person whose primary role in the original was to perform as a loyal woman-in-waiting. Atwood allows us a speculative glimpse into her subjectivity. ‘The shroud itself became a story almost instantly. ‘Penelope’s web’ it was called; people used to say that of any task that remained mysteriously unfinished. I did not appreciate the term web. If the shroud was a web, then I was the spider. But I had not been attempting to catch men like flies; on the contrary, I’d merely been trying to avoid entanglement myself,’ Penelope says. Through the wild embrace of learning as method, learning as end in itself, I had begun to gradually gain access into the in-between-ness of what I decided to call Penelope Time. By spending more than six hours of the day subjecting myself to being taught, thus assuming the necessary humility of one who seeks to evolve new muscle memories, I was enabling the making and unmaking of my self. I was mirroring a process I began during therapy at the end of 2019 of picking apart narratives I had solidified to either explain, rationalise or defend various events that seemed to have ‘happened’ to me in the hope of locating, however retrospectively, where my agency lay.
Learning to crochet was my way of being with my mother, trying to inhabit the gestures I’d seen her make while in the throes of needlework. Her craft of choice was embroidery, but in the days preceding lockdown in Delhi, a 2.5mm crochet needle and a ball of yarn was all I could manage to string together
Simultaneous to my adaptive response towards my self-composed lockdown syllabus of core training, hula hooping, cooking techniques, crochet and German ran my ongoing efforts to reconfigure how I experienced my emotions through the insightful suggestions from my therapist. In early January, during what felt initially like a tacky Catholic marriage preparation course, I was inadvertently exposed to a brilliant though aggressively delivered set of guidelines meant to help couples negotiate their differences amicably,respectfully, and without feeling like they were compromising. It was called the ‘win-win’ method of conflict resolution.
I was among 80 couples who had to suffer the indignity of being lectured on love and marriage by the Catholic church over the second weekend of January. I had always despised the hierarchical, shame-based method of religious pedagogy that I had been subjected to from my childhood as a member of the Archdiocese of Mumbai. My partner and I would have been happy not to have a church wedding. But my mother had emotionally manipulated me into agreeing to set a date at our parish church in Goa. We were meant to marry in November. The two-day course was the Catholic way of bullying couples into undergoing a pedantic process at the end of which they received a certificate without which it is impossible to marry within the church. We had been given two books to read beforehand; a text called ‘Creative Love’ and a tract on the subject written by Pope Francis. My more open-minded partner, a lapsed Catholic, like me, spent some portion of last December browsing through both books. Like teenagers we laughed at some of the diagrams meant to illustrate the Church’s anti-contraceptive stance.
Days after the course my partner and I continued to unpack what we had learned. We concluded the most valuable lesson was the ‘win-win’ method of conflict resolution. I had never been taught how to fight from a space of empowerment. Under patriarchal conditioning, I had only internalised defensiveness. When triggered, it was my default passive-aggressive response. But a trained, abrasive psychologist forced a volunteer couple into having a mock fight in front of the class about a subject she assigned to them—the man seemingly prefers to spend time with his friends to the dismay of the woman. Judy kept interrupting their fight to tell them and us how they weren’t doing it right. ‘How does it make you feel?’ she badgered the girl. ‘I feel that…’ she began to answer. ‘That is not a feeling. Name the feeling, name the feeling,’ Judy obsessively pursued her. ‘I feel sad!’ the girl finally declared, looking somewhat defeated. ‘That’s it! That’s a feeling! Well done!’
a smug Judy exclaimed.
This breakthrough lay at the crux of conflict management, in her unbridled opinion. If one functions from an attuned understanding of one’s emotion in a moment of conflict, then one is able to assume responsibility for one’s feelings without assigning blame and without triggering your partner’s defensive mechanisms. Instead of pointing a finger at someone and suggesting that they make you feel a certain way, you rephrase the sentence to begin with the feeling aroused within you when a specific gesture or action is made by the other person. Doing so elevates our consciousness about whether the feeling in question has to do with the person with whom you are presently relating or whether it is invariably linked to one’s own psychological history or whether it is systemic.
The method is particularly illuminating for those of us who have suffered forms of emotional or physical abuse. It helps unentangle where our agency may lie within a given situation. Feelings can be a navigational tool in pursuing new relationships and re-aligning old ones. This counsel came close on the heels of my therapist’s suggestion that I learn to feel my emotions rather than intellectualising them. The consequence of this unintended learning about how to be better present in any situation so as to be able to always gauge one’s feeling through the course of any interaction necessitated a conscious undoing of stubborn and established patterns of behaviour. Judy maintained that kindness was crucial. ‘The best thing to do when you’re angry is nothing.’ This extended from lessons I had imbibed from my therapist, about how kindness towards others became easier once one had begun to regularly practise kindness towards oneself. I felt privileged to have been able to arrive at these insights. Humility comes more easily once one accepts that at the crux of learning lies unlearning.
In early May, while immersed in research around the historical silencing and erasure of female subjectivity by relegating it within the domain of the exclusively non-public, I began retreating further into the inner realms of domesticity. It was ironic that I was inhabiting my apartment while simultaneously stripping it off its ‘it-ness’, emptying it out, packing away my library, sifting through my kitchen things, preparing to un-belong. Practising restraint in my movements by sheltering in place, or refraining from commenting on social media helped me access an interiority. I was suddenly more productive, but not in a capitalist, output-centric way, rather in a sweaty, qualitative sense. I wanted to synthesise my experience of the lockdown as a fine-tuning of my very corporeal encounter with muscular memory.
As an adult, to embrace the spirit of learning meant functioning outside of one’s comfort zone, beyond the safety of what one already knows. It involved being child-like and acquiring new movements, thus expanding the range of one’s vocabulary.
Mid-way through unwinding round 24, I had to pause to make diary entries. I had been reflecting on the phonetic similitude between the English ‘failure’ and the German ‘fehler,’ which meant error or mistake. I repeated them under my breath to study the assonance, “Failure—Fehler, Failure—Fehler.” The two words had begun to epitomise an empowering philosophy. A few days after I formally relinquished my right to admission to the PhD programme to which I had been accepted at the University of East Anglia because I didn’t receive the funding I had hoped for and couldn’t afford to finance the endeavour myself, a native Hebrew speaker, the brother-in-law of one of my dearest friends in South Tyrol offered me pithy advice for accelerating the pace of my immersion in German. ‘You have to make mistakes,’ he said. It resonated with something I’d read online in the aftermath of another meltdown I’d had while still in Delhi during my German class with my partner. A polyglot was asked how best to approach a language. ‘By using it,’ he suggested. This involved not waiting until one arrived at a moment in time when one felt certain one ‘knew’ a language. It meant speaking the language while learning it. As a trained linguist, my partner was the perfect teacher. But it was really after I moved to South Tyrol that I truly fell into the deep end. I was frequently overwhelmed. However, after I was able to reorient my response to being frequently corrected, to not perceive it as insulting, I began to find the experience pleasurable. It is a form of vital surrender, being graceful about receiving linguistic intervention.
When I had visited Kaltern in late July or early August, my partner had accompanied me to Schmidl, a family-run establishment. It would be the first time I would engage in intense conversation with a salesperson in order to get the right sized yarn that would work with the 2.5mm needle I had borrowed from his aunts, that belonged, originally, to his grandmother. The person manning the counter was exceptionally patient with me. Even though it would have been easier to ask my partner to serve as intermediary, I chose to frame my sentences myself, even if my grammar would manifest as skewed. She appreciated the effort. She helped me complete sentences. So it was immensely validating when she expressed her admiration at the progress I’d made earlier that October afternoon, when I visited the shop on my way to Krokodil.
‘Keine fehler’ she had remarked twice. First in relation to my crocheted doily, then in reference to my German. ‘Every day I belong a little more and a little better,’ I had written in my diary two days before, while making a note of the word one of my best friends, Partho, had used in our WhatsApp conversation as a counter to displacement. ‘Emplacement: a putting into position.’ I wondered if such a term which has a militaristic connotation (‘a prepared position for weapons or military equipment’) could be appropriated and re-shaped to engender a feminist sentiment.
Three weeks later I would marry in a 12th century Romanesque chapel with the service conducted entirely in German. I was genuinely elated by my ability to understand everything.
In transforming learning into a habit I have arrived at jouissance—physical or intellectual pleasure, delight or ecstasy. In relinquishing defensiveness as a de facto response to being questioned or challenged, I’m uncovering profound opportunities for personal growth. In committing to being a lifelong disciple of learning, I have found ways of dislodging the false certitude that marks the ‘I’ and disclaiming the arrogance that accompanies scholarly assurance. By befriending failure, by dwelling in agnosia I have exorcised the debilitating ghost of self-doubt that has haunted me since adolescence. I now lay claim to only this—I neither know nor think that I know. In this dictum for what might constitute wisdom I find the courage to regularly re-affirm my willingness to learn and unlearn as an act of daring resistance against being subjectified. I exercise agency in allowing my self to be made and re-made in an endless, ecstatic loop.