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Zen and the Art of the Crafty Commute

As someone who makes her home in a tree-lined, mostly hipster-free (knock wood), very outer area of the most desirable outer borough of Manhattan, I spend an inordinate amount of time commuting. Despite the rumblings of further encroaching gentrification, I’m blessedly still just a little too far from the maddening crowd.

Yet another Fashion Week event invitation? Not all that interesting if it means spending extra hours on the back and forth. Tribeca Film Festival? You’ll need a pretty compelling line-up for me to spring for a cab back home. And, yes, I did just turn down an invitation to the cocktail party gala for the Frieda Kahlo exhibit up in the Bronx because no one offered to send an Uber.

While I schlep back and forth on the F train to meetings or dinners or cocktails or basically anything worth doing, I tend to complain mightily. And I always have a plan of attack. I avoid eye contact, avoid frottage and try to have something to focus on other than the smells and sound effects of the NYC subway system. While some people prepare go-bags, I have my what-happens-if-I’m-trapped-underground-in-a-tin-can-and-pressed-up-against-hundreds-of-sweaty-strangers-and-possibly-dueling-a-capella-doo-wop groups bag. I’m never without water, a snack or two and, most importantly, some sort of craft.

It looked like a mutant dinner plate, made from some bulky yarn in a shade that can best be described as congealed vomit.

Crafting for me is second nature; it’s my zen and happy place. While some people rely on rosary beads to calm their nerves during their commute, I’m never quite as calm as when I have yarn or fiber wound around my fingers and a needle or crochet hook in my hand. When I’m concentrating on my project of the moment, I can tune out the screaming babies and bickering couples. I count stitches and ignore the endless delays and scratchy conductor announcements.

Crafting is comfort for me. Crafting is love. My mother opened her first yarn and crafts store when I was two. I learned to crochet (or at least make really, really long chains) when I was still a toddler. My earliest memories are of staring up at a wall full of color and trying to figure out which yarns belonged best together.

When I was undergoing chemo a few years back, I’d crochet intently in the waiting and infusion rooms. I could tune everything out and just concentrate on what I was creating. My mother and I would sit next to each other, crochet hooks moving in unison, crafting an unbreakable chain that binds us. And as I felt better, I’d randomly give other chemo-bald women the cute hats or headscarves I’d just finished.

Despite the resurgence of crafting in the past years, doing so on a crowded subway car still ellicits a lot of gawking and curious glances. I was once working on a needlepoint and felt sorry for the woman standing across from me dressed as a mermaid (pasties, green satin tail and all) because she was getting so much less attention than I was.

Last year (or maybe it was the year before that one), I was heading home on the F train and noticed a woman furiously and industriously hacking away at some sort of yarn-based craft. I won’t mince words — it was hideous. It looked like a mutant dinner plate, made from some bulky yarn in a shade that can best be described as congealed vomit.

I looked away.

I looked back again with horrified fascination.

As the train emptied out slightly, we sat near each other, sisters in craft if not technique. She smiled admiringly as my fingers whirled and twisted and a whisper thin pink scarf emerged. We sat quietly and companionably for a while, meditating on the woman shouting at the top of her lungs about Jesus saving even us.

Finally, I couldn’t help myself. I smiled and asked about the hideous mass springing forth painfully from her fingers. She looked up at me shyly and beaming with pride and said it was to be a yarmulke, the round beanie worn by some Jewish men. And it was meant for her almost 13-year-old son to wear at his upcoming bar mitzvah.

I smiled.

I complimented her dedication.

I thought about a young boy’s life ruined if forced to don that truly atrocious headgear and saw a fast-forward of a life destroyed by a mother’s misguided love.

And so I waited patiently until she dropped a stitch. And then another. And finally, I gently removed the Quasimodo-shaped disc from her trembling hands and offered to help her just a bit. I subtly and efficiently tore open the stitches she’d agonizingly created. I distracted her with small talk as I furiously reformed the little kipah until it resembled something presentable if not all that attractive. And for the next forty minutes or so, I guided her and helped her, and every now and again re-stitched that young boy’s future.

And I do believe that I changed a life that day. Not hers, necessarily, though she’d certainly have a story worth sharing. But I believe that I changed the life of that unknown boy who would proudly wear something his mother had conceived in love and that was repurposed by a random stranger on the train.

There are those that believe that food is love, with comfort food being the greatest symbol of nurturing.For me, it’s crafting. And sometimes that means sharing that great bond with a total stranger on the F train.

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3 Responses

  1. michele c. hollow

    I am not surprised by your generosity, Rachel. Another beautiful story.

  2. Hannah

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