I didn't intend to analyze the behavior of people around me, I just wanted to learn to knit. Knitting seemed like a good way to occupy myself during the countless community meetings I attend.
With the help of a friend, I learned the basics: casting on, knitting, and purling. Then my friend asked the hard question: What do you want to make? I froze, not sure what to say. I hadn't even thought of making anything. I just wanted to knit, to move my hands in a pattern, feel the soft yarn run through my fingers, and see the lively colors on my lap. My friend was still looking at me. I had to say something, so I blurted out, "Oh, I don't know. I'll start out knitting squares until I get the hang of it."
I didn't realize I was entering a world that was completely foreign to me - the world in which perfect strangers feel entitled to ask questions about what I'm doing and express their opinion about my response.
I don't carry a baby or walk a dog, the two other situations in New England where strangers talk to you. My encounters while knitting are different from the quick hello or furtive half-smile I get from passersby on the street.
Instead, knitting is a world where I find myself in a real conversation with a stranger, whether I'm sitting in a meeting, waiting in a restaurant for a friend, or taking the bus into town.
When my unintended experiment began, I quickly figured out that while the opening line is sometimes "Oh, what pretty yarn," most of the time it's that question again: "What are you making?"
For the first few months, I muttered something about learning to knit and making practice squares. That seemed acceptable, and provided the perfect lead-in to what seemed to be their point in starting the conversation. What they really wanted was to tell me how their grandmother taught them to knit, or their Great-Aunt Susan, or their mother; how hard it was when they were 9, or how easy it was when they were 12, or what their first project was. It quickly became clear that I wasn't expected to say much - a few smiling nods and uh-huh's were enough as I kept knitting.
After a few months, I stopped pretending I was practicing for some future project, and when the question came I said, "Oh, I'm not making anything, I just like the process of knitting. When I finish this square, I'll unravel it, roll it back up, and knit it again."
From the looks of shock and horror, it was as if I'd said I was going to paint over pictures in a museum. I was amazed at the response. Why should they care? But I live in New England, and it's clear there are lots of people here who still have a wide streak of practical, hardworking Yankee in them.
That's how I learned that everyone has an opinion about what I should knit and assumes I need to hear it.
"Oh, but you could knit squares and then sew them together into an afghan," or, "Make scarves. They are easy, and you can give them away as gifts," or "My church has a project knitting little things for premature babies at the hospital."
Wherever I sit and knit, opinions flow. With great fervor and total earnestness, complete strangers become my advisers.
Despite my insistence on process, it looks as if I really am making something. Knitting and all those conversations with strangers have opened the door to connections with people I would never have known. There's the soft-spoken man who sat next to me at a meeting, and after the requisite story about his grandmother and what she made, told me he liked sitting next to me because he found my knitting soothing.
Or the plump gray-haired woman from my town whom I didn't know anything about except that she often votes on the other side of issues from me at Town Meeting. Now we have something to talk about that isn't so contentious.
Or the burly college student with a shaved head who wedged into the bus seat next to me on the way to the university. My stereotypes were blown wide open as he smiled at the yarn in my lap and said, "That's pretty. I really liked it when my mother taught me to knit. Maybe I should start again. Where can I get needles and yarn around here?"
A year of my accidental experiment has produced some results: When I knit among people I don't know, I no longer think of them as "strangers," but rather as people whose knitting stories and advice I've yet to hear.