Americans turn to 'rituals of small things'

Magry Knits is one of those small, gritty specialty stores that sit in the hip neighborhoods of lower Manhattan. If you want an authentic, hand-spun merino bouclé or a bright-colored "curly-b" mohair, this is where you'd come.

Its owner, Michele Renee, not only spins one-of-a-kind yarns, but also teaches knitting. And since Sept. 11, her business has surged in a way it hasn't before.

"It's been much busier, dramatically, after the 11th," says Ms. Renee, who drives in from Queens. "The first couple of days, I was not allowed to come into the city, but [then] ... people just wanted to come in and talk and knit."

Call it constructive escapism. Tired of the relentless media coverage of terrorism, war, and anthrax, many people are turning to what one study calls "the ritual of small things." Along with everyday activities such as cooking, exercise, and home repair, some people are indulging in massage therapy or changing their hairstyle. Others are rediscovering old hobbies or taking up new ones such as knitting - which, actually, some young people had already been flirting with in the past few years.

"It just takes your mind off stuff," says Bob Johnson, a Queens resident whose hobby is making quilts. "It's kind of hard to find something that removes you totally from just living here. There've only been a few times since 9/11 that I've felt quote unquote 'normal' - or pre-9/11, you could call it." So last weekend, Mr. Johnson picked up some fleece at Jo-Ann Fabrics to begin his first new quilt in more than a year.

While the focus needed to knit or make quilts can provide people like Johnson relief from stress, some are using creative activities to turn inward. In Cincinnati, many people began making graffiti-like posters after the race riots there earlier this year, and now after the Sept. 11 attacks, even more are trying to express emotions through painting.

"On the one hand, people are looking to escape, and just go mindless," says Steve Sunderland, a professor of social work at the University of Cincinnati and the person who began the poster project. "But on the other hand, I think people are saying, 'I want to know what's happening. I want to understand more.' "

A collection of more than 300 posters is currently being displayed in an exhibit called "Posters 4 Peace" at the university.

The process of coping, says Mr. Sunderland, has been in many ways unprecedented. In his grief-counseling practice, he has never seen the kind of prolonged reactions to traumatic events that he has since the terrorist attacks. In New York and the rest of the country, even as people are determined to get back to normal and not let these events affect daily living, those very efforts can erode their sense of balance and harmony.

While there has been a dramatic increase in prescriptions of antidepressants in the past two months, many people are dealing in less self-consciously therapeutic ways.

For example, in an administrative office at Columbia University in New York, some of the workers were surprised one morning when three women showed up with new hairstyles or coloring.

None of them had told the others of their plans, and the coincidence left them laughing.

"It's just so interesting that the salons are packed," says Karen Bressler, a Manhattan-based author who has written books on the city's fashion and fitness culture. She's found that, unlike many other Manhattan businesses, most beauty parlors have actually seen business increase since the attacks.

"A lot of people are getting new looks," says Ms. Bressler, "either totally chopping their hair or changing their hair color because they just need to be distracted. They need to focus on something else, something new."

But for people like Melissa Bolotow, an ad executive who lives two blocks from Magry Knits, a new creative hobby holds appeal. This past weekend, she stepped into the store for her first knitting lesson, trying out her new needles and yarn.

"I'm antsy these days, and I need something to do," says Ms. Bolotow, as Renee instructs her on the proper way to "cast on" the knitting needles. "Everything is making me a little nervous about living in the city. So this is just something to help me relax, but to do something with my time - do something productive."

She hopes she'll eventually be able to knit some sweaters for herself and her friends. As she looks at some pictures of body-pierced clients wearing their hand-knit bodices, she says, "There's just some really interesting, original types of stuff here - gorgeous, unbelievable.

"So maybe it's fashion as well as relaxing," she continues, laughing. "I don't think I'll be knitting potholders or stuff like that."

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