As part of this month’s theme of wellbeing, The Joy Club member Elsa Browne takes a moment to reflect on what wellbeing means to her…
When I think about wellbeing, I think about doing something with my hands. In the early 2000s, I worked in a community drug service (a so-called “methadone clinic”) in London as assistant to the clinical lead, an addictions psychiatrist. He confessed to a love of doing needlepoint and tapestry for relaxation and as a foil to the intensity of his day job. Later, working for a primary care addictions charity, I would attend conferences all over the country. Often I would find myself on a long train journey with some of the speakers, including a woman – let’s call her Maggie – who attended conferences as an “expert by experience” – a person who used drugs and had been in treatment for heroin addiction.
She tended to dress in many layers of black and, to be honest, I was initially a tad intimidated by her. Sitting across from her in the carriage, I would be a bit guarded; we seemed to be so different. It didn’t take long to discover that she was intelligent and knowledgeable on a wide range of subjects and I was soon grateful to have her company on the train home as we spoke of family life, or what books we were reading, our hobbies and interests.
On one of these trips, Maggie brought out a needlework project as we chatted away from Liverpool to London – embroidery with the most intricate and complex patterns. Stitched with fine needles and jewel colours, her work was way out of my league. But first…
I grew up in 1950s South Africa, raised by a single mother. My mother taught me a lot about self-care for mental health, without me realising it then. She had had what was called a “nervous breakdown” back in the day, and she was hospitalised for a while. Once home, in between raising three children, and working at an office job, she would be endlessly creative, always making something – drawing, making collages from scraps of paper, sewing. Her creativity was her saving grace, although at the time I wouldn’t have recognised that. She never missed an opportunity – even when preparing dinner, she would amuse us as little children by cutting crocodile “toys” out of thick white and yellow pumpkin peel as we played at her feet. She sewed our clothes, never needing a pattern. Looking back on it now, I consider that “keeping busy” was a major contributor to her wellbeing.
My granny too was always in front of her sewing machine. She was a pioneer of freestyle machine embroidery and her finest work was displayed in the window of the local haberdashery on the main street, and we would proudly admire it on evening walks and when “window shopping” was a pastime. I remember the rhythmic back and forth movements as – bent over her trusty Elna – she see-sawed the embroidery hoop back and forth and conjured delicate flowers onto fabric with nothing more than a needle and thread and her imagination.
The creativity gene and making stuff by hand almost slipped by me, all that women’s work was not that cool to my generation.
But facing some real-life challenges to my own mental wellbeing some years ago, something stirred in me that made me turn to YouTube and buy some wool and needles and attempt to make something. I initially did what I called “wild knitting” and made some really outlandish creations. Gradually I improved through practice and I found that the repetition and rhythm of knitting and crocheting was soothing and I would turn to it when feeling stressed. It is also mindfulness in practice – it is impossible to be thinking of anything else when you’re mastering an intricate pattern or you’re picking up a dropped stitch!
There are other immense benefits, like the social aspect of working at something in the company of other likeminded people. Which brings me back to Maggie and her stunning embroidery – I took out my knitting on that train journey and we settled in to our seats. Talk about breaking down barriers! She became a good friend and a crafting companion as we whiled away the hours of travel. We were not so different after all.
On holiday in Cape Town a few years ago, I was introduced to a group of men and women who swim in the Atlantic Ocean tidal pool at Kalk Bay early most mornings. They call their gang The Blue Tits. I joined in (although I never did earn the true badge of honour, going into the water only knee deep). Shrieking and splashing over – the water is cold! – we would change out of our bathing costumes, cross the road to a nearby park and out would come the knitting, crocheting or tapestries (yes, including the men) and easy conversation would flow as we pored over each other’s projects. Staff from a café alongside would run back and forth bringing coffees and breakfast baps in return for generous tips. It was a blissful way of passing time. Sometimes I only have to think of The Blue Tits to bring a smile to my face.
Back at work in London, I established an informal knitting group when some of the younger women in the office asked me to teach them. Sometimes, one of them would come by my desk for a quick remedial intervention on a piece of knitting. On one of these occasions, the Chief Exec made a beeline for us and needles and wool were hastily flung under desks or stuffed haphazardly into drawers. He approached me with his hand outstretched. I want to commend you, he said, for this hive of creative activity and office wellbeing.
Now retired, I am most content when I am rocking to the rhythm of the stitch, be it knitting, embroidering or sewing. And I feel connected to my late mother and my grandmother who came before me and carried the making gene and led me to the zen of using my hands to soothe my mind.
What does ‘wellbeing’ look like to you? Share your thoughts with Elsa and other members in the comments below…