How I Went from Being a Thinker to a Maker

knitting edited

*Note: Please forgive this bit of shameless navel-gazing. Even though it’s completely self-centered, I thought I’d share this, in case anyone else can relate. It’s connected to my last post: Why I’m Not Writing a Book Right Now.*

A few weeks ago I was editing my Instagram profile — I think I was just temporarily changing the link to a specific blog post — when I was struck by my own description of myself: “Thinker.”

I’ve been using that word to describe myself since I started this blog six years ago. (You can still see it in my author description in the right column of the blog). I’d gotten used to it.

But all of a sudden, I noticed that it didn’t feel like it fit anymore.

For basically all my life, I probably could have described myself as a “thinker.” I’ve lived most of my life in my head. (My mom would attest to that. I’ve always been absent-minded, absorbed with my own thoughts.)

I ruminate. I imagine. I ponder. I reflect. I take things in and I dissect them with my brain. I’ve never been much of a talker or a doer.

That’s why my life has always revolved around the written word. Words are a thinker’s tools.

It made me rather clumsy and not very useful in the real world, but I thrived in an academic setting, which is where I spent the first 24 years of my life.

But that’s not the kind of person I was seeing reflected in my Instagram feed the other day.

My feed isn’t full of thoughts and words, like you would expect from a “thinker.” Instead, these days it’s mostly full of pictures of stuff I’ve made: bread I’ve baked. Hats I’ve crocheted. Artwork I’ve painted.

“Looks like I’m more of a maker,” I thought to myself for the first time.

Hmmm.

In recent years, my focus has shifted away from reading, writing, and thinking, to mastering new skills. Baking. Cooking. Painting. Knitting. That kind of thing.

I no longer read to learn new information nearly as much I do to learn new skills. And often, I find that watching videos is a more efficient way to learn these things than reading books. So I do a lot more of that.

In the last three years alone I have picked up crocheting, knitting, watercolor painting and sourdough baking. Before that it was gardening, preserving, cooking and blogging.

What changed?

Well, I graduated from university, for starters. When I stopped being a professional student I started to recognize the value of learning some life skills.

And shortly after that, I had a baby. I had to learn some additional new skills; and my brain got so worn out by the demands of caregiving that I couldn’t think like I used to. But in those early years of mothering I still devoured books and information, and spent a lot of time reflecting and writing.

And then I had a medically complex child who spent his first year in the hospital and everything came apart. Including my brain.

What exactly happened? What encouraged this shift from thinking to making?

Thinking became too difficult.

Having two kids in my care who never slept and who constantly needed my attention put a special strain on my mental capacities. I just didn’t have the brain space to think much anymore beyond what was immediately necessary for all our survival.

Making stuff is a bit easier on the brain, somehow.

basic sourdough boule recipe

Thinking became too painful.

Since the trauma of Felix’s hospitalization, and my family’s separation, displacement, and isolation, almost all thinking triggers pain. My brain became a stew of sadness and anxiety. To this day I have to carefully guard my thoughts at every turn to keep me from turning into a useless puddle of grief and worry.

Making and doing is much less painful.

Nobody gets hurt when I create.

I needed more beauty in my life.

Especially in the dull monotony of hospital life, I started to really notice what a difference beauty made in my life. The gorgeously-decorated Christmas trees in the halls of the pediatric ward somehow allowed me to take a deep breath and relax for just a moment. The carefully-tended flower beds at the Ronald McDonald House made me feel loved and cared for.

This need for beauty has carried on. I wanted not only to witness beauty, but to participate in it.

I get a feeling of peace and calm when I pull elegant loaves of artisan bread out of the oven. I love to lay beautiful liquid colours down on paper and watch flowers pop out of the flat whiteness. It energizes me. It brings me joy when everything else feels like crap.

watercolour lily

I needed to feel in control of parts of my life, when everything else  felt completely chaotic.

Ever since Felix was born, my life has felt largely out of my control. We weren’t able to pursue any of the parenting choices we wanted to make for him, from breastfeeding to co-sleeping and elimination communication. Doctors made all the decisions about how to treat him, how to feed him, and who could even see him. For several weeks, we didn’t even know if he would live.

I have felt so completely helpless in the face of his suffering and pain.

So it feels good to be able to pick out a ball of yarn in the colour of my choice, select a pattern, and knit a sweater, just the way I want it. At least I have control over this one little thing.

knitted pink pixie bonnet

I needed to feel productive, when I realized there was so little I could actually do to help my son.

This is kind of an extension of the first. When I couldn’t do anything else, I could knit my son a hat. When I can’t figure out why everyone in my family is so miserable, I can bake them some bread.

I can’t always solve my own or anyone else’s problems, but I can create something beautiful. That’s something, at least.

How about you? Have you experienced anything like this? Can you relate?

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Comments

  1. I remember when you took up needlework in the hospital but when did you take up painting? Your paintings are lovely!

  2. Thanks, Kathleen, for sharing this.

  3. I relate to this so much. My mental health has been so rocky since having my second and it seems as though one of the best salves for my anxiety is making. Especially in the kitchen – it has been so helpful for me to work through the processes involved in preparing food from scratch, baking, canning and otherwise looking at foods I buy and saying “I bet I could make that myself”. Something about the failures in the kitchen have been especially therapeutic. I am not good at embracing failure but doing it on a small scale, pretty regularly, in the kitchen has helped me embrace it more. In fact I often enjoy the process of trying to see how I can reuse something that i would have otherwise considered a failure. Next step is to try to pick up art again 😬

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Ashley! And YES to failures in the kitchen! They no longer upset me like they used to — I realize that every failure is a learning opportunity. “Now I know how to do it different next time!” is a common quip I cheerfully offer my husband. :)

  4. Wow, I haven’t really thought about it much (so, there’s that…) in these terms but I’m very much in the same space. I’ve moved more and more toward “maker” since finishing my formal schooling. And I’ve often commented that most of the skills I use everyday I learned of my own initiative outside of school (cooking, baking, gardening, canning, candlemaking, soapmaking, etc.). That has become even more the case since I stopped working after our daughter was born. I could read in my downtime at work, so that allowed me to keep the “thinker” going, but since being home and as she gets older and more busy, sitting down to read for hours is a luxury that is in increasingly short supply (plus, frankly, when I do read I usually want something light and escapist).
    I do still want brain engagement though, so podcasts have helped fill that space for me; they are the best thing to ever happen to housework.

    • I’ll also add, that learning those skills helps me manage my anxiety about not actually “using” my post-secondary degrees. Like I’m still useful even if I’m not working for pay, especially in a capacity which requires said degrees. So I don’t know if that’s the healthiest approach, but it’s a factor nonetheless.

  5. I keep mulling over this post. I think I’ve decided to learn to either knit or crochet next year. I have truly terrible fine motor skills, but I need to do something and I like the idea of being able to make useful things.

    I’ve been a thinker all my life too, but with some depression and less-than-optimal situations the past couple years, I’ve found that I can’t allow myself to think–I don’t have any happy thoughts left, or rather, I find it hard to envision a positive future, and spend most of my time steering myself away from negative thoughts by just not thinking at all. But I don’t have any hobbies that I DO. I’ve been reading a lot, but there’s a different value in creating vs. consuming. Thank you for this post.

    • I TOTALLY get what you’re saying about “not having any happy thoughts left,” etc. I think knitting or crocheting would be great for that! It was SO helpful when we were in the hospital. Sorry to hear things have been hard for you, too! Hope you’re able to find some peace and joy in the coming season.

  6. I have always been both combined, I think, though I am more guarded on the actual internet compared to how I was back in 1999 when I started writing things on livejournal and all that. haha. I definitely create much more than I once had!! It is fun to do!

    I LOVE your art. It pops out so much!!!
    Victoria the Justice Pirate recently posted..Field Trip: Making Apple CiderMy Profile

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