Whenever things turn stressful I get the urge to knit. It doesn’t matter what – in fact the simpler the item the better. Mum and Nan were the same. Nan only seemed to stop knitting in order to peel potatoes or mop the lino, and Mum knitted so many blankets made of multi-coloured six inch squares that she ended up trying to give one away to Oxfam. But in spite of its being a particularly splendid one, and in spite of the fact that they had always advertised for blankets made of squares, Oxfam refused it. According to the woman in the shop there had been a change of policy – home-made blankets tended to be of non-standard size and didn’t stack economically in their transportation trucks. She didn’t even smile.
Mum went on knitting, year after year, stacking the useless things in a cupboard. She had given up all pretence of their being replacements for blankets that were wearing out. Woolly blankets never seem to wear out; they just stretch to twice their original length and get bobbly.
I knit in times of stress but I never end up wearing anything I knit – partly because I don’t like the look of it and partly because wool’s far too itchy. I make squares too, but tend to sew them into smaller blankets. The cats appreciate them more than Oxfam did. Every now and then I make one of those little tee-shaped stripy jumpers from the Oxfam pattern, for children in war-torn areas. Basically, you don’t need a pattern for those – you could just make them up.
Presumably knitting is a form of displacement activity. Those painting of Madame Guillotine during the French Revolution…those ladies sitting beneath with clay pipes clenched between rotten teeth, and clackety tricot needles, were maybe not so much heartless as deeply traumatised as the severed heads rolled one by one into the baskets.
Technically – she writes, as if she knew as much before she looked it up – displacement behaviour is a behaviour that appears odd/out of context. It usually happens when there is a conflict between excitement/agitation and frustration. A dog meets a high fence, say. He desperately wants to be on the other side of the fence but the fence is too high to jump. Naturally, then, he sits down and scratches his ear or bites the dog next to him. Displacement behaviour is often related to comforting activities, like grooming, scratching, drinking or eating. So, human beings scratch their heads when perplexed and a pair of fighting birds might stop and peck at the ground.
I suppose the classic would be rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. Did anybody actually do that, I wonder? Was it in the film? I never saw the film. I suppose deckchair-rearranging would only be a displacement activity if you knew the ship had just hit an iceberg. If you were merely up on deck for a little stroll on a bracing afternoon and thought – those deckchairs would be so much better disposed thus – well that would make you a sad, and possibly an obsessive, person but not necessarily one engaged in displacement activity.
I also sharpen pencils; in times of great distress I have been known to sharpen whole boxes of blunt pencils, until my fingers are squashed into strange shapes at the ends, and black with graphite, and the sharpener’s running hot. Or I sit down and write a post for this blog, though it will rarely be about the thing that’s worrying me. That’s likely to come later: emotion recollected in tranquillity as Wordsworth put it. It’s a help to be absorbed in pushing words around for a couple of hours.
Ex was the only person I ever met who dealt with stress by keeping utterly still. Most of the time he would be rushing hither and thither, obsessed by what he was doing, frowning over his easel or his lathe, or his workbench – painting stuff or making stuff. At rare intervals, however, he would take what he referred to as a Lying Fallow Day. This seemed to mean slumping half on and half off of the living-room sofa, his long legs jack-knifed into an inverted V. There he would remain all day staring out of the window at the rose bushes and occasionally farting. It was as if he had deactivated himself.