A sense of togetherness whilst in isolation
Joel O’Donoghue is a professional dancer and choreographer. Since lockdown, he has had to adapt to a new, quieter life and has spent more time knitting. He has begun a community knitting project, sewing together patches that have been sent to him by over 30 volunteers. This patchwork quilt is a symbol of hope, community and togetherness. We asked him to write a piece to explain the story behind the project.
Whilst working at a care home for elderly people in southeast London, I learnt how to knit. Initially I thought I was doing this for the benefit of the individuals I was working with. “Give them something to do,” I thought to myself. “Keep them busy and entertained.” How very wrong I was. Since being quarantined at home over a month ago, this new skill has taken over my life.
“inspired by my own experience of memory loss, following an operation to remove a brain tumour at the age of 12”
For the past 8 years I have worked as a professional dancer/ choreographer/ movement director/ dance teacher/ set designer/ you-name-it-er, since graduating from a dance school called Laban. But my work in the elderly peoples’ residence came about during the creation of a dance piece that I have been working on for the last couple of years, called Treasure and Tat (most recently performed at the lovely Poplar Union at the end of last year). This work is an investigation into how loss of memory can change someone’s sense of identity and connection to the world around them. In other words, what it’s like to be very forgetful. It is inspired by my own experience of memory loss, following an operation to remove a brain tumour at the age of 12, and my subsequent experiences of working with older people who suffer from dementia.
At the end of the performance, the three dancers in Treasure and Tat invite the audience onto the stage. They give them a tour around the set (which is inspired by the living room at the elderly people’s home I worked at), serve tea and cake, teach individuals how to waltz, and lead a knitting workshop. The piece has been performed at different stages of its development over two years, but the ending has remained the same. This has meant that I have acquired quite a few patches of knitting from the dancers, and from different audience members, which I have had no idea what to do with… until now!
“Knitting has slowed me down (in a good way), and at the same time nurtured my mind, body and soul.”
Since being quarantined at home due the outbreak of Covid 19, I have been knitting away, and have sewn the different patches (both old and new) together to make a patchwork quilt. I have also recruited almost 30 additional volunteers to knit and send me their own patches to add to my creation. These volunteers include a mother, who has been teaching her children how to knit whilst homeschooling them, a doctor in Australia, and (via a friend) someone who has sadly passed away. Whilst not the original intention, I feel as though the quilt has become a celebration of togetherness whilst in isolation.
During lockdown I have been knitting in a sort-of obsessive way almost every single day. I have found that there is something meditative about the methodical, repetitive process of it. Under, around, through, off, repeat. In this process, I am able to switch off from the outside world and allow my mind to wonder freely beyond the realms of my living room. Under normal circumstances, I often find myself rushing madly around London, from one job or meeting to the next, unable to stop for thought or relax my mind or body for any considerable period of time. As difficult as quarantine has been for so many individuals throughout the world, I would be lying if I said I hadn’t enjoyed the majority of the last few weeks. My anxiety levels have decreased dramatically, I have connected with friends and family via video calls more then ever before, I’ve had dinner dates with my girlfriend almost every night of the week, and have been afforded the time to process some of the difficulties within my own life over recent times. Knitting has slowed me down (in a good way), and at the same time nurtured my mind, body and soul.
The multicoloured quilt is currently 7’x 7′, and is very much still growing. By happy accident it has become reminiscent of the many rainbows drawn by households up and down the country in support of the NHS. Once lockdown is over I hope to hang and exhibit the quilt at a local hospital, in order to commemorate the many individuals who faced such enormous challenges and losses during the pandemic, and the togetherness of people whilst in isolation.
If you would like to contribute any of your own knitting to the patchwork project please contact me via email on: firstname.lastname@example.org. Any size or colour will be gratefully accepted! If you’ve never knitted before but would like to learn how, I would be very happy to send video tutorials over to you.
With special thanks to: Claire, Ellie, Leila, Lola, Sheila, Magdalena, Becky, Katie, Steph, Indi, Joanna, Faith, PJ, Hannah, Paris, and Karl.