Imagine you’re a college campus minister, and you’re also the mom of two young kids, both with special needs, who each have “specialists up the wazoo.”
Imagine you live out in the country in New Hampshire, with only your chickens and your vegetable gardens for company as you boil sap for maple syrup and research the ins and outs of farming hops. Your husband is in the military, and you’re waiting to hear if you’ve been accepted to a Ph.D program at the University of Aberdeen. And you have your eye on some goats, and maybe beehives.
What do you do with all your spare time?
If you’re Cindy Cheshire, you open an Etsy store, of course.
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“I don’t do many things in a casual sort of way,” Cheshire said, stooping down to feed her little flock, “Because I don’t have the time.”
Something to keep your hands full while your heart is healing
Cheshire’s shop, Bethany Farm Knits, offers an assortment of delicate, hand-knit blankets
These are thoughtfully composed knitting kits designed as gifts “for anyone who needs something to keep their hands full while their heart is on the mend.”
Cheshire received a similar gift herself several years ago, after enduring the traumatic birth of her first child in Juneau, Alaska. The newborn was airlifted to another hospital, and Cheshire was too weak to join her for several days. Then followed a time in the NICU that she describes as “brutal, brutal.”
A friend gave her some knitting materials and instructions, with the note: “You need something to keep your hands full until you can hold your baby.”
That idea of full hands remained with her, and now she’s offering it to other people, hoping to share some healing while helping to build connections between people.
People don’t know what to say, so they say nothing
Bethany Farm Knit’s line of Full Hands Boxes are for people surviving deployment, a NICU stay, cancer treatment, an empty nest, and even a bad break-up. There’s also one for simply learning how to knit. Each box includes knitting needles, yarn, instructions, a pattern, notions, and an appropriate “empathy card” that helps the giver express “words you can’t figure out on your own.”
Since Cheshire works with college students, I asked if she thought it was mainly modern people who struggle to come up with appropriate words. She does believe modern people have trouble sharing “deep, authentic communication,” and that pervasive social media can make human interaction superficial; but she’s defensive of millennials. In the past, she said, there was no internet, but people were not necessarily warmer or more connected.
“I know some 65-year-olds who don’t know how to relate,” Cheshire said. “Very often, people don’t know what to say, so they don’t say anything. The tragedy is, that happens when their friend really needs them to say something.”
A beautiful experience
Each element of the Busy Hands Boxes is chosen with care.
“Anyone can go to Michael’s and get cheap yarn,” Cheshire said. “I wanted it to be something that had heart at every level. Something sourced from a company that cares, something aesthetically pleasing, and beautiful to open. I wanted it to be a whole experience, to make you feel good even if you’re not knitting yet.”
The hand-painted knitting needles are made from New England maple and Russian birch.
Like the needles, the wool yarn Cheshire chose is locally sourced from Peace Fleece, a New England fiber company that “works to support pastoral communities that have been historically in conflict with the U.S.”
They are currently blending domestic wool and mohair with Navajo Rambouillet, which has been purchased at fair market prices from families living on the reservation.
Then there’s the slightly cheeky “empathy cards” from Emily McDowell , which bear messages like “I promise never to refer to your illness as a ‘journey’ unless someone takes you on a cruise” and “Please let me be the first to punch the next person who tells you everything happens for a reason.” One Full Hands box includes a foil card featuring a medal that simply reads, “KEPT GOING.”
Value in particularity
For Cheshire, a natural introvert who spends much of her day in pastoral work, knitting is often how she keeps going. “I need alone time, or I go crazy,” she said.
After a series of stressful meetings at work, she’ll often find a quiet corner and knit for five or ten minutes. “Knitting gives me something to do in that space, to clear my head.”
She also knitted her way through a batch of nervous energy while she waited for a response to her dissertation research proposal. The topic? Identity Formation in Pauline Communities.
Cheshire says she wants to use the baptismal formula used in Galatians, Colossians, and Corinthians “as a case study to see how those communities might have understood identity, on a community and on a corporate level.”
She says, “When we read there is ‘no slave, no male, no female,’ we mostly use it as a kind of whitewashing. It doesn’t matter, we’re all one in Jesus! Everyone’s one!”
But this kind of thinking, she said, can make it easy to ignore how identity categories are actually hurting people in the congregation.
“It just perpetuates power cycles,” she says. “People in charge continue to be in charge, and they don’t have to look at other people’s experiences. But everyone has value in their own particularity.”
What do you want to do with your time?
I asked Cheshire if focusing on that particularity isn’t something of a burden for her, an already extremely busy introvert whose mission it is to foster personal, intimate connections in her work on campus.
She thought for a while, then listed all the many responsibilities she juggles. She noted that when people ask her how she does it all, she tells them she’s not doing as good a job as they think she is.
But also, she said, “God has made this situation into something good. He’s forced me and my husband to figure out something about ourselves. What’s non-negotiable? What do you really want to be doing with your time? Because you don’t have that much of it.”
Although she and her husband have no background in farming, they’re slowly learning.
“In my career,” Cheshire said, “I’ve gotten very comfortable with the fact that I rarely see the harvest. My entire job is to plant seeds and let God grow them, and maybe a few years down the line I’ll get a text message or an email from a former student saying how much their time at Newman meant to them.”
But establishing a farm gives her “something very solid to hold onto.”
Spiritual health is a real thing
One professional project she’s chosen is to reignite an interest in the spiritual life among apathetic college students. Very few students feel any kind of religious affiliation, she said, and the ones who consider themselves Catholic aren’t much interested in community; so she’s working on reformulating her approach.
“You can’t convince people to enrich their Catholic identity if they don’t see the value of spirituality to begin with,” she said. She had been warned that the campus was an anti-religious place, but is proud of the connections she’s made. She collaborates often with other groups, and sponsors “crafternoons” where students can work off some nervous energy of their own, making and building together.
“We’re trying to encourage the campus community to tend to their spiritual health, to realize that’s a real thing, just like their physical and emotional health.”
Cheshire is currently working her way through the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius, which, she said, are about “finding the dignity of everything, finding God in everything.”
I asked whether even knitting was part of that.
She said, “I love watching the process of turning a pile of string into something beautiful. It’s something that’s real, and something that’s very elemental. It’s the absolute opposite of digital, and it connects you to all these generations of people who have done this before.”
Cheshire said knitting forces her to notice and intentionally relax the tension she holds in her hands. She was recently contemplating the hidden years of Christ, before He began His public ministry. The takeaway, she said, was Christ saying, “Remember, I was an artisan, too.”
Hospitality and resurrection
Cheshire deliberately keeps the price of her goods as low as possible. She recalls wishing she could live Catholic social teaching by supporting small businesses, but she just couldn’t afford it. “If it’s a gift, it has to be affordable,” she said.
Why the name, “Bethany Farm Knits?” Her shop, and her five-acre farm, are named after Bethlehem Farm in West Virginia. It’s a family of intentional Catholic communities, where Cheshire has led mission trips with the students from the Newman Center. The farms are named after Biblical towns, and the Cheshires chose “Bethany” for theirs.
She said ,”It’s where Jesus experienced friendship and hospitality” with His friends Mary and Martha — and also resurrection, when He raised their brother Lazarus from the dead.
“Those things are very much a theme in our family life,” Cheshire said: “Hospitality and resurrection.”