EXCLUSIVE: Michelle Obama: The healing power of knitting

Facing stress, anxiety and helplessness during the pandemic the former First Lady turned to knitting. She tells The Weekly how it helped and shares other lessons from her insightful new book.
Loading the player...

What was your inspiration for writing The Light We Carry following the global success of your memoir, Becoming?

The truth is, no matter who we are, all of us have been through a lot since Becoming came out four years ago. We’ve weathered the loss and isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic.

We’ve seen a rising tide of hate, xenophobia, and authoritarianism around the world. We’ve experienced the increasing impacts of a changing climate.

And those are just the main headlines.

Writing this book really came out of my own process of trying to find a way to centre myself through all the uncertainty and fear.

It’s how I’ve found answers to the questions I’ve been asking on a loop over the past few years – questions I’ve also heard from folks I’ve met over Zoom and, now, in person.

The Light We Carry shares the practices and perspectives that I draw on when I need to stay balanced and confident –especially in times of anxiety and stress.

Some of my tools are habits; some are physical objects; and the rest are attitudes and beliefs borne out of my ongoing evolution, which I often refer to as “becoming”.

“Writing this book really came out of my own process of trying to find a way to centre myself through all the uncertainty and fear.”

(Credit: (Image: Getty))

What does the title of your new book – The Light We Carry – mean to you?

I chose this title as a reminder that even when the world feels dark and uncertain, we always have the ability to kindle our own light and share it with others.

I’ve found over the years that when you know your light – what drives you, what brings you joy – you know yourself.

You know your story in an honest way. Your self-confidence grows, and so does the ability to connect deeply with others. And sure enough, one light feeds another, igniting something far greater and more powerful than just ourselves.

You mentioned the uncertainty and instability of the world we’re living in – facing a global pandemic, a changing climate, a rising tide of hate and xenophobia. What strategies do you use to remain calm and balanced during these turbulent times?

Well, for one, I took up knitting.

I cast my first stitch during a low point of the pandemic, when I was wrestling with a lot of hopelessness, and to this day, you’ll often find me with a pair of knitting needles in my hands.

Knitting gives me space to take a break from all the stress and anxiety that’s swirling around me and focus on something small for a change.

That’s a very concrete example of a tool that’s centred me. Some other tools that help are a bit more structural to my life.

Michelle and her husband, former US President, Barack Obama

(Credit: (Image: Courtesy of the Obama-Robinson family archive))

For example, I’ve also been leaning heavily on my friends (or as I call them, my “Kitchen Table”) for support. I believe that when you have a friend or a handful of them around, you can get through pretty much anything in life – even a pandemic where texts, phone calls, even Zoom gatherings replace conversations over coffee or girls’ nights.

I’ve always invested deeply in my friendships, but these days, I appreciate my friends even more: the knowing looks that only they can give, the hugs delivered at just the right time, the simple reassurances that tell us we matter, that our light is recognised, and our voice is heard.

And, of course, I am fortunate to have a wonderful husband who has learned over 30 years of marriage how best to support me and help me find that sense of calm.

Sometimes, he’ll sense what’s going on with me before I will. So while partnership itself isn’t an inherent solution to life’s challenges, I think Barack and I are proof that through hard work, a deep sense of commitment, and plenty of love, two very different people can be much stronger together.

While you acknowledge in your book that people face tangible and legitimate fears each day, you also write: “Our hurts become our fears. Our fears become our limits.” What do you mean by that? How do you overcome or “decode” your own fears?

This question makes me think about my grandparents, actually.

My parents saw the limits that racism had put on their own parents’ generation – my grandfather, for example, hardly ever ventured outside his neighbourhood, and when he did, he was visibly afraid.

I remember noticing it when he would drive downtown in Chicago.

My parents of course saw their parents’ fear manifest in many other ways throughout their lives.

So they did their best to expand our world by helping us decode our own fears from a young age.

Michelle with daughters, Malia and Sasha and mother Marian Robinson

(Credit: (Image: Courtesy of the Obama-Robinson family archive))

I used to be terrified by thunderstorms – so my dad would break down the mechanics of thunder and lightning and explain a few easy ways to stay safe in a storm.

And my mother remained calm in the face of terrors like spiders, big dogs, or the toaster my brother and I once set on fire.

I learned from them that competence sits on the flip side of fear, that we could break down the mechanics of what scared us and figure out when fear was serving us or when it was holding us back.

And that remains true whether you’re cowering from a crack of thunder as a child, getting nervous about speaking in public, worrying about asking your boss for a raise, preparing for a difficult talk with your partner, or anything else.

When we take a deep breath and look clearly at what’s actually making us feel fear, we see it for what it is. That doesn’t mean fear isn’t real or that it’s easy to ignore.

Rather, it means that when we get past that first, visceral reaction, we can usually find a more constructive, useful path forward.

You write about the importance of “visibility” in your book. In one chapter, you discuss the invisibility that comes from being different or from being perceived only to represent certain traits or stereotypes. In another chapter, you talk about how learning to share and embrace the whole of ourselves, including our perceived weaknesses, can reveal the “source code of [our] strength.” What advice do you have to help people who may feel invisible start to discover the source code of their own strength?

I firmly believe that so often, what we think is our weakness is actually our strength.

Here’s an example of what I mean: When I meet kids who are growing up in tough neighbourhoods, they often share stories about the things they encounter every day: gang violence, absent parents, the lack of hope that comes from the lack of opportunity.

And what I tell them is an extension of what I said earlier about fear – that if they take another look at what they’re going through, they’ll see another perspective entirely.

They’ll see all sorts of skills and experiences that so many of their peers can’t hope to compete with –their persistence, their self-reliance, and their sheer ability to overcome.

It’s a practice we all can apply in our lives.

If we feel unseen or think there’s something we lack, there’s probably something special on the other side of that insecurity.

Injuries can help us learn to heal. Emptiness can teach us what truly makes us whole. And with enough purpose and openness, self-doubt can ultimately lead us to a path of confidence. Make no mistake – these are not easy journeys.

But if we start by accepting the truth that weaknesses can be strengths, there’s almost nothing that won’t make us stronger.

We’ve talked about what you mean by the light each individual carries. What are some ways we can share that light with one another and with our communities?

It’s important to remember that you don’t have to do something big or splashy to make a difference.

There’s enormous power in small actions like casting a vote, helping a neighbour, or lending your time or energy to a cause you believe in.

Turning these small actions into a routine isn’t just good for your community – it also helps you feel more visible, more connected, and more purpose-filled.

When we share our light, we’ll see it reflected back to us.

What do you hope your readers take away from The Light We Carry?

I think of this book as a toolbox of sorts – a set of useful practices and tools to help anyone through times of doubt and uncertainty.

Of course, not everything in the book will be a perfect response to everyone’s unique challenges, but I want folks to feel a little less alone after reading it.

I want them to see that their fears and struggles are not singular to them, but that all of us go through periods of uncertainty – even if you’re a former First Lady. And at the very least, I hope it helps folks feel more balanced, secure, and connected with others as they take on whatever life sends their way.

When they put the book down at the end, I hope they smile a little more broadly. I hope they’re more glad for the people and opportunities they see in their own life.

You can read this story and many others in the January issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly – on sale now

Related stories