Written by Linda Geraghty
“The wise see that there is action in the midst of inaction and inaction in the midst of action.
Their consciousness is unified, and every act is done with complete awareness.”
– Bhagavad Gita
My mother’s mother was a hard woman. The Great Depression had made her that way. She was the oldest of four girls. She enjoyed school and learning, however she never went to class or took a test past the eighth grade. Studying became a thing of the past for her after just two short years into her teens. Along with her early removal from school went the luxury of daydreaming. No more idly staring up at the sky in wonderment. There wasn’t time for this. There was not enough food on the table, so off she went to the sweat shop to sew clothes in a factory. Fourteen was the “lucky” number. She was 14 years old and worked for 14 hours per day. Nobody asked her how she felt about it or if she was ok. There was no concern about her emotional growth. There were no nightly talks between husband and wife about their daughter Josephine and her self-esteem. There was no such thing as self-esteem in her world. Just work, and more work, and meals and sleep. Big broad smiles did not adorn my Grandmother’s face. She would not allow a vulnerability that large to jeopardize the already fragile place that she held on this planet. To relax and let go was not an option. People depended on her. They needed her for very important things. She had a job that helped to feed her family.
Sitting at a sewing machine all day in oppressive heat can cause a bit of an internal struggle, especially for a young teenage girl. My grandmother told me many times that this was not an easy thing. It was hot and terrible. The hours were long and tiresome. The sun woke up and went to sleep while she sat at her sewing machine. At one point she was promoted to pocket-maker due to her ability to do great work. She was proud of this accomplishment and spoke of it often in her later years. I can’t help but think though that underneath all of that horribleness there was an inner peace that began to rise up in her. It became all about the pocket and the rhythm of the machine. It was the color of the thread and the concentration; the calm, even breath that it took to run it through the little hole at the top of the needle. This, in itself, I think could be a meditation. There was a chaotic scene of deadlines and heat. Hours that ran into days. But something beautiful rose up out of this commotion. My grandmother found stillness. All of it became a symphony vibrating through her every cell.
There is a surrender that can unfold when you begin to feel as though you just can’t take another moment of the turmoil. The noise is too loud and the movement too fast. The visuals are too bright. Eventually everything comes to a quick halt and there is no sound and no sight. It is quiet and still. This is the point where you have let go. At some point, you realize that it isn’t going to change anytime soon on the outside, and through complete desperation, like a newborn baby finds her way to her mother’s milk, your mind finds its way onto the breath and into stillness. All may be gnashing and crashing around you, but all you know and see and hear and taste is that connection with the divine, your meeting place with God. This is meditation. My grandmother found it in a Philadelphia sweatshop at age 14 in the year 1925.
She told me stories of how she loved to make pockets all day. She eventually didn’t notice the long hours and the stinky hot conditions. She no longer cared what kind of day was going on outside. It was all about the pocket. She paid attention to every detail and found breath under it all. She found beauty in the pressing of the pedal and the feel of the thread in between her thumb and her finger. She had found her way into the present moment. All the happiness that can be obtained in this world is found in the present moment. If we can stay there, we can be free from suffering.
In our modern day, the rhythm is fingers on keyboard, the movement of the mouse, the clicks when we like a picture or a post. Or, when we don’t like a picture or a post, but we click “like” so as to not insult the people that are our “Friends”. We sit at a screen and complain about people complaining on that screen. The sun rises and darkness falls, but even if we are outside we still miss it because we are looking down into our gadgets instead of out into what surrounds us. We are missing it all. We have been seduced by a virtual world. We miss the gifts that we came into this world to share.
There is no time for true connection with another human being because we get so caught up in dramas and situations that are not even real. What is real? The feel of the sun on your face. The gentle breeze that carries with it the scent of wildflowers in the summer. The sound that rises up from the ground when your boots make their way through a pile of fall leaves. A baby’s cry is real. That same baby’s belly rising and falling is real. The nose pulling air in and sending it back out into the space around you is real. Washing dishes, planting flowers, listening to a story told by a loved one, painting a mural, playing the piano, writing a poem, singing a song, teaching a class, taking a class, working hard, and sitting in stillness with nothing to say, nothing to do but to watch thoughts come and go, moving back to the simplicity of breathing in and breathing out. These are some of the most authentic and genuine parts of our lives here on this planet. My Grandmother lived what was real. She would not understand our idea of living life because, sadly, we think life more than we live it.
Grand-mom “Jo” lived to be almost 100 years old. You could see all that she had lived by looking into her eyes. She was stubborn and difficult a lot of the time. She was hardened by the difficulties she experienced. But, in her later years those rough edges were smoothed over somewhat. Carefree is not a word that one would use to describe her. However, throughout her life she found peace in her daily activities. She would make homemade pasta on Sundays and there she would go, into her pasta meditation. When she went to church, she would become still and connected. She would knit hats for little orphan children in Russia and again you would see that look of peace and ease on her face. In the sweatshops she learned how to become present a thousand pockets in.
She would not understand meditation as we practice it in retreat centers and on cushions in our homes and yoga studios today. It would be incomprehensible to her that a person would go to a workshop to learn how to be in the present moment. She would say something like, “What are you going to do that for?” She would, however, hand you a dish towel and tell you to dry the dishes and put them away. She would have you hold the pasta dough as she turned the handle of the machine. Her rhythm was the cranking sound and the gliding through of the dough. It was the flattened mound of eggs, water, salt that became even and smooth. This was her daily meditation practice. As were the knitted hats that she made in her last years which are the hottest commodity among her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They are cherished and all of us wear them proudly.
My grandmother meditated her whole life. Everything that she did was mindfulness because she experienced her life. She didn’t watch it through the lens of a camera on a cell phone resting on a selfie stick. I believe that she was so lucky to have lived in a time and a world that forced mindfulness. Yes, it was a harsher world. It was a less empathetic world. Much of what she endured would be considered too difficult to even consider now. I have to admit, I like my comforts. I enjoy my coffee maker where all I have to do is to snap a pod in and have a piping hot cup of coffee in less than 30 seconds. But if I could go back in time and sit in my grandmother’s kitchen and watch the coffee pop up in the little glass bubble at the top of the tin pot, I would do it in a heartbeat. I would savor every last drop of that burnt coffee made in a percolator.