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07 December 2015

Praying With Your Fingers

We're coming into the home stretch before Christmas, and my fingers are busier than ever, finishing socks and hats and whatnot for friends and family, near and far.  I have packages going across the country and across the ocean, and figuring out what needs to be mailed first (in order to be delivered before Santa makes his run) is maddening.

Socks, especially, have become routine knitting for me.  I can almost quote the basic sock pattern from memory.  Sock knitting is meditative.  There's something about the rhythm of the rounds that encourages my mind to slip the bonds of the immediate, while my trusty fingers perform the proper movements from muscle memory.  I've tried traditional meditation several times over the last half-century, but I've never managed to make a good job of it.  My attention is easily diverted -- a habit that meditation masters call "monkey mind", and it's a good name.  My mind skips like a monkey from this to that, no matter how hard I strive to stay focused on breathing-in, breathing-out.  For me, traditional meditation goes something like this:

Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out ... just focus on breathing ... this would be easier if my allergies weren't acting up ... that wheezy sound in my nose is annoying ... am I getting a sinus infection? ... that last antibiotic didn't work very well ... told the doctor it wouldn't but she didn't believe me ... after all, I'm just the patient, who am I to know my own body ... ye gods, REFOCUS ... breathe in, breathe out, breathe in ... did I turn my phone off? ... what if one of the children needs me and I don't hear the message and I don't get it in time and and and and and ......

You can see that I'm not really cut out for finding enlightenment under a fig tree.

But sock knitting, as I've said, is a different kind of meditation.  Especially when knitting the leg and the foot, I find myself doing some pretty deep thinking.  Lately, with all the bad news and horrible events around the world, there's plenty of concerns to go around.  Concerns for ourselves, for our families, for our friends, for our country, for the oppressed of other countries, for the general state of the world.  In a season of peace, there seems to be precious little of it.

I suspect that our great-great grandmothers, living in a time when women were expected to confine their attentions and energies to hearth and home, used their needlework in much the same way.  Although they were producing necessary garments for the family, the moments spent turning yarn into socks (or hats, or undershirts, or mittens) were, possibly, the only sit-down moments in their days.  With their bodies at rest and their fingers working automatically, their minds were free to consider the goings-on in the world at large, and how those things might impact their families.  Not for a minute do I think these women were unable to understand what was in the newspapers, far from it!  It was not their intelligence that was limited, it was their opportunities for expression -- limited by what society considered right and proper for "the weaker sex".  (That term makes me snort.  If men were able to birth children, there would be a sight fewer people in the world!)

A century ago, most of Europe was engulfed in the conflagration of World War I.  Although that conflict gave women the opportunity to prove themselves outside their traditional sphere, they were also encouraged to use their domestic talents in support of the war effort.  Period posters encouraged women to knit socks for the troops; in fact, the famous (and somewhat dreaded) "Kitchener stitch" resulted from a British commander, Lord Kitchener, asking knitters to come up with a toe seam for his soldiers' socks that would be less cumbersome and cause less irritation.  (Typical of the times, it's Lord Kitchener's name appended to the process, and not the name of the knitter who came up with it!)  I imagine that those women, coming together in groups to knit and chat, must have also supported one another through a very, very difficult time.  Perhaps every stitch was a prayer -- for the protection of the wearer, for the safety of the nation, for the end of the war.

Peggy Rosenthal has written a book entitled Knit One, Purl a Prayer: A Spirituality of Knitting.  I haven't read this book yet, but I'm considering giving it a go.  I'd like to hear what she has to say about the subject.  I'd also like to hear your comments, too.  Do you meditate or pray while you do needlework?  Please share your thoughts in the Comment section.

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