Friday, April 8, 2011

open your hand

Often one of the first things I notice about someone is his hands. The muscularity, the boniness, the length of the fingers, the stretch of the tendons, the particular curve of his nails... My grandmother used to comment on my beautiful "moons" by which she meant to refer to that lighter portion of one's skin beneath the fingernail that curves upward as a delicate, pale rising sun... or moon. Come to think of it, she was quite an observer of hands. She loved to trace "life" lines and "beauty" lines, etc. on my palm and tell stories... not so much predict anything as just open her extensive imagination as the opening of a hand had invited her to do.

I, too, am an observer of hands. Hands are involved in so many fundamental activities. We greet each other by shaking hands. A good handshake consists of a particular firmness and, in my opinion, an ever-so-brief squeeze to acknowledge another's humanity. We garden in the dirt with our hands -- we dig and pull and grab and come in with the grit of things living beneath our fingernails... and somehow that feels honest. Children trace hands to create Thanksgiving turkeys. We frame our newborns' tiny handprints, their delicacy forever marked. Our hands contain the very imprint of our uniqueness in our fingerprints. Hands are the first discovery of one lover by another... first, the sweet fumblings perhaps over the table at dinner... the way that one person opens his palm and offers, waits, hopes that the other person will reach forward just a little further... and then that first touch... always of one hand to another... the gentle caress, the tracing of fingers from top to bottom, the way that our eyes will follow and watch the process unfold as if these hands are working straight from the heart, uninterfered with by logic, head, anticipation, time. Scientists have studied how holding hands with a partner reduces stress. In fact, even holding hands with a stranger is calming. Hands tacitly connect us, require no words to get straight to the point -- that we are alone and fragile and vulnerable and that, with tenderness, we so desperately want to reach out, to connect... and that sometimes, we can.

Hands are the key to the full expression that can be educed from beautiful instruments like violins, cellos, pianos. Have you ever been close enough to someone playing the guitar, strumming (even with a pick) -- their touch upon the strings like something known and understood, like something to be made love to. Or a great pianist -- the strained reach of long, spare fingers for notes stroked softly or emphatically... but only momentarily -- the reach itself, the work of the hand so much more than the effortless grace upon the keys.

I'm not the first deep and admiring observer of hands. I am probably not the first deep and admiring observer of anything. But I can admire other admirers. Hands completely and utterly fascinate me. They mesmerize and undo me. But, like I said, I am not the first. I think much of it is how much can be expressed through a hand. Think of Michelangeo's Sistine Chapel ceiling. The iconic image from the plethora of images and stories told and unfolded across the man-made sky of this church is that of God reaching forth and bestowing life upon Adam. This, of course, is done through the touch (or almost touch) of hands.

Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel ceiling (1508-1512), Vatican

Look at the hand of God on the right. It is authoritative without being patronizing. It is commanding and firm while still guiding. The extended finger holds intense power and force and yet the hand itself is relaxed as evidenced by the fall of the rest of the fingers and the curve (not strain) of the thumb. He gives life as a gift, a gift imbued with charge, decrees, knowledge, and responsibility. And yet, with the point of this finger towards Adam's hand, the force is no longer solely His. Look at Adam's hand. Receptive, almost slightly offensive in its nonchalance... or perhaps this is merely the droop of a lifeless hand, a hand yet to receive the charge of life's vigor, violence, and vitality. And yet that one finger. It lifts, ever so slightly, towards God's assurance, towards God's authority, towards God's trust. The trust that exists in that space between two hands reaching towards each other. The energy and tenderness and transience AND permanence (eternally so) of that moment... that movement... that space. The external expression of all that is internal, eternal, and so very human.

In fact, come to think of it, most (or perhaps I should just stick with many) of my favorite paintings underscore the role of hands. From Michelangelo to Samuel Bak to Oskar Kokoschka, here are some that have touched, moved, and provoked me.

Samuel Bak, Creation of War Time II (1999), Pucker Gallery, Boston, MA

Samuel Bak, Identification (1999), Pucker Gallery, Boston
Oskar Kokoschka, Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat (1909), MoMA

Giotto, Madonna in Glory (1311), Uffizi, Florence
El Greco, Nobleman with his Hand on his Chest (1583-85), Madrid
El Greco, Fray Hortensio Felix Paravicino (1605), MFA, Boston
Giacometti with some of his sculptures
Albrecht Dürer, Self-Portrait at 28 (1500), Munich
Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keeffe (1918)
I fidget a lot with my hands. I have a hard time wearing rings. I love dresses with pockets because then I have something obvious to do with my hands. But usually I just mindlessly fiddle around with my hands. Those who know and love me notice this tendency. Sometimes I gently squeeze my fingers; sometimes I clasp my hands together and hold them in front of my chest; sometimes I twist, turn, and fondle whatever small item may be around -- a paperclip, an IPod headphone's cord, a small smooth stone. I used to love collecting shells with my grandmother on the shores of Lake Michigan in late summer. While not an unusual penchant, I think my fondness stemmed from the feel and not the look of the sea-worn, abandoned structures. They were sharp, round, sandy, or gossamer. They held histories and memories that I could not possibly understand... but I could hold. I think with my hands. I feel and express and even hide emotions with my hands. Cold hands, warm heart, my grandmother used to tell me. Cliche, of course, but it gets to the essence of how hands are fundamentally entwined with an emotional reality... are the physical manifestation of such.

My boyfriend has told me how much he values my touch. And I find that I do express so much through the brush of my hand across the cheek of someone I love... tracing his eyebrow, cupping his chin, following the curve that begins from ear to neck across strong, broad shoulders. There is a knowledge within a hand. There is a unique way of knowing, of seeing, of memorizing moments, of telling secrets that cannot find any words. My father wrote me a letter a few months ago when he wanted to express his deep appreciation of the unique father-daughter bond. I was struck by the fact that he began the letter with a memory of my colic as a baby. With my stomach so often upset, he would turn me over across his lap and pat, rub, and soothe my anxious stomach for hours at a time. The first memory he wanted to communicate to me was this very physical memory... contained within the reopening of a quiet tender space and a pair of devoted protective hands.

I worked in Alaska for a summer. I was an intern with U.S. Fish and Wildlife and we were part of a larger project intended to follow, document, and assess where migrant songbirds were living, traveling, and relocating. It was a magical summer. Alaska is a magical place. I found my voice amidst the stillness and immensity of the tundra, volcanic mountainscapes, glacial lakes, and endless unnamed, untraveled spaces. The work itself unfastened a part of my soul and expanded my understanding of the world, of life itself. The birds -- plovers, warblers, swallows, thrushes, buntings, finches -- amazed me. In order to band the birds, we would set up mist nets at various locations around our field site. We would rise each morning before sunrise in order to do so... in order to be there early enough to alight before the first birds awoke -- a reversal of the proper order of things. We were never woken by the trilling songs of the birds. It felt secretive, mystical, and preeminently important.

After the nets were set up, we would make rounds and "collect" the birds who had gotten caught in the nets in order to measure, take blood from, and band them. This was the part I loved the most and still think of when I close my eyes and just feel, rather than think, the memory of that summer. The birds weighted the space and quality of air, of cold breath in winter, of that space between God's and Adam's hands. They would often be quite tangled and extricating them required patience and a gentle touch. I learned that I possessed both. I would sing gently to the birds. I did so without thinking -- often it would be Bob Marley:
Don't worry about a thing,
'Cause every little thing gonna be all right.
Singin': "Don't worry about a thing,
'Cause every little thing gonna be all right!"

Rise up this mornin',
Smiled with the risin' sun,
Three little birds
Pitch by my doorstep
Singin' sweet songs
Of melodies pure and true,
Sayin', ("This is my message to you-ou-ou:")

I found I could calm the birds. Of all the birds, I especially loved the Wiwas as we nicknamed the Wilson's warblers.

To hold a bird in the palm of your hand is pure magic. There is no other way to speak of it. It is to hold fragility and weightlessness and innocence and song and the wind and air itself. It is to hold the atmospheric, the cosmic tenderness. It is to hold the sacred and the profane. It is to hold life without life weighing into you. It is to hold the effervescent, the ethereal, the graceful and to feel those things enter into you, to become real in an awakening physical manner such that breath and air and wind become things that you know... that you know in the palm of your hand... that you know as you know the palm of your lover, the feel of your newborn's soft skin, the aging, wise shake of your grandmother's arm as she shows you how to properly roll out her heirloom pie crust.

If you have ever had the pleasure of reading Shakespeare carefully (and repetitively as does an English teacher), you will find how much he refers to hands. Take Romeo and Juliet. The play begins with a Prologue spoken by the Chorus "Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean." And then, of course, the famous scene v at the end of Act I wherein Romeo and Juliet first meet is entirely metaphorically based on the touch and communication expressed through their hands. 

    [To JULIET] If I profane with my unworthiest hand
    This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
    My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
    To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.


    Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
    Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
    For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
    And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.

 Prayer, kissing, devotion, tenderness... all that we can show with our hands. My hands are legion, I once wrote in a poem. I knew this before I could articulate exactly what I meant.

And how could I post and suggest this theme without referring to E.E. Cummings' poem, "somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond":

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously) her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility: whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands your hand... and in your open hand unfolds a life, life itself... even in the smallness... even in the rhythmic quietude of the rain...

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