Tag Archives: hands

A life that has new languages in it

the swallowed grain
takes you through the dreams
of another night,
the deer meat becomes hands
strong enough to work.
– from “Inside,” by Linda Hogan

Outside the birds are already waking up, even though the sun isn’t up yet. My body is sore from a weekend working in the garden — we  got ourselves connected and grounded and rooted over these long, warm days.

Write in the notebook, take care of the dog, get the day’s bread ready, work in the garden, be with the child. How is this not the work we’re supposed to be doing? All the rest is about making money to pay rent. All the rest is about living under capitalism.

When I work in the garden, I think about writing. I dig in this Oakland dirt and listen to the neighborhood kids play. I listen to the neighbor’s radios, their laughter and shouts. I listen to the dogs at other houses barking and playing. I listen to the birds playing deep in the middle of the trees. I watch the neighborhood squirrel as she peeks up over the top of the fence, waggling body and tail, waiting to see if the puppy’s going to run after her. I listen for bees, to see if they’re coming back. I listen for hummingbirds and hawks. I churn up the soil with the pitchfork and then I kneel down into the garden beds and dig my hands into ever clod of turned dirt, shaking out the roots of weeds before I toss the weeds into the compost bin. I make a rhythm out of it: push forward, hands under the cover of a blanket of earth, finger into the netting of weeds, pull back, break up the soil, shake loose the root system, clear out the bed. Back and forth.

On the porch, my sweetheart rests her eyes while listening to the Giants game on the radio, and I remember my father ‘watching’ baseball while he stretched out on the couch, taking a nap. Everything comes around again.

I listen to Erykah Badu, Raphael Saadiq, India.Arie while I plant the first part of this year’s garden: red onions, lettuce, zucchini, bush beans, snap peas, tomatoes, basil, eggplant, jalapeno, yarrow, gerber daises, dahlia, delphinium, calendula, butterfly weed — one bed I seeded only with red clover, to help the soil (and for the lovely flowers); we’ll turn that over later in the season if we want to plant more. I put in creeping thyme and a couple of other groundcovers around the stone path in the yard. Still to get in are a couple more flowers, watermelon and blueberries — I need to go collect some pine leaf mould to fold into the planting mixture for that last. I read this weekend about making our own fertilizer teas from grass clippings or seaweed, and thought about how to use what we already have to tend what we are growing.

And then, too, I baked: two more sourdoughs, and I’ve got the starter back out of the fridge now and working on the counter so that I can try and get it going with more local wild yeasts. The sourdough bread I’m making is tasty — round boules with a good crust and tight crumb, perfect for sandwiches and french toast — but not sour, so I’m playing around more with it. I talk with a man at my church who spent eight years baking at Esalen; he tells me about volume, and about practice.

What do I want to say about all of this?  I feel so grateful to get to do different work with my hands. This weekend, that work looked like gardening and breadwork and holding a child and holding my love. My hands remember that they are capable of sacred work. Then, this typing can begin again to feel sacred, too — less like a chore and more like pleasure. There’s something I’m trying to figure out how to explain, how to articulate — what it feels like in me to give over to the rhythm of an intimate togetherness that includes children, even if those children aren’t “mine.” A life that has words in it but isn’t only words. A life that also has room for other rhythms, other ways of being that aren’t just thinking about what it means to survive.

Gardening doesn’t force me into my body — gardening allows my body to be a part of a larger body, allows me to engage with a larger rhythm. Baking with wild yeasts allows me to accommodate another form of life: I learn to read new signs and languages — what do big vs. small bubbles in the starter mean? What will happen if we let the bread rise very slowly in the refrigerator? How will the bread work if we add different grains? In all this, too, my body learns to speak an older language again — the language of play and hard physical labor. The language of curiosity and delight: look at those bugs here; hey, what are those pigeons doing over on the neighbor’s roof; wait, why are there earthworms over in that part of the yard but not on this side? The language of stained fingers and dry skin that comes of digging hands deep into dirt over and over again. The language of recuperation. The language of tenderness.

The garden, the sourdough starter — these are live things, not unlike pets. They require attention, tending, awareness. Like an animal, they speak to me in a language I have to learn to understand — we build a relationship with one another. They teach me about other ways of living. They ask for water or food, and in return, they bubble and swell with bright and quiet beauty. They remind me that I need to get dirty if I really want to be in the full body of this life. And, too, like the puppy does, they pull me out of my head, out of this ever-churning wash of recriminations and worries. Just stop, the garden says. Come down here and pull out some weeds. Think bigger than your small worries. Think longer. Think months away, or years, Think about what will come of this little action, one seed in soil, add water and sun. Think about the cumulative effects of one small step, little bits of effort in the direction of beauty and joy, every day. Think about the aftermath of positive labor. Think about how far you have been allowed to come away from the girl who lived inside a too-white, too-quiet house in the middle of this country, how clean and painted she was, how plastic and silent. Think about the language the dirt speaks. Think about the soil under your fingernails. Think about what it means to be in ongoing communion with all sorts of life.

allowing our hands to do good work

graffiti: yellow sun dripping rays, with red swirls trumpeting in overlayGood morning to you out there!

How is it where you are? I can hear a garbage collector somewhere out on the roads, but otherwise it’s a quiet Monday, outside of a few puppy-visits here at my desk. We’ve gotten so we can have her crate door open at night and she sleeps there, stays in bed and in the room with us. When I get up, she generally stays in bed for another hour or so, and then she starts making these little trips out to see me. I can make out a small dog-shaped shadow in the dark of the office door, and hear her wagging tail nicking against the doorframe.

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This morning, again, I am thinking about the work that hands can do, especially for we who are writers, and for we who are survivors of sexual trauma.

Our hands are holy things. I don’ t use that word, holy, lightly — we understand holy, these days, to mean sacred, godly, but there’s possible older meaning: “that must be preserved whole or intact, that cannot be transgressed or violated,” and … “health, happiness, good luck.”

That must be preserved whole or intact, that cannot be transgressed or violated.

This weekend I made bread four times — two soda breads, two stacks of chapatti. Whenever I make bread, I am connected to my mother, from whom I learned to bake. I am connected, through her, to her mother, and I am also connected to my father’s mother, who was a farm wife for much of her marriage and who baked in a little kitchen out in the middle of Nebraska cornfields.

What do I want to say about this. I was apart from my mother’s mother when she died, still under my stepfather’s control — we weren’t allowed much contact with any of our extended family, and I was away at college when she died. I didn’t go to her funeral. And I had a hard trusting that my father’s mother would be able to know me — that she would be able to accept me for who I was. She never showed me that she would do anything but that; still, I let my fear and shame keep me from her. I barely knew either of these women, had no relationship with them directly; I mostly knew them through my parents, who have their own struggles and filters. I did not know their hands — I have vague memories of their hands from when I was a child, and a sense of my father’s mother’s hand, which I held for awhile when she was dying.

So I talk to them, these foremothers, these my mother’s mother and my father’s mother, now when I’m baking. I say thank you for this knowledge. I am aware of the powerful thing I do when I bring together the flours, the liquids, when I shape the raw materials into bread. I am saying, acknowledging, that my hands can do more than harm, they can do more than hide in pockets, they can do more than hold a pen.

Our hands sometimes have to do awful things, hold terrible knowledge. There’s no way that I have found to erase this. But we can reconsecrate them.  (That is, we can make them holy, remind ourselves that our hands can be inviolable, and, yes, that our deep and tender selves are inviolable.)

I have a scar on my right hand, my writing hand, that I created earlier this year when I broke a glass. It was during a difficult time, this breaking, and this tearing of my skin was also a tearing open of me. I didn’t want, anymore, what my hands had held, what my hands had been forced to do, what of my stepfather’s body my hands had known.  I am tender with that scar now, and notice it, covered in dough, as I bring the soda bread together. It’s a jagged place just below my ring finger, a pink witness, a reminder of healing. I’m aware of my mother’s difficult hands over mine, my grandmothers’ hands and their own complicated holdings.

What a kind and powerful thing we do, allowing our hands to do good work after they have had to do rough work, after they have had to hold our horrors. I put my hands into my puppy’s fur, she lets me touch her with these hands, these very hands that have known how to do unnameable things, and in this way, she and I find ways to reconsecrate what has been misused. In the making of the bread, we reconsecrate, in pushing our hands into soil, holding a friend’s hand, allowing ourselves to get massage on our hands, holding a child’s head, pounding spices, bringing our bodies passionate joy — we reconsecrate. Writing, too, of course, can be part of the delicious and good work our hands can do.

That which has been desecrated can be made whole again, made intact. That’s the length and breadth of our resilience.

“The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.” Ernest Hemingway

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What beautiful and tender things do you do with your hands? What about your character’s hands? Can you give yourself and them 1o minutes today?  You might move into what difficult, terrible work your hands have had to do, but give space, too, as you can, to the tender work those hands do, too. Begin with “My hands have” (or Your/her/his/hir hands have…) and follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go.

Thank you for your patience, your breath, your hands, your scars. Thank you for your resilience, your wisdom, and the way you hold others. Thank you thank you for your words.