In My Hands

“Why are your fingers so knobby?”

Rays of morning sun illuminated my mother’s hands as she peeled an orange for me. I sat at the kitchen table with her, perplexed at the strangeness of the bumps and wrinkles of grown up hands.

“My knuckles are swollen because I have arthritis. You will have it too.”

Clasping together my smooth, slender, twelve year-old hands, I frowned and shook my head against my mother’s confident censure. Silently I vowed, No I won’t. I’ll prove you wrong. I will take better care of my hands. When I’m old, my hands will be beautiful.

If beautiful hands were my goal, I was on the right track. My otherwise awkward adolescent body moved through the world with the discipline of a dancer. Twice weekly ballet classes from the age of five taught me that there is an exact position and location for every part of me at every moment. Hands included. My wrists learned to relax and fingers curl softly away from whichever direction my arms moved, “like swans! no sharp edges!” my severe British ballet teacher chirped. What at first took deliberate effort became muscle memory, as unconscious as walking. My youthful hands flowed through space as if gliding in water. They made art and they were beautiful.     

*

At sixteen, I quit ballet. My teenage hands had found another way to move through space, one that demanded all their time. They wrote love letters in purple pen and passed origami notes in the hallways. They held the phone to my sweaty ear and twirled the phone cord for hours on end. And they learned to explore a body different from my own. The downy hairs on the back of his neck, the lines of muscle along his spine, the points of his narrow hip bones. They learned him, held him, clung to him. His hands did the same with me, and together, we moved through the world in the dance of love. It was going to be like that forever.

*

After my first love told me he was done with me, I spent a lot of time in my room. Still painted ballet pink, with a mauve bedspread and purple rug, the walls were plastered in black and red band posters: The Cure, The Stone Roses, Social Distortion. Scuffed and bloodstained pink satin ballet pointe shoes hung on a nail among them.

I brooded. I painted my fingernails black. I listened to mix tapes full of songs like The Smiths’ “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want” and I cried. I listened to my parents’ screaming fights down the hall, hoping this father wouldn’t hurt my mother, hoping this father wouldn’t leave too.

To move with grace would have been a lie. My hands increasingly clenched into fists.

One night, in angry absentminded fiddling, my Swiss Army knife flipped open and cut deeply into the cartilage of my right index finger. All at once, my mental anguish drained from me, bled from my finger, replaced by simple, concrete, throbbing physical pain. I sat on the purple rug and watched in awe as red dripped from my finger. The relief of it!

So. My hands remembered this, and learned a new discipline. To cut, to bleed. I carved my pain onto the outside of my body, where I could see it. I left my marks on my legs, stomach, chest, arms, and hands. I collected broken pieces of glass, swiped serrated steak knives, and learned to remove the plastic from shaving razors to reveal the naked blades. I seethed and snarled and watched the blood run, but I didn’t cry anymore. My hands made order and they were powerful.

I wasn’t hurting anyone, so what’s the big deal? For years I would say this to anyone who happened to find out. My mother. The therapist my mother made me see. My new boyfriend. Hands do not easily hide. I would like to say that I stopped because I grew out of it, didn’t need or want that power anymore. But by age 22, there were too many people who knew what I was doing and checked me regularly for cuts. Checked my pockets for glass and blades and other sharp edges. They said I was hurting them, which was never the point. So I stopped, for them. My hands were quieted. Obedient.

*

Later that year I stood, hands at my sides, with a group of new environmental educators in a New Hampshire woodland. In the dappled autumn light through sugar maples and beech trees, black-capped chickadees speedily snatched sunflower seeds, one at a time, from a small platform in a clearing.

Then came the surprise. Our instructor, Kelly, held out a bag of seed and asked each of us to take a handful. Eyes glinting, she told us that one by one we could try to feed the birds. From our hands. Really? This is possible? We are allowed to do this? It would work, she told us, if we were calm and still and let them trust us.

When it was my turn, I stepped toward the clearing, gliding with the smoothness of a ballet trained body. Slowly. Evenly. Like a swan- no sharp edges. My right arm floated up… wrist rotated… palm up… fingers curled open to expose the seeds.

I relaxed my shoulders, exhaled, and said in my mind, Trust me.

“chickadee-dee-dee-dee-dee”. They were talking it over.

Then, the slightest touch of little feet and toenails, light as paperclips, touched down on my palm, and then the peck of a beak to a seed and it was gone. Then another. And again, as the seeds disappeared one by one.

When the last seed was lifted away I closed my empty tingling hand and held tight a feeling of fullness for a long long time.

That would not be the only bird my hands would touch. I went on to jobs in raptor research, a bird zoo, and a wildlife rehabilitation clinic. I held hummingbirds so tiny and weightless I feared to crush them, and a golden eagle so large it took several people to hold her safely. I held a varied thrush as its heart slowed to stillness after a collision with a window, and an osprey as we euthanized it after learning it was dying from poisoning. I released loons back into the ocean and newly banded or rehabilitated hawks back into the sky.

“You’re bleeding!” one of the boy scouts squealed, pointing to the middle finger of my right hand. The banded peregrine falcon I was holding for the visiting troop to see before we released it, had just bitten me. You hold a raptor around the legs because their talons are their weapons, but falcons are also known to bite their prey. I stood on that Nevada mountain peak and looked at the bird and she looked at me. A single drop of blood landed in the grey dust by my feet. I smiled, secretly hoping it would scar, knowing I’d been touched by something larger than myself. Then in one fluid motion I raised my arm and opened my hand, letting go.

*

In my early thirties I made a career out of touch, but not with birds. For two years in massage school and five years at work my hands learned the human body from head to toe. They felt the discreet shapes of muscles, learned to feel tension and the many ways to soothe it away. Kneading, digging, shaking, knuckling, squeezing, rocking, drumming, or sometimes, simply holding, my hands remembered grace and practiced healing my own kind. It was a new kind of connection with the world, but not unlike my connections with the birds. What was most important, I discovered, was the energy that came through my touch. Stay calm, convey trust, and love those wild lives.

To end every massage I placed one hand on the small of the back, the other on the back of the head. Hold. Release. 

My massaging days ran their course, and my hands moved on to other pursuits. These days I work outside among the birds again, maintaining trails and restoring woodland and prairie habitats in the Oregon wilds. These days, I hold chainsaws, pruners, brush-cutters, shovels, pulaskis, and rakes. My hands know the satisfaction of hard physical labor. Some days they do nothing but destroy- tearing English Ivy from fir trees or hacking away at thorny Himalayan blackberry. Other days they help create- collecting rare wildflower seeds for germination or planting native shrubs where once was blackberry. There is earth lodged under my fingernails and ground into the fine lines in my palms. My hands are skilled and they are strong.

*

I hold my hands up, today. Examine them. Turn them over, slowly, smoothly, from swollen knuckles to lined palms. There are fresh scratches from blackberries and dozens of faded old scars. The Swiss Army knife scar on my index finger mirrors the peregrine falcon scar on the finger next door. Faint razorblade marks on the top of my left hand mingle with the line of a parrot bite and a lingering poison oak rash. These hands are meaty strong like my father’s and suggest the beginning of curving fingers like my mother’s.

These hands are beautiful. And damn right I have arthritis.

10 Comments

  1. A lyrical exploration of hands – such stories they hold. Thank you, Heather; we’re lucky that your hands pursue writing, too.

  2. Such an eloquent way of letting us get to know you through the story of your hands. Wonder lies there. Thanks for sharing.

  3. We are so much our bodies and what we choose to do with them. This is a beautiful piece; so focused and poetic. I throughly enjoyed reading this.

  4. What a wonderful piece, Heather. So thoughtful, so beautiful, so accepting.

  5. Thank you Iris, Sue Anne, Gina, and Leslie, for your kind words. They mean so much to me.

  6. Hi heather! Seem to have finally found you… I am glad you are writing; I found this piece very poignant and well constructed. My son and I were wondering how you were doing and this piece I hope, finds you in a place that bespeaks of “coming home.” Take care. . Pamela from snow logged MT DESERT ISLAND in Maine

  7. This piece added light to my day.

  8. Pamela! I hadn’t seen your comment until recently; thank you so very much. I would love to get back in touch with you in the real world. My mother knows how to find me!

    And thank you, Glenna. Your comment added light to MY day.

  9. Thoroughly enjoyable. Thank you.

  10. Oh Heather!
    So beautiful! I would love to hear this read aloud.
    Thank you for putting your skillful hands to the art of writing and sharing.

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