Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Hands and Handwritten

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Human, beautiful hands. I’ve been thinking–as I tend to do–of how they serve us, how we appreciate yet can take them for granted. How they speak for us, and all day and into night accomplish diverse tasks, with our barest cognizance.

After a few days attending art exhibits with my sculptor daughter, I have once more been in awe of a variety of beautiful, challenging works that artists create with hands, mind, heart. To draw, paint, cast in bronze, mold in clay, piece together fabrics, weave wool and naturally dye it, make a print of color and carefully determined pattern: an abundance of creativity that is accomplished by our hands. It seems honorable as well as miraculous to me. I am a woman who once painted big canvasses in college but now just draws for meditative exercise. A person who once wrote every story and poem in longhand before heading to a typewriter. A youthful cellist and harpist, a dabbler with the violin and piano. In other words, I know a bit about the essential hand, how our fingers rooted in the sturdy base of each palm inspire such possibility. A memory rises up of being a youth who broke a thumb; I gained instant insight into how requisite it is for success in simplest activities. It was hard waiting to heal.

There is a complex set of minute actions that enable writing by hand, a topic of interest for a lifetime. I love to set down ideas, feelings, lists on a clean sheet of paper–or a torn open envelope, a shred of napkin, a handy receipt. Pencils or pens, though they offer very differing experiences, are all worthy tools in my fingers and complete the goal of making seen the thought. Only a few years ago it remained imperative we master the skill of cursive as well as block printing, at least enough to communicate effectively. Increasingly it has become waylaid by use of computers even in elementary schools and certainly at home, and ubquitous cell phones.

When I returned home from our recent trip, we spent several hours with the twins. I wish I had a video of 7 month old granddaughter Alera’s hands in action. They tell such quiet, eloquent stories. I’ve been watching not only hers but Morgan’s (twin sister’s) since birth. How they first appeared in the world as curled up buds, then gradually unfurled, then bobbed about like mini-balloons given flight but nowhere to land. Then they reached erratically, mostly for bottles and faces, snagged strands of hair or fabric of shirt or blanket. They behaved as if yearning to nestle things in their fingers and palms, to hold closely. Such a marvel of mechanics and expressive potential: each finger tender, tiny but much stronger than they appeared. Before long they began to indicate a wider interest in environment and insistently grasped more objects, from a flower’s sweet petals to the calico cat’s fuzzy fur to a terry cloth bib; to Grandpa’s wiry beard, a chilled teething toy or dangling earrings. And all, of course, enters the mouth, so we have been vigilant about safety.

Although their voices are gaining range and skill and they are on the cusp of crawling, their hands so intrigue me. The first time Alera lay her hand flat against my face and briefly stroked it moved me. She has hands unlike her sister’s, whose broader palms and shorter fingers seem happy being utilitarian and so strong and bold, emphatic like the rest of her body and personality, with a musculature that is more reactive or hearty than her twin’s. Morgan is an action gal, and if she can get cranky she also has a sense of humor that swells into lots of baby gab, too. Alera is perhaps gentler, more relaxed in one’s arms, and as the world turns. Her clear eyes gaze long at her surrounds, the light and shadow; her head turns to listen intently to sounds. She seems engaged in puzzling it out, noting details. And her hands follow suit, patting and feeling her way into life.

Beginning about 2-3 months ago she began to examine and pick at a blanket tuft or manipulate a rattle, rotating it between those slender fingers, touching and turning over the shiny Celtic cross on my chain with delicacy. Morgan may be more apt to give something a yank and a toss and giggles ensue. One can’t help but guffaw with her. Alera wants to learn its surfaces, its ways. And when music plays, Alera turns her hands about and mimics mine: twist, turn, rise and fall. Each of us enjoy a bit of conducting. I think: her hands are heart-full, make graceful pictures. Morgan’s jump up and command, hold tightly. I wait to see more as each month brings changes.

How do we ever get to that point where we can tie shoes, draw a house, remove pistachios from shells, wield effectively a paring knife, play a stringed instrument, hand stitch a raw rip? What a privilege to be born with appendages that learn so fast and well to do our bidding.

The little ones are being given more “grown up” food as they take fewer bottles, and what a happy spectacle as they gingerly finger oatmeal clumps or grasp a cooked sweet potato stick or try to pinch tiniest portions of applesauce, a baby portion of dragon fruit. With two minuscule bottom teeth Alera is learning to use them to bite the goodies. Their steadying hands find their way to source of sustenance to chin and cheeks to mouth. Alera is happy to snatch bits with fingertips or open her hand to hold and squish but manages to get much of it in her mouth, trying until she does. Morgan seems a little suspicious of the odd clumps on her high chair tray so mashes more than eats for now. But they are learning as all babies do, what it takes to satisfy a growing hunger. Finger food is great, though, we all eventually agree.

My own hands have done good service thus far. Despite having Raynaud’s which leaves them chilled through under 60 degrees and fingertips that crack painfully in winter–despite this irritation, I enjoy their dexterity. I am not a fine seamstress or a miniature watercolor artist and I no longer play my cello, but I manage to get plenty done–as we all do. I appreciate hands’ skills more than some people may.

A few years ago I experienced a damaging reaction to a type of heart medicine, the statin group that so many take to lower cholesterol or fight inflammation. I found out the hard way that I am one of two percent of the population that developed serious myalagias (muscle weakness and pain). I became severely impacted regarding ordinary muscle movement, with dizziness and balance problems, memory fog with confusion and more.

It became nearly debilitating over a couple of years. I did notice my fingers not landing right often as I typed–and I’m not a great typist to start. I found when I got up fast I lost balance. My limbs felt rubbery I experienced shooting “electrical” pain all over my body. Surely it was work stress or general tiredness, I thought. When I began to walk without warning like a drunk person, could not accurately reach for and grasp items and dropped them daily, I worried and pondered the origins much more. I was becoming scared yet hid the fear and body’s errors as much as possible, calling myself a “klutz”-which I’d never been. But when I could not reliably, legibly sign my own name, alarm plus the concern of a sharp physical therapist sent me to my cardiologist. I was to stop the statin immediately; if my symptoms improved, it was the statin and that was bad but sort of fixable. But if no improvement, I likely had MS or ALS or other neurological disorder. In two weeks, to my surprise, problems slowly started to clear: it was–surprise–the statin which was to support my heart’s health. I began to be returned to myself bit by bit and after a m onth to six weeks, I felt like I hadn’t felt for a couple years: almost right and well.

I share this story as there had arrived a quiet despair that my hands could not do what they were meant to do, what I wanted them to do, what they’d accomplished perfectly with barely a thought. I was told much if not all my strength and normal movements, my sense of balance and clear mind would return. But parts of functioning have not returned to a homeostasis I enjoyed before statin use for 13 years. One is my overall hand strength and their necessary discreet movements–and more, an ability to look at a thing, reach and grasp it immediately. I knock things over as I reach and drop and break things even now, if not as much. I struggle still opening jars, once a breeze. It is discouraging sometimes.

But one thing I can do again is write out anything by hand. My signature slowly came back, with only occasional blips. But the actions writing takes sometimes create cramps in a short time. I carry on after a pause and finger stretches, and return with s relief that becomes joy.

I’ve long loved setting graphite or nib or ballpoint tip or even marker point to paper. Printing is fun; I like to experiment with different styles with that form. But there is the other experience: subtle curves and curlicues of each cursive stroke; the ease or labor of pen or pencil over smooth or textured surfaces; the manner in which letters conjure words to specifically name things or people and give form to idea and emotion—visually, one has personally rendered it! And then to consider it and commit those written words to memory.

I write; therefore, the world and I are one and more, truly present here and now: that is how I have felt even since childhood, I suspect. Language is given fuller life–and its molded beauty is so apparent– when set onto a tangible surface. It is given sharp clarity, then set free. So am I, it seems.

So signing my name, an authentic reflection of one’s identity, was part of it–but it seemed the universe opened like a fantastic lens as hand was put to paper. The beauty and relief of it felt a treasure. I’ve long known others didn’t much feel that way–most students of my generation hated learning cursive and having to write papers. But I found that artists of many sorts did. And writers, of course, as it was and is a helpful tool for creating story. Neurologically speaking, the very act of writing and the brain are natural cohorts. Language, both written and spoken words, arise from clearly sophisticated gray matter activity, though one can surprisingly be done if the other cannot be (as with some stroke victims). My statin toxicity seemed to sully general language and memory facilities as it curtailed my hand’s ability to form good letters; the brain would not listen and translate my intent. For writers who do write longhand, this is anathema. The return of that particular skill was a steady recovery.

I often attend writing workshops that require a participant to write freehand and impromptu for proscribed times. With pencil or pen preferred. Say, writing for two minutes or for ten, often using a prompt of a first sentence or a picture or a fragrance shared with the group–or just stating anything that comes to mind. This is heaven to me. I write quickly and freely, my hand barely keeping up as the wealth of language and image come forward in great bursts: I am in a whole new world right now. I also find when we read our short pieces aloud, I may not well decipher that handwriting. But the very action of longhand and its unlocked ideas–a nascent plot was received in words roaming the pages. If I had used a computer, I’d have paused as I re-read, been more distracted, gotten up and down–in part due to ways I use a keyboard versus the way I write longhand. Things occur differently, more fluidly in thinking as a line is crafted by hand. (Though I appreciate both for different virtues, and admit using my computer more for blogging thanks (?) to WordPress design.)

Writing longhand aided me at work, as well. I took notes on a yellow legal pad after the counseling sessions and liked to annotate or emphasize with various marks. In team meetings, brainstorming came readily when I could jot ideas down, doodle. Got a person-to-person problem? Detail it first on paper; consider carefully. Stumped by a client’s diagnosis? Write down current observations plus past data gained; see what rises up from the info piles.

I have a recent pen pal. Both of us came to the idea from a book group online and we decided to give it a go. I’m not sure yet if we have enough in common to strike up a decent postal friendship, but I do get a kick out of writing the letters and cards. (I had a pen pal as a kid; he lived in Japan.) I well consider my words as I go, and keep it pleasantly legible. I like seeing her personality in her handwritten replies.It is a pleasure to receive an envelope with my name and address carefully noted on its smooth front, stamp neatly placed in corner. Someone took the time; it got to me via human hands in many places.

I’m the type who buys cards all year long, blank ones with unusual, colorful, funny or skilled art on the front. I love making an effort to sit down with soft blue, indigo or black ink-filled pens (color matters to me) and communicating with another. I anticipate how they’ll see it amid bills and junk mail and then be surprised, take time to read it, look at the art and set it on a bookshelf or lamp table if they truly like it. Which I have been told is done. My friends and family expect this of me sooner or later, often for no reason at all other than I’m thinking of them. I want to take the time and care. It feels a more considerate way, a civil a thing to do in our fast-moving, techno, throwaway world.

Hands at work, at rest and at play. Silent communication as they move about with potent, sometimes frantic energy; or slow, graceful expressions. (I talk with my hands so much it’s been suggested I keep them on wheel when driving. Or stop talking…but not sure I can talk without hands aflutter.) Writing, our hands begin to sculpt imaginative or solution-based plans. And there is the creation of art from a plethora of materials, giving life to a form minute, intricate, rangy or towering.There is such power to that. But we routinely use our hands to take care of business, to survive as we go about living, and how fortunate that those of us who can, do.

Meanwhile, Alera’s hands. I wonder now as I did when daughter Naomi was born and studied her translucent, teeny fingers (she was 2.5 pounds at birth): will she be an artist? A musician? Naomi (like a many others in the family) has both abilities. So maybe I have a good instinct about Alera. Then again, maybe she’ll become a master gardener, a jeweler or an oceanographer who studies dolphins–her exploratory touch accepted. Perhaps Morgan will make pottery or be a tennis player or heal the sick with her determined touch. Who knows? They both have those working, intricately arrayed hands to help guide them. And I can write about them as I choose, thanks to my heart doctor’s intervention, and to my mind’s delight.

Artifacts, Ibsen and Me

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                         (“Flowers in Stone” by Paul Klee, 1939)

We didn’t understand Gene’s strange habits but we all had our quirks. He was studying archaeology, a somewhat arcane but respected field. Our college home was a haven for any creative types, thus our tolerance of perceived “differentness.” Most of us were wrapped up in  practicing social activism, discovering love’s fruits and follies or mapping the most powerful trajectories to success. Also partying, more for some than others. I chased a few highs when I wasn’t studying film and theater but my main goal was to be discovered as the next magnetic ingénue.

The household was big enough that we had rotations for cooking, cleaning and organizing entertainment nights. Ten of us lived there at one point but six to eight was a better number with five bedrooms, two of them smallish. Gene nabbed one of the latter, a corner room with two large windows and a sweeping view of the neighboring house but a glimpse of street. He outfitted his place with a twin bed, an antique desk and three tall bookshelves.

We seldom visited him there. You could barely get in. The floor space was eaten up by folders of torn out articles, oversized books, personal notebooks and Mason jars of pens and pencils, random items like a tall floor fan even in winter and a stack of blankets because he liked to be toasty underneath them while the fan blew frigid breezes. I peeked in a couple of times when the door was ajar. As a general rule it was shut. Keeping the community at bay. He made a sign in very small red letters: All ye who enter will be taxed according to hierarchical law. Who knew what that meant? Gene wanted his refuge free of disruption.

I was responsible for vacuuming every five weeks and I admit it slightly scared me when he refused to allow it. He did own a “dirt buster” handheld vacuum. But one time his half-opened door allowed a glance. The room was teeming with unrelated objects. The first caught my ear: a wooden chime that hung from a nail on the door. I saw a nicely framed print of a Paul Klee painting atop a set of dusty speakers. Five fat pillows slouched in a corner, next to an upturned crate. Inside it was an assortment of snacks, wrappers, a very old transistor radio and candle stubs plus new white votives. A box of long matches was in a coffee can along with two overripe bananas. Books on every available spot. Dead plant–or perhaps it was just exceedingly wan, soaking up any thin rays that fell upon a wooden shelf, and next to two more that seemed much more willing to survive. Bones propped up on the next shelf between books: not quite menacing and of different sizes. Don’t ask me what, my imagination could run rampant; perhaps mementos from a student dig.

I nearly called a meeting to discuss fire or other health hazards but for some reason–intelligence, wit?–I trusted Gene. He had a half-dozen votive holders beneath crumpled cellophane. I deducted that he lined them up on the windowsill, as I had seen a flickering glow from the sidewalk. That was always welcome to see as I trudged up the walkway.

I just backed out.

Travis, his one decent friend, told me that under the bed Gene stored shoeboxes of labeled items. Inside were a motley gathering of stones and insect specimens and mosses to political and religious pamphlets he picked up around town to a variety of buttons that had come off from random clothing, some of them his own. I wondered if my missing aqua sweater button might be in there. When you’re a scientist everything must seem collectible, something to categorize.

I didn’t dislike him. On the contrary, he was polite, dry humored, and full of lightning-quick ideas. He was okay to look at. It was clear he was brilliant. He irritated a few when he brought home unknown mushrooms and some metal odds and ends in one of our new coffee mugs. Gene thought it a strange thing to be mad about. I bought him his own mug. It had three golden pyramids gleaming against black and cost me two dollars at a second-hand store. I left it at his door.

One fall day I was debating whether or not to see a Truffaut film or practice my lines. I’d just landed the role of Nora in Ibsen’s play The Doll House and it weighed on me even though I was thrilled. Nora drove me to despair with her quiet suffering, her willingness to be her husband’s “pet” until she could bear it no longer. How could I find her secret strength?

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Gene entered the patio, sat across from me on a bench, leaned back and yawned.

“Taking in the sunshine?” he asked. “I feel like a mole  out here.”

I was taken aback that he was talking to me, a lowly actress. I hugged my knees. “I’m pondering a part I got.”

He sat forward, hands dangling between his knees. “Oh. What?”

“Nora in Ibsen’s famous play. Her subterfuge unnerves me and it takes her three acts to leave her husband, all the while letting him minimize her value. Then he was appalled by an error in judgment  she made–and for his sake.”

“Ah,” he said.

I could see he knew little of Henrik Ibsen. I was leaning toward seeing the film.

Gene  stood and paced. “You do know it premiered in 1879. Ibsen believed women had no freedom to become themselves fully and were misunderstood. It was based on the life of his own friend, Laura, a writer. Only she was committed to an asylum thanks to her husband.” He cast me a sad look. “But the play grants Nora some dignity in the end and she makes a terrifying decision. Ibsen’s friend later became a well-known writer, did you know that?”

I didn’t know how to respond. Of course I knew the basic sociological facts; I’d been studying the play. I didn’t know abut Ibsen’s friend, how her plight moved him to write the play. That Gene knew it all was astonishing to me, yet not quite as amazing as his speaking to me.

“You really appreciate Ibsen?”

“I appreciate most art and science, and see history as a vast compendium of tales and treasures. And I admire Nora’s bravery. The cost it carried.” He stopped pacing and sat down on the edge of his chair. “But what I really wanted to do was say thanks for the mug.”

“The mug? Oh, sure. It was nothing.”

“But it was. I love the pyramids, those times. I plan to visit. It was kind of you to think of me. No one has bought me such a thing before. ”

He slouched in his brown T-shirt. His shaggy hair was ruffled by a whirl of wind. But his eyes were focused on a woolly bear caterpillar between us.

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I felt foolish. How I had laughed over his habits, said nothing in defense when gossip flew. And he was grateful for an old mug, one with faded gold pyramids. I got up and knelt by the caterpillar.

“It should be a very cold winter–look how fluffy, and that big orange stripe. That’s what I always heard.”

“Could be,” Gene nodded. “Old wives’ tales can be accurate, which is why they have survived over time.” He stroked his whiskery chin and nodded, it seemed, at the caterpillar. “Well, do your best by Nora.”

He stood up and walked away. Did not look back or wave. He didn’t say anything much to me later. I caught myself watching him at times but soon gave up.

The snow arrived early and heavily, and that was the reason why I poked my head into his room the second and last time.

“Well, what about this weather?”

“I know,” he said, “our wooly was right.” Gene had a Cardinals’ baseball cap on backwards and tipped it at me, then went back to his book.

I almost walked in. There were things I wanted to ask about. Tell him. But he was taking notes and there was no room for me to sit. I closed the door just as he glanced up, eyes questioning.

Soon after he moved to a studio of his own. I missed him behind that door. I hoped he’d attend the play but never asked. Nora had become a valiant creature but also a symbol of the dangers of being held hostage by a lie. I wanted to live truthfully.

I often wondered what good might have come from a friendship with Gene but life went on as it does, rough but generally manageable. In the end it worked out well enough.

Years later, after I’d joined a theater company in San Francisco, I was in a newly found bookstore. The bookseller recommended A Collegiate Compendium for the Less Likeminded: Essays so I read the author’s blurb on a Eugene Masterson. I sat down. It stated my old roommate had a PhD and had published articles on Mongolian and Egyptian artifacts. In the photo he was seated at a cluttered table in a tent. In his hand was the mug with three golden pyramids on it. He was lifting it up as though making a toast with an unseen person, and he smiled just enough at the camera. At me. I held his book close, then took it home.

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“Monday’s Meander” Note on Tuesday: North Carolina Week

Flying over Newark, New Jersey last night

Well, getting up at 3:30 to catch a 6:00 plane (boarding at 5:25) is for the birds. Since readers and others know I am neither a jolly or well-seasoned air traveler, this was a challenge I was intent on meeting but with a bleary-eyed whine. I kept my moans on low the rest of the day; why annoy my traveling partner (Marc) further? He’s a good guy and he has to go to work all week. It is not an actual vacation for us, and for me it is a little getaway for a few days. I’ll take it!

We got to the hotel around 9 pm. I was awake until 3 am, sadly well into morning. It took that long to sink into a level of semi-drowsiness, then heavy sleep after a long day flying from Oregon to East Coast. This, however, followed my research of free phone apps to find one that promoted nature’s (doctored) soothing sounds so I might settle down to rest. Ended up with rain falling on a lake (I think)–more pleasing than a fan’s loud whirring, a metal wheels-on-track train ride or night’s city shenanigans, or even frogs croaking that was more froggy gossip fest with burps interjected. Well, it takes what it takes for us all. At that time in the dark (although only midnight in Pacific Time…) after a numbing day, nothing quite seemed as it should. I also was battling the usual allergic response to recirculated airplane air. Sneeze, blow nose, sneeze, cough, repeat. Apologized to the stranger on my left, assured him I was not sick in a conventional sense. But today I am less allergically waylaid and rested a bit; all feels much better.

This is a view from one of the hotel windows.

It was a lark, really, to accompany Marc on a business trip to an area where there isn’t anything for me to do within walking distance. I am not renting my own car, not driving him to and from work 45 minutes each day. We always stay a distance from his place of work as the manufacturing town is very small–he prefers to keep distance when day is done. And I preferred a hotel with an indoor pool and exercise room as it is surprisingly colder here than in Portland– despite North Carolina being the mid-South. Marc said there could even be snow later. Egads, I am not quite prepared for that scenario.

I occasionally travel with him as sometimes I like a little break from usual routines, enjoy refreshment of life here and there. (I might prefer Mexico, another of his business destinations but lately various political and other events have not encouraged risk taking…)

I began my respite after breakfast with a short walk to get a better look at the colorful trees noted from my high window. Nice start to wake up my mind and senses. It was freezing wind and with no hat packed, it was wide-eyed I went into the world. But here is a bit of what I found:

A twenty minutes walk did me good. On return, a lingering spell by the lobby fireplace, a look at the fine pool I will dive into before long and then the quietness of a pleasant if anonymous room… I admit this has restorative potential, wandering, writing at a cleaned off desk, gazing through a window at the November blue sky and last of autumnal trees. And the simple anticipation of strong side strokes for a few laps is a boost as later my energy flags some again. Must rest better tonight!

Tomorrow is my usual fiction post day; I will try to stay on schedule. At end of week we will be visiting daughter Naomi, a sculptor primarily. Her 5 foot tall art installation “Boundings” as well as a photograph entitled “Personal Space Capsule” are exhibited in South Carolina’s Biennial Part II, in Columbia. A pretty two hour drive certainly worth taking!

Friday’s Passing Fancy/Poem: That was Then and Now

That was then, when the movements

of every heavenly body and two of us

were a certainty beyond all chaos.

I understood your soundlessness,

I who floated up from and dove into

star-netted deep of words.

Your language: hands on wood, brass,

dismissive of barriers not made for

one afire with his own heat and light.

And who cooled with lack of same.

It was my part to call to you,

tears like pearls pried loose

for all you did not let go;

and fingertips like moons, suns

scattered across your skin.

This is the time and the way

we breathed at the thin rim of this world

when every miraculous secret thing will

come forward, and humanity set free.

But I am still waiting in wilderness

while you have traveled on.

This is now, but it may as well

be then, movements of planetary power

still a symmetry that answers or echoes

my thoughts as I stride into dark

of winter and you, body-less, flee the night