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.

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