The Work of Our Hands

Greetings Dear Ones!

I am in Ireland this week! On a brief holiday from stitching prom gowns and formal wear to attend an actual wedding myself,  in Connamara. For a change, I will be seeing a wedding gown from the outside, not the inside! As we drive up the coast, my breath escapes me over and over as I look at the miles of grey stone walls lacing the countryside, defining the ancient boundaries. I take any chance I get to get out and place my hands on them, feeling where other unseen hands once gripped them and placed them so long ago. All around, there is a Silent Testament, echoing beneath the constant wind, to countless generations of laborers who used a temporary strength of sinew to lift and shift these stones, before they themselves went to sleep in the ground from whence these very rocks came. I look at my hands, warm and living on the lichen, and think of the work of our hands...

Back in the USA, Mother’s Day is coming up and I am thinking of growing out my claws and painting them red.  I almost never varnish my nails but when I think of all that my hands accomplish in a year—knitting, baking, sewing, building things on my little homestead, playing music, tending to my children and animals—I think about decorating these silent little servants, just for one day, and letting them rest.  Well, I think about it, anyway. The truth of it is that no amount of lacquer would survive a day of my life. But it's a great thought and every Mother's Day,  I think back to meeting a special stranger nearly ten years ago now, who gave me the idea:

We are somewhere in Georgia or Florida. I am taking a long bus journey on a grey-hound bus.  My seat companion is an elegant black woman, vibrantly dressed in bold colors, with stunningly beautiful locks of elaborately twisted hair piled on her head.  She is much larger, taller, and grander than I; in every way her Presence, like her luggage, takes up a lot more room than mine.  I slump next to her feeling like one of those pale vegetables in the grocery store in winter time—an insipid cucumber, perhaps, while she is a luscious, vine-ripened tomato with heavy eye liner.  Her glossy lips and long nails gleam blood red.  Her fragrance—a mix of perfume and Confidence—envelops our seat.  She is prosperous. Assured.  I rarely go anywhere without half a sock in my pocket so I get out my knitting, taking care not to bump the armrest, and begin to unravel the yarn.  As my fingers feel quietly for the points of the needles and begin stitching, I sneak a sideways glance at my companion’s hands. They are impressively beautiful, adorned by gold rings with gems exactly the right scale to show off her long, graceful fingers.

Hands fascinate me.  I can be very attracted to or utterly repelled someone just by the shape of his hands or how she uses them in conversation.  Are the fingers strong and graceful? Is he flapping them about like a baby penguin?  Are the nails long and dirty? Or bitten to nubs? While not a palmist in any way, hands tell me a lot about a person.  I watch how people touch things, how they absentmindedly stroke their own faces, how they gesture.  I see how they are ornamented with scars, tattoos, jewelry, or nail polish. I especially love to observe hands at play on a musical instrument, with lives of their own, momentarily freed from the conscious direction of a brain.  The condition and length of the nails tells me about how this person cares for himself.

She notices me looking at her hands and smiles. 

          “Your hands are like a work of art,” I say, before I can stop myself from uttering something so embarrassing.

          “Yes!” she nods affirmatively. “It is so. I do it on purpose. I never paint my nails any other color. Ever.” She is loudly emphatic, like it's a testimony.

          “Well, it’s a fabulous color on you,” I say.

          “I know,” she admits. “But that is not the reason I do it. I have my own reason.”  She smiles darkly.  It is a clear invitation I simply have to take.

          “Tell me more,” I say.  And as if she has been waiting dramatically in the wings for her cue to begin the performance, she sweeps forward in her seat and launches into the kind of monologue I live for on long bus rides: 

“Years ago, when my man left me with four babies to feed and no house, no money, no job, I started growing these nails and I painted them blood red.  I used to crawl into bed with my little babies and scratch them to sleep. Very gently, mind you! I whispered that their mama was secretly a tigress, not just a woman--being a woman was just my disguise and these were my claws to prove it.  ‘Do you see this red?’ I asked them, ‘do you SEE this red?’ This red is the blood of anyone who ever try to hurt you, ever.  I will LEAP on them and my tiger self will SLASH them to ribbons with these claws.” She clawed suddenly at the air with a savagery that startled me. Then, the hands fluttered in disguised meekness to rest in her lap again, like obedient house pets.   “It helped them feel safe.  It helped me feel safe too,” she continued, pleased to have seen the whites of my eyes.  “Every mother’s day, I make my children rub lotion into these hands.  I say ‘Children, these hands work all year for you! They scrape and clean, and work and cook, and do all sorts of things for you. Now you rub your Mama’s claws and thank them for keeping you safe and fed.’ And they do.  Every year, I sit in a chair and hold out these hands and make my children rub them.  It feels so good.  Someday, they gonna hold my hands as I die.  They’ll be different hands then—all small and wrinkled, no power left in the Claw—and I want them to remember my hands strong. I want them to see the changes year by year.  I want them to look at they own hands and think what they can DO in this world. Everybody gotta DO something in this world, to make it a better place.” She paused and looked over at my hands, which, of course, were knitting.  My pale, naked fingers with their short, unvarnished nails, were hopping deftly over the yarn like school girls playing Chinese jump rope at recess. She watched me in silence for a moment.  “My hands can’t do what yours are doing,” she said, flatly. She looked at me sideways, seeming to Decide something, and smirked, “but then, you ain’t no tigress neither!”  We both laughed. 

Every Mother’s Day, I think of that Magnificent stranger on that bus and I wonder if her children are still rubbing her claws.  I hope so! Since that bus ride, my own claws have built a split-rail fence for the sheep, built a small stone wall and two sheds, massaged an endless parade of aching backs, and earned me a living as a seamstress. They have knitted countless pairs of socks, made countless batches of scones and oatcakes, and scooped innumerable canine turds off carpets.  Since that bus ride, my claws have ceased to wear a wedding band and I have discovered my inner Tigress.  My hands are thicker now with age, and they ache a little some days but they are the part of my body I am most grateful for. 

Today, as I rest these hands on the ancient walls of my ancestors, I think of that Shaker phrase "Hands to work, hearts to God," and the psalm "Give us the work of our hands Lord, give us the work of our hands..." I send silent prayers out to all the dear Mothers--those giving their hands and hearts to nurturing, protecting, teaching and serving the young; those who get up, aching and weary, to Do What Must be Done for the innocent and dependent; who carry children in their hearts, whether they carried them in their bodies or not. I think about how scared we are at times and how only our own stories can console us, as we gently scratch small backs in the dark.   I think about my own mother's strong hands kneading our daily bread as I was growing up, and about how it felt to hold my grandmother's weakened, tiny bird claws the day she died. The stranger on the bus was right. Our hands and our powers change over time.  It is right for us to honor both the hands and those changes, which make the spaces necessary for us to step forward and offer our own hands in their place.  Our Mother's hands have shaped and placed the living stones that will continue to build the world in new and hopeful ways.  And whether we are ancient forgotten stone mason,  modern mother, or frazzled seamstress--when our weary rest comes at last, what do we leave to endure behind us, long after we are gone?  Where is our love made visible? In the work of our hands.

Be well, dear friends, and do good work! 

Yours aye,