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Hands

December 12, 2014

 

 

In my last post I showed a selfie photo that had me holding my hand in front of my face as if I was trying to hide my identity. My friend Chris responded with a familiar image of cave art: the outline of the artist hand, stenciled as he (she) sprayed ocher or some other earth pigment over it. It reminded me of finding such a hand print on cliff wall, off trail, in the Gila wilderness in New Mexico. Rarely has such a simple human expression impacted me like that. Not just the image, but the randomness of finding it, without the usual signs and well worn path. It was as if we were the first to see the lasting expression of someone dead for millennia.

Remembering this moment makes me think about the significance of hands, especially regarding identity. We all know that our fingerprints are unique, but what is more unique and interesting is what we do with our hands. Arguably, more so than even our oversized brains, it is our ability to manipulate material that sets us apart from other species. The moment of the first human turning a wet lump of clay into a Venus or dragging charcoal across a cave wall to elucidate his feelings about the hunt is the moment that art took center stage in the history of human development.

My hands play heavily into who I am. If there is one aspect of my life that reigns, it is my ability to make. I’ll admit, I’m not good at a lot of things: playing music befuddles me and  typing is a pain in the ass, but put any tool in my hand and I will make that tool speak.  I will make materials submit to my whim and I can make marks as subtle as feather’s tickle or as bold as a jackhammer’s blast. I submit my hands to incredible abuse and, yet, when I ask them to perform surgeon’s tasks, they comply. In the past week I have blasted holes through concrete, extracted rotten woodwork, drew delicate lines on paper, wove metal into metal with a 5000 degree flame (inches from my bare fingers) and coaxed cement into a perfectly sloped floor. I can’t text worth a damn, but these fingers can weave rope and pull a line as steady as a CNC machine. Without these hands, I am speechless, without identity and lost. If my life can be defined as one existential crisis after another, then it is my hands and their ability to leave a solid mark on the world that resolves each crises and saves me from myself.

I taught welding for many years; after watching many students struggle with the delicate weave of the molten puddle,  I began to realize that a steady hand cannot be taught. I inherited steadiness from my father. He was an architect back when CAD was an insult; the detail and clarity of his drawings blow away anything a computer could ever do. These days, it’s a rare skill to be able to use your hands for anything other than kissing a keyboard. When I shake hands, I instinctively judge a man by his callouses: the rougher the better. (a bit of ochre on the backside isn’t bad either). Despite all of our technology, the world is still a gritty place that needs real fixes.

This past Spring I had major hand surgery: In 2012, I tore the ligament that stabilizes the  connection between the ulna and radius and the carpals in my right (i.e., dominant) hand. For two years I limped along, unable to do what I do, and only able to do anything with the endurance of pain. (For those of you who follow my work: thus, the photos) After several meetings with my Dr., I entrusted her to cut my ulna in two, shorten it, put it back together with a metal  plate and repair the torn ligament. When the wraps came off two weeks after surgery, I almost passed out; with my hand shriveled to a useless appendage I felt reduced to uselessness.  But six months later,  the surgery has worked and I am back to work. It was her hands, with their gifted steadiness, that have made it possible for my hands to regain their voice, to manipulate material, to become my identity once again.

These hands of mine may feel heavy and sluggish or they may ache at times, you may meet me with indistinguishable goo stuck to them, or I may be sitting on them in the dance hall, but they are who I am. Give me a blank cave wall and the possibility of eternity and I will eagerly put these dukes up as a signifier of who I am.

 

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Heavy Hands 1

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One Comment
  1. Just read this one and then read it again to Len. So beautiful. Tears xxx

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