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My Hands

elarge photo

I stare at my hands. Short fingers, lithe and strong from years of chasing major and minor scales up and down the keyboard. Short fingernails for the same reason. I look at them as a woman would examine her hands — fingers spread wide, muscles taut — but they could easily belong to a teenaged boy, except for the single diamond on my right ring finger. It sits above my wedding band, simple platinum with an engraved Jerusalem cross. The stone is bright, but the rings are dull and rife with nicks and scratches. It is late in the day and chilly outside, so the rings are slightly loose on my finger — just enough that, when I shake the droplets of water from my hands after washing them, they clink together with a pleasing, muffled noise. By flicking my ring finger against my thumb, I can make the sound repeat, and when I am bored, I do this often. It’s like popping bubble wrap: interesting to me, but horribly irritating to everyone else.

The nicks and scratches on my ring are something of a mystery to me. Somehow, I have succeeded (in just over three years of marriage) in whacking it an untold number of times, and there are many dents in the precious metal circle that stands for something infinitely more precious. I am not exactly a clumsy person, but I certainly seem to have more mishaps on a daily basis than most people I know. My mom likes to joke that she mistakenly named me Emily Grace, and I joke right back that this is why I changed my middle name when I got married: it just didn’t fit me. Under no circumstances could I be called graceful.

There is a phrase in our guide to confession that comes up frequently in mine: “I have harbored annoyance at the contrariness of things.” Never was a truer word written. Things are contrary, that’s for sure. They never go the way they’re supposed to. When you drop a glass, it breaks. When you bump a stack of papers, it falls. When you stumble in the door with your arms full, it catches you on the heel, rubbing the skin raw. It would seem that you never get a break.

Of course I know that I do: probably at least half the time I do something stupid, like go down the stairs carrying so many things that I can’t see around them, I get away with it. This makes me do it more often, but eventually the odds are against me, and I trip on a dropped sock or bruise my hip on the doorjamb. I halt, angrily. “Come ON!” I say, as if the uncooperative object owes me an apology. But it sits, silent, and I stew.

I know why this happens. A psychologist friend once told me that when the mind is occupied by something else, even the most ordinary actions — setting a mug on the table, bending down to adjust a shoelace — can go awry. You miss the edge of the table; you lose your balance and fall to the ground. My mind is almost always occupied by three or four things at once. Even as I write, I am thinking about what I will make for dinner, what I still need to do before I go to sleep, and what I will be doing with my life five years from now. My mind is a machine, constantly churning out thoughts and decisions, and it selfishly hoards my energy and care for itself, leaving nothing for my fingers, who unhappily suffer the consequences of this distraction.

On the underside of my right hand, where the palm meets my middle finger, there is a dark spot beneath the surface of the skin. In architecture school, late at night, I stabbed my hand with a rapidograph pen, and the ink got in and never got out. I am amazed, considering how little I slept in those years, that this only happened once. One glance at the bluish mark is enough to bring back thousands of drawings, the dance of the electric eraser against smooth mylar, and the angry words of some of my worst critiques. Like the spot itself, they will never completely be gone from me.

There is a Band-Aid on my thumb which covers a recent burn. I was removing a dish of roasted potatoes from the oven last Friday — crispy, warm, fragrant with chopped herbs and whole cloves of garlic that had mellowed and caramelized from the heat. My friends, Steve and Jocelyn, stood in the doorway, smilingly blocking the entrance to the dining room as we chatted and munched, dipping baby carrots into a cucumber-laced yogurt sauce. Crunch, crunch, giggle. Jocelyn related a humorous account of a recent job offer that didn’t pan out. My husband opened the wine and began to pour it. Seeing the party begin its move to the dining room, I hastily — too hastily, caught up in her story and the intoxication of a night of socializing following a long week of work — began to bring the food to the table. On the way out of the oven, the silicone pad slipped, and the outside bone of my left thumb caught the edge of the metal oven rack. This kind of thing happens often, so I rinsed it briefly under cold water and continued moving things to the table. After a few bites, though, I excused myself to get an ice cube from the kitchen. I tried to be discreet, but Steve was too observant.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said sheepishly. “It’s nothing. I do it all the time —” here I pointed to a fading scar on my right wrist, and another on my left wrist, on the underside, a small pinkish dot from a spatter of hot oil as I fried catfish a month ago.

He seemed concerned nonetheless, but Rob interrupted him. “Ask her how many times she’s broken a toe.” It is more than I’d like to admit. Most people can stub their toe on a chair, say “Ow!” and rub it for a minute, and keep walking. When I stub my toe, I hear an unhappy crack that signals several weeks of limping and trying to stay off my feet. Because they’re so small, there’s no way to splint them, so they never heal right — and they break more easily the second and third time around.

My hands symbolize a life of work and play, thought and distraction, dedication and caprice. Maybe someday, when I am retired from teaching piano lessons and have already made my mark on the world, I will be able to be still long enough to have the hands of a lady, smooth and white with long, polished nails, rings buffed to a perfect shine, clinking against the china of a teacup as I sip languidly through the afternoon. But I doubt it. In fact, if I still had all ten fingers by the time I retired, I would consider myself lucky indeed.

Photo: Hands - Paris, May 2003; by Abigail Oren

Copyright © 2009 Emily Jorjorian Lowe. All rights reserved.

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