Learning By Hand

Once, as a child, I wanted to know a different kind of darkness, and so I’d practice walking around a room with my eyes closed, learning the shapes of objects with my hands, marking distances between things by the carefully measured steps of my small feet. My eyesight was poor anyway, and so I was practicing for the day when I imagined I’d go blind, my fingers tracing over various textures, learning about different kinds of edges, how a tabletop differed from a mattress. When I opened my eyes again and turned on the lights, I’d try to identify the differences between what my eyes and what my hands had understood.

My eyesight is better now than it was then, thanks to surgery. But the habit, of wanting to learn objects by hand, has not entirely passed. Tonight I held stones from the patio in my hands, felt the space they took up in my palms, ran my fingers along their rough edges, feeling their points, the places where they smoothed out and became almost soft. And because my eyesight too is sharp these days, I noticed the variance in their color, their different shadings. But it wasn’t their color, the “sight” of them that made them something other than ordinary, rather, it was the heft of them in my hands.

It is too easy to say petal. But that doesn’t capture how the petals of a sunflower have a texture like that of a children’s party balloon, or how the green parts just below the petals are sharply pointed and denser, how its stem feels like a man’s face a day after shaving, or how the middle of the flower is slightly sticky and sponge-like.

It is too easy to say petal, but that doesn’t show how the petal of a partially dried rose crinkles like old book pages and feels just as fragile, how if I breathed too hard it seemed the whole thing might fall apart, or how the undried center petals still remind me of the velvet trimming the edges of the comforter I begged my mother to buy for me in junior high, the one with the pansies on it, yellows and burgundies and purples. I still love them, pansies, their petals nearly soft as roses.

There are 206 bones in the human body, 54 of which make up your pair of hands. More than a quarter of your body’s bones are there, as are your densest nerve endings. The hand is capable of great feats of articulation, gestures of power, shows of fragility, acts of kindness. There is even a whole human language comprised of gestures made from it, so it is not an exaggeration when I speak of the poetry of the hands.

My hands can be good for many things, preparing a meal, comforting a child, steering a car, assembling a dresser, folding laundry, even touching someone’s face. My hands could learn the language of someone’s flesh in the dark, trace its contours as if I were making maps, discovering new continents, learning the distance between self and other. My hands could see skin, could become wayward, drunken cartographers. My hands could hold someone. My hands could lay claim.

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