The Work of Our Hands
“The human hand allows the minds to reveal itself.”
The Work of Our Hands: Part 1
I used to make handmade paper.
Here’s how I learned —I was in graduate school, and we were talking about some esoteric idea about education and a woman seated far back in the auditorium interrupted. “What are we even talking about? I can’t follow any of this. What do we really know anyway?” She paused, then blurted, “I mean, I don’t even know how to make a pie crust!” People laughed. “I don’t either!” someone else called out.
It turns out that someone in the room did know how to make a piecrust, and in the next class, we all learned how to make one. If I say this was one of the more valuable takeaways from a $40,000 graduate degree in education, please don’t misunderstand.
Because of the piecrust, I then learned how to make handmade paper. It is strange that room of high achievers who yearned to go “teach” others, we were troubled after the piecrust lesson when our professor assigned us to teach another student something practical, tangible. What did we really know? Very little it turned out.
After many more years working in my head, I think I know even less now. But from that assignment, I learned how to make paper. Last week, when I was going through the endless pile of items I own, I came upon a love letter I sent to my husband, before he was my husband. There it was, the handmade paper, this beautiful, one of a kind item with all my heart poured into it.
This contrasted sharply with my recent trip to Whole Foods to buy that same lovely husband a birthday card. At the time, I actually was proud of myself buying the card— a whole day early! In that vast wonderland of food, where it is always standing room only, I expected to find something “special.” Despite my search, there was lack of uniquely beautiful cards. But because I was in a hurry, I purchased a generically beautiful card– meaning bland.
At home, I try to spice it up, but in truth, I keep thinking about the handmade paper. I remember the multi-step process, over the course of days. You can’t imagine the mess– a ruined blender and stained sink, wire screens with pulp, and the dried paper everywhere—(can I mention that at the time I was sharing a 600 square foot apt?) But the end result was so satisfying. When I wrote to someone on that paper, I was so careful, so deliberate, attentive.
But now, as I unwrap the plastic birthday card, there is no mess here. Hurried ideas. Little time spent. Store bought beauty without any real attention being paid. No work of my hands. Yes, it is vastly easier, but missing something: time and thought, real presence.
The Work of Our Hands: Part 2
The work of our hands is an idea I’ve been thinking about this a lot since my children started Montessori school. Early in the year, at a parenting workshop, the teachers advised us that the work of the hands is extremely important to the development of a child’s brain, mind and spirit. Montessori kids learn to sweep, wash, sew, bake, fix, clean etc. in addition to school skills. At the workshop, as I sat in the back of the room thinking, Is this why we’re so anxious? Depressed? Is this why we can’t sleep? Why we like to keep busy? Is it why we seek to continually buy material items—the work of other peoples’ hands?
But none of it feeds the real need.
Then I think of all the people I know who love gardening, making music, cooking, sewing, crocheting, painting and knitting. Deeply satisfying, yet the work of the hands is often devalued, a mere hobby, something you can pay other people for, if you wish.
This year my sister made me a beautiful scarf. It is made out of possum yarn. For about a six-month period of time, every time I saw her, she said, “I’m making this for you. Look at the scarf, feel how soft it is! It’s possum you know.” I wore it today. I wear it nearly every day. The scarf is beautiful because she made it, and because I love her. It is my favorite scarf, something precious because of the work of her hands.
We come by this knowledge, my sister and I from my mother. I was raised by a woman who made love visible by the work of her hands. My mother cooked, baked, sewed, quilted, painted even, all while caring for 8 children.
One year she sewed a down jacket for my father. As I write this, it seems like a tale from the land of the impossible. How do you sew a down coat? Where did she get the materials in my small town? More importantly, how did she do anything with eight kids around?
The jacket was turquoise, puffy and enormous. My father wore it every winter. Many years later, he was wearing that down winter coat the day he had a heart attack. It was June 1st—(yes the weather was that bad even back then). As the paramedics went to work on him, they slashed the coat and down feathers floated up into the sky. My mother was with him, standing by watching. Years later, in telling the story, she would say, “But why couldn’t they unzip the coat? Why did they have to cut it?”
The work of her hands, all the time spend, the love she created, seemed to slip away—the feathers in the sky. And though we buy and create material things all the time, we are creating to try to be in the form. Love made visible: the handmade paper, the possum scarf, the bright turquoise down coat, holding our time, attention and love. Love made visible, even though technically impossible, made by our hands every day.