The doctor wanted to break my fingers when I was three days old. My pinkies, which bend inward at the last joint, are deformed. They are timid digits that look to be perpetually ducking behind the ring fingers. If the fingers were soldiers, standing at attention, the pinkie would be the drunk one.
Which would be okay if I didn’t come from a line of women who relied on their hands for emotional support. My mother, like her mother before her, gardens, quilts, and plays the ukulele and the piano. I remember the heavy-chorded hymns she improvised on our spinet to get through evenings when my father stayed out at the bars during my childhood. You can see why she decided that piano playing would be in my future, and why she was afraid that if I didn’t have straight pinkies, I would never reach full octaves. When she asked the doctor about my deformity, he said he could fracture my fingers at the joint and splint them, which would probably make them straight. But breaking her newborn’s hands was something she couldn’t bring herself to do.
While treating the injuries of performing musicians, the neurologist Frank R. Wilson developed some theories about the hand. Wilson says that our hands, and not our brains, are responsible for our cognitive development, which makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. About three million years ago, the day we stood upright, our hands began to change in subtle ways, and those changes affected our brains. We could now hunt and farm, which improved our chances for survival. But more than anything, free hands helped us by opening to us a world of creative activities, such as art, literature, and music.
Each hand has twenty-seven bones: fourteen in the fingers, called the phalanges; five in the middle part, called the metacarpals; and eight in the wrist, called the carpalia. The hand also has twenty-nine joints, thirty-four muscles, 123 ligaments, thirty arteries, and forty-eight nerves, making it one of the most complex body parts we have, and why hands require the brain to be fast and accurate. If you tap your fingers rapidly along a keyboard and then, a moment later, strike a hefty, five-fingered chord, your brain has to switch gears quickly and precisely. A full one-quarter of our brain’s motor cortex is devoted to hand movement, while the other three-fourths controls all our other voluntary movements.
Actually, scientists know very little about how the hand works, even though it has been studied for centuries and continues to be an important research subject. An engineering professor by the name of Francisco Valero-Cuevas has a lab in California where he studies the hand in order to understand the mechanical-mental marriage between the hand and the brain so that he can restore hand function to people after disease or injury, or to those who are impaired from birth defects. He studies the hand’s bones, tendons, and muscles; calculates what forces enable it to grasp, grip, and press; and then he writes up his findings in scientific journals, but when you read his interviews, you can tell that he believes there’s something magical about the hand too.
One warm December evening, my mother, my daughter, and I were walking through Jackson Square in New Orleans, when we saw a table covered with a scarf and a sign displaying the message: “Fortune-teller. Payment by donation.” “Let’s do it!” said my daughter, who at fourteen was long-legged with blond hair, the opposite of my mother and me: we are short and dark-haired.
My daughter sank into a folding chair and extended her hand to the fortune-teller, a pudgy woman in silk harem pants, with a gray braid down her back. My mother sat too, arms crossed and hands tucked in her armpits. The fortune-teller looked into our eyes, one by one. She massaged my daughter’s hand lightly and inspected her palm as a doctor would. “You can’t always trust your friends,” she said. My daughter’s eyes widened, as if to say, How did she know?
Next, the fortune-teller gestured toward my mother, but she kept her arms folded. “It’s just for fun,” I said.
“I’d rather not.” My mother crinkled her brow.
“It’s not black magic,” I said in my bossy voice, “it’s just a little game.”
“I know,” she said. Her nose began to flare, and her hands were in fists.
“Grandma,” my daughter said, placing her open hand on my mother’s shoulder, “please?”
My mother presented a hand to the fortune-teller who, using an index finger, traced the deep lines of her palm. “Your head line says you’re bright and creative,” she said, “and, o-o-o-ooh, this is good, your life line shows you’ll live into old age.” She turned my mother’s hand this way and that. “Do you see this?” The fortune-teller pointed at two parallel lines that ran from the bottom of my mother’s index finger all the way to her wrist. “You have twins, yes, or two children very close in age, and…hmm…one of them has given you heartache.” My mother jerked away, startled by the fortune teller’s insight.
I leaned in and lowered my voice. “Two of my brothers are eighteen months apart,” I said. “They’re like twins. One has diabetes and almost died.”
I gave my hand to the fortune-teller. She fingered my creases. “What happened here?” She pointed to my pinkie. It looked cowardly and ashamed. “An injury?”
Caravaggio’s The Fortune Teller in the Louvre tells a little story. A gypsy in a gauze turban stands on one side of the canvas; a man wearing a fancy hat and ostrich feather, stands on opposite her. She looks at him with mesmerizing eyes and, as she reads his palm, she is surreptitiously slipping his gold ring off his finger. The viewer can see exactly what’s in his future!
Still, I don’t buy the painting’s claim that palm readers are charlatans. Palm readers, I believe, have the same faith in hands that philosophers do. The French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty thinks that hands are the very essence of being; he conceives of consciousness as hands touching themselves. When one hand touches the other, he says, the world of each opens up to the other, because this kind of hand-to-hand touching is self-reflexive. You’re touching and feeling the touch at the same time, an act that Merleau-Ponty claims is “one sole space of consciousness.” Like the M. C. Escher lithograph titled Drawing Hands, a paradox in which each hand comes out of a piece of paper to draw the other into existence, hands create being in an endless loop. The French philosopher and poet Paul Valéry was so intrigued by the metaphysics of the hand that he wanted to write a “treatise of the hand,” because it “joins the most nuanced sensitivity to the freest of strengths.” And the artist Lowry Burgess, in his essay, “The Poetic Hand,” argues that the hand is the only body part that forms things, and because of that, it is the primary poetic instrument.
The hand is also a spiritual appendage. In the King James Bible, hands have the power to heal the body and reform the soul. Peter and John “laid hands on the Samaritans”; that’s how they “received the Holy Spirit.” New Age mystics talk of “laying on of hands” or “touch therapy,” referring to one person’s ability to improve another’s health through touch. But the hand’s spirituality has a history deeper than the Christian church. Chiromancy (from the Greek cheir, meaning hand), which scholars trace to the ancient Hindu religion, is the act of telling one’s future by reading the palm.
Despite my deformed fingers, my mother started me in piano lessons when I was six. She was my first teacher, but there would be many more, such as Mrs. Peterson, who at Halloween dressed in full witch’s attire. She came screeching up the stairs from her basement studio to greet my brothers and me every Wednesday afternoon when we were in elementary school. My brothers have better hands than I do, and they were better students, but I was the one who stayed with the instrument, maybe because I was the only girl, and therefore the one expected to carry on the family tradition.
After Mrs. Peterson, my mom didn’t force me into lessons. I’ve started and stopped dozens of times over the last twenty years, always promising myself: I’ll practice a lot this time and not get sloppy. I take lessons whenever my life is out of control. Piano lessons, like life lessons, teach you that if you don’t put in the time, you’re only hurting yourself. “If there’s a weakness in your character,” one of my teachers said, “it’ll show up on the piano.” They teach you that “neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius,” as Mozart wrote. “Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.”
“I want to play Mozart’s sonatas,” I told my most recent piano teacher, John, a large man with a cherubic face who is so intimate with Chopin that he calls him “Chops.” John was my daughter’s teacher when she was in high school, and so, when she went away to college, I felt that I could move in on him. My thinking was that with John, and Mozart, I could finally master the instrument. To my first lesson, I brought the two-volume Henle edition of Mozart’s piano sonatas.
“You’re not ready for Mozart,” he said after I played a few scales.
“But I really, really want to try,” I said.
He thumbed through the books and assigned me the second movement of “Piano Sonata No. 4 in E-flat major, K 282.” At home, I practiced until my fingers cramped, and then I did a few stretches and kept on. At one point, I thought: This is why I can never stick with lessons. The repetition that perfection requires is so monotonous. Still, I kept on. At another point, I thought: Who am I kidding? I’ll never play well, I’m deformed. But I kept on, and when I played for John the following week, he said, “That was a test. You didn’t know it, but if you couldn’t play this, I was going to talk you out of Mozart.”
In the coming months, as I worked my way through the sonatas, I realized that one reason I was drawn to Mozart is that his music works for people with warped fingers. The sonatas are technically difficult, and you have to be fast, but there’s no crazy reaching. Mozart is not hard in the way Chopin is, maybe because Mozart had tiny hands and Chopin’s were monstrous. When Chopin’s Études first came out, people were appalled. It was said that if you had crooked fingers, you could actually straighten them by playing the Études, but you should only attempt to do so with doctors standing by, ready to bandage you as your hands deteriorated under the strain of the music.
I mastered only four Mozart sonatas before I stopped lessons with John, and “master” probably isn’t the right term. The right term would be, “play through without too many mistakes.” It’s been five years, and the books still sit on the piano in my living room, frozen monuments to the times I’ve tried to make my hands perform.
At the Smithsonian the year my daughter was ten, we saw a piano exhibit. We happened upon it by accident. We had just been through the expansive National Air and Space Museum, and the intimacy of the piano exhibit may be one reason it has remained a strong memory. It started in a cool, dark hallway with a tribute to the piano’s inventor, Cristofori, around 1700, and went on to cover the instrument’s social history. In the nineteenth century, women who could play the piano were considered more marriageable. In the twentieth century, the piano became, for a while, a bourgeois fetish. But what surprised me was how the piano’s technical history is so connected to human touch. Previous instruments, such as the clavichord and the harpsichord, worked by banging strings with tangents or plucking them with feathers. This new instrument, the fortepiano, which means “loud/soft,” was different. The player hit a key with her or his finger; the key moved a leather-covered hammer; the hammer hit a string and then bounced back to its original position. What made the piano so special was the bouncy hammer and the hand. Everything about your hands—the pressure with which you hit the keys, the amount of fat on each finger, the angle you take (using the pad to strike or the side to tap), the length and strength of your fingers, or the deformity of your hands—affects how the hammer hits the string. The different ways in which hands touched the piano became, over time, the sound of emotion.
The Anasazi—or Ancestral Pueblo peoples—occupied some of the canyons around Cedar Mesa, Utah, from about the third through the thirteenth centuries, and I have come to think of them as ancient fortune-tellers. In their dwellings, which still remain, they drew stick animals, boxy-shaped people, and eerily futuristic stalks of corn, but their favorite shape was the human hand.
Archeologists speculate that Anasazi handprints might be the marks of participants in special ceremonies. One could leave a handprint on the wall in the same way one leaves her or his name on the guest register at a wedding. Or, the prints could be the signatures of the artists themselves, as if, after drawing their stick figures, the artists had dipped their hands in paint and pressed them onto a piece of blank paper. Or, the handprints could identify members of a social or religious group. Or, perhaps the Anasazi were ancient forensic scientists who knew that individual identity was tied to fingerprints. But no one knows, and although some archeologists guess, Sally Cole, the most well-known rock-art researcher, will not even conjecture what the handprints mean.
One year, my mother and I backpacked a 23-mile circuit in the Cedar Mesa area called Grand Gulch. At an unnamed ruin near the well-known Turkey Pen Ruin site, we stumbled on a pile of sandstone slabs mortared together to form little cavelike houses. Carefully, I crawled inside the dwelling where I could get close to the prints. There were child hands and adult hands; hands in red, black, brown, and white; hands stamped on and hands in relief; hands decorated with geometric designs and hands in solid colors; hands in a line and hands in random order; crooked-fingered hands and straight ones; and one hand standing alone in a corner. I have the deepest respect for these unprotected ruins, but the desire to connect with them came over me suddenly and forcefully, and I stuck both of my hands against a set in deep amber so that I could feel myself touching the past, palm to palm.
One of the things I do on a regular basis is teach poetry to undergraduates, and, probably because of my deformed fingers, I’m sensitive to how often poets put hands, not breasts or lips, at the center of sensuality. Poets seem to know what lovers do: there’s a big difference between being felt and being touched. In John Donne’s “The Ecstasy,” for example, the lover concludes: “to engraft our hands” is “all the means to make us one.” But nowhere are hands more powerful modes of sensual expression than at the Capulet ball. Romeo says, “let lips do what hands do;/ They pray” right before that fateful kiss. The line appears in the most perfect sonnet in the English language, in my opinion, where the couple co-create the poem using their hands:
ROMEO If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
JULIET Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.
ROMEO Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
JULIET Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
ROMEO O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
JULIET Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
ROMEO Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.
Maybe I’m drawn to the sonnet form because it evokes music. Sonnet—“a little song or poem recited to music”—shares an etymology with the word sonata. Both the sonnet and the sonata state, develop, and conclude two antithetical elements, such as a musical instrument and a human hand.
Right after my daughter was born, my mother called. “Has she found her hands yet?” she said. “It’s a key developmental stage. You need to watch for it.”
For weeks, while my daughter kept her hands in fists, I worried. Finding your hands. It sounded so poetic. And yet it was psychological. If she didn’t find hers, would it mean she was mentally—slow? Would she be hand-impaired, like me? I decided to wait until she was six weeks, and then, if she was still tight-fisted, I would take her to the doctor.
I’ll never forget how, over those weeks, her hands slowly unfolded, and then she just stared at them, as if they were the most fascinating things in the world. She began grasping one hand with the other and prying them open and sucking them into her mouth. Though the baby books said that she was realizing her hands were part of her body, I think it was something more profound: the first realization of a self. When she was six, I started her on the piano. She didn’t inherit my hands, but my husband’s straight, dexterous fingers and the confidence that comes with that, so that at twelve, she was playing Mozart’s “Rondo Alla Turca” without a single mistake.
All rights reserved to D.J. Lee.