“My Hands,” mixed media sketch by Maria Theresa Maggi

The other day I was washing my hands for the umpteenth time when a tenderness came over me. Instead of trying to sing the 20 second song I came across in the New York Times or bitching to myself about the revolving door I can get into (hands in warm water cue the bladder which then sends me back for another round of hand washing under warm water), I found myself really looking at my hands as I washed them and tenderly touching each angle, each crevice, each fingertip, the edge of my hands, the knuckles.

I’ve lived alone for a long time, but I’ve been home alone for 3 weeks (except for dearest Cotton, bless his sweet heart!), and I haven’t seen my son and daughter-in-law in at least 6. The rides I used to get to the grocery store have been replaced by neighbors going for me when they are quickly running their own errands. I’m lucky to have a handful of neighbors willing to offer this to me, and I am ever grateful. But the upshot of it is that social distancing for me means I don’t get to do errands with others in a leisurely chatty manner that often fulfills my social interaction needs. And I don’t get to see my kids every few weeks and enjoy that peace that comes over me when they are here in persons under the same roof, and we cook and eat and laugh and lounge around together, or walk down to the beach and play with the dogs.

The moment I noticed I was tenderly appreciating my own hands was a revelation to me of the most profound kind. Instead of worrying about whether I was fulfilling my social obligation to myself and others to keep them clean enough, I had somehow crossed over into territory that had me lovingly making sure it was a pleasant experience for them to be cleaned. This tenderness with myself moved me, made me aware that I was actually allowing myself to self-soothe in a positive and healthy way.

And it brought back memories.

When I was in grade school, most of the girls I played with on my block bit their fingernails. I watched in fascination, since I considered these girls “normal,” in the sense that they didn’t have mild cerebral palsy or have to wear a brace on one of their legs. Though biting my nails didn’t appeal to me, for a short time I learned to pull off the longer tops, so mine would be near to as short as theirs were. But one day I was playing with one of my best friends who confessed to me that she couldn’t stop biting her nails, though she really wanted to. For the first time, I noticed how red her fingers were around the nails from the biting and realized how sore they must be, and my heart went out to her. She told me I was lucky I didn’t feel compelled to bite my nails. I decided I would never again seek to imitate a habit that caused others so much shame and pain.

As a teenager I worked in a small family owned department store, first in seasonal gift wrap and then as a clerk and cashier and later assistant buyer in the Juniors and Children’s Departments. I started decorating my long unbitten nails with colorful nail polish to go with the outfits and rings and bracelets I wore. Later, in college, I worked at a small family owned bookstore, and having nicely polished nails continued to be part of my salesclerk personae. (I would also dress up, including doing my nails on days I had to take tests I wasn’t very confident about doing well on–geology comes to mind. That way at least I’d feel like I looked okay.)

The first time a boy noticed my hands was on a camping trip I took when I was 19 with a student theater group to the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland Oregon, My sister had been part of a summer musical theater workshop and the trip was offered through that program. She was completely uninterested, but I, who was smitten with Shakespeare from age 13 after seeing Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet, asked the coordinator, who was a family friend, if I could go in her place. I sat in the front of the bus with my polished nails ( a nice earthy burgundy matte), looking out the window, expecting to be ignored by the high school students roughing it up behind me, which would leave me to my daydreams and anticipation of the performances.

So I was really surprised when a boy with long blonde hair falling across his blue eyes struck up a conversation with me. He was fascinated with my hands–he said he knew I was different, older, not like the other girls when he saw them, and that made him want to talk to me. He was a smart boy who collected classic comic books and loved Mahler and heavy metal. We spent the entire four days together–and I remember him holding my hand, first on the bus, to tell me how pretty it was. Later, he would hold them while I cried during the performance of “A Long Days Journey Into Night,” because the alcoholic dynamics reminded me so much of my uncle. On the way home on the bus when he had no idea how to address my sadness that we would not go on seeing each other, he would hold them again.

Later on, in my mid thirties, another young man, a former  university student I had taught I had no business letting  get as close to me as I did,  would pick those hands up and examine them and tell me how pretty they were. I would later write about this in a section of a poem titled “Tracking Jupiter,”  that appeared in my first book of poems, The Rings Around Saturn:

I find my hands inside yours. In silence,
you examine the stalk and plume of every crease,
then the sharp urgency of knuckles,
thin lavender-blue lamp in each vein.
You look up carefully,
your gaze so clean, inscrutable,
and say I have pretty hands.
I look back at them again.
The fingers seem longer, thinner,
each nail spilling itself into tiny domes of milk.
You won’t let go, yet don’t want to hold them down—
as if you remember they might tremble
toward this release.   But they don’t. They gleam,
lithe, amphibious, as if they could float above me.

But most of the time, I was not wearing nail polish or even an abundance of rings on my fingers. As I got older, I eschewed most of that, often all of it, making what I called “nun’s hands” when I cut my nails so I could be free to get dirt under them in the garden, flour under them in the kitchen, or let them fly across the keyboard easily when I wrote,  or let them get spattered with  paint or ink all over them when I journaled and doodled. I also stopped wearing any eye make-up, so I could cry freely whenever I needed to.

I expected my hands to perform and execute all my creative desires, especially the left one, the “normal” one, and when it first started showing signs of rebellion that would later lead to the diagnosis of MS, I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Weakness in my hands was one of the more severe symptoms I had the winter I was given that diagnosis, and I had to wear hand braces on both of them to be able to pick things up or hold a book open to read my poems in public when The Rings Around Saturn came out. I had great difficulty tying my shoes during this period, and I remember how moved I was when yet another young man I loved dearly bent to his knees to tie them for me.

During that initial phase of my illness there were a lot of things I couldn’t do because of the weakness in my hands. They weren’t even strong enough to hold a book open, even with the hand braces on–for years I used a book butler instead. As my ability to use them came and went over those years, at times I did more of what I called “clawing” than handling of the things I needed to use, open, cook or create with. Often, as one friend so aptly put it, would need to ask others “to pick something up and put it somewhere else.”  I was overjoyed 12 years ago when I changed to a low fat plant-based diet and began to see more of their abilities return for longer or more consistently, or recover more quickly when they tired and weakened.

But never, despite that joy in being able to use them more to my creative liking since then, however slowly, have I ever had a moment like I had when I looked at them with such tenderness under the running water, as if seeing all they’d done and been through for the first time. Never had one hand touched the other with such tenderness, either.

When I was a young woman I was mystified and fascinated that these boys were entranced with my hands. But in that moment, of self-tenderness, aged though they are, I saw them in all their glory, and I understood for a moment the tendernesses others had shown them when I couldn’t. In that moment, I loved my hands, too. not because of all they’ve given me, but because I needed to give myself some tenderness in a trying time.

This might sound like an odd thing to say but the social distancing required during this time of mitigating the Covid-19 virus has allowed me a moment of tenderness for myself  I never would have slowed down for, even in my slow miracle life, if I hadn’t been forced to. To stumble upon a capacity for tenderness with myself in such a mundane obligatory act required in the midst of constant invitation to fear and open ended uncertainty is a rare and precious gift.

When the shut downs and stay at home orders began, at first I felt the odd sensation of what I’ve referred to in the last 24 years as “the busy universe” actually slowing down to my pace. But the impetus for it “out there”  was also laced with fear and dread.  Whereas my slow pace had always helped me cultivate a reservoir for healing and  peace, now the whole world was flooding in to that slow pace, and most of that world was far from feeling peaceful. This was disorienting and it took some time to let myself adjust to going even more slowly within the slowness, in order to discern what my next step ought to be in any given moment to stay centered, now that this pandemic had brought “the busy universe” to a near stand still. It was, and still is, a powerful opportunity.

Now when I wash my hands I don’t mind going more slowly. I won’t always feel that same moment of tenderness but now I know it’s there. I can remind myself there is no hurry to be anywhere else but in the moment, no matter how many times I end up washing them in a day, so I might as well appreciate the experience. And if I feel like singing, Instead of 20 seconds, I sing part of “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic.”

I am privileged beyond measure to HAVE a  sound and cozy place to isolate and notice such things, and that when I go outside, I can keep the required social distance and see and hear the ocean, Mother Pacifica, in the bargain. I am blessed beyond measure to have neighbors to get my groceries for me when they go out to get theirs. Although I write here in honor of my own hands, I also write in honor of your hands, too, and all the human hands who scrub themselves every day and night to save the lives of others, and all those hands who continue to work moving supplies around into our hands, so that we may all eat or get where we must go, or receive a package that will see us through. And I write, too, in deep honor of those hands that will hold and be held no more, for the lives they made meaningful and productive, which have now been lost. May a thousand little tendernesses, as soft as kisses, bless all the hands of those who mourn and those who toil and those who wait. May they be surprised by hope and kindness when they least expect it, and need it most. And may they trust every little thing they do helps heal us all.

Maria (moonwatcher)

 

 

 

 

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Last night right before turning off my lap top I came across this article, “The Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief,” which resonated deeply with what I’d been grappling with earlier in the day and hashing out with a wise friend of mine. It put me in mind, too, of this very fine skeleton of a leaf that Cotton brought in on his tail,  which ended up stuck to the blanket he sleeps on on the bed. When I saw it, I carefully picked it off, gasping at its intricacy, at the whole shape of it still intact, and I placed it on my nightstand as a beautiful reminder of the exquisite beauty of what the Japanese call Wabi Sabi, flawed beauty, or  “a way of living that focuses on finding beauty within the imperfections of life and accepting peacefully the natural cycle of growth and decay” (an apt phrase which appeared when asking Google for a definition). I have long been a devotee of wabi sabi, long before I was familiar with the term.

Amidst the worldwide crisis we are all experiencing, it felt as good a time as any to honor this beauty in the flawed and in fact to court beauty in all its forms–even those couched in profound shock and grief. Just as this crisis was making itself felt in my corner of the world, a much looked forward to visit and birthday celebration had to be postponed, as I wrote about in the post “Until We Meet Again.”

When I am disappointed or bereft of anticipated human connection, and as a result of spending a lot of time alone over the years (and for the most part enjoying that solitude), I have come to allow objects around my house to give me cheer when the ones who do that in person can’t be around. In fact the objects are cheering often because they elicit memories of shared happiness. One of these objects is my strong of “starfish lights.” I got these during my first Christmas season at the coast when I was still at the trailer and though my son and daughter-in-law were to come out for part of our Christmas celebration, there was no room for a tree and no ornaments in my possession that weren’t in Portland. So I went with a good friend to the Christmas Store in Lincoln City–(yes there’s a store here that specializes in everything ornamental for the holidays and is open all year) where I found the starfish lights. They happily hung on the mantle in the trailer behind the little wood stove for our Christmas festivities.

When I moved to my permanent home here, it was February, but still, I put up the starfish lights to brighten a hearth with a damaged firebox that would have to be replaced and repaired before I put a heat source in it. They looked like they always belonged there. In the last 3 years I’ve been through a few strings of lights, but they still twinkled on. The plastic starfish snap onto the lights to stay in place. So when just the morning after we had to postpone seeing each other I woke up to darkened starfish, and thought to myself, well there’s a metaphor if ever there was one.

I went to the cupboard where months before I had put an additional string of lights I’d purchased with the right number, and what I thought were the right size to snap onto the starfish. But when I tried to do that, I discovered the base of each light was too small, and the starfish fell right off. Not only that, but the distance between each light was much more short, making it impossible to string them across the mantel even if they did fit.

I was crestfallen. It seemed like a gloomy sign of the times. For at least a day or two, I left the nest of naked lights on, next to the darkened star fish. But then I had an inspiration. I decided to arrange the starfish in a way that would allow them to be lit up by the too-small lights. They certainly couldn’t hang like a conventional string of lights, but they could be arranged horizontally, “spilling” over a basket full of tarot cards and runes on the hearth:

It occurs to me now as I write about them that in this arrangement these campy plastic interpretations of starfish have returned to a position more like their real life partners out in the tidal pools. This epiphany is comforting to me, and soothing. It gives the loss of the way they used to be a a lovely cast of meaning, even in the wistfulness that comes with the knowledge  there will be no rides to the Christmas Store anytime soon to remedy the situation.

___

My mother’s favorite George Carlin routine was something called “Sending Away,” which made great fun of the days when we saved box tops from cereal to await the fulfillment of a mysterious offer. Although most of us “send away” online all the time, the shut downs have made that even more pressing. A friend posted a set of restorative yoga poses online and I was deeply impressed with the big bolsters used to accomplish these poses, which are touted to open up the chest and strengthen the respiratory system, the immune system, and more. It felt like a really good thing to add to my yoga practice, so I gave myself the gift of ordering one. And frankly, I’m absolutely in love with it. It allows me to add these poses to my practice and it’s also a great support to my lower back when I sit in meditation in the morning, allowing me to do that a little longer, or, when I’m tired, at all. And doing the poses gives me more energy and lift in my day. In fact I’m so thrilled with the bolster facilitating all this that I gave it a name–Pearl–and I sketched it in honor of that, something I haven’t done in a while, so I could share it here with you:

“Yoga Bolster Life Sketch,” by Maria Theresa Maggi

I also ordered a couple of foam bricks, which haven’t arrived yet. So in the meantime, I’m using a couple of extra “chill pills” I made over the holidays and after as neck supports. They are simply large knitted pill shapes, stuffed with polyfil and decorated with the words “chill” on one half of the pill and a little face on the other. I’d love to say I thought of this myself, but it is the genius of a loom knitting friend in a group I’m in. I laughed so hard when I first saw it as a post she made suggesting it as a last minute gift that I made one for our family Christmas get together. I gave some as gifts and even ended up taking a few orders before all this virus pandemic settled in. I’ve named the two that help me out “Merle” (to go with “Pearl”)and “Shirley” (who sleeps on the bed with Cotton and me).

Perhaps such detail to silly minutia is a sign of my privilege–and I am indeed lucky that I have the resources to stay at home and order what I need or be grateful for those who can drive to bring me my groceries or other necessities. Nevertheless, I am a big believer in the little things making a big difference, and so I court them with abandon.

Finally, even without new or old objects to brighten your days mostly indoors, I’m reminded of this epiphany I had that helped me recognize how to shift feelings that would otherwise only weigh me down and hold me back if I focused on them. This came to me before the virus came to us the way it is now, and at the time I wrote it down, I was aware it could apply to much bigger scenarios than the example I dramatized below. For context, I will explain that in mythology, Chariklo is the centaur Chiron’s wife. Chiron is the archetype of the wounded healer in Astrology as well as mythology, and he is assigned to one of the asteroids in the asteroid belt. Chariklo’s asteroid was not discovered and named as such until much later but we need her now more than ever. She signifies the quiet presence of love abiding during powerful and heart wrenching life and death transitions. I was moved to discover she sits right on my Capricorn sun in my birth chart and so from that perspective perhaps this is one of the reasons why I am so willing to find the good, to birth joy from sorrow while allowing the sorrow and the hurt their due. May the blessing of love abiding be yours today and in the coming days through this worldwide experience of uncertainty, hardship and deep change. Let us, with Chariklo, midwife the love and the light we find, bringing it into the world to shine, and to heal.

“When you’ve been through a difficult transition with someone, even betrayal or heartbreak, Chariklo resides in that space of whatever good memory you have. Even if it is just a moment or a few moments in years of difficulty, she is there to remind you that love abides, right alongside betrayal. Because she excels in creating that sacred space, she doesn’t require you to pick one or the other. But when you let your consciousness abide in the love, from whatever safe boundaries are necessary in the physical world, your spirit and your whole being can begin to heal.

I thought of this on our walk this morning when I said to Cotton as we rounded a corner to go down the hill to the ocean “Let’s go see Mother Pacifica.” A friend here calls her that and I loved it so much because it’s so true to the way I feel that I’ve adopted the name and often refer to the ocean that way, at least to Romeo and Cotton. That name puts me in a place of reverence and gratitude for the moment, and it is a gift that keeps on giving in that way. It also prompts me to remember the daily visits this retired nurse made me when I was at my most sick last Spring, gently listening to what I said and carefully watching for whatever she could do to help. With her training in a hands on healing technique, she buoyed up my energy for over a week.

I don’t see this friend often anymore. In fact, I’ve been disappointed there hasn’t been more follow through when we text about getting together. But when I say “Mother Pacifica,” Chariklo returns me to that place of love and gratitude, and even the delight of the first day I met this friend, who tells me I was the very first person she met here, when she had come to look for a new home, as she tripped coming up from the steps to the beach. She had been so embarrassed and I, after making sure she was alright, laughed to tell her how I do things like that all the time and she was making me feel really good about not being the only one.

On balance, in this small case, there’s more in that loving space of remembrance than there is in the cramped hurts about why I might not have been invited along here or why she didn’t follow through there. It doesn’t disallow those feelings or dishonor them; it’s just way more comfortable to observe them from the space Chariklo creates for perspective. Even if the stakes are so much higher and more painful or dangerous, and the betrayal very real and lasting, Chariklo waits for us in that space of the love we gave—because love given, no matter the outcome, is love received by the one who gives it.”

 

Maria (moonwatcher)

 

 

 

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Until We Meet Again

March 14, 2020

For the last couple of weeks we have been planning to celebrate my daughter-in-law’s birthday out here on the coast. A few days ago I finished her a loom knit gift (no spoilers beyond that allowed) and shopped for the ingredients for the decadent dessert you see above. (Go to Cherry Chocolate Mousse Pie  at […]

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The Hope of Poppies (and Orange Almond No Oil Granola)

March 13, 2020

As most of you know, I make my meals by the seat of my pants these days, and my recipe posts are usually guided by tasty epiphanies and not carefully remade and tested over and over again to make sure of consistency. But this granola is different. After having to buy some over the holidays […]

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Two Ways To Look At A Rainbow

February 24, 2020

Last Sunday Cotton and I went down to the beach in the late afternoon to play for a bit in the wind, next to the rising tide. We had a spirited few minutes down on the sand playing with Cotton’s “toy” (a twisted rope knotted at both ends that he treats like prey) and made […]

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Anniversary Note: To The Ones I Love

February 14, 2020

Today, February 14, 2020, is my “twin” MS anniversary: 24 years ago today, I received the diagnosis of MS, and 12 years ago today, I began my official start on a low fat whole food plant-based lifestyle. I wanted to “remake” the anniversary of the diagnosis into something positive, transformative, and life giving. To make […]

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This Wild and Blessed Life

January 19, 2020

If there is a chance to spot wildlife in the midst of other people, I’m rarely, if ever, the first to notice, and often the last to do so. But sometimes when I’m alone, I get visited in ways that delight. Last week I had an astounding encounter, one unparalleled in my life, at least […]

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When The Light Returns

December 20, 2019

A couple of mornings ago before daybreak, I was sitting on the couch waiting to let Cotton back in and this is what I saw: the fireplace glowing in the still darkened house, and the little miniature of my house my daughter-in-law’s mother made me a few Christmases ago sitting on the hearth, lit from […]

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Hold Onto Your Heart (and Pumpkin Spice Biscotti)

November 25, 2019

At this season of thankfulness, I am counting some blessings, both quiet and profound. Cotton and I have carried on the tradition of walking early in the morning we started late last Spring with Romeo when I was recovering from the chemical pneumonia prompted by exposure to diesel exhaust. It was such a beautiful part […]

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The Loom and A Homecoming

October 29, 2019

A long time ago, the Spring after I received the “probable” diagnosis of MS, I made a list in my journal of “Things I’d Done Enough Of” and “Things I Haven’t Done Enough Of.” The principle of considering how to spend my carefully curated energy these last nearly 24 years now has continued to be […]

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