Homage To My Hands

by Maria Theresa Maggi on April 6, 2020

“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 The rides I used to get to the grocery store have been replaced by neighbors going for me when they are quickly running their own errands.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)





Leave a Comment

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Pat Meadows April 7, 2020 at 12:27 pm

Hi Maria: What’s a ‘book butler’? I too have trouble with my hands. Thank you.


2 Maria Theresa Maggi April 7, 2020 at 2:05 pm

Hi Pat–great question! It’s a stand that holds your book open for you. My hands used to get tired just from the pressure of the book wanting to close against them. My occuptational therapist at the time just gave me a simple plastic one. Here is the amazon page where there are a lot of different kinds to look at. Hope this helps answer your question. https://www.amazon.com/Desktop-Book-Stands/b?ie=UTF8&node=490620011


3 Denee April 7, 2020 at 9:04 pm

Beautiful….I have followed your blog for a long time and this is one of my favorite posts. I have never had “beautiful hands” but I have certainly had very painful/clumsy hands due to my conditions and now they are better (most of the time) and I am so grateful. I loved your story…thank you.


4 Maria Theresa Maggi April 8, 2020 at 10:16 am

Thank you so much, Denee, for your kind words. So happy to know your hands are better most of the time, and wishing you continued good health and care with them. <3


5 Veronica April 8, 2020 at 11:15 am

Oh Maria, this is so beautifully written. Your last paragraph was so full of love and hope. I, too, am trying to be more gentle with myself, my body, my mind – but I haven’t yet focused on my hands. Thank you for this reminder. I’m glad you’re doing OK through all this. xoxo


6 Maria Theresa Maggi April 10, 2020 at 9:52 am

bless your heart Veronica–thanks for reading and responding–do stay gentle as your can through all this. Much love to you, and continued good health–xoxo


7 Gena April 14, 2020 at 4:36 am

So, so beautiful Maria. I’m glad you’ve connected to this tenderness and form of self-care through the current crisis. My mom has been a nail biter her whole life, sometimes so persistently that she’s gotten bad infections. It’s been interesting and touching to watch her break the habit out of sheer necessity right now, with the guidelines about not touching our faces, and I know she’s struggling with it. Having always marveled at how beautiful her hands are, as people seem to have marveled at yours, I’m glad they’re getting a little break 🙂



8 Maria Theresa Maggi April 16, 2020 at 10:29 am

Oh Gena, I am so moved by these words about your mother and her lifelong struggle with biting the nails on her beautiful hands and how this virus is the thing that is making it necessary to quit–and how she must struggle with that. And thank you for your kind words saying the post is beautiful. We are need tenderness at this time and so thanks for yours. xoxo


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