At my nephew's new school, the students who stray are not punished, derided or scolded, they are given moments of reflection. These are not classic pauses of sitting and thinking, remembering,and then satisfying someone with a promise to never do that again. Instead they're assigned active quiet tasks where they work alone completing some arduous chore: Reshelving books in the library, sweeping the hall, or in the case of Chris,my nephew,chopping wood. During a recent visit he displayed his fingers all pocked with splinters, this was one of the side effects of his moment of reflection.
In one aesthetic, hands that have experienced manual labor are admired. The calloused fingers of a carpenter, the hardened palms of a leatherworker, tattoos that come from welding or glassmaking, farming or trimming vineyards are often envied. People who can do something, make something, seem to have more a connection with what is essential than the gooey hands of the gentry. Sherlock Holmes glimpsed the knuckles of blacksmith or the soft palms of a landowner and knew who he was dealing with.
For my nephew, splinters and callouses are the dots to connect to reach a kind of understanding, so the story goes. And revelations do take patience and sometimes the epiphany is a sought after prize. I imagine those minutes or hours swinging the axe, splitting the wood, and hating everyone in sight. Eventually the mind turns to realization or the sheer hope never to have to do this task again.
Writers spend a lot of time in quiet doing. Our hands don't give away our occupation as much as cracking necks and achy backs. But there are hours alone on a task, one that should have an end...whether it's finishing the story or reaching the epiphany or getting five pages done today. Pretty much no one can do it for us and so we have to hold still to take our journey.
For me holding still is as much a challenge for me as chopping wood is for Chris. The first time the nuns punished me, it was for "fidgeting" in mass. My body involuntarily shifted in church pews, squirmed in desk seats and rocked on the piano stool. Life has always been a high octane activity: hiking, biking, walking, running, dancing pumping iron and of course I went through periods of building shelves and spice racks, of fixing my own bike, of putting in a vegetable garden at 89th and Amsterdam, but the joys of manual labor didn't stick with me. The product rarely seemed worth the effort besides writing demanded that I weed out what was frivolous and hold still. I had go chop the wood.
Getting to the balance between movement and solace was the hardest part of the writer's work for me and took years of rituals and excuses to get it right. First i had to make coffee, then i had to read yesterday's work-- I read poetry to start, hand copied other's chapters that I emulated. Yoga, candles, push ups. finally i realized time was fleeting and I just had to sit down and write and to love that moment as if it were supplying me with fresh oxygen the way the other more dynamic activities were doing.
2. There's another thing to remember here
There's another thing to remember here. At some point life doesn't give you a choice. Yes we struggle with jobs and writing, family and writing, all kinds of commitments and writing, and that feels like the huge struggle. It is a huge struggle, and at times in my life, insurmountable. The choice to hold still while it is a choice,is a luxury. I don't have to labor with wood or iron to make my dinner. Gardening at this point would be a hobby, rather than a need. The pieces I juggled are luxuries for calloused hands and swollen fingers.
What happens, though, when holding still isn't a choice. Which brings me to where I am sitting while I write this. My father who healthy as an ox on his 100th birthday a little more than a month ago is shifting in a hospital bed that was set up in his living room. Like many elders, he fell, was damaged internally by the pain meds, underwent surgery, and started to fade away. He started to fade, muscles melting, body disappearing. At his birthday, he was close to dancing and now he was holding still.
I write to the rhythm of his breathing and watch the streaks of rain on his patio windows. Through those doors are plants he put in, the b b que he lit up in the summer, tools for his yard, all covered by a tin awning that pings the raindrops like a chime. All of this makes me want to jump up from the writing, run into that freezing rain and moving as much as I can before I need to hold still for longer than i want to. Life moves fast and changes in a blink of the eye.
Common wisdom, I know and probably some sentimentalizing at this critical time in my life. Watching my dad, get better, I predict is my wood chop, my moment of reflection.And the understandings, the epiphanies and revelations are cascading in, troubling me to sort them out some how, to remember how to choose the tasks manual and internal, spiritual and intellectual, to keep me from holding still for too long, but to sit long enough to produce the books that need to be finished. But i have to keep moving because I am truly fearful of being still, and waiting for the next breath, the next burst of energy.
Dad's hands are solid, the hint of his strength in his grip. He has grown vegetables and tied grapevines, stocked his store shelves and cooked his own food. In the quiet times, he has written poetry, tons of it, in more than one language, enough to fill several books, or just the one my sister Geralyn edited for his birthday. Now he is not writing, but waiting and so am I. We are hopeful for a different way to spend our holding still time and hopeful that it will happen soon. He jumbles lotion through his long fingers, softening his hands, preparing them, no doubt, for the chore that is yet to come.
Causes Elmaz Abinader Supports