Wednesday, July 21, 2010

old hands


After I had cut off my hands
and grown new ones

something my former hands had longed for
came and asked to be rocked.

After my plucked out eyes
had withered, and new ones grown

something my former eyes had wept for
came asking to be pitied.

–Denise Levertov 

*   *   * 

I drove up to the seminary today. The campus smelled of the pine trees baking in the heat, of dry grass and, subtly, of Troublesome Brook. I know the smell of that place. I know the smell of the building where I worked for ten years, its damp basement, the smell of the cracked linoleum stairs in summer and of the sheepishly bearded students lingering in the entryway in winter. I know the smell of the copper beech tree under which the chapel bells are rung, and the smell of the concrete step behind the classroom where I used to attempt private phone conversations. The tired appearance of each as familiar as my childhood bedroom, their smells nearly as intimate.

Sometimes you cut off your hands because you need new ones for new tasks. Sometimes old hands just fall off over time, so slowly you barely notice new hands have grown. If anyone asked my preference, I'd go with the latter. But when I became a mother my hands were cut off rather quickly and new hands had to sprout. Well, they are still sprouting; I'm not entirely comfortable with them yet. They seem so awkward, scrubbed-red and impatient, these hands.

At the seminary today I remembered my old hands. I missed them. They had such a quiet, bookish life. Lots of time to think, those hands--and those eyes. The places those eyes had the leisure to linger! Too often I mistook that leisure for boredom. I remember this: I would be at Starbucks in Tuckahoe by myself, lonely, taking photos of whatever caught my fancy, and Jenny would call. She: "You're at Starbucks! By yourself! You're so lucky!" And I would smile.

I also think of this: whenever a new set of hands grew to feel entirely comfortable on me, they began to change. The confidence of being an old hand inevitably bringing about its own demise. A crude example of this is high school and college--by year four you've got your game going on just when it is all about to end. 

Another baby is on his or her way, and I fear I need not new hands but a second set. But these are my only hands. And they may need another three years before they look as though they are at home on me. Let them remember other more bookish, carefree tasks; someday I will remember what they rocked today and smile.

{ p o e t r y  w e d n e s d a y }


Jenny Schroedel said...


Just beautiful. Love the image of changing hands. Mine are splintered with bamboo, soil beneath my nails, raw in a new way. I love the image of looking back and at what your hands held now.

Jenny Schroedel said...


Just beautiful. Love the image of changing hands. Mine are splintered with bamboo, soil beneath my nails, raw in a new way. I love the image of looking back and at what your hands held now.

Kris Livovich said...

The idea of old hands/new hands is an intriguing one. I would like to think that new hands, after we learn to use them a bit, would be able to do some things better or differently than our old hands. Maybe not make the same mistakes? The training period is hard.

Your picture is beautiful.

Anonymous said...

Wow. I love the stark, surprising nature of this poem's imagery. It is one to savor, one that will linger in my mind, I think, with the words popping into my head again at random, unexpected times . . .
And I agree about the felt need for a 2nd set of hands :-)

Julia said...

Amber, your description of the seminary and its humble little buildings and spots is perfect and takes me back. I love the idea of you trying to "attempt" a private conversation anywhere on that campus. Ha-- the walls there have ears, as we all know--maybe beards too. It was also a funny moment for me to be on the phone with you as you were arriving yesterday and hear you say, "Well, I have to go and talk to Ted." I wonder how many conversations we ended on that note in the old days. I completely understand all that you're saying here. I am glad that you are still making treks up to Crestwood and maintaining a connection. It makes me feel that somehow all is right with the world.

Nostalgia said...

I am having a hard time with this metaphor of cut off old hands. I understand it and I don't, I like it and not so much. But I definitely like the post. In a way it's pleasant, that not being too fond of the metaphor only better conveys this confused and complicated feeling - the feeling of what one must feel when old hands get cut off and new ones need to sprout, as you are describe.