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Sunday, February 17, 2008

Thoughts on Things: Hands (cont'd) and Elbows

My hands have twirled fine crystal wine glasses filled with plonk or with beautiful, rich old reds from a well-stocked cellar. My hands have hoisted beer cans, beer bottles, and frosted beer steins.


In fact, I have to admit that, when it comes to drinking, I'm an elbow-bender. It took me many years to understand that I don't have a head for alcohol, but I remain an elbow-bender. If a glass is in front of me, I drink from it until it is empty. If someone refills it, I drink again.


It is clear that I don't care what is in the glass. I am simply an elbow-bender. So now I put water in the glass and I can bend my elbow with impunity. Elbow-bending is simply my way of handling the nervous, ill-at-ease feeling I get when in public. Just as the routines of cigarette smoking provided punctuation for our conversations, so elbow-bending allows me a way to cover momentary embarrassment. If you've ever watched cats, you know that when they are embarrassed they immediately begin to lick a paw. Elbow-bending is my version of paw-licking.


Here's an elbow story:


We all reach an age when we think that we comprehend the idea of mortality. Okay, we say, I've got it. Not only you, but even I am going to steer this old jalopy of a body into the driveway of death.


And we then proceed to live our lives exactly the way we did before we accepted the idea of our own mortality. Perhaps we no longer manifest the sheer abandon of 16-year-old boys, but our actions in general fail to reflect our understanding of mortality.


Recently we had dinner with friends, six of us in all. The lovely meal ended with a gorgeous berry pie from the Queen of Tarts. I overate. Too full, and slightly uncomfortable sitting at the table, I edged my chair back, turned slightly sideways on it, crossed my legs, and rested my arm on the back of the chair.


It had been a beautiful evening. The dining room was lit with candles that marched down the center of the table and that filled the sideboard at the end of the room. There was also a sideboard behind me holding five or six randomly placed candles.


So I sat with my arm on the back of the chair, holding forth or listening attentively, whichever I was doing.

But whatever I was doing, I was definitely not paying attention to the sideboard behind me. Or its candles.


My elbow felt hot. "Oh!" I said, and I pulled it away from the chair and inspected it. Yes, indeed, it was hot. It was, in fact, on fire. Like, burning. Like, in flames.


"Oh," I said again. I grabbed the cloth napkin and calmly batted at the fire, extinguishing it. It wasn't a big fire, just kind of an elbow-sized fire. We all inspected it and found it still smoldering, so we dabbed some water on it.


Then we moved the candles and went on with our business of talking.


It was only later that I really assessed what had happened. I was wearing my pretty red linen Chico's jacket, embroidered all over with red thread. It now had a hole in the elbow the size of two quarters, plus a larger intact but charred area surrounding the hole. But what if my jacket had been made of some more readily flammable material? What if it had gone up in a whoosh of flames that engulfed the whole jacket and its contents (which is to say, me)? What then, pussycat?


Imagine the human fireball, the instantaneous explosion of all our lives. Imagine how everything can change in the blink of an eye, in a moment of inattention.


Aside from the gratifying news that nothing more serious happened, the other good news is that I immediately began to imagine how I would mend the elbow of my red Chico's jacket. I have since mended it, and it carries no visible reminder of the night my elbow caught on fire.


And it was my clever hands that mended the poor burned elbow of my jacket. Hands can do anything!


Copyright 2008 Ann Tudor

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Thoughts on Things: Hands

I like my hands. I like what they do. The Toronto singer and teacher Michele George used to teach a song that ends "and my hands, oh my hands! I believe with these hands I could hold this land…" That's how I feel about my hands.


Hands are made to be used. My hands are pretty heavily used, although for the final hour or two of each day all they do is hold a book and turn pages.


My hands like to dig in the garden. I once had a neighbor who was a gardener and a nurse, and she impressed upon me the importance of wearing gloves when working in soil: there are a lot of dangerously scary microorganisms that can enter through a cut on your finger. She said, "Always wear gloves!" I've never forgotten that. So each time I go to the garden I put on my gloves. I dig a little something, I pull a few weeds, and I whip those gloves off faster than the eye can see.


I HATE wearing gardening gloves. You can't feel anything. You can't feel the roots or the little delicate stems as you are transplanting. You can't distinguish the warmth of the soil at the top from the coolness of the soil four inches down. So I take my chances with the microorganisms. But I do scrub my hands with a brush after I garden.


If you learn to play a musical instrument when you are young, your hands will never completely forget how to play it. My fingers still remember basic flute fingerings, even though I haven't played the flute for fifty years. And on the piano, though I rarely play now, my fingers know the notes, can still automatically feel the intervals, and even shift themselves, if they have to, into the proper fingering for scales. Astonishing!


My hands have woven baskets from reed and willow. Baskets are handmade. Think of that the next time you see a cheap basket. Who made it? How long did it take to make it? What was the craftsperson's monetary reward?


My hands knit and crochet, those two single-thread techniques for making fabric. I love the feel of good wool slipping through my fingers. I can't explain to anyone how the left hand holds the yarn. I can show them. But if I try to tell them, I can't say whether you start with the back or the front of your left-hand pinky. But my hands know without thinking and are always happy to twine the yarn through the fingers to create the right tension.


These hands have held babies. I haven't ridden a bicycle in fifty years, and I don't think I remember how, despite the old saying. But babies? You never forget how to hold a baby. I see a baby and my hands and arms ache to hold it. I'd hold it cradle-wise first, and then in burp-position, over the shoulder (always the left shoulder, for me). One hand holds the little bottom in position, the other, fingers spread, reaches from baby bottom up to the shoulders, feeling the bones of that tiny spine. No, your hands never forget how to hold a baby.


When I was a teenager, I had dreams of being a hands and feet model, simply because both my hands and my feet were long and narrow, said to be a sign of elegance. It is a measure of my naivete then that I never realized 1) how very much more beautiful than mine one's hands had to be if one wanted to make a living from them, and 2) the amount of upkeep that would be required, should I actually try to be a model for hands and feet. I've since read about it: if you model hands, you must never USE your hands. You never do dishes or dig in the garden, for example. You certainly never do your own household repairs. Or chop your own vegetables. You don't wield a knife for any reason. You don't play guitar or violin or cello because playing a stringed instrument will callous your fingers. Each night you must cream your hands with expensive ointments and then encase them in soft cotton gloves. And manicures! You spend all your earnings on manicures!


Well, you get the idea. Not for me the life of a model. Can't be bothered. Too busy doing. The human tornado, whirling from one hand-job to the next (so to speak). These hands are busy busy busy. Making bread. Making biscuits. Making pinwheels for grandchildren. Making bouncing babies for Hannah's birthday. Mending rips and tears in fabric or skin. Sending energy to people who want it. Knitting. Sorting. Typing (and what a blessing now not to have to correct six carbons, as I once did). Making ice cream. Ironing clothes. Playing Mozart on the piano and Bach on the cello (not terribly well yet, but still . . .). Tickling children—only a little, never to the point of distraction. Holding hands. Playing peek-a-boo. Playing patty-cake and This Little Piggy. Waving to subway conductors. Gathering stones from the river and shells from the sea. Brushing the wounded knees of children and stroking the bodies of lovers. Squishing fingers into sheepskin. Sliding silk over the arched back of the hand.


Feel. That's what hands do. They feel and discern, they distinguish, they tell us what's what.


All of this is much more fun than being a model of hands. And it's a good thing I've found fun for my hands, because they've definitely lost their looks! The thumb that I jammed and then ignored forty years ago is now "Ann's arthritic thumb," ugly and swollen, though not painful. That was the first insult but hardly the last.


Now I have nodes of arthritis that are lumpy and bumpy, veins that are oversized and squiggly—to the point that I became a person-of-interest to the doctors at the hand clinic, until they finally realized that it isn't pathology but simply my mother's hands.


When I remember, I put cream on my hands, cheap cream that my husband brings home from hotel visits. Too cheap for my beautiful, working hands, but I keep forgetting to look for the good stuff, and I'm not sure I would spring for it even if I did remember and did find it. It's too late for the pricey stuff.


So I file my nails and I push back my cuticles when I think of it. My hands are utilitarian and hard-working. I love them.


Copyright 2008 Ann Tudor   

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Thoughts on Things: Hair today, gone tomorrow

Eileen, my mother, had long, light brown hair that she wore in a bun at the back of her head. That simple, pulled-back style suited her strong looks. As a little girl, I thought all mothers should wear their hair that way. She never needed to go to a beauty parlor, because her hair style was homemade.


One day when I was in my early teens, however, Eileen went to the local hairdresser, a woman who operated out of her house, with a couple of sinks in the front room. She specialized in giving permanents. Hairdressers in our town were not thick on the ground, and Eileen had little experience with them. Hair "stylists" didn't exist in those days, at least not in our neck of the woods. Going to the hairdresser meant having your hair washed, cut, and set in little pin curls. And if you wanted a more permanent "do", then you asked for that same little pin curl arrangement but made permanent with chemicals. I don't know why Eileen decided to do it, but she went down the street and came home with her hair chopped off and tightly curled. Typically, for Eileen, her thoughts remained private.


Did she do it out of boredom? Anger? Was it a hormonal moment? Who knows? But that short, permed hair was so far from her usual image that we barely knew her. She hated it immediately, of course, but it was designed to be permanent, or at least temporarily permanent. Her stylish and artistic friend Phoebe told her to let it grow out and go back to the stylish chignon; Phoebe said if Eileen ever did the cut-and-perm trick again, that would be the end of their friendship.


So Eileen let her hair grow out, and gradually the perm disappeared, and she wore it in a bun again and all was well with the world. Who wants a mother to change?


Some twenty years later, Eileen's hair was much thinner, and grey instead of brown. With the children grown and gone, more money was available for frills. Also, the town was now more sophisticated, boasting not just one but several hair salons. So Eileen began visiting George once a week. She called him "the magician." She would arrive home perfectly coiffed. It was George who persuaded her to buy a little fluff of grey curls, and he showed her how to wear it. She pulled her own hair back from her face with tiny combs. And then she attached the little fluff of grey curls to look as if she had a mass of curly hair at the back of her head. Well, she did have a mass of curly hair there. It's just that it wasn't really her hair. This look suited her, and she wore her hair that way for the rest of her life. But she still went to the magician once a week.


For the rest of us, there has been no magician. Eileen's father, John Vincent Rahilly ("Bin", to his daughters), is bald in the few pictures we have of him. And that no-hair gene passed on through Eileen to my three brothers, all of whom have only tiny fringes of hair across the back of their heads. Grass doesn't grow on a busy street. God made some heads perfect; the rest he had to cover with hair. And so forth. My brother Jerry's three boys are as bald as he is (can we still blame that on Eileen and her father?). Two of my brother Dinty's four boys are also bald.


My sister Sari's hair was extraordinarily thin because of a childhood illness. In her twenties, she used to buy wigs, rail at fortune, and cry a lot. In her sixties, she had more important things to think about. In fact, she was probably the only woman around who welcomed the follicular ravages of chemotherapy, because at least that gave her a temporary excuse for lacking hair.

Several months before her sudden death, Sari sent me this joke: A woman woke up one morning and had only three hairs left on her head. "Goodie!" she said. "Today I'll braid my hair." And she did, and she had a wonderful day. The next day she woke up and had only two hairs on her head. "Today," she said, "I'll part my hair in the middle." And she did, and she had a wonderful day. The next day she woke up and had only one hair left on her head. "Today," she said, "I'll wear my hair in a ponytail." And she did, and she had a wonderful day. The next day she woke up totally bald, not a hair on her head. "Hooray!" she said, "I don't have to do my hair today!"


Our baby sister, Mary Eileen, born to a more rested and thus less depleted mother, has always had masses of curly dark hair—the kind that needs to be thinned. I've never had much sympathy for women who complain that their hair is so thick they can't do anything with it. This does not count as a problem.


About two years ago, my own follicles simply stopped replacing the hairs that fell out during the routine shedding that happens to all human heads. My hair has never been thick, so it didn't take me long to notice what was happening.


Now I'm looking for reasons, looking for remedies, and not looking in the mirror. Is it natural? Is it simply part of the aging process? Maybe, to both of those questions.


But I like to think that if I could just find the one thing that's wrong, the one little systemic glitch that's telling my follicles not to function, I'd solve the problem (and make a fortune into the bargain).


Or I can just accept my lot with good grace.



Copyright 2008 Ann Tudor

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Thoughts on Things: The Moon Inside . . .

Well, there may be no moon inside right now, though there used to be. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride them over the moon in my heart. If there were a moon in there.


If there were a moon inside, it could crowd out the rising tide of anger (don't read the political news, I keep telling myself) and all the other non-productive emotions that flow and ebb inside me and that obviously would engulf the moon inside—if there were a moon inside.


Can a moon and its reflected light be engulfed? Can it be drowned by the waters of emotion that flow and swoosh within? Or does the moon withstand all those watery tides and sit waiting in me until the raging surf dies down? As it will, of course.


The moon inside. She's the calming force, that silver crescent, that silver rocker, that argentine globe. She is our symbol of change; each night something different for the delight of our weary eyes. Each night a little bigger or a little smaller. On rising she often hangs above the horizon like a giant pumpkin, so much larger than when she's overhead. And then another night she doesn't appear at all, rising and setting before we even think to look, or long after we're in bed dreaming our dreams of airplanes that taxi endlessly, never soaring, never even approaching the height of the night's eye.


Wait. Go back to that airplane. If a plane doesn't get off the ground, is it any less an airplane? That plane/train taxied endlessly last night in my dream, taking us from downtown "Greece" out toward the country, where there would be room to take off. And two nights ago my dream was of a glider "spy plane" that followed the heroine and her abductor through a narrow alleyway that then became a tunnel, dark and murky, the ground not just muddy but roiled and churned with mud and toxic tailings from a mine. Walking through it was like walking through a WWI trench of bomb-churned mud filled with fragments of bone and blood and flesh.


And through this we trudged, following the heroine and her abductor, as the spy plane also followed them. Then they turned around and we met them as they trudged again through the mud toward "home." The heroine told us we really had to continue, for the view beyond the tunnel was worth the trip. It would change us.


On we went. Once out of the tunnel we were on a slow-moving train, watching the passing scenes, waiting for the one spectacular life-changing view the heroine had told us we would see.


We saw a landscape outlined in neon blue. We saw that blue change to gold. We saw a many-branched bare tree with eight or ten vultures hunched on its limbs. And we saw a pack of medium-sized black dogs cavorting before their home. When asked, someone said they were "Navigators." And I thought, "Oh, yes. I saw one of those Navigator dogs just last week." But we never did see the life-changing view the heroine had told us about.


Copyright 2008 Ann Tudor   

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Thoughts on Things: Blessings

When they asked how I was today I said, "Oh, okay," in that downward voice that means that I'm not okay at all. And then just moments later I remembered that I don't have to be that way. I can say, "Fantastic!" and mean it. I mean both of these answers, in fact. But the "fantastic" feeds the part that I want to nourish. So I answer you now: "I'm great!"


Blessings in my life are astounding, as they are in all our lives. We have only to acknowledge them.


How about the blessing of abundance, for starters? Is there anything else you need, beyond what you already have? What abundance you enjoy!


And how about friendship?  I know that friendship is there for the taking, if I simply open my heart. Open my heart? Just writing those words brings me to a standstill. Is it so difficult, then? Do you want to stay stuck forever, waiting for it to open? Just do it, dammit!


Okay. Friends for the asking. A loving husband. Three beautiful children. Four beautiful grandchildren.


Now I'm slowing down. Why is this becoming so hard? Other people make lists of blessings all the time. Why am I getting stuck? What's happened here?


Okay, continue. Blessings. Blessings in my life: crows; wolves; linden trees blooming in early summer. You're walking along and are suddenly assailed by a sweetness that stops you dead in your tracks and then you remember what that smell is and start looking around for the neighborhood linden tree.


Blessings: the heron sitting on the stump in the pond. Then the heron wading, looking for breakfast. He lifts one long leg slowly, the water undisturbed as he wades through it. He puts that leg down an inch farther along, then lifts the other leg. Any little fishy there will think those legs are just sticks. Unwary little fishies become breakfast for that grand old man of the pond.


Music. Ineffable music. Musicians are a breed apart, their lives bound up with the inexplicable. They can make the music, but their talk is incomprehensible except to another musician. Oh, how I've always wanted to be part of that world. But instead I'm just a chamber-music groupie. Maybe if I practice the cello or the piano every day in this life, I can be a professional musician the next time around.


Fabric, with its blessings of texture and color. Velvet. Satin. Crisp organza. Rough Irish tweed. Slinky knits. Can these be blessings? Well, of course. They're all embraces from the gods. These are our rewards for life's vicissitudes, for the difficulties of living through this physical existence.


I need to remember to take stock every day, to remember at least a few of these things every day. I need to acknowledge that there are blessings to counter the Joe Bfstplk cloud of gloom that wants to hang over my head. Maybe remembering some blessings every day will line that cloud with silver.


Copyright 2008 Ann Tudor