Hands that Matter
From the Series: HandsOn: Touching the Digital Planet
It might seem like our pain is different,
but what I hear you saying
is that our categorizations,
the local and the atmospheric,
the physical and the emotional,
the human and the digital,
they are intermingled in them.
Our pain is a conversation,
between first loves:
we recall the heat
and the estrangement
from our bodies.
You are practicing upstairs
like you always do.
After school, before dinner.
The second of two two-hour shifts.
Your fingers, birds in flight,
shapeshifting across your viola.
You wonder if they belong to you.
Downstairs, the silence calcifies.
Grainy images and black squares,
students, shells in their homes.
During breakouts, you water
your plants and think
But as covid-19 becomes 20 then 21,
when someone comes your way.
Faces glow in the dark
against too-bright screens.
Yours must look like that too,
Your father turns on the baseball.
A hiss of dissatisfaction
snakes up the stairs.
You press a little harder,
and then you feel it: a burning,
hot, intense pain in your left hand.
The recital is two months away.
By the time you are 17,
even when you aren’t playing,
the pain is there. Your fist
flies open, gaping, disbelieving.
Amid the #BlackLivesMatter and
Hands tear lives apart.
Callouts, they call them.
You become unrecognizable,
cathecting others’ anxieties
You know hurt
(hurt people hurt people).
But still, the outpouring of rage
knocks you open,
Your mother is on it. She hustles to find
you a regular physical therapist.
And a music specialist physical therapist.
And another therapist.
Your nerves are stimulated with electrodes.
The weighted blanket feels amazing
but the electricity hurts a fuckload,
a metronome of pulsating, technological pain.
Your nerves, like temple bells,
alert the dreaming goddess.
adrienne maree brown says that,
in the pandemic,
we became afraid
in an unprecedented way.
We didn’t know how to face our fear,
so we turned it into rage.
We are afraid of being hurt,
afraid because we have been hurt,
afraid because we have caused hurt,
So we stay put and
scream into the void,
moving our rage across the internet
like a tornado that
without any discernment,
sucks up everything
in its path of destruction.
you recede as your pain comes rushing back.
You land at the bottom of the top
of a prestigious studio and institution
with no prospect of movement.
Your hand needs long periods of rest.
You should have left,
for a year, to sort it out.
But you didn’t. Instead,
you did what you always do:
enraged hands have no qualms about
serving up words like
hurt harm betrayal violence
ethics duplicity safety
Torn from the soil,
you fall through the sky.
Your wrongness emblazoned
on your spine.
They tell you it might take years
for people—for you—to forget.
All you wanted was
to be in music, and yet, it was also
a hideous fucking space.
Those you admired had no qualms
about saying your practice was wrong.
There was something
“about the psychic-emotional life
of your playing.”
You were wrong.
You felt their anxieties complicities
In your pain mingled
shame and aspiration
like long lost friends.
All you want is to
outrun outrun outrun. This pain.
You dream of
drowning in the warm currents
of the Indian ocean. You dream
of your mother
holding your face
in her hands.
how you could
take to things so easily
as a child.
how books once protected you.
The fancy physio on Fifth
pours warm wax on your arms.
It reminds you of the first time
your mother cared for your hand.
You could have laid there forever.
The therapist gently teaches you.
The little noodles meet up here,
you point to your elbow,
echoing her words. Then you add:
the tendons, like two little bucatini, hahahah.
Your hand is becoming yours again.
In the detritus of tweets retweets
bannings burnings at the stake,
you remember Ruth Ozeki’s question.
Hands have let you down, but
what did your face look like
before your parents were born?
You try writing again,
that forgot their faces.
You try to imagine a world
where conversation is possible.
While meditating, you realize
that all along, in work and song,
you’ve been answering that question.
Your hand is becoming yours again.
After conservatory, you learn to improvise
and play complex pieces with new hand shapes
so they don’t hurt. But you can’t
outrun outrun outrun.
This time, the pain comes
while you are writing
your book for tenure.
The gremlins in chapter four
need a haircut, you joke.
Your work doubles, like your ancestors
in the smoky steel mills of Pittsburgh.
Even in your dreamlife,
you are still
burning your hands.
The first time you speak
about the pain
of being canceled,
it is to a room
full of strangers.
When you look up,
lucid, liquid eyes
open towards you.
The inklife of your pen
has leaked all over.
You wonder if a stranger
can bring you back
into your body.
The pain, the old snake, is back.
It wraps itself around your arm.
It stops you in your tracks, again.
You have to ask your Dean
for more time.
The book is not done.
Your friend, who also has a hand injury,
edits the letter for you.
You both draw your pain and its
time of arrival,
using her earth-toned lipsticks.
The pain is geological, gelatinous, glossy.
The university is not made to protect you.
Your body feels different now.
In a queer nightclub,
your few friends
guard your fleshiness.
The approach to the face is
the most basic
mode of responsibility.
The face is not in front of me
but above me.
The face is the other
who asks me
not to let him die alone,
as if to do so were to
become an accomplice in his death.
Your music sounds different now.
Piercing extended sharp
drawn out with pedals,
and not just your hands.
Electricity pulsates, shocks, jars,
the audience into themselves.
You take sleeping pills at night,
when the pain keeps you up.
Rest refuses the totalizing
hold of this economy
on the body that is struggling
to flourish in its own flesh ruins . . . 
Hands that hurt have made
a hole in your body.
Friends teach you about
functional medicine, EMDR, ayurveda,
somatic work, lymphatic massage,
anything to stop this hurt
from killing you.
You do not want to be another casualty
of the university.
RIP Rosemary Marangoly George.
The university is not made for people like you.
I make you promise to go back
to the fancy physio on Fifth.
You don’t say yes but
you don’t say no, either.
You roam the edges of your pain, like me.
Last time we talked, you were scared
to begin a new project.
I didn’t tell you, but I’m scared, too:
of a wordless expressiveness
in hurt hands;
of there being no other way
being upstairs, making sound.
 brown 2020.
 Ozeki 2016.
 Cohen 1986.
 Khanmalek and Rhodes 2020.
My deepest thanks to my brilliant friend, A, who shared her pain journey and trusted me to carry it; L, for the visual experiments; Aftab Singh Jassal, Meher Varma, and Tuva Beyer Broch, who provided thoughtful feedback and excellent edits.
brown, adrienne maree. 2020. “unthinkable thoughts: call out culture in the age of covid-19.” Accessed June 14, 2022.
Cohen, Richard, ed. 1986. Face to Face with Levinas. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press.
Khanmalek, Tala, and Heidi Andrea Restrepo Rhodes. 2020. “A Decolonial Feminist Epistemology of the Bed: A Compendium Incomplete of Sick and Disabled Queer Brown Femme Bodies of Knowledge.” Frontiers 41, no. 1: 35–58.
Ozeki, Ruth. 2016. The Face: A Time Code. New York: Restless Books.