Photo by Tuva Beyer Broch.

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

how nice.

But as covid-19 becomes 20 then 21,

you cross

when someone comes your way.

Faces glow in the dark

against too-bright screens.

Yours must look like that too,

from afar.

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


relations recede.

Hands tear lives apart.

Callouts, they call them.

You become unrecognizable,

cathecting others’ anxieties

complicities responsibilities.

You know hurt

(hurt people hurt people).

But still, the outpouring of rage

knocks you open,

gaping, disbelieving.

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.[1]

In conservatory,

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:

grind through.

Grind through.

On Twitter,

enraged hands have no qualms about

serving up words like

hurt harm betrayal violence

unspeakable fuckery


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.

You remember

how you could

take to things so easily

as a child.

You remember

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

letters condemnations

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?[2]

You try writing again,

about hands

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.

A face.

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.[3]

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 . . . [4]

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

but this;

being upstairs, making sound.


[1] brown 2020.

[2] Ozeki 2016.

[3] Cohen 1986.

[4] 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.