Things My Hands Have Made

My hands have made beautiful things.

Expressive and strong, my hands are the ambassadors of my heart. They’ve held my sweet babies, wiped away their tears, stroked their gleaming cheeks. Those little loves of mine are the best things I’ve ever used my hands for.

When I was a child myself, I fell in love with playing the piano. Group lessons at the piano store gave way to years of private instruction. I learned the language of classical music, its notes laid out on the page like an alien code.  I loved the feeling of the music flowing through my fingers, the lyrical phrases of Chopin and Beethoven drifting into my wild places. The notes ran right through me, changing me at depth.

After high school, I entered the Conservatory of Music at the University of the Pacific to pursue my love of music. It took me less than a semester to learn that I was not made for the classical music world, and I eventually switched majors. But my love for music never died. I lost access to the pianos on campus after leaving the school’s music program, and it would be almost a decade until I could play one consistently again. A family member was getting rid of a beautiful black Grotrian upright, and I jumped at the opportunity. One team of piano movers and a few hundred bucks later, the piano was mine. It sat in our living room, where I began to reacquaint myself with the pieces that I’d missed most. But something was different this time: my hands ached when I played. Strange. When a person’s hands ache in their twenties, they tend not to worry about it too much. Youth is invincible.

I conceived my first child when I was twenty eight, and I played my loveliest songs for her. She’d sway within my womb as I played, her tiny body making quiet rhythmic motions in my belly. As my pregnancy progressed, my joints began to ache in earnest. My hands and wrists developed carpal tunnel, sending sharp shooting pains up into my arms. I stopped playing, which broke my heart a little. When my baby girl was born, my hands were too busy with her to worry much about making music. She was the new harmony in my heart, and I absorbed her goodness.

Two years after her birth, I became pregnant with my son. He made himself known from the very beginning: he moved constantly, all elbows and knees and sharp angles. I played for him, too; it was the only time he ever quieted. My hands ached this time around as well, and I eventually had to stop playing again. This baby was born with a roar, and my hands were suddenly very full. My children made the sweetest music I’d ever heard, with their coos and giggles and sweet first words, their first days at preschool and their chubby-handed drawings. It would be years until I thought of the piano again.

I finally sat down at the piano bench again last fall. I’d struggled with pain in my hands consistently since my first pregnancy, and now I was in my late thirties. Determined not to allow my pain to rule me, I set out to reacquaint myself with my old ivory friend once again. I picked up an old Chopin piece, one of my favorites: his Waltz No. 10 in B minor, Opus 69, No. 2. I remembered it by heart still, its notes etched permanently into my brain. As I expected, it made my hands ache to play; but I wouldn’t stop. I couldn’t. I’d missed it too much, and I was determined to ignore the searing heat in my digits. I brought the piece up to working speed, imperfect and a little slow, but it was there. I used an old trick that I’d learned while prepping pieces for recitals, recording myself practicing in order to improve the segments that needed work. I fully intended to keep these recordings private, but now I feel compelled to share them. 

When I listen to the recordings now, I can hear the imperfections and deficiencies. Having once played at a more proficient level, I struggle to hear anything but the faults. But I do hear something else, too. I hear the joy I felt at being able to play again. My heart filled with gladness as the notes began to flow through my fingers once more. And I was happy.

A few months after I started, I was forced to stop. My hands could barely move, aching for hours after each practice session. I could no longer ignore the pain. I have a wonderful chiropractor who helped keep my hands in working order, but it wasn’t enough. I had too many things to do with my hands to justify their use on something as frivolous as playing the piano. I recorded myself one last time, playing gingerly and sorrowfully. I knew it would be the last.

I’ve had to give up other joys as well. I taught myself to knit in January of 2014. What began as a hobby quickly grew in shape and size, and a couple of years later I started designing knitting patterns for sale. I loved it. The marriage of mathematics and craft drove me forward in my newfound obsession. To call it a career would be generous; knitting pattern sales are no goldmine. But I’d found a new love, another way to make something beautiful with my hands, and it filled the space between homeschool lessons and trips to the park. I knit one thing after another, feverishly casting new projects onto my needles as fast as I could finish the old ones. I set a goal for myself to sell a pattern to my favorite American yarn company, the well-respected Brooklyn Tweed. I successfully pitched them an idea for an Aran-inspired cabled wrap design, originally named Brannock. It was the fourth pattern I’d ever designed. Brannock was renamed Aquinnah, and it was a hit: they chose my design to grace the cover of their Wool People 10 collection. From there, I began designing in earnest. Placemats made with organic Belgian linen, cozy hats knit up with American wool, felted bowls crafted from Canadian alpaca; I couldn’t write the patterns fast enough. My fan base began to grow, and I started to develop a small but loyal following. I sold another pattern to Brooklyn Tweed, a marled sweater with set-in sleeves and contrast trim. I was elated.

But eventually this, too, was lost. The ache in my hands grew until I had to set my needles down. I no longer design knitting patterns, and sometimes I can barely knit at all. It’s a hobby, after all, and I can live without it. But I don’t like to. I still knit a little here and there as my hands allow, but it isn’t the same. My days of designing patterns are over, and I’ll never stop feeling sad about it. I made some beautiful things with my hands, and I’m grateful I was able to make anything at all. But it’s a shame to have lost my craft. A real goddamned shame.

These days I’m saving my hands for my writing. There’s only so much one woman can give up, after all. And if my hands were to finally give up the ghost, I’d speak my words instead. I have too much beauty in my heart to contain it all. I have to let it out, to speak my truth into existence. Telling my stories is a joy I can never lose, and I’m going to keep telling them for as long as I live. I’ve finally found a love that not even pain can steal away.

As of this moment, I have no idea what's been causing the pain in my hands. Neither does my doctor, who's run a handful of tests and hasn't found an answer quite yet; so she's ordered some more. There are some potential culprits whose names terrify me, but until I have a diagnosis, I'm going to pretend that everything is alright. And who knows, it might be. Time will tell; and until then, I'll tell my tales.