Beyond the Physical: “Hands”

I wrote this piece in early November as a reaction to the first post on Clark Writes, “Synecdoche…” a photo essay by Mitchell Perry. I was inspired by the unique emotional connections the students had with specific parts of their bodies, and I knew immediately which parts I would describe as being representative of my own story. Although the way I view myself has evolved throughout the past six months, I decided not to revise my initial response.



Jessica Hoops

They’re small, not extraordinarily so, but small enough that it’s not unusual to be approached by someone holding their own palm out as a point of comparison, curious to see how far the tips of their fingers extend past mine if we line up the tops of our wrists just so precisely. The middle fingers are crooked, and the right thumb is still prone to sprains after healing from a torn ligament years ago. The nails are deliberately short and almost never painted, a preference broken only by a single summer when they were considerably long and constantly black. The backs are covered in the faint, tree and rock inflicted scars of a child who spent more time outdoors than in, faded marks you’d never be able to identify unless you knew exactly where to look. The palms were once a frequent canvas for notes and bizarre, elaborate little drawings that were genuinely mistaken for tattoos on more than one occasion. They’re always cold.

“Four has hands.” It’s an expression I heard at the start of almost every one of my high school volleyball games, spoken by an opponent to her teammates as she glances at the number on my jersey in order to identify me as the setter. “Four has hands.” I have hands. By volleyball standards, they’ve been referred to as “beautiful.” Although there’s so much more to being a setter, hands are what shortly become one’s identity. They’re the vital link between an impressive dig and a thrilling kill; they possess the skill that is both the most precise and the most overlooked by spectators of the sport. Passers are allowed a fairly large margin of error, hitters have a certain degree of flexibility, but setters are consistently held to a high standard of accuracy. We know what beauty looks like: no spin, the perfect arc, perfect speed, and perfect distance from the net, when, for a few seconds, what’s usually just a ball becomes art. It’s the kind of set that makes your hitter walk over to you, eyes blazing with the rush of a particularly crowd-pleasing kill and say “That set was perfect.” For a setter, perfection is attainable, if only for just a moment.

Before volleyball entered my life, my hands made music. Although they knew their way around the clarinet, it was always the piano they called home. I was never a serious player, a fact that was a constant source of frustration for my teacher until I was allowed to quit lessons. She’d mumble barely audible phrases like “wasted potential” and “misuse of talent” in her childishly sweet voice as I performed her assignments fairly well without having practiced them, memorized pieces by ear instead of reading the sheets, and played some sections differently than they were written, not by accident, but simply because I wanted to. I had neither the dedication nor the interest in the work it would take for me to become an accomplished musician; I preferred to be guided only by what my fingers seemed to instinctively know. In my younger years, I’d imagine them as a sort of fluid, in-between entity, just as much an extension of the keys as they were of my body. At the end of each lesson, I’d sit in an antique chair upholstered in emerald green velvet, facing away from the piano as my teacher played a series of notes I’d have to name one at a time. Cross-legged with one hand resting on each knee, I’d play along, hearing my matching note just as clearly as the one resonating from the piano. Despite my apparent lack of enthusiasm for the lessons, I remember delighting in my natural ability to understand and create music. Almost a decade later, long after many of the melodies I once knew well have faded from my mind, I’ll still catch myself absentmindedly tapping a rhythm across a desk, countertop, or table; a briefly resurfacing memory of a song contained within my fingers.

Though volleyball and playing the piano have both had significant roles in my life, the endeavor I value most is writing. It has never been my mouth, but my hands that are the channel through which my best thoughts pass through before becoming words. I’ve always found it more difficult than most to express myself out loud, but it’s comparably effortless to put the same ideas on paper. I’m fond of a feeling that many despise: that acute soreness that can only mean I’ve just scrawled or typed a large quantity of words in as little time as my hands would physically allow, the somewhat rare stretch of uninterrupted composition when a trickle of ideas becomes a waterfall. For me, this isn’t just the result of mandatory timed essays, but of letters, stories, poems, and jumbled messes of words that can’t be put into a neat category, but nevertheless become sources of inspiration for pieces that can. This is a sensation that’s become personally synonymous with success, and the only thing that can compare to the sight of a beautiful final draft that has been brought to its full potential. It’s a significant part of what I’ve decided to live for. My most valuable creations begin in my mind and end on paper, but they pass through my hands to get there.

I’ve always been the type of person who generally refrains from physical gestures of affection, but I’m especially wary of holding hands. I enjoy handshakes, high-fives, and the like as much as the next person; there’s just something about the extended contact that I need to have some sort of genuine feeling behind. I’ve avoided it by crossing my arms, suddenly becoming preoccupied with searching the contents of my jacket pockets, pretending not to notice, and blatantly rejecting some attempts when all else fails. I can still recall the first time I willingly accepted the invitation of an open hand, and the details of the memory are surprisingly strong: the rapid shift from interlocked fingers to clasped palms and back again, the mental acknowledgment of its improvement upon walking alone with my sweatshirt sleeves pulled over both fists to keep them warm, and the realization that my apprehension of the gesture was just a component of my overall reserved nature. To hold my hand is to turn through the pages of an eighteen year (and counting) story, to close one’s fingers around an important piece of who I am.

Check out the original photo essay, “Synecdoche…” by clicking the image below.


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