Michiana Chronicles: A Show Of Hands

May 14, 2020

Here’s another one from the English Major files: Synecdoche. Think like a Greek so the spelling doesn’t bedevil you. A synecdoche is a figure of speech in which a part of something is used to represent the whole. “Hands” is the classic example, as in “all hands on deck” (in which the presumption is that bodies are still attached).

April's hands
Credit Ken Smith

In pandemic times, our hands have a shimmering, terrifying quality. In late February, when we were shamed by health experts into proper hand-washing, we also learned that our hands are both ours and not-ours. While attached to us, they are also attached to our loved ones, and our communities. As in a fairy tale, touch—whether tender or thoughtless — might bring harm. We can understand the logic of viral infection while remaining worryingly ignorant: Now, are my hands clean? Is this doorknob safe? Is this can of beans?  I long for supernatural glasses to peer through to make the virus visible. I flash back to those blister-packed pink “disclosing” tablets that dentists give children to chew after teeth-brushing, the residual plaque made visible in polka dots that are disgusting and fascinating and designed to shame us back to the sink to do better.

We continue to fail at not touching our faces. I watch, in the video tiles of Zoom meetings, as hands float up into frames to alight on chins, to hook a finger across the lips, in concentration, and then people remember, and pull the offending hand from the frame. We police and self-police. We know and don’t know what our hands are capable of.

I watched yet another hand-washing video about where germs hide, and I decided to wriggle off my wedding band. In three decades, I’ve only removed it for surgery or house-painting. My hands look even stranger to me, now, as I scrub them, yet again, after peeling the newspapers out of their blue plastic bags, and as I wave them in the car to dry the stinging hand-sanitizer after a rare outing for groceries. I hold up my hands after washing, like a surgeon on TV, but I don’t really know the script.

After months of this, my hands are chapped and etched with a cartography of worry. A fissure has cracked open on my right thumb, which used to happen only in the bitterest Januaries. I clipped my nails as short as I could bear, for safety. This has improved my ukulele practice, and has hastened the callouses that have deadened the sensation on the chord-playing fingers of my left hand. Quite literally, my hands feel differently.

Victorians referred to handwriting as one’s “hand,” the curls and slant of the inked letters believed to convey the character of the writer. I try to pour myself into the notes I hand-write to friends as a means of “reaching out” — such a lame phrase. But because we are also quarantining our mail (let’s Google, again, how long the virus might live on paper), those messages are often long-delayed, as if they’d traveled by carriage in another century. A friend Facebook-messaged me about a thank you note I’d sent many weeks earlier. My hand had been waiting for her, stilled, in the stack of items that were too worrying to touch.

It will be a necessarily strange summer, all of us social distancing in the parks and on river paths, wearing our masks — please wear a mask! —and signaling our hellos with our eyes.  This summer, we might say,“the eyes have it,” if we were to engage in a particular kind of punning called homophonic paranomasia. But, of course, that’s no synecdoche.

And now, because it is mid-May and lilacs are blooming, I remember that 31 years ago, in Iowa City, my beloved and I hovered over the polished glass cases in a jewelry store, sliding strange wedding bands up and down our fingers and nervously doing the math to figure out how to buy two simple rings for under a hundred and twenty bucks. We dawdled and stammered, weighing desires against our little stack of dollars. The proprietor, who was also our landlord — it’s a small town — looked over his glasses and said sternly, “We at Herteen and Stocker like to say that if you can’t find a wedding ring here, you don’t really want to get married!”  We pointed at bands that were good enough, and hustled from the shop, in giddy relief. And then we gave “our hands” in marriage to one another — the part for the whole — and whole-heartedly.

Music: "All of Me" sung by Ella Fitzgerald