I started thinking about hands as I was seated in a school auditorium, watching my 4-year-old son walk up the steps to the stage on his first day of school. He walked buoyantly over to the headmaster and extended his tiny right hand, which was immediately swallowed whole in a ceremonial shake. This pressing of flesh was perfunctory but nonetheless symbolic of his acceptance into a new community, one hand inviting another in a primitive ritual-- an embrace, if you like-- that is now taken for granted.
We all shake hands. We also use them for all sorts of mundane tasks, such as brushing teeth, pouring milk, picking up a coffee cup, scratching an itch, inserting a key, or typing on a keyboard, the task to which my hands are most often devoted. Fingers, the main attraction of hands, are particularly noteworthy. We stick them in our ears, my son puts them his up his nose, and veterinarians use them for all sorts of things most of us would rather not know about. They bend or straighten to communicate a wide range of human emotions, including disdain, peace, life, death, invitations to come closer, or just a friendly Vulcan "hello" if you can muster sufficient muscle control. You can also paint with them, push a doorbell, or reach across the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in an eternal gesture of longing.
Many cultures have a lot more respect for hands than we do. They cut them off if one is found guilty of stealing, which, in an odd way, accords their usefulness a large measure of respect. In many areas of the world, each hand has its own designated functions, and to get them mixed up is to gravely offend one's native hosts. (While traveling in North Africa, a left-handed friend of mine was always on the verge of making a terrible social gaffe.) However, the greatest example of the power of these appendages is the "laying on of hands," which is thought to transfer energy from healer to patient to effect a cure. I once published the story of a woman from Portland who was cured of a debilitating migraine by such a method while traveling in the Philippines. Once a skeptic, she went on to become a healer herself.
I note, with some measure of alarm, that hands are losing favor. Instead of being instruments of social contact-- caressing, rubbing, soothing, massaging-- our germ-averse modern culture has identified them as transmitters of disease. I first noticed this years ago when my dentist slipped on a pair of translucent surgical gloves before the annual cleaning. This trend has accelerated of late, and now naked digits no longer touch my tuna on rye at the local deli. Gardeners I know have wheelbarrows full of gloves, from tight-fitting deerskin to the oversized handyman variety. Even the simple art of shaking hands seems to be losing ground to the European smooch, which is performed on either one side or both sides of the person's face, the kiss always enacted in midair, lips never actually touching flesh. Even the verb "to touch" has taken on a sinister connotation in an age when a simple kiss can be grounds for legal action.
Over a lifetime, hands become invested with knowledge, if we allow it. The surgeon, the farmer, the gardener, the artist, and the mother all accrue a lifetime of skill in their hands. So, too, do cooks. We can fold egg whites by hand (skip the rubber spatula), knead bread, rub butter into flour for pie dough, mix ingredients, clean out bowls, rub in spices, unmold, shape, pat, and stuff. (We can even pick things up off the floor and throw them back in the pan when nobody is looking.) We can seek out pinbones with our fingers, pressing the flesh of the cool salmon as we work. We can caress the food as we prepare it, feeling its curves and inner spaces, and then use our sense of touch to determine when it is done. The cake springs back, the chicken leg wiggles freely, and our finger encounters just the right amount of resistance when the steak is ready to come off the grill.
The morning that my son shook hands on stage, I had put him on the school bus for the first time with his two older sisters. They held his hands as they walked to the bus, and when he turned to say goodbye I gave him a big wet kiss, not the fancy European kind. Then he looked up and said, "Daddy, can you wave goodbye to me?" He made his way like a rock climber up the huge, steep steps to the bus and took a window seat, his small round face pressed to the glass so he looked like a TV show host. With the bus standing still, I raised my hand and waved once, then twice, then frantically, like some lost soul, though neither of us had moved; we remained only a few feet apart. Since that September morning, I have used my hands for a thousand different things, but I often think that I have never used them better.