By Judith Toy
Long before we women were able to express ourselves in the ways of a world dominated by men, we used our quiet hands for expression —weaving, quilting, cross-stitching, knitting, bowl making, bread baking, gardening—each stitch or seed a kiss, each knead of the dough a mother’s love made manifest. In Marge Piercy’s well-known poem “To Be of Use,” she says even “the pitcher longs for water, the person for work that is real.”
Handwork has always pleased me to the core. Making quilts for both of my daughter’s wedding beds were among the most satisfying projects of my life. Using the peaches and cream colors of my elder daughter Laura’s wedding party, I gathered fabric, cut it into 12×12-inch squares and gave the squares out to family and friends. The squares were painted, zeroxed with photos, cross-stitched and collaged. I received them back as individual works of art and gladly put them together on an old Singer machine from the turn of the last century.
Second to the wedding quilt for pure satisfaction were the giant parade-sized puppets I made for years, after studying with Peter Schumann of Bread and Puppet Theatre in Vermont. I used papier mache over two-to-three-hundred pounds of clay to make one mask. I dove into the work. Dying the diaphonous fabrics we used, forming the faces and hands of clay, getting into the glue, were like playing in the mud. I got dirty, lost myself in the job. The upshot was always a glorious puppet show or parade where the puppets were mute but the message of peace we brought with the puppets called out loud and strong.
If we take a long look at one of our hands, we will see our mother’s hand, our father’s hand within our own. In our very blood runs the bucolic—less technological professions and more hands-on jobs, less corporate cubicles and more down-in-the-dirt kinds of work such as farming and carpentry. To use these hands to do good work is what Piercy means, to be of use. To use our hands to do good work is what Dorothy Day celebrated as she launched the Catholic Worker Movement in the 1930’s:
“People say, what is the sense of our small effort? They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time… No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There is too much work to do.” Her co-founder of the Movement that has housed and fed and clothed the urban poor for some twelve decades now, Peter Maurin, encouraged scholars to become workers and workers to become scholars in order that more understanding might exist between the two.
My late husband was a scholar who became a worker. He started out as a chemist, but preferred blue collar jobs so he could harness his plentiful mental energy to philosophize. He painted houses, drove a school van, worked as a railroad fireman, phlebotomist and head nurse at the Red Cross, conserving his wit to write poems and books and teach Zen in his spare time. He never quit his day job, but his heart was always lost to the poem, and to the pure liberation of mindful meditation. He called himself my “working class hero,” and that he was.
The virtue of making and doing with our hands is mindful absorption. We become like little children. At our mindfulness retreats at Cloud Cottage and elsewhere, we routinely incorporate an art-making and/or poem-making period when retreatants can absorb themselves in hand work and leave their brains on the cushion. Even the making of a poem, I would argue, is more dependent upon intuition than on our neural networks. To engage the heart and hands is to enter a cosmos of no-information, no technology, no office, no keyboard, no cyber space. Tension eases and the heart melts as we paint the flower as only we can see it, scissor-cut paper shapes and place them on a colored background as only we can do, smear pastels with our fingers to shade a drawing, ease and tease clay into new shapes and forms.
High school shop, art, home economy and physical education classes were broadly dismissed in the nineties and beyond when mandates went out to prep kids to become “knowledge and high tech workers.” We have urged our children off to university with no questions asked, then tied them to corporate cubicles as part of someone’s imagined future where we fly past objects like Alice through the rabbit hole, floating about in the unkown cyber zone of a pure info tech cosmos. Whoops. Wrong. At least some of our kids would rather be learning to build things and fix things and craft things.
The dark absurdity of the corporate cubicle is spoofed on TV shows like The Office and in cartoons such as Dilbert. In Dilbert, a robot representing the cubicle worker stands in the boss’s office. “You keep giving me trivial assignments that make me doubt my self-worth,” says the robot to the boss. “Chill out,” says the boss. “You don’t hear the microwave whining all day long.” Next scene shows the robot standing in front of the microwave. “He doesn’t know that the machine word for ‘Please kill me’ is ‘beep.’”
The best laid plans of educators are out the window and outsourced to India. For starters, cubicle work leaves one feeling more flustered than floating. Not to mention that office lights sap our humanity and sanity. And while we can outsource the cubicle, we can’t outsource the car mechanic, the artist, the baker, the postal carrier, the builder or the plumber. Carol Jung believed the hands often solve a mystery that the brain has struggled with in vain.
According to the New York Times, Princeton economist Alan Blinder argues that the crucial distinction in the emerging labor market is not between those with more or less education, but between those who can serve in person or on site. The latter will find their livelihoods more secure against outsourcing to distant countries. As Blinder puts it, “You can’t hammer a nail over the internet.”
Earlier in “To Be of Use” Piercy writes: “The work of the world is common as mud. Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust. But the thing worth doing well done, has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.” Good work mindfully done with hands that call up the crafts of our grandmothers; nothing satisfies more.
Judith Toy is author of Murder as a Call to Love, A True Story of Transformation and Forgiveness. She practices mindfulness with Cloud Cottage Community of Mindful Living in Black Mountain, www.cloudcottage.org. With Dharma teacher Roger Hawkins, Toy will lead a retreat, “The Dance of Consciousness,” at Southern Dharma Retreat Center in Hot Springs September 26-29, in the Plum Village tradition of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh.