Put Your Hands to It

An interesting and surprising realization hit me the other day — I hardly ever write things. No, I’m not referring to my rather long postpartum absence from this blog, and I’m not talking about the craft of writing. I type emails on my computer, grocery lists on Apple’s “Reminders,” updates on Facebook and Twitter apps, and texts on my phone. But other than the rare (unfortunately) thank-you note to a friend, I don’t actually write much. Writing — the act of using pen and paper — we are still familiar with this, correct?

We type into virtual notepads, notebooks, journals and stationary more now than physical ones. Writing has become a mediated form of intrapersonal and interpersonal communication. Okay, so what? Many things have moved into mediated or electronic forms because it is more efficient, right? Yes, that is true. In economic terms, it takes less time, can be better preserved, and takes up less physical space. We may have gained efficiency, but I wonder what we lose by not taking pen and paper in hand.

If a practice starts to lack in utilitarian function, it often goes the way of the buffalo. In some schools in our country administrators have either done away with handwriting in the curriculum or seriously considered removing it. They argue that the time would be better spent focusing on typing and computer literacy skills that students must have to be successful in life. (It boggles my mind that the issue is either/or and not both/and.) It seems the shift away from physical pen and paper serves as one illustration of a larger cultural push to be ever more efficient and conceptualize the worth of many things monetarily.

Should utility be the only or primary measure of something’s worth? If so, why is it that I started thinking about all of this when I realized that I missed the way a pen felt in my hand? Why is it that the physical formation of letters and words on a piece of paper starts to unlock my creativity and generate meaningful thoughts? Why is it that I miss the tactile nature of my handwriting.

I believe that it has everything to do with the way we are made as embodied spirits. We are made to put our hands to things, not just our minds. In fact, it is in the act of putting our hands to things that they often become meaningful or help us create meaning. But putting our hands to things — involving our bodies in the semiotic process — is not always useful. In other words, it may not increase our net worth or save us time in our busy day.

For example, when I am in mass and physically participating in the liturgy, I am not accomplishing a task. Yet, my physical actions are full of meaning, and there is a mystical connection between what my body is doing and what my spirit experiences. Father Robert Barron, in his documentary series Catholicism, has described the liturgy of the mass as a useless activity, one that has no utilitarian purpose.

I think the push toward efficiency and economy in our lives (a result of modernist cultural influence) actually robs us of some experiences that would open our minds and make us more contemplative people. When we put our hands to things we are participating in what they represent. I recently experienced this in getting ready for the birth of our new son this past spring. I decided that I would make a few things for the nursery and for the new room into which my two-year-old was moving.

I confess, the initial decision to sew some basket liners and paint letter tiles for the wall was the result of not finding what I wanted online. So I bought some chalk board paint and borrowed a friend’s sewing machine. It started out as a “nesting” project, but then it became much more. With the hum of the sewing machine and my hands guiding the fabric, I found myself imagining playing with my boys in this space that I was creating for them. With every stroke of paint, my thoughts turned to contemplating motherhood and my role in my kids’ lives.

I suddenly had a desire to create more things — not because there was some need of them, but because of the space the physical activity allowed for contemplation.  I now understood why people love sewing, or quilting, or gardening, or painting, or smoking their pipes. These physical activities  (hobbies, as they have been labeled in our modern age) involve a tactile activity that opens up a contemplative atmosphere in our lives. I think that is one aspect of what happens in mass; I think that is the substance of my inkling to take pen and paper in hand.

We have been created as contemplative beings, but much of our daily activities in modern life do not draw us to contemplation; they drive us from it. After a while, our souls start to feel parched — the way our physical bodies feel when going too long without water. We need space in our lives for contemplation; so we need to put our hands to things more often. Grab a pen, pipe, needle and thread or your garden hoe; and let that physical activity open up space for contemplating life.