Capable, the American Heritage Dictionary tells me, is from the Late Latin capere, which means “to take.” And I think of all those people, who, understanding their strengths, make bold to take things into their own, capable, hands.
I remember my parents, seated at the kitchen table, heads bent toward each other. My mother held one of my father’s broad, battered hands in her left hand. With her right hand, she rubbed healing lotion into Dad’s cuticles, using the blunt, rounded end of a metal nail file to gently push them back.
Dad’s hands took a beating. The first knuckle of his right ring finger was permanently V-ed from some awful long ago accident (depending on the day, he’d tell me a different horrific story; I always wondered the real truth of what caused that awful bent). During his working life, Dad’s roughened hands were shaded with black in all the crevices, black that wouldn’t come out with washing, no matter how strong the soap or diligent the scrubbing. Dad drove heavy machinery on the coal pile at the electric company. The coal dust worked its way into his hands, under his nails, and didn’t leave.
Those hands were fearless behind the wheel of any vehicle, and they wielded hammers and saws and screwdrivers with confident ease. My dad, I often thought proudly as a child, can fix ANYthing.
And at night, in the amber light of the brown-shaded lamp next to his Barca Lounger, Dad’s hands quietly turned the pages of book after book, thick historical fiction, usually–Leon Uris, Herman Wouk, James Michener. Dad’s path, during the Depression years, had led him to leave high school a math credit short of graduation; his hands were his ticket to earning a good living, to helping the family he was born into, to providing for the family he later created. To serving his country. But he never lost his love of the written word.
Dad’s hands threw endless baseballs in the backyard, shot up unfailingly to catch our errant pop flies.
When grandchildren arrived, those hardened hands were gentle as he danced cranky babies into calm: a soothing rub on the back, a crooning whispered song in fretful ears, and those babies went from rigid, insistent crying to sighing relaxation as Dad waltzed them off to a snug, warm sleeping spot.
Mark’s Dad, Angelo, same generation, had nearly the same story: left high school to work and help the family. Service in World War II. A long working career in a factory that demanded hard service of those hands.
At night, when his kids were growing up, when his wife, Pat, went off to work, Angelo would fix dinner, fix problems. His hands were seldom still. He’d tear out walls and reconfigure the entire downstairs, putting his hands to plumbing, wiring, carpentry–whatever the task required.
In his spare moments, Angelo set himself up a wood-shop in the basement. He’d slide his hands over slabs of wood, considering, and then he would take the chosen slab to the lathe, turning out candle sticks and fluted plaques and decorative, polished wooden wheelbarrows.
For both Mark’s father and mine, their hands were their livelihood. We knew that—although there might be momentary fireworks when the subject was broached,–we could take just about any problem and lay it in our fathers’ hands. We rested in that reassurance that all children should have: we believed our parents were capable of handling anything.
Handling: no coincidence in that wording.
I watch Jim’s hands at the computer. He has an idea burning; his hands are his medium of expression, flying over the keys. Keyboarding classes were excruciating for him; he has perfected his own technique, and his fingers are confident on the keys.
This past fall, I brought Jim stacks of recipes–hand-written recipes from family members and friends long gone; recipes ripped from magazines and yellowed clippings from newspapers printed in long-ago home towns. Jim took that dross and Rumpelstiltskin-ed it into gold…created three family cookbooks with neatly typed pages and tables of contents and indexes, the chaotic clutter of someday recipes turned into usable, findable inspiration.
In job situation after job situation, Jim has come home frustrated: I’m not coordinated that way, he would say, talking about the challenge of quickly sorting tabbed pages into piles and inserting them into binders. I get behind, he’d say. Everyone is faster than I am, and the coaches are always telling me to hurry up.
He’d fall further and further behind; his paychecks, based on piecework, would be disappointing, and soon that particular experience would be over. Hope and confidence had slipped another notch.
But on the computer, Jim’s hands find a comfortable niche, and his expertise becomes a livelihood. Now he creates cookbooks for others, too, sorting, organizing, typing, comfortable in the computer milieu, sure of his way forward, confident of the outcome.
And when that paid work is done, his hands fly over the keyboard, spinning imaginative tales of superheroes and sci-fi figures, creating fan-fiction that brings him warm reviews. Jim has discovered one way to use his hands for good and for glory; he has discovered one important facet of his capability.
I think of my hairdresser, with his sure, smart hands, a man who makes a wonderful living for his family through his artistry. A ‘coiffure engineer’ he calls himself jokingly, and he went into the hairdressing field when few men did: when there was a sort of stigma or expectation attached. His father, my hairdresser tells me, was shocked at this career choice; he belittled his son and told him he’d never earn a living from wielding those scissors.
But he knew early on, that coiffure engineer, just what his hands were drawn to do, and he proved his father wrong, wrong, wrong.
I think of artist friends and the amazing, inspired work of their hands.
I think of a woman I am always happy to see when blood-drawing time rolls around; that woman can smile and chat and find a vein and draw three vials of blood, leaving me with my hand in a fist pointed upward, scrunching that cotton ball tightly in my elbow pit, before I have time to blink. She’s a genius; I want her always to be on call when I am in blood-draw mode.
I think of a young man with verbal communication challenges whose hands fly over a small keyboard, ‘talking’ to waitresses and clerks and colleagues at the retail shop where he works diligently in the back room, sorting and stocking and packing for return. His hands have found some of the things they are capable of, and the work of his hands is valued and respected; he uses his hands to share his thoughts and needs.
I think of Lois, whose hands fly as she teaches American Sign Language: her hands are a language bridge between two cultures. She is a genius at communication, Lois is; she knows not only how to sign the language, but how to share it with hearing students. She teaches the signs, and she makes them want to learn.
And I know some people who are frustrated and searching. They have not yet found the work of their hands. They do not yet know what they are fully capable of doing.
And I believe this: I believe each of us has wonderful capabilities. Our quest and our goal is to find the work of our hands, to land at that place of satisfaction and pride–a place where we can step back and show the onlooker just what we have completed. And then, Look, we can say–whoever we are, at whatever age or phase or level; Look what I have done.
For many of us, our hands are the accessories of our brains. They tell the tale, they soothe the aching back; they create, create, create, in whatever shape, whatever form. And everyone, everyone, everyone, has a niche and a gift and a passion. To find, then, the right and proper work of our hands is to begin to explore all the things we are capable of doing.
Capable: both mastery and potential. The things we know our hands can do. The things we’ll discover we can–perhaps to our complete surprise–take capably into our own hands.