Holding hands

My dad was not good at all things, but he had been born good at the things I most wanted to be good at, which were horses and music and art.

It was uncanny, everyone said while I was growing up, how much I looked like my dad. And because I did not yet understand the difference between genotype, which is the way your genes are put together on the inside, and phenotype, which is the way that makeup shows up on the outside, I thought that looking like him meant I had inherited his talents, too. Granted, they weren’t immediately obvious, but I figured that these special gifts were just waiting to come out, that if I tried very hard, they would, eventually, show themselves.

My dad had been a gifted horseman, and I there was no doubt that I had, in fact, inherited his love of horses. But I was a nervous child while he was serene, and even the dumbest horse in the field could sense the difference; while they leaned, trusting, into him, they darted away from me in naughty zig zags that hurt my feelings and my pride. When the zig zags happened in weekly riding lessons, while I was supposed to be remaining on the horse, I was routinely thrown to the ground. I figured it was probably like this for all great riders, and was confident that things would soon turn around.

I struggled through guitar lessons, too, playing and singing in a dogged, strained effort that bore little resemblance to the easy way he played by ear, his rich and effortless baritone. My dad lent me an old Kingston Trio chord book with oldie favorites from his youth; I eagerly attempted the ones that I recognized from more recent versions by the Beach Boys and Peter, Paul & Mary just to make him smile, his dark eyes crinkling until they disappeared. The guitar didn’t come easy to me, but I kept at it, working my way through a John Denver songbook, perfecting some pop ballads. I wanted to have a set list ready for when my talent kicked in.

And I picked up books that broke drawing down into gimmicks; if you could draw a circle, the Learn to Draw Animals books promised, you could for sure draw an entire horse! It was easy! You just made circles: medium-sized for the forehead, a smaller one to form the nose. Larger circles for the withers and rump, the smallest for the joints of each leg. Once you connected them all with curvy lines, the book went on, it would look just like a real horse, just like the ones my dad quickly drew on my lunch bag. But I must have been doing it wrong, because to me, It was not easy at all! and the circle-horses never turned out looking right. I was growing discouraged.

What followed was an odd phase, a kind of last-ditch effort, in which I drew only what I had on hand. Literally. I drew hands.

I drew hands all the time, when I should have been doing my homework, loading the dishwasher, cleaning my room. Technically, I drew only my left hand, since I had to draw with the other one, but that hand was sketched in every conceivable position, always with the fingers cupped up. My favorite parts of the hand to draw, it turned out, were the pencil lines that defined the gentle angles in the fingers, the wrinkles in the skin where they bent. And finally, it seemed, my efforts paid off. I was achieving impressive and recognizable results, and I was certain that, unlike the animals, these sketches showed real promise. But when I showed other people my hand drawings, they just looked at me quizzically and said things like, “Is this the same one you showed me before?” and “Wow, another hand?” It was the same old ending. And I was in high school by then so, you know, I knew I was just about out of time.

Soon, I grew up and gave up. All of it. The horses, the guitar, the art. We even had to give up my dad way too soon, and grieving him meant facing some hard truths, like the fact that I had inherited exactly none of my dad’s talents. The only thing of his that I’d be carrying forward in his absence were dark eyes that would, much to my dismay as I grew older, crinkle and disappear when I smiled.

I’ve been thinking this week about being held, in spiritual sense, “in the palm of His hand” as we say about how our God holds us. And this has reminded me of something I had completely forgotten, of those hands that I drew, badly and so long ago. About how hard and long I searched and worked to find something special and undiscovered about myself, to connect with the God-given gifts I saw in an earthly father I adored. About how I found some comfort, and even some joy, in trying to capture hands when they were soft, their fingers cupped up gently. And about how this must be how God holds us.

When I have considered being held in the palm of His hand, I think I have sometimes imagined myself held as a scientist might display a rare insect plucked from the research field: out firmly at some distance, on a palm rigid and unyielding. The trembling creature alone on a platform made of stretched fingers, exposed, for everyone to see, for scientific examination. Maybe even for judgement.

But if you have ever found in your very own garden an injured bird or a lost frog, if you have ever reached out, cooing, to hold a impossibly tiny baby or some lovely, fragile thing much smaller than you and in need of your care, you know that you do not hold it like that. You welcome it gently into your hands and ease it into your soft palm. You hold it close. Your fingers naturally and reflexively cup up, and wrinkles in the skin as thin as pencil lines appear, marking your hand’s ability and willingness to bend. Your palm adjusts to whatever conceivable position is needed to support it from all sides; your hand takes the very shape of the delicate and lovely thing, as a vessel. You simply hold it. You want it to feel safe, and special. Even if its talents are not inherited, or impressive, or immediately obvious.

And I think that this must be how God holds us. Just exactly like that.

4 thoughts on “Holding hands

  1. Oh Dawl, I love this! So endearing, so touching…would love to have watched your writing process unfold on this one. Tell me about some time, will you? Love you and miss you, as always.


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