March 5, 2012

a bird in the hamsa

My hand pressed deeply into cool marble. Millions of other and more earnest hands had worn deep fingerprints into the central column of the Portico de la Gloria just inside the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northernmost Galicia, and touching so many centuries of aspiration and supplication gave me a quick jolt. But, just as quickly I let go and headed back out into the plaza to grab a quick beer. As Tim at the gorge in Monty Python and The Holy Grail would have said, “Now, WHAT is your quest?”

I hadn’t walked thousands of miles, as a proper pilgrim should. In the summer of 1989, I was just another American twentysomething with a two-week Eurail pass who had impulsively opened her tattered Lonely Planet guide on the floor of Madrid’s major train station and realized that the next two days were the last two days of something called the Festival of St. James.  After twelve overnight hours sleeping upright in a third-class cabin, I was at the foot of a saint and at a big party. With yet another hand in my pocket.

Well, in my backpack’s side pocket. I’d begun my trip in Morocco and been strangely drawn to abstract hand amulets that I saw in every souk and, it seemed, affixed to every door and dangling from every rearview mirror and neck in the land. Hamsas, or Hands of Fatima, I learned. The only daughter of the prophet Muhammed, her hand is said to offer protection from the evil eye. I bought a simple one as a trinket, but something didn’t feel simple. Then, in Spain, there they were again. Now called the Hand of Mary, though, but still on nearly every door and woven into many forms of folk art.

Hands were waving at me everywhere, but they weren’t making me feel good. My hands hadn’t been doing much that year. My artwork was only limping along. My teaching and docent work had just ended, and I didn’t have anything really productive lined up to replace it. I was drifting, I knew it, and I didn’t like it.

I was beginning to use travel as an escape, not an exploration or an inspiration. I had expended serious time and significant resources to go across an ocean and stick my hand in a rock, but I wasn’t rolling up my sleeves and getting my hands constructively dirty. I was scared of my own productive malaise. Curiosity had been my reasonable facsimile of courage up until that point. It’s a good starter virtue, but it begins to smell of self-indulgence the longer we dig around in the sandbox of life without trying to build a few castles, or at least make some handprints.

So, back home and knees knocking, I started looking for new work. I also hung my little Hand on my little studio wall next to a new index card from which Amelia Earhart admonished, “Courage is the price life exacts for granting peace.”

I got two commissions and a new job teaching art history at a juvenile probation office. It wasn’t much, and I didn’t have a grand sense of direction, but it was something. I was moving. I just wish now that I hadn’t felt so guilty for “just” moving instead of really accomplishing something. Nearly twenty-five years of just moving later, and I have learned just one beautiful thing. Just moving is IT. Is all there IS. Moving is flying. Moving IS the pilgrimage.

A fair number of those millions who made it across the Pyrenees and bowed at the foot of St. James for over a millenium got there because they just had to get moving or because it was a legal alternative to prison time in Paris or because they were as confused and wondering and wandering as the rest of us. And, every single soul who made their mark on that marble had to step aside for the one behind him and just get moving again.

“Pilgrimage” sounds so lofty. It’s always intimidated me. I’ve finally figured out that it intimidates me because it should intimidate me. Because my body and soul have been telling me to Relax about the big Somethings all these years. I’ve finally stopped trying to make life into one big pilgrimage to some big something. Just trying, again and again, to muster the courage to get moving, again and again, has given me more peace than getting anywhere in particular ever did.

I sat down, and started to calm down, in the fall of 1989. Learning to move without running around is the first big Something of growing up. Beginning to learn what it means to journey inward. To do the work. To just do it. And, just put your heart into it. Like the Amish say, “Hands to work and hearts to God.”

For years since then, I have drawn hands as wings, over and over again. Now I finally see why.

Categories: Christianity, Islam

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