The work of hands

The work of hands

Editor’s note: Each Thursday, we feature a throwback piece from Topology’s predecessor, catapult magazine. This editorial from 2014 was from an issue on the theme of “craft.”

Unnamable God, how measureless
is your power on all the earth
and how radiant in the sky!
When I look up at your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the multitude of stars,
what is man, that you love him,
and woman, that you gladden her heart?
Yet you made us almost like the angels
and crowned us with understanding.
You put us in charge of all the creatures
and placed your whole earth in our hand:
all animals, tame and wild,
all forests, fields, and deserts,
even the pure air of the sky,
even the depths of the ocean.
Unnamable God, how terrible
is our power on all the earth!

Psalm 8, adapted from the Hebrew by Stephen Mitchell

For years, I kept the little “basket” I’d made in Calvinettes—yes, that was a thing for us Calvinist young ladies. It’s now called GEMS, which stands for “Girls Everywhere Making Shit.” And make shit, we did, though the basket is the only thing I really remember. The pre-fab pieces conveniently matched our mothers’ blue and white country kitchens. Beginning with a pressboard bottom, pre-drilled with holes, the project took us all of about 10 minutes to assemble. Which was fine, because we also needed time to sing our theme song, listen to a Bible lesson, share updates on our badge progress, gossip about each other, and have a snack.

So, if making the basket was such a perfunctory experience, why did I keep it all that time? Why did I keep the wonky pinch pots I made in high school, the lumpy vest from home ec, the book of embarrassing “fashion” sketches? Why do my parents still have the light switch cover I painted for my bedroom in junior high? Because no matter how awkward or imperfect, there’s something about the work of our hands, the things that we’ve touched and changed from one thing into something else. And for me, this sentimentality isn’t just linked to things whose makers I know. Every time I’m in a thrift store or at a garage sale and I see something that’s obviously been handmade, I feel both a tug of longing and a weight of sadness. There’s just not enough love to go around for all of the objects that all of the people in the world have made.

As I write this, I’m working a shift at World Fare, the volunteer-run fair trade store my husband Rob and I helped start in 2003 because that weight of sadness had become about more than just some rich, white kid’s castoff shop project in the thrift store—it was also about the work of bazillions of people, young and old and all colors, who had gotten trapped in a cycle of making shit to support the wasteful whims of a privileged, throwaway society. The labor of these hands, lined up on industrial shelves in megastores everywhere, was not only not precious—for most of us, the human hands didn’t exist at all behind the thick curtain of willful ignorance erected by the powers that be and maintained by our own lustful complicity. How terrible our power, indeed.

I look around me now in World Fare and, while I know that more stuff shipped thousands of miles doesn’t ultimately solve the problems of the world, I’m thankful for a place that asks us to look behind the curtain, take an honest assessment and imagine a better way together. And I’m thankful for Virginia whose hands that assembled the black bean soup mix, for Andrés and Juanita whose hands that created the pine crayons, for Farai whose hands that carved a mother and child out of stone harvested near his home. I’m thankful for my neighbors whose hands will take these things from here and add their own chopping, stirring, coloring, and gift wrapping to the story.

So I guess it does have something to do with knowing the person who made the object after all. More than just a passing sentimentality, the relationship of knowing is something more like love. As many wise folks have discovered in protest against an economy of extraction and abstraction, we know the things we love, and we love the things we know. As love children of an Unnamable God and a handful of earth, we simply can’t help it—it’s in our blood. It’s in our hands, it’s in our lungs, it’s in the dust we came from and the dust to which we and everything we have made will return, until that day when we get to make things out of the stuff of a world without end.

And that will be a basket worth keeping. And using, and composting, and recreating, and sharing until our hearts are more glad than we ever thought possible.