The magic you can hold in your hands....
Tunes for a Monday Morning

What Work Is

Georgia O'Keefe's Hands, with Thimble, by Alfred Stieglitz

Looking at My Hands

“A hand turned upward holds only a single, transparent question.”
--Jane Hirshfield, “A Hand

These peasant hands, shovel size, cracked knuckles,
holds no transparencies. The age between
creases, packed thick as gardener’s dirt,
would tell you I work the fields or send shuttles
across large looms. It says I shuck corn, bait lines,
hack tree limbs, knot ropes. It says I force
myself into a cow haul out a calf, slick
with mucus and blood.
They lie. I do no hard work
but tap endlessly with four fingers on a keyboard
like some erratic god, bringing a semblance of life
into my increasingly populated world.

- Jane Yolen

 © 2013 Jane Yolen, all rights reserved.

Georgia O'Keeffe's Hands by Alfred Steiglitz

Hands Washing by Tina Modotti

From "Labor Pains: The Loneliness of the Working Class Writer," by Valerie Miner:

"Every day I wonder whether writing is a form of lunacy or of betrayal. One of my parents didn't go past eight grade, the other didn't finish high school. There were no books in our house, no symphonies on the Victrola, no high drama except at the dinner table. One brother grew up to be a carpenter, the other works for a maritime union. I've always carried the suspicion that laboring with words is not real work. I ask myself: Does writing mean anything? Do I have the right to feel tired at the week's end? Shouldn't I be doing something useful?"

Wright Morris' Hands by Dorothea Lange

From "What Work Is" by Philip Levine :

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is—if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours of wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants.

(Read the full poem here.)

Maynard and Dan Dixon's Hands by Dorothea Lange

I've kept a torn, creased, yellowing copy of Valerie Miner's article "Labor Pains" ever since I first clipped it out of The Village Voice in the 1980s. Back then, it felt sharply, almost painfully relevant to me, as a woman from a blue-collar background who had crossed a line (invisible, little-discussed, but distinct) in entering the white-collar world of New York's book publishing industry. As the daughter of a truck driver, whose brothers all worked with their hands, it seemed, in those days, both miraculous and strange that someone was willing to pay me to read and write books. Thirty years later, my firm belief is that storytelling in all its artistic forms is useful work indeed, soul-sustaining and necessary for art makers and partakers alike. And yet the questions raised by the poems, quotes, and photographs here still linger....

Your thoughts?

Hands of a Puppeteer by Tina Modotti The images above: Two photographs of Georgia O'Keeffe's hands by Alfred Steiglitz (1864-1946), "Hands Washing" by Tina Modatti (1896-1942),  "Wright Morris' Hands" and "Maynard & Dan Dixon's Hands" by Dorothea Lange (1895-1965), and "The Puppeteers Hands" by Tina Modotti. (I particularly love the last one because my husband is a puppeteer.) There's a new book out, by the way, containing letters exhanged between Georgia O'Keefe and her husband, Alfred Steiglitz: My Faraway One (Yale University Press). They had an interesting marriage, with O'Keeffe dividing her time between her east coast home with Steiglitz and an independent life in New Mexico.


In regard to art and work, I found this of interest, 'The Vision of William Morris':

...discussing Morris' belief in the importance of art and beauty for all, including and perhaps especially working men and women. Idealistic and perhaps an overly rosy view of Medieval craft guilds, but a beautiful vision all the same. I should mention that the article is written from a Communist perspective, but one needn't take that view to find interesting information in it. Or at least that was the case for me.

Terri, I know you're a big Morris/PRB fan, and I'm guessing the socialist side of his work is already well known to you, but it's a revelation to me. Knowing only the art, I supposed him to be a dreamy romantic only.

This is a great and interesting post, Terri.

I love Jane's poem and all the other quotations. And I have my own answer to your question. I have often thought about this and this is what I think:

I think that,as is so often the case, we create an unnecessary dichotomy between manual work and mental work, between art and science, between practical activity and creative activity. I believe this is a false construct.

In my youth, I spent a great deal of time in monasteries of various traditions (christian, hindu, buddhist) and other, secular, intentional communities.

I learned many things during those times but the one great gift from that period of my life - apart from the beginning of the realization that the teaching of individualism and individual rights is nothing short of wickedness and must, if we are to be in any real sense well, be replaced with the philosophy of common unity and responsibility - the great gift was to see that a good life involves a balance. Times of meditation, times of gardening, times of dancing, times of stillness, times of work, times of rest, times of intellectual effort, times of digging earth, times of solitude, times of togetherness.

The finest activities may be those in which many things are combined.

If we do only mental work, our blessed body will wither. And in any case, the mind requires a healthy body to sustain and produce it - oxygen, active proteins, a pumping heart. I know that if I am struggling with some mental matter or a story perhaps, the worst thing I can do is sit and merely contemplate the problem! The best thing is to go run or walk. An active body is a clear mind.

I'm sure that you experience this, too. I know that you balance the words with painting, I know that you love solitude and still know how to party, that you need rest and love to dance, that you balance the inner journey with direct contact with outer Nature.

To only dwell in fantasy is to be lost to egoism and selfishness. To know only physical labor is drudgery and, as we so accurately say, 'soul destroying.'

Both body and mind, heart and hands, should be intimate and all their love and all their work as one.

Bless you Terri and may all your work go well.

PS: I love that photo of the puppeteer's hands. When I worked at the marionette theatre in London it was beautiful to see the dance of marionettists' hands over the bridge - a sight the public never see.

A very thought-provoking post for me, Terri. I made the opposite journey from you, brought up in the comfortable upper end of the middle class and now laboring with my hands on our smallholding in Wiltshire. (I've written about my family's displeasure with my 'downward mobility' in the comments section of another post.) It honestly never occurred to me that the journey in the opposite direction could have difficult repercussions too. As Homer Simpson would say, 'Doh!'

Austen, your response is lovely and thought-provoking too. And I thoroughly agree with you.

Valerie Miner's questions - 'Does writing mean anything? Do I have the right to feel tired at the week's end? Shouldn't I be doing something useful?' - remind me of the fooferah about Julian Tepper's piece on meeting Philip Roth:

And Elizabeth Gilbert's respons to Julian Tepper's piece:

And have you seen Avi Steinberg's response to Elizebth Gilbert's piece?

It seems to me that it's one of those stupid nobody-here-is-entirely-right-or-wrong arguments (and a fairly gendered one at that), but kind of entertaining in a Tempest in a Teapot way.


I maybe don't belong in this conversation, since I've kept my 'day job' of teaching nursing students -- about as right a livelihood as one could hope for. But I often look ahead to a time when I will be unable to continue with that. I think about my parents in their old age: my stay-at-home mother, who told me the last 40 years of her life had been wasted, and my father who couldn't figure out what was valuable about his life after he was too frail to help anybody else. And I say to myself, our lives and work cannot depend for their value on what they accomplish. Because there will come a time when living one more day is all the accomplishment I can manage, and I will not set myself up to be saddled with self-doubt and condemnation on top of that.

So what is it that will still be worthwhile about my life, when usefulness and accomplishment are in the past? Here's the conclusion I'm living with at this point: as a human, the thing I do for the world that no other creature can do is to appreciate its beauty and wonder. None of the things that delight me know how beautiful they are. As long as I can perceive the beauty of the world, I will be doing something that only my kind can do, that is inherent in our nature, and that has to be important.

So I guess my thoughts circle back to art and writing, and other activities based on perceiving and transmitting the beauty of the world, as one of our closest approaches to what makes humans unique and gives us our own special part to play in the world. Right now, I do those things in the chinks between the other activities of my life. But if they are truly the fundamental human activity, a life spent pursuing them and honing one's skills at them could hardly be wasted.

Our hands, they connect our hearts with the world in whatever we do, write, type, draw, paint, carve, stitch, garden, bake, touch... there was a few months in my life when I was so weakened by illness that I couldn't draw or garden or walk far but I could still read & type & that made all the difference...

This is a(nother) beautifully framed post, Terri. The hands at work and the words that are the work. I relate to your beginnings, as my father was a catskinning --a bulldozer man-- who worked hard with his hands. The skinning of mountains and carving of roads in the times of carving out Hawaii was work he was good at, but, he prayed for forgiveness as he did it for at his core he loved the trees and wild he toppled. Like you Terri, there were no books or magazines in our house. Those were on the other side of the hibiscus hedge and in so many ways my life as traveler and writer has been a continuation of living on the other side.

I think it is meaningful to tell the stories from both sides of my hibiscus hedge because no one else can. Time has given me many opportunities to keep learning how to do that ... to give back, I keep doing it. And as it happens my life has become one where we work with our hands often with few easy flicks to switches, and that becomes something to write about.

Look--there's room in the writing world for those who believe they sweat blood and go through torture to bring forth their words and others (I am among them) who absolutely love to write and feel so alive during the process that much else pales by comparison.

What is NOT on is to discourage a new writer who has actually gotten published, and tell them to quit now. NOW is when we should celebrate that breakthrough, even while warning them to go armored into the marketplace, and give themselves time to breathe.

This is my 50th year of publishing books. Trust me, it has been an amazing life. I know I am lucky. I know I have some talent and work hard. But it is the luck I am grateful for since I have no control over that. Plus I know I would have been a lousy and unhappy bricklayer or house painter or nurse. (Maybe an okay astronaut, except I am a luddite.)


Wow. That Ford plant in Highland Park to which Philip Levine refers in his poem is just across the river from where I live. It is closed down now due to the troubles of the auto industry and waning influence of trade unions in the U.S.--which also tells you something about the value placed on blue collar workers these days....

I've been struggling with the definition of "work" or more particularly "life work" as opposed to "job" for years. I'm being laid off from my copywriting job in a month, and then am going to live in London for 2 months (using all of my severance pay), partly to get some more clarity around it all. Trying to root out this fearful inner Protestant work ethic voice that says it is self-indulgent to yearn for work that is meaningful to my values, that is of service on a larger/deeper level, that uses my gifts to their fullest extent, that makes a positive change and brings me joy and satisfaction. So many don't have jobs at all, so many struggling, that we may feel ungrateful or demanding if we yearn for more than a paycheck.

You don't need to be paid for something in order for it to be "work" or of value, of course. I'm just trying to separate my inherent value as a person from what I do as a job, or even as my work, while still honoring the value of work. It is complicated.

I think storytelling is some of the most important work we can do. Not just writing books, but passing on the stories of our culture and our families, listening to the stories of individual souls, telling stories about how we perceive the world, sharing our daily stories on weblogs and facebook to weave connections amongst women, and exploring the stories of the Divine so we can develop a closer relationship with it.

The people who lose a sense of their personal story, or who become disconnected from the larger story of their community, are the ones who suffer depression and despair.

Jane, just to clarify, I'm assuming your comment is in relation to the Julian Tepper/Philip Roth/Elizabeth Gilbert controversy? And yes, I'm with Gilbert on this one too. Particularly the last sentence in her article.

I think it's fitting, by the way. that your book about writing is called Take Joy.

Well said.

I'm posting this comment for Michelle in NYC (, because she wasn't able to post it herself. (The Typepad blogging platform seems to have had some problems this weekend. I hope it's a temporary glitch.)

Michelle says....

In my time I've pushed goods past a register clicking the price for each, then bagged them. I've hauled book manuscripts for a publisher, read them, and recommended some to him. I've sewn costumes, organized props, helped build and paint sets for stage plays, acted, if that can be called work. I've danced and sung for my supper, and for the approval I required. I've cooked meals, washed dishes and kept house, done many loads of laundry, folded and delivered, but never labored to deliver a child to this world. I've taught children photography, and Shakespeare, rescued cats, dogs and birds by the dozen, then nurtured them, and also person or two in my time. My hands have dug earth, planted trees and bulbs, moved stones, and laid bricks. Sometimes some labors were for money, usually not enough to live. I've been a superintendent, washed floors, painted walls and hauled trash. I've walked dogs, fed cats and watched over apartments for fee, and as favor. I've sat by the sickbed of some, listened to the griefs of countless friends, kept confidences, and my wits. I write journals, poems and stories, make drawings, and made some films. I've taken many photographs. I post on a blog and sometimes read work publicly. I don't consider the work I've done much work at all. If thinking can be said to be labor, I've labored well.

I am indeed a Morris fan, and yes, love him precisely because of the politial beliefs and idealism (and love of nature) wound through his beautiful design work. But I hadn't seen this article before -- thank you, Jack!

A lovely response, Austen. I'm touched. Thank you.

Of course you belong in this conversation, Pat. And the truth is that most writers have a day job (or jobs), unless they have other means beyond writing to support themselves (a trust fund, a well-heeled spouse) -- even the ones whose books are on the bookstore shelves and winning awards. The majority of the writers I've worked with over the years (while editing novels and short story collection) don't depend on writing to entirely support them -- that's the sad truth about the economics of our field.

You say:

" a human, the thing I do for the world that no other creature can do is to appreciate its beauty and wonder. None of the things that delight me know how beautiful they are. As long as I can perceive the beauty of the world, I will be doing something that only my kind can do, that is inherent in our nature, and that has to be important."

And that makes me want to just stand up and cheer. Yes, yes, yes.

It's incredibly complicated. And I feel so much for young people coming up now, for whom it's all so much harder than it was for me, getting my first publishing job in the boom years of the 1980s. Of course, it wasn't exactly easy even then, but not nearly so bad as now.

Good for you for following your dreams, at a time when so many people are too afraid to take risks, due to the whole economic squeeze. I do hope you find the clarity you seek.

You have, Michelle.

My mother's family were migrant workers, and my father's side, construction workers, landscapers, gardeners. This post has made me realize that my siblings and I are the first generation who do not labor. Not in the sense our parents and grandparents did. I think in a way I am lucky, because there was no unsaid rule about work in the family. My mother pushed for us to become educated, to have what she couldn't. She constantly told us to find work we loved, so we'd never feel like we were working.

I've just graduated from my second degree and I've been unemployed for three months, and there is a sense of guilt in it. I think what causes the most guilt is how much I'm enjoying my time of solitude and stillness. I love editing my work all day long. I love writing poetry in the woods. I love painting while blasting Florence & The Machine. I'm adoring every second of unemployment, and I think this is a sign that I need to search for ways to get paid for the work I'm doing now.

The photos in this post are so touching. The hands with the wash cloths look just like my grandmother's hands...

“Nothing is really work unless you would rather be doing something else.”
- J.M Barrie, author of Peter Pan

I had the privilege of taking two young people I tutor to a poetry reading by Phillip Levine at my alma mater. Now I wish I had looked at his hands. I'm going to start doing this, looking at people's hands the way I look at their faces, to see who they are.

In Thornton Wilder's Our Town, Emily asks "Does anyone ever realize life while they live it . . . every, every minute?" The Stage Manager says, "No. Saints and poets, maybe. They do some."

So I think artists tend to be a conundrum to all classes.

I come from a white-collar background. There was never any question of us going to college when we grew up; it was just something we did. So for my hard-working, practical, mom-and-apple-pie family, the calling to write borders on the absurd. They humor me as best they can, bless them, but don't know the siren song, no matter how I explain, that makes me work part time in a grocery store deli and live off of waning stocks--Christmas-and-birthday-presents from my grandfather for twenty-one years--in order to answer. What they see is a capable young woman with a Master's degree wasting time. I feel kind of sad for them.

In your kind of family, will publication validate you in their eyes, or will writing always seem an odd, impractical life choice to them?

I think I was very lucky. Though my family were definitely working class (my dad was unbelievably proud of me when I got into uni...and then terribly disappointed when I flunked out the first year. He left school at 14), there was always a sense, especially on my mum's side, of the importance of books and stories and self-education and just a glorious curiosity about the world that needed to be fed. My maternal grandfather was a pattern-maker by trade, who built the houses his family lived in. But he was also a sculptor, a fantastic storyteller (according to my mum), a dreamer, who read and quoted Shakespeare, who was so interested in ancient Egypt he taught himself to read hieroglyphics. My grandmother was a hard working wife and mother of 4 during the Depression and the 2nd World War, and life was tough. But she was also a voracious reader, a poet, an artist, who played piano and sang, and she also had a great fascination with ancient Egypt (I remember her quoting snippets of poetry attributed to Pharaoh Akhenaten when I was young). And there were always books around, books and art materials, and discussions on all manner of subjects; politics and history and poetry and art. So it never occurred to me that having interests like that were perhaps a little odd for a working class family.

Hm, that's a good question. Yes and no. I think "my kind" will always be a mystery to them. They will probably never quite understand what makes a good story, poem, or piece of writing, but I think they'll warm up to it if they see that I am able to support myself. So money = success, though I doubt they've ever really thought of it that way and would be horrified to realize they did.

Perhaps it's not fair to credit this to class so much as the American emphasis on productivity. For them, achievement is tangled up with value, while I believe a person's worth is intrinsic and independent of what he or she does or doesn't do. It's far from easy to put into practice, but I'm trying to live in such a way that if even all my efforts come to naught, I'll be satisfied that I was true to what I am.

I've just read a terrific article by Mark Levine, reminiscing about studying under Philip Levine:

I love this in particular:

"He seemed uninterested in interpreting poems, which was at first mystifying to a student like me, who had been trained to believe that the most valuable response to a poem was finding something clever or unexpected to say about it. He thought that the right words in the right sequence held a power that was magical and instantaneous. He read poems to us — W.B. Yeats, Thomas Hardy, Wilfred Owen, Elizabeth Bishop — with a passion I had never before encountered. His voice was rough and magisterial. Words were alive in him. He read with a clenched jaw and his body almost shaking. He described John Keats’s letters and made clear his sense that the imagination was a sacred place breeding authenticity in words. He insisted that the poem be lived."

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