Meditation on/with Hands by Jenny Nelson

           We pool appendages at the movies, from settlements in adjacent cinema seating. 

           When I see Up the first time—I see it in theaters twice, natch—I have this crazy blue-flavored ice cream at Oberweis right after, but the point is during the movie I’m so overwhelmed with emotion that my hand reaches to grasp my sister’s, holding tight for the film’s duration, maybe a whole hour. I squeeze a pulse her way during the scariest parts, when the colors turn grey.

            Movies leave little room for audience noise, and I can’t assess through my peripherals if an action is approved since my eyes are locked in place watching animated movement. There’s a moment we move to hold hands followed by the one where we can feel our hands holding. Literally, that’s what’s happening, not even in a sweet teenage way.

            We study Oliver Sacks in senior year philosophy. I mainly remember the man for his loads of studies on savants, but in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985) he describes the case of 60-year old Madeline J. Miss J. is a congenitally (this means since birth (I learned this through a search engine)) blind woman with cerebral palsy admitted to St. Benedict’s Hospital near New York City in 1980. Miss J.’s “thing” is that she doesn’t believe her hands work; she claims they’re unable to perform any action. She calls them, “useless godforsaken lumps of dough,” and, “lumps of putty.”

            I could endure putty hands. Who needs to feel? I struggle to appreciate touch. If I never again sense the cold fear in my trumpet before I begin my warm-up I’d be pleased. In the absence of touch I could eat unseemly textures and never think twice. If I didn’t touch, I could continue to frequent museums—perhaps even more welcomed than previously! And I’d probably smell without touch, too. Game over, and touch scored zero.

            Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs is a two-hour cartoon film about taste, and being yourself. Through the end credits I discover the cast is talented comedians I admire, and a song so overwhelms me (this is what gets me emotional/is why I don’t have a boyfriend anymore) that Alan notices, reaching over to seize my hand, proceeding to wave it around or something else I find charming at the time. I’m not sure if we’re dating yet but saying goodbye after the movie gives me crazy nerves. It’s a week before we kiss, two before we agree we’re in a couple, a month before he says I love you and I say “me tooooo?” quietly before turning the ignition on and driving him home. Years later if I think about it I can recall specific moments of touch and how I responded emotionally at the time. What can you do with that specific sensory memory?

            Miss J.’s hands experience spasms; though she can identify touch and pain, she never reads Braille or uses her hands because everyone around her does everything for her. Miss J. cannot identify things in her hands, cannot identify Dr. Sacks’ hands in her hands. If Alan grabbed her hand at the movies she could identify “happy” without ever realizing that hand holds the potential for a new boyfriend. This would probably stop her from getting the boyfriend.

            Two years after Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, I see The Shining in theaters with Nick and his friend Sean. Correctly I assume neither will hold my hand during the scary parts (read: entire movie) nor the end credits, so I smuggle three tangerines in my coat pocket. Whenever there’s blood or too long a length of carpet, I tighten my grasp on the orange in my fist. A stress ball of sorts, for someone who’s also hungry. When my fear plateaus after a bit, I have loosened the skin on the cutie, so I zip it off with little effort and consume an overly fragrant citrus fruit in a theater that already reeks of weed. This theater does not permit outside produce but I doubt I’d be the first questioned.

            Miss J. has her Helen Keller moment via a perfectly legal bread product. To force the patient into discovering her own hands, Dr. Sacks asks the nurses to stop feeding and serving Miss J., so that out of necessity or hunger she will use her hands and therefore notice them. It works: famished, she clasps her hands around a bagel, her “first manual act.” Dr. Sacks takes note, writing, “her first perception, her first recognition, was of a bagel, or ‘bagelhood’…” If you remember, Miss J. is “near New York City,” so I hope there’s a celebratory toast of bagels (toasted).

            When I see Joss Whedon’s The Avengers on a first date (Is it a first date? Do we ever date? He pays with a gift card so I don’t know what that makes it.) I make a reach for Jorge’s hand to feel it in my own. As Dr. The Hulk doctors some items and Tony Stark computes on his computers, I progress my hand’s hold into a gentle thumb stroke and Jorge reciprocates. After an hour of reciprocation, my hand has both numbed and chafed. I pull away, an action I fear misunderstood and qualified as mean. I forget this as I watch. In that bonus, post-credits scene they eat chicken shawarma and I can hear Thor chewing. My hand is at my side.

            In Sacks’ postscript he finds another version of this Miss J. case less than a year later, meaning Miss J.’s misunderstanding of her own hands is not uncommon as you might have thought. My hands work, maybe yours, too, someone out there might not yet know what powers theirs hold. 

            There’s a part mid-way through Catching Fire where two dozen tributes, soon to be opponents in a deadly game, join hands. The scene stinks of trumpets and revolution. There is a role reversal as all characters touch palms while I sit with an elbow on either armrest, having come to the theater alone on a Monday at 6:30 PM. My hands remain still but I am satisfied, moved even.

            Miss J. goes on, Sacks says, to become a sculptor; having learned her hands are in fact operable she puts them to use, and in her 60th year on earth and first year of understanding her own hands, she becomes a sculptor. At the end of her 80s ensemble comedy Miss J.’s subtitle says, “Becomes a sculptor,” and mine says, “Watches characters hold hands at the movie while not doing so herself.”


Jenny Nelson is a writer living in Brooklyn. She has contributed to Splitsider, Videogum and The A.V. Club. She tried to change boys’ names in this piece but it took away from the essay, so here we are.