By Hand is a monthly prompt that focuses on freeing our words by using our hands. This month, we’re exploring the idea of pure play.
In the end I did not have to steal a hymnal. Especially not one with this sticker: “Property of St. Mary’s. Please do not remove.”
My plan wasn’t to remove it — just borrow it for twenty-four hours to try out the hymn numbers I’d typed into my phone: 683, 634, 600. That same day my husband was loaned the Presbyterian’s hymnal so he could choose songs when he was the guest preacher. I opened that hymnal randomly to 784 and found a song I hadn’t heard in two decades. Gingerly, I put my hands on the keys.
My piano skills stalled about thirty years ago, but I can still stumble through a hymn. After many years of choir, my ears know what all four parts are supposed to sound like. And my fingers remember chords.
In Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorate the Soul, Dr. Stuart Brown tells the story of Laurel, who rediscovered the sense of play she’d found as a youth in riding horses.
“What surprises her most since she incorporated the pure play of riding back into her life is how complete and whole she now feels in all other areas of her life. The bloom of ‘irrational bliss’ she experiences in the care of her horse, from riding it regularly, and even occasionally riding again in small local shows, has spilled over into her family and work lives. The little chores of daily living don’t seem so difficult anymore.”
For me, the result of using my hands to plunk out a hymn or a Christmas carol hasn’t led to “irrational bliss” but certainly to quiet joy. Like when my hands moved through the moment in “O Gracious Light” when the flats turn to naturals. Or when, while working through a version of “Silent Night,” my fingers found a final chord that ends with a dissonance that sounds just right. Almost immediately, a writing project I thought was stalled once again had movement.
Prompt Guidelines and Options
1. Is there something you used to do that felt like “pure play,” like riding was for Laurel? Or something that makes you feel somewhat playful, like piano is for me? How does play spill over into your family or work life?
2. Unlike typing — which uses all ten fingers, but in repetitive ways — piano-playing stretches my fingers, forcing them to cross over and under. It’s a workout! Is there an activity that uses your hands in ways fundamentally different from how you normally use them?
3. After you’re done playing, keep a notepad and pencil nearby in case inspiration strikes, or tap your unexpectedly brilliant question or idea into your phone.
That’s it! We look forward to what you create when you do it By Hand.
Browse more By Hand
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro
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