We had gone to the farmer’s market, inspired to cook more. The tomatoes were bright and just on the precipice of overripeness, the sorrel was novel, verdant, and standing at attention. The salad was coming together nicely, but I saw the carrots sitting there, banded together with their stems wilting more every moment. I chose the one that had spit into two roots, appearing like a pair of trousers. I grabbed it by the legs and cracked them apart easily. To get the necessary delicacy to match the rest of the nuanced salad, I decided to use the mandolin slicer.
I began with vigor, as I have 50 times before. I thought about how I needed to be careful and light with my pressure, how sharp the blade was, and how I needed to start slowing soon as I neared my hand. At the instant those thoughts were floating past, something went awry. The carrot had sidestepped the blade, leaving my thumb to take its place. For a moment, I wondered if I had imagined it. I waited to see if pain would come. It did. I looked with curiosity: it’s probably just a little surface nick. And for a moment, it looked like a superficial abrasion of the clearish layer of skin.
Then the blood came. Damn you, Trousers. My hand was wet, so I wondered if it wasn’t as bad as it looked. Waves of nausea began to expand outward from my stomach as I ran upstairs toward the bathroom. The blood was becoming thicker and more plentiful and inversely proportional to my remaining ability to see. A little cold sweat, my body ringing like a tuning fork. I laid on the white tile floor, babying my dizziness and covering my eyes, until my husband came up to be rational.
It’s a pretty small wound compared to my entire surface area. But, it’s on my right thumb. It’s on the half of the thumb that would press the space bar or piano keys. Apparently my right thumb has been doing all of the space bar pressing in my life. My left hand is quite confused about how to do it. It’s surprising how often there’s a space in writing. I’m not used to noticing. Typing is slow and frustrating, which hasn’t been the case since I was 13, and my 32-year-old brain is probably lamer at learning. But I think it’s a good skill to have, if I can develop it — the left hand space-bar skill. It’s like discovering you have a weak muscle and watching it strengthen. I’m hoping for some satisfaction, as I do with everything that’s a choice.
My thumb is wrapped in a paper towel and climbing tape, the joint cemented straight. It’s a white confection I’m instinctively holding out, hitchhiker-style at all moments. I can’t shower without getting it wet or floss effectively without my thumb’s assistance. (I’m only actually missing being able to do one of those acts. My thumb’s skin flap is more a scapegoat for the other.) Having not showered in a few days, I look a little crazy, like a wild Edelweiss. It doesn’t help my appearance that today is intensely hot, inciting a stripping down to the underpants. Sweatily, pantless, and with fetid breath and armpits, I tick out these words instead of making dinner or conquering the giant pile of dishes mounting in the sink.
This is small potatoes, I know. I could have slipped and fractured my spine or gotten brain damage. But it’s a teeny reminder of how dependent on the physical we humans are. Most of the time, it doesn’t seem like it. It seems more the other way. We have keyboards that capture our huge thoughts with tiny touches. We nearly effortlessly race to however million miles per hour in our Kias or Teslas or airplanes. I’m accustomed to the physical mostly making things easier for the mental. (Most of my what makes my life hard comes from relationships — intangible ill-communication.)
What spurred our farmer’s market outing was watching Cooked, a Netflix series about food hosted by Michael Pollan. In it, there was a scene in India where a goat was brought in, carried sideways by a couple of its little legs, to be slaughtered for lunch. The cooks laid its confused head on a bloodied plate, which indicated the normalcy of this event. The man doing the chopping didn’t change his neutral expression. I looked away for the actual killing, but from what I did see, he removed the goat’s life as though he were washing a dish or tying a shoe.
It takes one banal movement of a man’s arm to dismantle the delicate fabric of the neck, for sentience to pour out on a plate.
My torn thumb, my special opposable digit, presses me gently against my own sentience. Most everything I do, I do with my hands. Most of the time, I think I am what I do unless I’m really paying attention. I’m a writer, or a composer, or a pianist or a baker. My hands take my ideas and communicate them in various ways. Those huge thoughts are shuffled around in these fragile meat pajamas, an extension of our spirit, or the cause of our spirit. Until they stop working.
So often, I am my body without even noticing. I don’t much think of the bones that lever me up hills, or the blood that pumps the right amount of hormone here and there. It is simultaneously extraordinary and disappointingly primitive. How is it that such raw material, lumps of bologna, can be responsible for creating the vastness of human experience? How can this soft, malleable material be our shields?
And yet it works pretty well, unless someone grabs you by the legs around lunchtime. In a moment, no more smelling, or seeing, or hearing. No more worrying. No more baking or painting. Back to molecules and dirt.