Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Girl with Empty Hands

When I was nineteen I wrote a story about a girl with empty hands. She held nothing. She walked freely. Her hands were lovely and still.

The girl with empty hands became for me a vision of childhood lost, a picture of purity and health. Unencumbered and innocent, her hands were free: no books, no tools, no baggage. Looking back on those undergraduate years, I have to stop myself from laughing at my younger self. To think! I thought my life was so complicated, my responsibilities so weighty.

I do stop myself from laughing, because I know that, in fact, life was complicated, responsibilities were weighty, and decisions made at that time determined the shape of my future life. Those were the most important books, the most startling prayers. The man I chose then still sleeps in my bed, his children are mine.

But looking back now I realize also that no other time in my life was better suited for simplicity, I could have attained an almost monastic austerity, a life of solitude and contemplation impossible for me now.

And I was less burdened—things were easier. If only because I loved less, or had less to love.

Becoming (first) a wife and then a mother has taught me many things. That years multiply complexities, children destroy simplicity and silence, and love itself adds to the burden. The beauty, the joy--are real. But the journey is difficult, important, perilous.

I still long to see the girl with empty hands, to watch her move freely, even as my hands become more and more full.

I must have remembered her again while I was pregnant with Hugo. While pregnant the first time I was living abroad, practically out of a suitcase. I longed to buy baby clothes, to stock a nursery, to rearrange furniture. I longed to collect the things that make a home.

But this time my instinct was the opposite: I became ravenous with the desire to purge, to strip, to simplify. My taste in home design became austere: white walls, midcentury lines, unadorned surfaces. I began getting rid of things. I became almost resentful of gifts we received (more things to deal with). I gathered boxes and boxes of toys and clothes to give away. I hid the boxes from both Hattie and Devin for fear of their reactions: “but I need this!”

And often they would have been right. Often we did need what I gave away. Often my life was burdened NOT by the thing itself but by the loss of the thing: a favorite toy, a useful pair of shoes.

Then one day as I was obsessively clicking through minimalist lifestyle blogs (a whole genre of blogs, who knew!), I came upon one comment that startled me. The writer pointed out that, in the end, real freedom does not come from lack of possessions or even a simple life. The simplest room is, after all, a prison cell. Instead, true freedom comes from a wise use of possessions: when we use our things to enrich the lives of those we love.

I realized that I felt burdened not by my things...a precious book, a warm blanket, a cast iron pan, a box of dolls…but rather by the weight of love, fear, concern, and even joy (yes, joy is a burden!) that I knew a new child would inevitably bring. I was trying to become again the girl with empty hands, instead of embracing the fact that I was becoming a woman with hands very full, and a life very full.

There is real simplicity, and I still yearn for this. There is also a time for empty hands, empty rooms, and silence. For me that time is not now. I am learning how to rejoice in hands that are always full, always working. I cradle the baby, I hold the child, I prepare the food, I reach out for my husband. 


  1. I can't picture myself empty handed, can't avoid believing that having is being. I agree that freedom is one of the best sources for overall well-being, but I rather point towards happiness (are they ever mutually exclusive?). In my experience, happiness comes from using what you have for the joy of others, and for that you need to have something, anything, even those things acquired from the moment of conception: love, values, education, even physical stuff. Did I just rephrased the comment of your writer exchanging the word freedom with happiness? Then, are they fully inclusive and even the same thing? I feel my words don't serve any purpose now... Either way, I do long to be an empty-handed girl, but only when the Lord decides to call me to His presence; hopefully then I will have passed onto others what has been given to me. Thanks for your lovely posts, Mary of Egypt