What’s in Front of Me by Joe Mills

Many years ago, I was sitting on a lake house deck, drinking beer, enjoying the sunset on the water, when, with a sudden shock, I thought, “My God, What has happened to my hands?” I realized they were … different. They had, to use a painting term, a “craquelure.” Not quite wrinkles, but definitely a network of fine cracks on the surface. I tried to rationalize that they were just a little dried-out — “winter hands” — but since it was the middle of summer, I couldn’t convince myself of this. The truth was they were simply older hands.

Other parts of my body have also changed over the years. Most of these are covered with clothing so I don’t notice them, and some I simply ignore. I rarely look in mirrors except to shave, and then I use a small one that shows only part of my face. Consequently I often go weeks, even months, without being aware of what is happening with my nose, ears, eyebrows. Bad haircuts don’t bother me because I don’t see them (besides, since I have little hair anymore and I keep it at about a half inch, there’s a limit to how “bad” a haircut can be for me). When my teenage daughter said, “We need more mirrors in the house,” I said, “No, no, we don’t need any.” I’m a firm believer of a type of “Don’t ask/Don’t tell” policy regarding my body. I don’t want to know.

But the hands . . . they’re right there in front of me. I can try to ignore them. I can tuck them under my arms, or put them in my pockets. I can carefully arrange them into Lego-like hooks which seems to be the most effective way to tighten the skin and make them seem “younger.” But they keep insisting on moving into my line of sight, and they keep doing things which emphasize their wrinkles.

Things like playing the piano.

Each night, as I practice, I end up looking at my hands and the unavoidable sign of my aging. Perhaps I should have tried to learn a different instrument. French horn players shove their hands into the bell. Cymbal players keep theirs in fists and often wear gloves. Tubas just block everything from sight.

This isn’t simply a concern about appearance. I have reached a point in the piano books where one question is: “What can my hands do?” How many keys can they span? How smoothly can they move? What patterns can they learn? I am not trying to be a virtuoso. I’m not trying to be blindingly fast, or any kind of fast, but there are some genuine questions about speed and flexibility. My body is starting to feel like an eraser or rubber band that’s been around for awhile. It still works, if necessary, but not quite as well. If I sit at the bench too long, it can be hard to stand up, and each time, I wonder, “Is this temporary, or is this who I am now?”

And yet, it has always been this way — the body and hands marking time passing. I remember the precise moment when my daughter said, “Daddy, you don’t have to hold my hand when we cross the street.” It was a blow. Of course, I didn’t have to; I wanted to. That act of letting go, that opening of my hand at the corner aged me. It was a before-and-after moment.

My eleven-year-old son, a loud athletic whirling dervish of a boy, sometimes still holds my hand as we walk. Someday he will stop, and that too will be a sad day. I know it’s coming. Probably soon. Long ago, he stopped asking me or his mother to lie in bed with him at night and hold his hand so he could fall asleep. Once, as I was doing this, with his eyes still closed he pulled his arm away, picked his nose, and then slid his fingers back into mine. What’s love? Unflinchingly holding the snot-smeared hand of your child so they can fall asleep.

Perhaps I’ve been playing the piano to fill my hands since they are increasingly empty as my children grow. That may sound profound, and yet it doesn’t feel true. I think, more likely, I’m trying to push myself. When I was young, I memorized the poem “Ulysses” by Tennyson, which is about the aging warrior considering his life. It has the final lines:

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

So, each night I sit at the piano, before a score which is, in a way a map of time. I look at my hands, which are a map of time as well. And I say, “That which we are, we are.” After a moment, I concentrate on the notes and the keys. Someone listening would know that I’m a beginner, but I doubt if they would know my age.

I try to play the music as well as I can, even as I see my hands, even as I see clearly what’s in front of me.

Joe Mills
Joe Mills

A professor at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Joseph Mills holds an endowed chair, the Susan Burress Wall Distinguished Professorship in the Humanities. He has published six collections of poetry, including This Miraculous Turning and Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers (2nd edition), and most recently Exit, Pursued By a Bear. Although he has achieved awards and acclaim for his work, no one, not even the most sympathetic and pitying, would praise the way he blunders through “Amazing Grace” or rudimentary piano pieces. Nonetheless, in his middle age, he has decided to learn piano, and he suspects that it has begun to change his life in unanticipated ways.


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