Archaeologists argue the actual date when the first painter stenciled his hand onto cave walls, somewhere in the vicinity of 40,000 years ago. Earliest man was compelled to make a mark, to leave something behind. A memory of him. A gift to us. The human hand is a powerful symbol of our human potential. Flesh and blood, our life coursing through our veins, from our hearts to our hands, and into our sensitive fingers. Touch is how we experience the world.
The hand can reach and grasp: a tool, a paintbrush, a pen, a weapon. Perhaps its greatest strength is what it conveys through gesture, in both the secular and sacred world. Our non verbal communication is a affirmation that something beyond words connects us. The symbolism of a hand gesture may only be within the context of esoteric rite or ritual and known only to that community. Or, it may extend itself to the global family. Our communal symbols and signs are how we experience the world.
From the shameless to the sublime, we know what gestures signify. It is the rudeness of giving someone the proverbial finger. Thumbs up, thumbs down. The calm of the open V peace sign, the power of the fist clenched in solidarity. Deliverance. Defiance. The Hindu and Buddhist mudras. Hands in prayer. The bending of ring finger and pinky in benediction blessing as a sign of the Trinity. A kohen (priest) forming the Hebrew letter “Shin” with both hands, fingers split (“shin” also represents the word Shaddai, a name for God) to confer a blessing.
In an episode of television’s Star Trek called Amok Time, Leonard Nimoy‘s character, Mr. Spock, half human, half alien, is introducing us to other people of his Vulcan race. We are glimpsing an alien greet his alien community. To signify the moment, and to create a richness of their culture and civility, Nimoy created the single hand, split finger version of the kohen’s Hebrew blessing he had seen as a boy. The Vulcan race, with its manner of ritual, of greeting, of community, offers the sign to one another with its message: “Live long and prosper.” It was the power of the hand, the strength of its gesture. Nimoy said that it “touched a magic chord.” It did. We immediately understood.
Leonard Nimoy died on Friday, February 27, 2015. He was 83. He has left his mark, his memory, and his gift to us, in that same unending way as the early man stenciling his hand on a cave wall. To the far reaches of space, where words and time hold no sway, the enduring image remains.
Orbiting 250 miles (400 km) above earth on the International Space Station, NASA astronaut Terry Virts commemorated the passing of Leonard Nimoy with the Vulcan hand gesture. To the right of Virt’s hand is Nimoy’s home state, Massachusetts, though Leonard Nimoy’s world would become so much bigger. We give the greeting to Mr. Nimoy, who gave it to us, this one last time. We offer it in softest silence, as he, now with his fully human heart at rest, makes his voyage to the eternal frontier.
It was my own fault, finding myself on Mars like this. Such a strange and hostile atmosphere. The thought of two moons rising trumped common sense, and decent air. I can only take short breaths.
I followed him here, you know. What difference did it make? I was lost to begin with.
He opened the door, but I came and went through the window. It seemed easier that way. The air inside became as strange and hostile as the air outside, only more toxic. What I gave freely, and what was taken away, cannot be recovered. I get that.
But, I shouldn’t have announced my leaving, knowing it would serve no purpose, and would only fuel his rage. “If you go, you can’t get back in,” he’d say. Again and again. For all my threats, I’d come back in through that damn window, again and again. Inside was the known damaged and damaging atmosphere. Outside was the unknown damaged and damaging landscape.
Out the window I went, clinging to the ledge, ready to jump. I’ve done it so many times. He slammed it down before I cleared the sill. It closed hard on my knuckles. The blood lubricated my hands, and I pulled free. My fingers were scraped and bleeding; my hands, throbbing. I could hear him curse me through the window.
I took shallow breaths, trying to form words – a curse, a prayer…something. It was like a bad dream, when you try to speak, but no words come out. A line from an old Townes Van Zandt song, “won’t you lend your lungs to me,” played itself over and over in my head, “mine are collapsing…”
Every door locked. Every window shut tight. There was no concern with hope or salvation. There was only now, this moment, and the desire to take a long, deep breath, impossible in this red and angry place.
– Toni Tan, “Phobos and Deimos” ©2014