My wife stood at the kitchen table the other day separating coins for a lesson she was preparing for her kindergarten students. She divided the change into piles, separating the great silver discs of quarters from the dimes and nickels, finding a space in the corner for that midget of a copper afterthought, the penny. As I watched her work, I found myself wondering the point of learning such an increasingly-obsolete skill as counting change. After all, my pennies usually end up massed in the cup-holder of my car or orphaned in a dresser drawer, and most of my transactions take place electronically, with 1’s and 0’s substituting for the metal coins and paper bills.
I’ve also wondered the same thing about learning handwriting, a mountain which both my children have labored so mightily to climb. Why suffer over the proper formation of a “q” or a “g” when punching the keys on a laptop produces the same result? So much of our communication these days is electronic, and voice-activated communication seems to be the wave of the future, it seems.
But the more I think about these seemingly-vestigial practices, the more I am reminded of how blessedly tactile they are. Take as an example the scratching out of words by a pen or pencil on a piece of notebook paper, the pen tucked into the crook of the hand – “snug as a gun,” as Seamus Heaney famously said. Here is a practice which, by involving physical touch, sight and sound, anchors us in the physical world. As we write, the small muscles in our hand begin to feel the strain of gripping and pressing the pen to paper. We see the loops and swirls of our own handwriting, at first small at the top of the page, then occupying more and more of the page, perhaps a little blob of ink still drying, or even smeared against the flat of our palm. There’s no way to adequately substitute for a sensory-rich process such as this, or, say, spreading peanut butter and jelly across a slice of homemade white bread, bathing the dog, or a dozen other experiences. And how many of our little daily rituals are composed of these experiences! They aren’t just incidental; they remind us that we are physical people, with bodies, made to enjoy the world of concrete, sensory experiences.
I recently heard the poet Benjamin Myers give a talk on the connection between incarnation and art. Resist the gnostic impulse, he urged, to divorce matter from spirit. “Embrace the physical givenness of creation,” was how he put it. On each day of creation, God punctuated his creative work by declaring the physical material of his creation “good.” He blessed matter, concrete form and sound and sight, and whether we are creating or not, this understanding has the power to transform our days, if we allow it. I re-discovered this recently when hauling rocks from a neglected corner of our yard to prepare the space for a raised garden bed. Back-straining, hand-scraping work, for sure. But also anchoring in the “physical givenness of creation,” and pleasurable in its own way.
My days should be filled with practices that force me to, as Jonathan Rogers has said, “live close to the earth.” There’s a distinct pleasure in getting our hands dirty, literally or figuratively, whether with the grit of soil turned in preparation for planting, the slick acrylic paint wiped from a canvas, or the squish of a tomato sliced for a salad. The earth is ours, to caretake and enjoy, and drawing close to these experiences will draw us close to the earth, and, by extension, to the business of being a person in the world God made.