Are my hands clean?

Are my hands clean?

Keeping infection at bay is a generous practice; hand-washing becomes an act of love

PUTNEY — In spring 2020, when COVID-19 became a daily threat, I quoted to myself the fragment of a verse from Psalms, recalled from Sunday School days in Tennessee: “he that hath clean hands and a pure heart.”

I timed myself one day: From getting up in the morning and including trips to the bathroom at night, I washed my hands 21 times and used a hand sanitizer five times. I had clean hands and hoped I had a pure heart.

Eventually, it occurred to me to look up the Biblical text. I found conditions.

“Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in his holy place? 'He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart [...] shall receive the blessing from the Lord, and righteousness from the God of his salvation.”

Clean hands meant my allegiance to an Old Testament God, and I couldn't say I was a believer.

I searched for other clean-hands images, while day after day I felt alternately more safe and more vulnerable, washing not only my hands but all my groceries.

I joked with friends that I was constantly auditioning for Lady Macbeth.

“What, will these hands ne'er be clean?” she asks obsessively in her sleepwalking scene. Her lady-in-waiting explains to the attending doctor, “I have known her continue in this a quarter of an hour.”

Clean hands will never absolve her of inciting Macbeth to murder the Duncan, the king.

* * *

The symbolism of hand-washing continued to haunt me, as if there were always a need to exonerate oneself, to get clean.

The music of Sweet Honey in the Rock expressed it through the image of a cotton-and-polyester blouse, bought at a discount at a Sears department store. In Bernice Johnson Reagon's lyrics, the blouse comes to represent profits for corporations trading cotton (Cargill), supplying petroleum (Exxon), and manufacturing synthetic fabric (DuPont). The garment is sewn by underpaid, at-risk workers in El Salvador and Haiti.

“For three dollars a day my sisters make my blouse,” the group sings. “Are my hands clean?”

Hand-washing also comes into another Biblical image about the judgment of Pontius Pilate.

“When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person.” The symbolic cleansing made him all the more complicit as he turned Jesus over to the mob.

All these references involved power and/or the abuse of power. Could it be that the clean-hands practice I was taught as a child was in itself a political act?

In my teens, I read Microbe Hunters, a fat brown book in my family's shelves. Pasteur and Semmelweis, who pioneered germ theory, were heroes.

I realize now that their revelations caused conflict, challenging the status quo of medicine. In their time, hand-washing was not taken for granted.

Even in this century, as the research of surgeon Atul Gawande has made clear the relationship between the spread of infection and the necessity of hand-washing in hospitals, the medical world has resisted changing its habits.

* * *

As the pandemic came to dominate our household routines, I tried singing “Happy Birthday” and a whole repertoire of other tunes during hand-washing: the Doxology, the “A-B-C Song,” “Jana Gana Mana” (the national anthem of India).

In the early months, the heat was on in my home in Vermont and often there was a fire in the wood stove. My hands dried out and cracked from all that washing. I soothed the skin of my palms and fingertips with Bag Balm; necessary for Vermont dairy farmers, the mix of vaseline and lanolin is used for the chapped teats and udders of cows.

Before going to bed, I would coat my hands with Bag Balm, massage it in, then rinse it off, leaving my hands comforted.

In Abigail and Shaun Bengson's video, “The Keep Going Song,” October 2020, Abigail asks the audience, “Are you OK, are you OK?” adding in a poignant aside, “I hope you find a hand lotion that actually makes your skin feel better.”

Finally, a friend brought me a cake of goat's-milk soap, healing the cracks in my hands with no need for Bag Balm.

* * *

What if the opponents of mask-wearing opposed hand-washing? An absurd thought, but it reminds me that, as with wearing a face mask, hand-washing also shields those around us.

If the virus can be spread by ignoring precautions, then my hand-washing creates a little sphere of power. I can choose to deter sickness or encourage it. The pandemic itself is beyond choice; everyone is vulnerable, some more than others, yet all are at risk.

Keeping infection at bay is a generous practice; hand-washing becomes an act of love.

I start to understand the urgency of the Psalmist, Lady Macbeth, Pilate, Sweet Honey in the Rock. Like them, I lack faith, do harm, am not fair, take advantage of someone else's low wages.

I would like to be just.

Soul-cleansing is difficult and requires mercy. It has to be done over and over, as with hands.

The last time I recorded hand-washing, in February, I cleaned my hands 11 times with soap and seven times with sanitizer in a 24-hour period.

No one has clean hands and a pure heart, but a just and merciful universe allows us to keep trying.

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