I was working on my Christmas gathering the other day, one of my favorite yearly activities. I bake many kinds of cookies, cakes, a very realistic chocolateYule Log, and many other dishes, freezing them in advance. I invite a lot of people over to a party. I decorate the house with garlands I make myself with laurel and myrtle and pine and flocks of baby's breath.
I spent a couple of hours engaged in the somewhat creative, somewhat repetitive and rhythmic work of tying on sprigs of greenery to the garland, winding the wire as I added each, careful to weave around the leaves to avoid squashing them. I made sure all the greenery was mixed evenly but casually, all of which became a complex pace of movement and kinetic thought.
Jobs like these free my mind in a way nothing else does. At the time I was making these preparations, I was troubled by a perplexing work problem. It was the sort of problem we usually associate with needing time to pause and think through. But in doing the manual work my mind was gradually freed from linear, verbal thinking. I began making what seemed like multidimensional associations. And I came up with new thoughts and insights into the nature of the problem.
In high school, I remember deciding to help my mother wrap Christmas presents. There were dozens of boxes and she was glad for the help. I remember passing a couple of very gratifying hours doing what seemed like mindless labor. I explained this to a friend of mine who said, scornfully, "So you like to do mindless work?" The putdown took me aback, but though I didn't agree, I didn't know quite how to explain what it was I had experienced while wrapping the gifts. It wasn't mindless; it just wasn't verbal.
This sort of work, with its sequence of rhythmic activities leading to a clear goal (garland completed, packages wrapped, clothes ironed or cookies baked), relaxes me in a way nothing else can. Last Christmas, for example, I was particularly stressed. I had heavy work responsibilities and too many exams to correct. So one day I went to "work" on Christmas. I started baking at 9 a.m. and eight hours later, when my husband peered into the kitchen, he found it covered in peels and chocolate and flour, every bit as much as I was. He said, "Wow, you look so relaxed!"
I was. The cares and stress had floated away in the routines of manual labor. I felt more like myself that day than I had in weeks. Using my hands instead of my head had put me completely at ease.
When I'm in the middle of cooking or baking and someone asks me what they can do to help, I'm always at a loss. No words come to mind. I'm thinking with my hands, and when the task I'm working on is done my hands move to the next one. To verbally explain what needs doing — to translate my hands' language into what another person could understand — would take as much time as doing it myself, and I'd probably have to use my hands just to describe the task.
What does this all mean?
In a previous column ("The Muse") I wrote how we are often working on a project without knowing it. Not all thinking is done with words. Much of what is inventive or creative involves unusual connections and surprising metaphors. Left to its own devices, the verbal parts of our minds often gets bogged down in details, literal meanings and linear trains of thought. But while using my hands. I find my mind floats into a space in which I can create those very connections and surprises.
Our stomachs can digest all manner of food without us needing to possess even a minimum knowledge of chemistry. Neuroscientists are busy exploring this dimension of the mind. But the brain is exceedingly complex and it may be a long time before they can formally explain the processes we already know as experience and knowledge.
But maybe we don't need verbal knowledge to understand what we've acquired from experience; maybe we just need to trust the experience itself.