Cupped hands
Photo: Tessa Traeger
Two years ago, I was lying on my acupuncturist's table with needles sticking into my ears, neck, belly, ankles, and between my toes, when she said to me, out of nowhere, "Well, you know, Pam, you are protected."

Denise was treating me for debilitating lower-back pain, after the MRI had said, "severely degenerated L4/5 disk," and the family doctor had said, "eventual wheelchair," and the specialist had said, "Call me when you become incontinent," and the surgeon had said, "Sure, we can operate, but it probably won't work."

Acupuncture had worked, steadily, deeply, undeniably, and eliminating pain was only the beginning; with each treatment I was becoming calmer, more solidly grounded in the center of my life. Denise is a wonder; smart, hilarious, ultraintuitive, massively tuned in. When she said I was protected, I knew she was talking about something bigger than job security or health insurance.

"I do know," I said, because somehow, unaccountably, I did. Denise patted my arm and I closed my eyes and that is the first time I saw the cupped hands.

Before I go on, let me say that I was born and raised in Trenton, New Jersey. I am an obsessive-compulsive checkbook balancer, I love football and ice hockey, and I got a perfect score on the analytical portion of the Graduate Record Exam. So when serendipitous—even uncanny—encounters occur in my life, I have to squint at them from all angles before I am willing to believe.

There was the time, years ago, when I had missed my plane at LAX Airport and Carlos Castaneda walked up (as if he knew me, though of course he did not), introduced himself, and gave me four essential pieces of advice about my life. There was the time I was sitting in Granzella's, a roadside attraction off the I-5 south of Redding, in California's grim Central Valley, drinking bad coffee, telling a 20-year-old story about William Hurt (whom I didn't know either, but who had once changed my life by the way he read a story onstage), only to look up from my coffee to see that Hurt—all dressed in white like some angel of the interstate—had just walked through the front door.

The cupped hands, though, were on a different plane of uncanny than the sudden appearance of a Yaqui mystic or the ability to conjure an Academy Award–winning actor by saying his name. These hands were not actual, not in the flesh, as William's and Carlos's had been when I shook them. I saw these hands only in my mind's eye, and yet they were as insistent, as undeniable as anything I have seen or felt in my life. The cupped hands were grown-up hands—lined, fleshy, and weathered, poised to receive, possibly water, possibly something water only stands for. They were there, I was given to understand, to catch me if I fell.

A few days later I was walking with my dog in the alfalfa fields outside Davis, California, noticing that in spite of some disappointments I was coping with (a painful but inevitable breakup, severe budget cuts at work), I was feeling happy, almost exhilarated. I recalled the inverse of that moment, times where everything in my life had been going great and I felt unaccountably sad. The possibility of untethering happiness and sadness from circumstance felt frightening and wonderful, like a new brand of freedom.

The sun was setting in the Central Valley haze, leaving a kind of pink mouth against a white sky, and somehow in and through that rose-colored opening, I saw/felt those cupped hands again. What had begun as exhilaration became a quiet, permeating ecstasy that hung around long enough for me to find myself humming, then laughing. I fought the urge (thank God) to turn cartwheels all the way back to my truck.