Cupped hands
Photo: Tessa Traeger
The universe sent her a mystic, a movie star, and a miracle acupuncturist. Then Pam Houston asked for love, and the universe said yes.
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.

A few months later I was sitting on the opposite side of the continent, far out on the long rocky breakwater in Provincetown Harbor, Massachusetts, under a similarly pink-slashed sunset, talking to the sea and the sky. Some people would call this praying, and I might one day, too, so I began, as I believe all prayers should, with gratitude. Thank you for the sunset, thank you for my friends, thank you for the pain that is gone from my back. Thank you, that is, both for the wake-up call of pain, and for its subsequent relief.

I watched the tide rush out under the giant slabs of granite beneath me.

"Okay," I said, out loud this time, which felt both ridiculous and better. "I think I am finally ready for you to send me a big, deep, generous love." I'll admit I didn't know who I was praying to. Something that might be called Ocean and might be called God, and that manifested itself to me occasionally as cupped hands.

"But if you don't think I am ready for big love," I continued, "then maybe just a little romance to keep the conversation going." A great blue heron landed in the reeds nearby. "And if I'm not even ready for that, maybe just a sign that I'm on the right path."

Satisfied with my prayer, I trained my eyes on the heron. A dapper little man was approaching on the jetty, wearing short shorts in psychedelic colors and a yellow shirt, walking a Westie, who was wearing a sweater, even though the day was quite warm. He said, "Lovely place to sit and think, isn't it?"

"Yes," I said, "it surely is."

He never broke stride, but grinned as he passed. "You are a good person," he said. "It's all going to be okay."

I watched him recede along the horizon, the tops of the big rocks turning green and gold and purple in the encroaching twilight. "Thanks," I told the thing that is part God and part Ocean. "That was just what I had in mind."

It was exactly two weeks later when I found myself in Taos, New Mexico, talking with a poet named Greg Glazner, someone I had not known until chance put us on a shared bill at a night full of literary readings. We were in his hotel room—not as salacious as it sounds—but the conversation was having that delicious accelerated quality that can happen sometimes with strangers, and before long I was telling him about Denise, and the alfalfa fields, and the cupped hands.

"These hands?" he said, holding his hands just like the ones in my mind's eye, with a look of such intensity on his face it scared me.

"Well, you know," I said, backpedaling, "cupped hands as metaphor." What had made me want to share my fledgling spiritual realizations with a complete stranger anyway? "Some kind of safety or support."

"Oh," he said, "I know those hands," and he reached into his briefcase and pulled out a greeting card with a photo of hands on the front, fleshy, weathered, cupped, and catching a stream of cold, clear water. "Look," he said, and held the card out to me. "And look," he said, pointing to the yard-sale-quality print over the standard-issue hotel bed. There were the soft lines of a woman's face, below it only the suggestion of a body, and below it, in sharper detail than anything else, her open, waiting hands.

The rest, as they say, is history. Greg and I have been together going on two years now, and though no relationship is made without effort, this one is proving to be that big love I prayed for on the Provincetown rocks. I don't know why and I don't know why now, but I do know I would have to be some kind of arrogant to squint too hard at my good fortune this time. Denise says it is simple: I had to learn how to ask for help before I could receive it. Now when life gets hard and I start to lose faith, I put myself back in that alfalfa field, where a smudged sky opened up and invited me inside it, momentarily illuminating my connection to everything larger than me.

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