Working Hands are Healing Hands
Medical issues, the continuing COVID-19 situation, and advancing age recently drove me to retire from my eight-year career at OUTsideIN. Clearing my (too many) personal belongings from the workshop office was painful and tearful, but fortunately Kayla Wilson was there to help and comfort me. I’m still part of OUTsideIN – I still serve on the Board of Directors, stay connected with my OUTsideIN friends, and do odd jobs - but having officially bade it farewell, I feel sort of disoriented and am having some trouble getting my bearings in this new life stage.
I’ve had a lot of jobs in a lot of places in the past 45 – 50 years. Whether shoveling chicken manure in Scotland, sourcing sanitary ceramics in Southeast Asia, writing and publishing fiction and non-fiction (when traveling and when at home), developing needlework designs in Indian Orchard, MA, or grant writing in Troy, TN, getting my bearings has seldom been a problem. As long as I was in motion – preferable forward – I was okay. I’ll admit that being stood up by business associates in Lisboa and Izmir, tussling with an impatient customs inspector in Seoul and getting lost in Jakarta with a driver who spoke no English was all disconcerting. But hey, it wasn’t all bad. The first time I visited Hong Kong, I found somehow found myself giving the Chinese taxi driver directions to my destination (a friend suggested that I had lived in Hong Kong in a previous life. Hmmm.) Getting lost can be frustrating, but it can also lead you to places you never knew existed. Sometimes they’re wonderful, sometimes not. Just keep on moving, right?
OUTsideIN is more than a social enterprise in Troy, TN. In the beginning it was simply a workshop full of buzzing sewing machines where we intended to train and nurture marginalized women. At the time I wasn’t even sure why I volunteered to help because previously I had paid very little attention to marginalized people of any description. If you don’t recognize the marginalized people all around us, it may be because you don’t even see them. You’ve got work to do and places to go, so like me, you just keep on moving.
Now I realize that it was God who sent me to OUTsideIN, but at the time, it was uncharted territory. We all – volunteers and employees - had to figure it out as we went along. It was (and continues to be) an ongoing learning experience. And for me, it turned out to be one of those places I never knew existed. And unlike the alley in Antwerp where store-front prostitutes ply their trade or the busy roadway in Lima where people empty their bladders and bowels on the median strip, it was (and is) a wonderful thing. Sure, it was a good deed to volunteer there, but I never expected it to transform me as well as its marginalized workers.
So again, OUTsideIN is more than a social enterprise. It is people – living, breathing women full of faults – and full of potential. In my working past, I strove to limit emotional connections to my coworkers. I hoped to avoid (or at least limit) clouded judgment, avoid fanning the flames of office politics, and avoid taking actions driven by my heart rather than my brain. That sort of avoidance isn’t a bad thing – whether or not a business is for profit, work is #1. It must be done, properly and efficiently, every day, day after day, for the business to succeed. But at OUTsideIN, I discovered that shared emotion was the ground we all stood on and that ignoring it (be it good or bad) was impossible. I befriended – and was befriended by – women whose socio-economic backgrounds were very different from mine, but who shared with me some of the same traumas and struggles I’ve experienced in life. I found kindred spirits: broken but unique, beautiful, funny, warm and loving women.
And I worked alongside LeEllen Smith, another unique, beautiful, funny, warm and loving woman. We agreed, disagreed, laughed, cried, experimented, failed, tried, failed, tried again…proving the undeniable truth that no matter where you are, at home, in an office, digging a ditch, life is a learning experience. I learned a lot from LeEllen (although I’m sorry, the chances of me ever mastering a balanced P&L statement are slim and none). She is, among many other things, a wise person. When I was upstairs in the workshop office struggling with some frustrating task and ready to bang my head against my desk, she would say, “I think you need to go downstairs and make something with your hands.”
OUTsideIN works for a variety of reasons, not all of which I can claim to understand. One of the ways it works came to clear to me recently when an artsy-craftsy friend told me that the craft group of older ladies she leads proves something she heard from Oprah Winfrey years ago: that that women who do crafts together, working with their hands, are emotionally healthier than those who don’t. This isn't just hearsay; it's been studied by a variety of experts, from neuroscientists to psychologists, who all found in their research subjects a bounty of benefits from engaging our minds and hands in meaningful effort, including stress reduction, improved physical and emotional health, greater resilience, improved social networks, and more. The coordination, movement, and connective tasks involved actually stimulate the cortex, resulting in increased connections in the brain that foster growth, intelligence, learning and functioning.
Carrie Barron, M.D., a psychiatrist and the co-author of The Creativity Cure: How to Build Happiness With Your Own Two Hands, writes, “When you make something, you feel productive, but the engagement and exploration involved in the doing can move your mind and elevate your mood." The result can be a spontaneous, positive, even joyful experience. She explains that handmade self-expression can even help us to let go of negative thoughts or experiences: "You may or may not be conscious of what perturbs you, but creative action with your hands, mind, and body can turn undermining forces into usable energies."
In other words, working hands are healing hands.
For the marginalized women that OUTsideIN serves – and for me, a former volunteer there – I strongly believe that the act of creating handmade products (in this case, travel bags) is crucial to healing and growth that can mend a broken woman and make her strong. Strong, and beautiful, just like the products OUTsideIN makes.
So, no. OUTsideIN is not just a social enterprise. It’s a place where God gathers together women to work, love, and shine His light on the little community around us. If you haven’t visited the workshop lately, or ever, I highly recommend a trip to 107 West Westbrook Street, on the square in quaint little downtown Troy, Tennessee. See it and believe it, come away with travel bags you won’t find anywhere else in the world, and tell others about the beauty you found there. And I'll tell you this: although I’ve left the OUTsideIN workshop, it will never leave me.
Note: the term "healing hands" is commonly found in the world of health services, but it's also used by a wonderful Christian humanitarian aid organization in Nashville called Healing Hands International (hhi.org).