Tuck your thumb between your second and middle finger, sit down in a Turkish cafe, and those you are with may either thump or laugh at you. You’re making as obvious and vulgar gesture in their culture as giving them the finger. This trait of mine is something that runs in families, I now learn, and is shared by around 5% of the population.
I picked this information up from Sarah Anderson’s Halfway to Venus. The book is filled with cross-cultural, time-bending insights into the roles played by hands and arms in history and society. Sarah’s quest for mastery of the subject stems from the loss of her own left arm at the age of ten. It was amputated to prevent the spread of a rare form of cancer.
Sarah’s a friend, but it needs no such close reference to find the early chapters extraordinarily affecting. The reality of a girl’s losing her arm is a poignant tale. Somehow childhood illness is something we are protected from as though it hits out at our own presumed innocence. As a child I was stopped from entering a children’s ward at a hospital, for what I might see there would be too disturbing. Sarah leads us through the drama of a child’s experience of amputation. We see how it touches the lives of her parents, siblings and friends, and even more acutely of course herself … and the degree to which everyone seeks to separate themselves from the loss. Ten years passed before Sarah was able to ask the question of her parents, Why did this happen? A brisk answer came back and the subject was changed. Imagine, losing an arm, going through the pain of that, yet not knowing why.