The Rice Exercise

I plunge my left hand into the bucket of short-grain rice.  It’s not an actual pail, but a lidded Tupperware container I once stored Lay’s potato chips in, and the rice feels dusty, malleable, offering some pressure, as if my hand bathes in a giant stress ball.  I breathe in the starchy scent, envision bread dough. 

After I saw the rheumatologist three years ago, I bought several bags of rice at Albertsons and poured the contents into the Tupperware.  When the grains first sifted and slid onto themselves they were alabaster white, but after three years, exposure to air and my body oils have withered and darkened some of them.

As I begin to move my fingers through the rice, I wonder if the new bone Dr. E, my orthopedic oncologist, created eight years ago in my right foot has aged like the rice (story is here).  Since the tumor—a Giant Cell Reparative Granuloma—had eaten away the meat of the central bone of my foot, as well as one end piece, he had had to build a navicular bone from scratch, using bone harvested from my hipbone.  I’ve seen pictures of Dr. E’s creation at each visit to him.  X-ray and CT films clearly show me the bone.  At first, it looked fresh as a new bag of rice.  By the last visit, the bone had been fired in the kiln of time.  It no longer changes.  It’s as good as it is going to get.

Not long after I had mostly recovered from the surgery, I noticed my hands.  It’s not often that I take the time to notice anything about myself.  I certainly don’t shave my legs until the hairs on both calves war with each when I put my legs together.  But I caught sight of my hands when I was washing dishes, and that glimpse gave me pause.  They were starting to look like my mother’s.  I could see the beginnings of the gnarled and knobby persimmon tree look of my mother’s arthritic fingers.

Dr. H, the rheumatologist, recommended that I fill a bucket with rice and perform hand exercises twice a day, using the rice.  And so every day I do what I am now doing.

I grasp a small imaginary ball in my left palm–clenching and unclenching ten times.  Then I pinch the ball between my fingers and my thumb another ten times.  The third part is waving the hand upside down in the rice ten times.  I switch hands and repeat.  Then I perform the whole series one more time.

I tried to teach my mother to use the rice to exercise her hands, but her crooked hands are too weak and rigid.  She can’t push the weight of the rice with her fingers.  When I pull my right hand out of the bucket at the end, both hands tingle with energy.  They buzz with joy at their own movement. If I keep working the rice every day, I hope to keep them just this way, as if I can ward off the aging of my fingers indefinitely.

I wiggle my fingers to feel their increased flexibility, a looseness I used to feel in every joint after jazz dance class.  In that freedom, the endorphins used to diffuse throughout my body like shooting stars saturating a movie screen.  This experience is only left as a memory because Dr. E says I can no longer dance or exercise on my feet because the re-created bone is fragile, formed by accident with bumps and crevices, even gaps.  I imagine that it has aged like the dry rice hulls in my bucket.  But I can’t see it hidden inside the bent and stiff foot.  This foot can no longer arch in a soft leather dance shoe, but rests inside its magic shoe, the New Balance W992.  This shoe and the orthotics the elves at Swiss Balance build keep the foot moving throughout the day.  Inside, Dr. E’s creation holds the other foot bones in place as the spine does the limbs of the human body.

My left hand is the opposite extremity from this healed foot.  The fingers connect to the palm, and framing the palm, the pads are firm and even.  I’m not sure, but think that the fingers seem straighter than they did three years ago.  I snap the lid on the rice bucket and shove it back into the cupboard.  Then I walk to the computer and open up a blank page on Word.  My fingers begin to move along the keyboard, marking the choreography I create for them.


Writing prompt: describe a daily ritual you perform.


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, Writing

42 responses to “The Rice Exercise

  1. It’s amazing, as we get older, the things we see as our inheritance. I, too, see the beginnings of my mother’s (and grandmother’s) arthritic hands. Already I feel the humidity in all my joints and the swelling. You write about it so beautifully. These infirmities feel and look familiar – though inevitably achy!

    • Luanne

      Definitely achy. What’s really annoying is I get a sudden pain and a finger won’t bend for a bit. Then it gets better again. Michelle, try the rice as I really think it’s working somewhat.

  2. Keep working those fingers, Luanne, I love your writing! I’m sorry to hear about the tumor.

  3. This was lovely. I’ve never heard of the rice exercise. I’ll have to stop buying those fancy little wild rice collections and go in for the big bag.

    • Luanne

      Rachel, it works great. If you think you might be going to inherit arthritis of the hands, it seems to really take “the edge” off its onset. Keeps the doggies out of it though ;).

  4. This captures, with beauty, the grace of aging, facing life, moving through it. Thank you for sharing.

    • Luanne

      What a sweet comment, Ellen. Thank you so much. It’s wonderful to see what others get from something I’ve written (as I am never really sure myself haha).

  5. I’m getting a bucket of rice. This was beautiful.

    • Luanne

      J, this probably goes without saying, but get the cheapest rice. I bought the discount short grain rice. Thank you for your kindness!

  6. What a great idea, especially if you feel it works. Can’t hurt to try, right?

  7. Kev

    Sounds good; nice even. I may have to try that. I don’t have anything wrong with my hands, but I’m a boy trapped in a man’s body sometimes. Need I say more? 😉

  8. Wonderful writing! Interesting information, too, about the rice.

  9. What terrific writing!!!

  10. I loved your essay, which beings together physical issues pertaining to your hands and foot. When you write of the choreography of your fingers on the keyboard, I think of writing as an art big enough to hold all the others. And I feel that if you can write, you will be content.

  11. I’m going to tuck this into my back pocket for later in life (hopefully). My father was debilitated by childhood arthritis growing up in the 1950’s. Our doctors have always warned us that with this family gene, we may have early onset arthritis as well. While my hands stay flexible for now, I worry about the future. Thanks for sharing this lovely exercise 🙂

    • Luanne

      Caitlin, definitely keep it on file in your mind ;)! And start it at the first moment you start to feel or see anything different about your fingers!

  12. Wonderful post. Luanne, I’m off to get a bucket full of rice… sounds wonderful…hope your foot continues to be well behaved…

  13. A beautifully written reminder to be grateful for each working part of our bodies – as well as the science and knowledge that allows them to sometimes be fixed. I’m sorry for the loss of dancing feet in your life – obviously special to you. I’m grateful for the dancing fingers that allow you to continue to create and blessing others.

    • Luanne

      Shel, I love that: the notion of gratitude “for each working part of our bodies.” And, yes, the science and knowledge to repair them. Thank you for your kind words. I do miss dancing, but like the idea above by jeannie/wilma that writing contains all the arts.

  14. You’ve done a great job piecing this experience together first by couching it in a narrative and then extending it with a metaphor. You write beautifully!

    • Luanne

      Michellejoycebond, thank you so much for your lovely and perceptive way of “reading” the piece. Thank you so much for your kindness.

  15. Love this, love the final thought and how it is expressed, love how it connects to the challenge. xxx

    • Luanne

      Jaye, yup, the writing has to be my daily ritual because I’m probably in danger of getting arthritis of the brain–little clues lately haha. By the way, I love your new piece on your blog about the English poet.

  16. I like the way you tell this. I did not ever realize what a great idea this would be for aching hands’ therapy! I have heard of heating rice in homemade cloth bags all sewn up tightly, can be microwaved or maybe use popcorn, but then wouldn’t it pop? Anyway, I have heard putting the bag of heated rice on your neck or other areas that are feeling pain, can be very soothing and also, healing.

    • Luanne

      Robin, that’s a great idea! My neck could use a bag of heated rice right now! I hope it wouldn’t pop like popcorn! That might be kind of funny . . . .

      • I am sorry to hear about your aching neck! I hope it is feeling better, is it sometimes a side effect to blogging? I have a bag but it is starting to smell burnt, so need my friend, Bill’s daughter to make me another one! I bet there is an internet site that gives directions but I am kind of lazy about sewing. Thanks for your cute comments on my blog, but I believe you are waiting patiently (after all, your daughter is too young…) and will be rewarded with lots of fun in the future with one grandchild or more….

  17. Luanne, your post alone triggered many memories for this arthritis-ravaged body. I’ve had portions of my spine fused twice, once harvesting bone from my hip because my bone was too fragile to hold the pins in place. The second time they used a molecularly created bony substance hidden away in tiny discs that they placed between my vertebra and which required no plates or screws. In two weeks, I’ll go for my 2-year anniversary for x-rays and hope to see that the molecularly created bone looks just like the rest of me and that everything is still where it is supposed to be.

    The rice exercise is familiar because following thumb joint reconstructions on both hands it was one of the exercises my therapist had me doing. Also, I have had my left foot reconstructed moving tendons from here to there, but no new bones.

    Do I have a daily routine that I do? Probably the one thing I can think of that is related to physical well being is to stretch the bursa on my right hip to loosen it up; otherwise it rages at me going up and down stairs.

    Aging is a lovely thing!

  18. Luanne, this is amazing. I’m sorry for the tumor and hope the rice exercises help.
    For years now, we’ve made natural “Rice Bags” for an aunt with RA. I make a liner, fill it with rice, and then sew it into soft flannel. She heats the bags in the microwave and uses them to warm her feet in bed or relax sore muscles, and often she falls asleep with the warm rice bags on her hands. She will only allow rice, not the usual corn bags my friends used to make; she says rice has healing properties for her, so I’m glad if the bags help.

    • This is good to know, Marylin. We have corn bag that is pretty tired. And I suspect the corn has actually popped a time or two in there. I’m not much of a sewer, but making one with rice sounds like a project I could handle.

  19. Thank God for modern medicine and doctors who practice it! I’ve had a struggle with a large toenail, just the nail, but that chart on the wall! What complicated conglomeration of bones, tendons, and muscles just so we can walk! I’m getting closer to trying out your rice regimen.

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