Sunday, August 21, 2011

Body Knowing

from The Surgery Diaries

Struggling as I have the past few days with the realization that I am living inside a post-surgery depression episode, I am also struggling from time to time with impatience and annoyance at the ostomy appliance. This morning, it’s coming loose, in a welter of itching and smells. I have been straining at its limits. Yesterday I tool the longest walk yet since the surgery, probably a mile total, in the hot afternoon. Between taking a shower, my own sweating, and my increased physical activity, of bending and walking and being more physical, I stress the adhesive to its limits, and this morning the appliance is coming off. Today is a scheduled day for changing it anyway, but it’s impatient.

So am I. I’m supposed to wait for the nursing staff to call me and show up to supervise, as I have decided to change it myself this morning, and in my impatience I’m only going to wait so long before I dive in. I’m also hungry, having slept deeply by not as long as usual, and waking up early before this dawn’s dramatic thunderstorm line rolled through. It’s been hours since I awoke, and I want to eat. But I want to change the appliance first, so that I am not excreting while trying to make the change. I’m hungry, and I’m also thinking about food, because I haven’t eaten yet, and also because today is Saturday, and I want to go down to the local farmer’s market, to buy some fresh vegetables and other goods. The best food I can make for myself, in my recovery, is made from good fresh organic produce. And I have to make an effort to go find it, on market days. So I don’t want to miss out of visiting the market, if the nurse takes too long to get here.

This morning I am reading another book about the theology of the body. That’s a recurring pattern in what I am interested to read, ever since last year’s near death experience of almost dying from anemia, the emergency blood transfusions, and the several close calls I have had since then. Five transfusions over the past year or so means that I feel gratitude to ten strangers, one stranger per bag of red blood cells that I was given, for saving my life. Literally. Some of those near approaches to dying I am still unsure how I fell about. My emotions are sometimes still numb, still uncertain, even while at other times I am flooded with emotions, grief, anger, rage, frustration, impatience, and the like, far in excess of the strength of the trigger. When I am triggered lately I overreact to an excessive degree. Another sign of depression. How I tend to manifest depression is these emotional mood swings, coupled with feelings of utility, hopelessness, despair, helplessness, and isolation. All of which have been strongly with me lately.

The book I am reading this morning is Melanie May’s A Body Knows: A Theopoetics of Death and Resurrection. The writing style, which the author herself admits comes from living too long in her head while an academic, even as her body put her through illnesses and near death experiences, to wake her up to the body’s attentive and aware reality, is discursive, and occasionally distracting. I like what May is saying throughout this book, but she is a little too fond of poetic alliteration, even in her prose sections. She does include her poems that reflect on her experience, which is wise, although they too are a bit too alliterative. Maybe that’s an unconscious Anglo-Saxon influence rising to the surface. Maybe it’s too many years being an academic wordsmith. Regardless, I overlook my small annoyance at her writing style to get at the meat of her argument, which is profound and good.

I am reading books like this because they reflect on my own ongoing experience of death and resurrection. I have died, been killed, been gutted, been stuffed, been changed, and brought back to life. Brought back to life in the full knowledge that I am going to be killed, regutted, restrung, knitted back together, and will face an even worse, more painful, more enduring recovery process. The second surgery is going to be worse than the first, I am promised. So I will die again, with no guarantee of being reborn that time. I sowed together my affairs as best I could before this first surgery, in case I did literally die; I will need to go through all that again.

Okay, the nurse is here. Pause for a change of bags, pause for chatting, pause for a meal, and for going to the farmer’s market.

In her book, Melanie May cites some other writers who have been through the forge of death and rebirth, and weaves some of their stories through the threads of her own.

I have to learn to love myself before I can love you or accept your loving. You have to learn to love yourself before you can love me or accept my loving. Know we are worthy of touch before we can reach out for each other.
—Audre Lorde

Worthy of touch. My own body often feels touch-deprived. When I receive a massage, or a backrub, or a loving touch, it is near ecstasy for me. There are reasons I feel touch-starved; chief among them is the dynamic balance between being a very sensual, physically erotic person, and being raised in a birth tribe that was touch-withholding.

I was five years old, in India, when during nap time, I snuck out of the house and across the yard to the concrete washing area, where the servants would wash and beat wet clothing against the concrete, rinse clothes in the vat, and later hang them to dry on lines in the hot tropical sun, where they would dry quickly. I would sneak out during after nap time, and go out to the washing area, and take off all my clothes, so that I could feel the sunlight and air on my skin. I vividly remember how the hot sun felt on my skin, the smell of soap and water lingering on the concrete tubs, the quiet afternoon sounds coming from other parts of the compound off in the distance. That was the beginning of a lifetime of preferring to be naked rather than clothed. I still prefer to be nude, whenever possible. I make allowances for social niceties, of course, but most of my friends know that my home is clothing-optional, and nobody worries if they’re startled in the middle of the night by someone else up and going to the bathroom, naked.

Worthy of touch. That’s also about self-esteem: you have to feel that you’re worthy of being loved, that you deserve to be loved. That was a hard one for me to learn. My Norwegian immigrant relatives, emotionally reserved and touch-withholding, were never good about expressing true feelings. I was a sissy boy who cried easily, and that wasn’t always approved of. On those rare occasions when I decided it was worth it to put my foot down, and refuse to budge about something, no one could move me, or get past the infinite reserves of determination I could summon. I have memories from my teen years of occasionally refusing to do some form of expected participation during family gatherings, and the ripples of unrest that caused in the clan. But I would not be moved, once I set myself down. That was an early lesson in genuine self-esteem that I didn’t myself understand till much later in life, when I realized that my self-esteem was rock-solid when it really mattered, even though I felt tattered and wind-blown a lot of the rest of the time.

Worthy of touch. Another, more private aspect of that is the problematic fact that I was born with most of those psychic powers you hear about from folktales from my Celtic ancestry already switched on. Touching people meant reading their minds, and so touch was often unpleasant and uncomfortable for me. Touching objects often meant picking up impressions from them, which some people call psychometry, but which I called in my youth losing my mind to the influences of others. My sense of self was often a tattered flag blowing this way and that in every gust of external wind. Touching people caused me pain, even though I was a sensual person, and craved touch. Touching objects sometimes was just as bad. I learned to keep my hands to myself.

So there was a lot of opportunities for love that were lost in my youth. I really wanted to cuddle in my grandfather’s lap, but I didn’t always feel like I could. I really wanted to hug everybody I loved all the time, but I often held back. Few people were safe to touch.

Revealing one’s nakedness . . . is, really, our only human hope.
—James Baldwin

If you think this is some sort of repressed memory or fictionalized abuse scenario, you’re an idiot, and you can fuck off. I was never abused, never molested, I remember my childhood in amazing detail, and it was mostly a very good childhood. The difficulties I had were mostly internal, trying to reconcile my emotions and experiences against what other people told me could and could not be true. Grow up psychically sensitive in a materialistic culture and family that denies the mere existence of anything spiritual, except on an mostly intellectual level, and you’ll know what I mean. Even my parents’ church, which was a very rational brand of Lutheranism, believed that miracles did happen back in Biblical times, but such things couldn’t possibly happen now, in the rational, materially scientific, post-Enlightenment present day. One advantage my Catholic friends had growing up, despite the many dysfunctions of the Catholic church, is that Catholicism still recognized the possibility of mysticism and Mystery. That’s is Catholicism’s most positive example amongst the many sects of modern Christianity.

It is far easier, even now, for me, in the context of this culture I live in, to “come out” as gay, as sexually Other, as an androgynous male who can both lecture you about Italian opera, music history, and music theory, and also run a chainsaw, then it is to “come out” spiritually, psychically, energetically. It was only in my thirties that I began to meet other people who did not try to commit me to a mental institution when I talked about any of this stuff. At the present time, one of my most important spiritual directors and guides is a professional teacher and medical intuitive, and the other one is a professional counselor and clairvoyant. You cannot understand the meaning of the word “validation” until your deepest, most private, most innermost secret is accepted as nothing extraordinary by someone you respect and even love. Reveal your nakedness: it is the most frightening thing that you will ever do, to reveal your soul’s nakedness. Walking around the house nude is nothing by comparison. Because of my current medical situation, this death and rebirth and death and rebirth, most of my medical team, nurses, doctors, support family and friends, have seen parts of my body most people don’t who aren’t my lovers, out of medical necessity, out of medical need. But even most of them have never seen my this naked, the kind of nakedness that is revealed when I drop the inner veils.

In the beginning was definitely not the Word. . . . It is flesh that makes the words.
—Naomi Goldenberg

Melanie May includes her poetry in her book on what the body knows, because poetry was her first response to her medical and spiritual crises. The poetry came first, the academic thinking and theory and analysis came later. Flesh comes first, the body-knowing I’ve experienced myself, the wisdom of the flesh to tell you to stop and rest when in your mind you could keep going a little bit further, the intelligence of pain that warns you have gone too far already. First comes the body-knowing, and the body-prayer. The body prays in its own way; to the chattering mind, that usually looks like stillness, or emptiness. All too often we mislabel body-prayers as laziness. What the body is doing is stopping to breathe, to rest, to contemplate, to recharge. If we are wise, we listen, and go along with the body. Most people these days live in their heads, though, and don’t listen to body-wisdom or body-prayers.

Before my own first surgery, I was illuminated within to see the body-wisdom of a gay man who I know via the Internet pose nude while hiking, with a walking stick, his beautiful eyes looking out of the frame into you, his beautiful, sensual body resting while hiking outdoors—and an old, incredibly powerful scar running down his midline. Seeing his scar, which he lives with so well, nude, outdoors, loving and happy, gave me the courage to face acquiring surgical incision scars of my own. I feel a body-deep gratitude whenever I think of my friend and this portrait of his revealed and scarred beautiful nakedness.

Now, one thing the surgery has taught me is a deepening of my already-existing practice of listening to my body and its need and desires. Some days my body wants to run, is born to run, or these days at least walk fast. Other days all we want to do is lie in the sun, and let the lizard-brain achieve conscious dominance. And that’s enough.

After body-prayer comes, in order, poetry. The body precedes the words. The body exists before the words, and creates the Word. I am just enough of a classic Bard to know how the word must be rooted in the soul, and cloaked in music. You touch people through the music you drape the words in. Even the music comes before the words, and takes precedence. I feel sad for those writers so word-oriented they never experience the precedence of wordlessness and body-prayer; such folk live so thoroughly in their heads, I have noticed, that they don’t even realize they live in a gilded cage.

[Poetry is] . . . the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.
—Audre Lorde

We make poems so we can think things we never thought before. That’s certainly been true of the writing of some of my own poems, in particular those which were attempts to put into words visionary, sensual, and bodily experiences I have had. Some poems are nothing but reports of visionary experiences, shamanic, mystical, whatever label you wish to apply. We constantly have to make poems to make new words to understand the new ways of thinking and experiencing that evolve throughout our lives, if we are open to body-prayer and the poetics of existence.

Old words do not reach across the new gulfs.
—Amos Wilder

Language is fossil poetry.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

The first body of knowing is silent, is silence itself. The next body of knowing is the poetry that emerges from silence, and from hearing the wind within the walls of the world. The next body of knowing that emerges is the fossil poetry that becomes the language we use to describe, to explain, and to explain away and rationalize, what we have learned from the preceding and pre-verbal knowings.

[Note: I'm not posting all of these essays in order of composition, but in order of my momentary interest. This essays was written 8.20.2011.]


  1. So many responses to this are bubbling up in me, where can I begin? Oh-- Thank You, for alerting me to this book/genre...
    How the ideas of the body's poetry throws light on your own life, was an interesting and enlivening read. I look forward to more.
    Peace, Mari

  2. Thanks, Mari, I appreciate it very much.

    More when I get a chance to post them.