Saturday, January 19, 2013

Body of Work

I drink to separate my body from my soul.
—Oscar Wilde

My Body, Myself

That Miss O' possessed a body as well as a mind was something that her students were surely loathe to admit. Once at the Giant supermarket in Dale City, Miss O' ran into one of her English students. He gaped and said, "Oh my God. You eat." He was truly thrown off balance by this revelation. I raised my eyebrows slightly and said, sweetly, "And I pee, too," and waved farewell as I headed off into the produce section.

As Miss O’s readers know, this blogger woman lives primarily in her politically obsessed head, and what fills her head then pours out onto an electronic page and is published when she hits “publish,” and if her body is involved at all, it’s more or less limited to her fingers and wrists and eyes. Oh, and the mouth/esophagus/stomach apparatus for tea drinking; and I guess the heart and lungs for the air business; and the ol’ tushie and legs, to say nothing of the inconvenience of popsicle toes because god forbid she get up and get some socks to put on. And the bladder. Jesus the bladder. But what I mean is, it’s about her thoughts rather than her sensations, the stuff of her blog. Nothing physically occurs to you, either, probably, when you read these posts, once you get over the first wave of nausea, anyway.

This week, though, your Miss O’ is thinking seriously about the body. Mine, sure, but yours, too, and those over there. These are not impure thoughts I’m having, but neither are they free of filth. I have to preface this post by saying that I kind of don’t really have a connection to my body as a thing. My body is here, I mean, but I don’t really live in it. Oh, sure, I learned to walk and run, I can pee and shit, and I got a period when I was in sixth grade (boy, was my mom, Lynne, caught by surprise!); I get headaches and colds and respiratory infections and suffer from IBS and broke my ankle in college. The body has known the good and the bad: On the one hand, it’s experienced arousal by human touch (do NOT tell my parents); on the other hand, its pancreas doesn’t work as well as one would hope. But my body has never mattered to me. For example, I generally go months on end without being physically held. (And lest you think I am suffering, I can say honestly that if I am never touched again, I don’t think I’ll notice.) Even as a teenager, when all the other girls were worrying about their body images, their weight, the size of their breasts, I really did try to pretend I cared about my body, but I’d get bored. “Yeah,” I’d say, by way of commiseration. And then I’d go outside and roller skate smoothly up the sidewalk.

But even the act of roller skating (or playing tennis or kickball or tag) didn’t give me a sense of having a body (until I’d fall on my ass or scrape my knees, or run too hard and too far and get that stitch in my side). I do remember the sensation of vibrations that rose up from the bottoms of my feet up to my head because of the friction of rolling metal wheels on the concrete sidewalk, but I think I recall this only because I associate it with the sounds I had to endure in order to roll—and yet ears are part of the body, too. I must have liked roller skating outside, because I did it well into high school, well past the age when all my other friends were learning about fucking making love by the light of a streetlamp in the backseats of cars, and learning about how an altered state of mind induced by pot and booze could affect their feelings as well as their fleshly organs.

I was kind of a backward kid, developmentally, in case I need to spell this out, and I trace it now to my lack of connection to my body. I tended to live in my imagination. It was something I could take for granted, the having of a body, as we do, until we can’t. Bruises, bumps, viruses, diseases—the discomforts and illnesses that can befall a body remind us that we are only temporarily healthy. The death of a body reminds us that we, too, are only temporarily here. However invincible one may feel, however powerful, we need only experience the nonstop running of mucus from our own noses to remind us how little power we really have on this earth.

Virginia Woolf, my favorite writer, lived very much in her body, terrified though she was of sex, which most adults seem to believe is the primary reason to have a body (despite the examples of Jesus and Jane Austen…and Miss O’). Woolf experienced her body primarily through illness. One of her oddest and most satisfying essays is entitled, “On Being Ill,” which takes as its subject the body. (A few years ago this essay was published as a book unto itself, a very fancy volume indeed. That’s an expensive way to read it, so if you can, buy it as part of a collection of essays, because it will cost the same amount AND you will get all those other marvelous essays to read.)

Here is the opening sentence:

“Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist’s arm-chair and confuse his “Rinse the mouth—rinse the mouth” with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us—when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.”
—from “On Being Ill” by Virginia Woolf, 1925, from The Moment and Other Essays, page 9

Woolf goes on to talk about the absence of the body in literature up to that time, noting that for writers, “the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear, and, save for one or two passions such as desire and greed, is null, and negligible and non-existent.” She asserts that in life, of course, the opposite it true: “All day, all night the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens, colours or discolours, turns to wax in the warmth of June, hardens to tallow in the murk of February. The creature within can only gaze through the pane…” (page 10). 

I reread this essay on Monday when I was home from work with a cold. It got me thinking, Do writers today write about the body? And after a while I thought, Do writers today write about anything else? And by extension: Do readers read about anything else? In fiction today, the big sellers—the Twilight vampire saga and the Fifty Shades of Grey pornography series are surely body-centric. In nonfiction (which is not to say “fact-based” writing), Bill O’Reilly, who appears as “author” on two bestselling books, Killing Kennedy and Killing Lincoln, is obsessed with the bodily assassination of two presidents. While readers are buying these books and possibly even reading them, the trouble is that, I suspect (based on my knowledge of the business of publishing), none of these books are technically “authored,” which is to say the chances are good that trained and dedicated writers did not, in fact, write them. There are names on the covers, sure, but it’s not the same as being a writer, or even the writer of that book.

In other words, bestselling writers today would seem to be disembodied, even as their subjects are bodies. I find this creepy. A very-much bodied writer once inscribed the following to me in his book when I asked him to sign it: “I welcome you into the body of these poems.” I have no doubt. And that was creepy, too. For me as a reader and lover of words, I’m not asking for a denial of the body or a return to prudery, but rather I suppose I am questioning the state of our spiritual lives as humans in light of all this body focus. We sort of display the opposite of what Woolf was exploring. Mass killings of children’s bodies, women’s vaginal ownership, and the fatherhood rights of rapists fill the news. And between all the Facebook posts about weight loss, lattes, gym experiences, and illnesses, to say nothing of the photos of dinners, one may start to wonder if there is anything beyond the body human in our thoughts. I have started to notice that our national and media obsessions with the body and its appearance, the body and its longevity, the body and its reaction to pharmaceuticals, the body and its artificial performance enhancements, and the body and how many extremes it can endure are, well, they’re kinda, uh, boring. I am bored.

In sum: We have bodies. They do shit. They can experience shit. They shit. And I would add that what is done unto the body heightens our awareness of having a body. (I read somewhere—attributed as an African proverb—that if you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a closed tent with a mosquito. I could imagine saying this proverb using another, less political turn of phrase, maybe as a meme using that Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka photo: Tell me more about your omnipotence, from the inside of a closed tent shared with one mosquito.) But is the cash-bought improvement of the body, via gyms or nutrition or drugs; or the cash-bought gratification of the body, via drugs or porn or blood-sucking—is that really all we have to offer to the literature of mankind right now?  Is that really all that readers want from literature? From life? Maybe we have lost a sense of ourselves in our bodies, is what I’m saying.

Till Death Do Us Part

The soul is born old but grows young. That is the comedy of life. And the body is born young and grows old. That is life’s tragedy.
—Oscar Wilde

My editorial colleague, Dan Shapiro, lost his father, Harvey, two weeks ago. The New York Times obituary alluded to the books and reviews and other work he had done in his lifetime. These included editing the New York Times Book Review, writing collections of poetry, as well has having the distinction of being the one to ask Martin Luther King, Jr., to write what would become, “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Not bad. Back at the job on Tuesday, Dan remarked, “When I was at his house, I looked at the shelf of books my father had done, and I thought, ‘It’s nice having a body of work to show for a life. That’s nice.’ It’s what I’d like to have.”

A body of work to show for a life: I mean, for all you are doing to keep your body working, to keep it handsome, healthy, strong—if you are not keeping up your body in order to create work that is of your heart and mind, and nourishing to your spirit—if you are not doing that, I realized, you will have no legacy. Whatever you do for the body now, that body will be so much dust in the end. And it got me thinking.

A body of work may or may not be something that sits on a shelf.

I remember when all of my dad’s brothers and sisters were still alive, all ten kids, and I was thinking the other day of how only six are left now—that it’s happened, all this loss, over a period of a few short years. The decline of their bodies (and the disappearance of their place in the world) was hard for me to take in, partly because I knew these uncles and aunts as raucous, earthy creatures, so present were they for so long; but also, at the last reunion, I couldn’t quite believe that they weren’t the adult powerhouses who were overseeing the kids and the proceedings. My cousin, John, said to me, pointing to his children and their many young cousins, “You know, these kids are looking at us the way we used to look at them,” and he gestured to a picnic table peopled with decrepit, thick-waisted, nameless folks, vaguely known to be related somehow to all of us, but now no longer capable of remembering stories of the world as they once had known it—of remembering yesterday, for that matter—so focused had they become on their infirmities. “We are becoming the old guard,” John said, and I said, “But we don’t know anything.” And we laughed. “I guess they didn’t, either.” (I look to my contemporaries, though, and feel a little better: I was born in 1964, the same year as First Lady Michelle Obama, and my personal First Comedian, Stephen Colbert. My generation could do worse.) I remember looking around then, and then talking to John’s mom about it later. I wrote this about it:

The morning after the big family reunion, Aunt Mary stares at me
across the kitchen table as Uncle Terry cooks breakfast.
“What’s the point?” she asks. “I mean, you get up in the morning,
have some coffee, go to work, come home, nothin’ on TV that night
so you make a kid. I looked around at all those people and I realized,
half of this is my fault.” She pauses as if to puff on the cigarette
she no longer smokes. “Let’s have some bacon.”

For the old guard at any reunion: We are their body of work. Us, and bacon.

Every Body Loves Some Body

This week I got my friend Quinn to go to Film Forum with me to see the French film, Amour. I’d seen the previews and was entranced by what I saw and also scared to see the whole thing. I was not wrong: It’s not a film for the faint of heart where ageing is concerned—not even sure anyone should see it, and yet it’s a brilliant movie, astonishing for the way filmmaker Michael Haneke holds a viewer in rapt attention for two hours of almost nothing happening, except the ending of a life. Afterward, devastated and drained, I reflected on what I’d experienced; I realized that the title, “Love,” is a spiritual idea, really—tied to emotions and philosophy—but the movie’s subject is entirely corporal. This is a film that is dedicated to the body: the body that eats, the body that washes dishes, the body that plays piano, the body that listens to the music, the body that reads, the body that travels to a concert, the body that vacuums the rug, the body that has a stroke, the body that others must lift, bed, feed, wash, and dress even as it declines. Love as a condition of the body is the theme of this movie. Whatever the songs say or the poems declare about love being heaven sent to the heart, love belongs to bodies. My response to the movie was a physical response: I had to walk for a while afterward. I found myself crying in the street. Once home in bed, I woke up three times in the night and paced my apartment. Emotions drive such reactions, yes, but it is the body that responds to the emotion, that feels the power of it.

Last night I had dinner for the first time at the home of my friends Anthony and DaRon. DaRon and I met when our friend, Ryan (who also came to dinner), put us in a show together with a dozen other actors, a dreadful teen tragedy from the 1980s called Alky about teen alcoholism, which we performed at the People’s Improvisational Theater, the way sincere but badly-directed teen actors might perform it, and so it was cruelly hilarious. DaRon and Anthony, who got married last year, gave me a ride home one night when we realized we live in the same area of Queens. DaRon is a singer and actor, and this requires him to be in peak condition in both voice and body; Anthony is a visiting nurse who deals with myriad patients (and their bodies) every day. I learned that Anthony’s first serious boyfriend died of complications from AIDS, and Anthony has just finished a draft of a book about it, 17 years after the fact.  Among other things, we all talked about grief, what happens to us in that process. We had all known grief in recent years, over many things, not only deaths, and then this led to us talking about what we were creating out of the grief—a book, a show, a marriage, volunteer work—so many things were possible through the use of our bodies as we have them now. And then we poured out brandy and watched hilarious videos and cuddled with dogs. It did this body good.

So what will be my body of work? What will be yours? And how to cope with the finish of the body we currently possess? These are important questions, dammit, and I am asking them. Did I answer anything? No idea. I will doubtless return to these questions after I've heated up my homemade minestrone soup and had a little drop of the Tullamore Dew. You know—after I've nourished my body I often forget I have.

Surely there's a poem for this. (Whenever she was ill, Virginia Woolf craved poetry.) Possibly the best poem I know that ties together the physical body and one’s body of work is Marge Piercy’s poem, “To Be of Use.” (You can find it on The Writer’s Almanac online.) I’ve included it before, but here it is again, because (sick or well) one really can’t read this poem too often. 

Love, love. 

Miss O’

To be of use

by Marge Piercy
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who stand in the line and haul in their places,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

"To be of use" by Marge Piercy from Circles on the Water. © Alfred A. Knopf.

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