Thursday, June 24, 2010

me and my animal

I've been thinking about animals more lately than I can ever remember thinking about animals. Part of me blames Mary B. McHugh, who during our time at Hunter introduced me to a thousand and one ways one might consider an animal...and indeed, perhaps come to prefer to BE an animal. (Keep your eye out for her work, she's dynamite.) Part of me blames my twin obsessions of psychology and poetry, which lead me to puzzle over what the animal means within my writing, and thus self. Animals appear in many recent poems, either as a cow, dog or alligator, much to my surprise. The cows started sneaking in first. Now there is the ungainly, threatening but attractive figure of an alligator lurking in some newer sketches.

In some way, the speakers of all my poems reflect a part of myself. (Surprise!) Maybe that part is small. Maybe it is a part I would otherwise cast out, but which must exist for the sort of empathy required to write from the perspective of another to be channeled. On one hand this makes me despair--for if one is only ever writing about one's self, then how can it ever be useful to take on the mantle of another? Isn't the ruse just too obvious? And aren't the ethical problems of speaking for another and/or appropriating their speech not worth the trouble?

Well, if you were Jung (and sometimes I pretend to be him myself), you might say, "No! Ridiculous! Poppycock!". You might then say, "Did you not read my theories of the animus/anima, liebchen? And are you not convinced that there are shadow selves darting in and out of your consciousness as though it were but und closet?"

Perhaps. I find Jung's categories within the animus/a to be intriguing. I much prefer the idea that I am a core self working through my shadow selves toward a wholly realized self to Freud's feuding triumverate. While the animus/a's gender categories Jung created feel a bit old-fashioned, I do resonate with the idea that I might be slogging through the following shadow selves: The Athlete/Muscleman, The Planner, The Professor and the Guide.

I love Jung's premise that a human being, in her/his best manifestation, reaches the final stage of mediation between all these parts...and then is able to shuttle between selves (or I might say types of knowledge and intuition) without sacrificing any of the parts.

I might like to add the Animal to the list of shadow selves. For the body is, most purely, an animal like any other. It tells us when we are hungry, when we are aroused, when we are tired. It finds physical means of expressing its anger or joy or sorrow, in a manner quite divorced from the way we "think" or "recognize" our emotional feelings. How else to explain those terrible moments when we want to cry and can't, whether it be because our minds associate physical crying with emotional relief, or because our social selves feels the pressure to respond to an event.

And yet...who would say that our bodies are not integral to our selves? Okay, Plato would. I sure as heck wouldn't.

And I not live a life that is primarily in denial of my body's needs? And thus, at some level, deeper needs of my whole being?

I thought of this while cleaning off our dining room table the other day. For the past two years, the table has been buried under manuscript drafts, photocopies of articles, half-used journals, books, mail, computer other words, it's been my desk. So, Shyam and I have been eating...pretty much where it's most convenient. Which in a New York apartment, where there is a strict no-eating-in-bed rule, means the couch.

For two years, we have eating sitting side-by-side, facing the television, plates balanced either on knees or on the coffee table. I have been nurturing a frustration with this arrangement the whole time, but of course did nothing about it. After all, I had to have a work area, and there just was nowhere else to put my piles. (Or was lazy. You be the judge.)

Then this weekend I finally moved those piles. And now we have begun eating at the table again. It feels...strange. It feels strange to look at Shyam when we're not in a restaurant. And given that we do not eat the majority of our meals in restaurants, it feels strange often of late. But strange in a wonderful way...strange in the way moving into a new home feels strange.

But it's not only the strange feel-good-ness of actually communing (read: kvetching about our days) while we eat. It's also the way eating changes when one is actually communing while eating. We both eat slower, breathe more between bites, perhaps pause and rest for a moment. Usually because one of us is chattering, but also because it feels good!

I hate eating quickly. Something physiological happens, I swear, when I'm eating with someone who eats quickly. It's as though an animal (athlete?) wakes up inside and says, "OMIGOD!!! SCARCE RESOURCES!!" and then I begin to eat more quickly, too. I practically feel the fight-or-flight hormones racing. It is the antithesis of, as the French say, l'art de vivre.

This little article I stumbled upon sums this all up very well with key points to help "Discover the Art of Eating Well":

1. Hyrdate. "Mmmm, aperitif!" Or water. That's good too.
2. Breathe. "(Sigh) is good." Or, life is hard....but now there's a break.
3. Extend gratitude. (see above)
4. Engage the senses. "Mmm, that smells like....looks like..."
5. Savor the first bite. I think you smell what I'm cookin' here.
6. Chew well.
7. Slow down.
8. Observe.
9. Complete the practice.
10. Notice the effects.

When I allow myself to take the time to follow these steps, they come rather intuitively. Of course, it's hard to muster too much excitement about a peanut butter sandwich or ramen, you might say. But why? It's time taken to nourish the body, and by extension, the self. It isn't necessarily whether truffles and foie gras are involved, but the ceremony itself.

And it's also a way, I think, of keeping our inner alligators in check, without denying they exist. To feel animal desire urge us to devour a juicy steak, while our more highly-realized self says, "It ain't gonna run away, and no one's going to steal it. Let's celebrate!"

Though, if you do give in to your inner alligator...well, there's a ceremony for that, too. But it's nice when the Guide shows up to wipe her mouth.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

bodies of knowledge

Though I've been trying to set myself the post-graduate task of one blog entry per week, last week's entry fell by the wayside. I had some scribblings about cultural code-switching, but after the fun and the drain of festivities planned in anticipation of my best friend Lisa's wedding, I wasn't feeling too bloggy. Inevitably when I looked at the notes, the small flame that had lit that fire had extinguished, and I put the notes aside for another day when the spark returns.

Do you experience that same phenomenon? I know writing, and the creative life in general, requires discipline. But if I don't have the fire within for that particular creation, it's very difficult to push it through. I have to thank my friend and teacher Donna Masini, among others, for helping me come to terms with this ebb and flow. At Hunter, Donna drilled into our heads from day one that "willing" a poem was often a dead-end strategy. That it was often more productive, and kinder to the host (i.e. ourselves), to let the unfinished poem lay fallow rather than beat our intellects against the Muse's door. Of course there are times when, without will, I'd write nothing. But it is not the will that reveals the poem usually, but the will that puts me in a place where I might stumble upon the beginnings of a poem. Those of course are the lucky days.

I don't mean to suggest that I consider the poet to be some sort of medium who is "possessed" by a poem, but who has no direct role in that poem's creation. For me it just sometimes feels like that when the quick cold lightening in my belly announces inspiration. When the poetic instruments, or organs, are roused from sleep, and begin to dance with the mind and body.

The poetic, or creative, instrument. Could this be a third essence, or idea, or substance? For the past few days, I've been reading An Introduction to St. Thomas Aquinas, the 1945 Modern Library edition edited and introduced by Anton C. Pegis. And let me stress the "introduction" part, as I have yet to make it past Pegis' introduction, which for me has been a mind-whirling good time of parsing out where Aquinas split from the Platonic tradition and set the 13th century's britches on fire. Or not, considering that many of his Neoplatonic contemporaries thought his more Aristotelian theory of man as a composite being, for whom body and soul were inseparably important, was just plain wrong-headed.

I can see why a world that disdained the body as largely a housing for the purer "Intellect" and/or spirit might be rocked to the core by Aquinas' view that "man is a knower rather than a thinker, and he is a composite being rather than a mind" (Pegis, xxiv).

Marinating on my own poetic process over the past few years, and how torn I feel about relinquishing head knowledge to body knowledge, I've often put this struggle in feminist terms. The knowledge I feel bubbling within, what my intellect begins to intuit but often strains to decipher clearly, is precisely the type of body knowledge, or knowing, that my feminist mothers' writings (Cixous, Stein, Rich, Lorde) urge the world to acknowledge, even as baby feminists such as myself struggle to accept that this knowledge is valuable.

Confession: I have doubted. I might say I was taught to doubt, and raised on doubtful elixirs that poisoned me to the worth of my own knowing. But whatever the causes, the Doubt of my own composite nature, twin knowledges, instruments of knowing and thinking, exists. I still fight to tear it out at the roots.

And yet, I constantly stumble upon dudes--here an old Catholic dude, no less--who sort of say, to be human--not just to be woman--is to be a knower of many things. A composite of forces.

Here I admit this an interpretation of Aquinas based on scanty reading and no scholarship. I probably project more than a little pop Gnosticism onto it. But ride with me. I admit I am feeling my way around, toward a knowing, rather than thinking, progressing through the discrete white rooms with tables, at right angles, resisting the pencils that suggest I scratch out a proof.

I think the reason I love poetry is that its proof is in its feeling. I'm not going to label Aquinas a feminist per se, though it IS bolstering to do a Google search of "Aquinas" + "feminism" and find that these ideas are circulating in other skulls. What I am trying to get at is the import of self-knowing. Trusting the knowledge that might come from sources other than the socially-recognized "intellect." Something that you might not have proof for (hey, we can't all be masters of philosophy), but that is intuited.

This weekend I spent some time with Esther Gokhale's (Go-clay) book Eight Steps to a Pain-Free Back. It ain't the Summa Theologica, but it is a fantastic example of one person following the path of an intuited knowledge. In this case, a woman who suffered from excruciating back pain.

Gokhale spent years studying what she calls "traditional" societies, such as those found in Burkina Faso, India and Portugal, where back pain, even among elderly manual laborers, is largely nonexistent. Approaching the issue through the lenses of biomechanics, photojournalism, history and anthropology, Gokhale developed a method for preventing back pain based on training the modern body to return to its pre-modern knowledge. The comparison of pre-20th century and post-20th century medical drawings of "healthy" spines speaks volumes itself.

Basically, she shows you how to sit. And lay. And stand. And walk. And let me say—even after a day and a half of trying some of these exercises, it is amazing to feel the spine settle and the muscles release in a way that feels like a return to a sort of physical innocence. All the pictures of babies and small children doing their intuitive biomechanical thing don't hurt either.

During one of my sitstretching sessions, Shyam asked what I was doing. After giving him the short version, he started flipping through the book--and laughing. He found the idea that babies "know" how to sit correctly to be a tad ridiculous. This at first made me angry. As anger is an umbrella emotion, I looked under that umbrella to see what was there. I found frustration, disappointment, exhaustion and sorrow. Why sorrow? Because yet again I had bounced against a fundamental lack of respect for "other" types of knowledge that I suspected (feared is perhaps the better word) could not be resolved.

Having spent much of my life passionately defending feminist principles to audiences who were at best bemused and at worst scornful, this moment felt like another in a long series of being patted on the head and told to go back to my funny little projects. Of course I comforted myself with thoughts like, "he's just afraid of what is different and foreign to his ways of knowledge." Cold comfort, that.

When we first met, he told me that he felt his life had been a little too Apollonian, and he needed a Dionysian influence. To my eternal amusement, I was that Dionysian influence. (Those who know my day-to-day habits will see the amusement in this.) I think maybe he was also saying, "Hey, I have my worldview, and I'm attracted to yours, which is not mine. But don't expect me to join your tribe so easily." I'm not one to change my principles on a dime either, so this was at least a meeting on the grounds of respect as well as a proverbial drawing of a line in the sand. Exciting at first. Tiring, even alienating, at other times. I will be charitable and imagine there have been moments when he's felt this same mix.

Later in the evening, we took a walk through the neighborhood. I couldn't help taking note of the posture of the small children we passed. It was remarkable how their biomechanics were so consistent. Gait and posture were the consistent gaits and postures of new beings whose bodies know how to move, ineffably.

Shyam teasingly asked if I was keeping track of all the babies' postures. (And in Carroll Gardens, ladies and gents, this is no mean feat.) But when we got home and I wriggled my way into another attempt at stretchsitting, he did join me in trying to sit like "a straight-backed baby."

This was a feat of sorts, though I did wonder later whether presenting the whole idea in terms of Thomism (even if only as rhetorical device) would have expedited this process. I think I'm glad I resisted that tactic.

Photo Credit: Tamara BonĂȘt, "Indian Woman (Maiden) Sculpture WIP"