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.

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