Sandpaper

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“Any one of us, over the course of our lives, can know many different existences. Or occasionally, desistances. Not many, however, are given the opportunity to wear a different skin.” –A General Theory of Oblivion, José Eduardo Agualusa

It’s a strange contradiction that when one feels most defenseless, she becomes most defensive. The armor of sarcasm and distance traveled in retreat should cry out ‘vulnerability’ but instead create all new barriers.

How does one never learn that insidious attempts to understand will not lead to understanding but rather will lead to being rubbed raw from the inside out? Being too close to a ‘subject’ and trying to get under its skin, and feel as it feels (or learn why) means that those carefully crafted barriers, built over so many battles and through so many years fall -swiftly – so much more swiftly than the time it took to erect them. And the barrier building and demolishing goes both ways. Often leading to reckless ruin and unforeseen disappointment. Closeness always brings a sensitivity that makes words sharper, or heavier, with interpretations, the ruins of barriers more perilous to climb out of, the injuries more acute to nurture back to health, and that sinking feeling, deep in the pit of the stomach, leaden with the realization that she must start all over again.

All those afternoons in darkness spent with the voice in her ear, loved and loved and loved, feeling broken down and completely enveloped in only that one being. Suddenly, abrasively rubbing against all expectation with words and images that moved so completely against the grain of how smoothness had felt up to that point, with walls falling and joints fitting together perfectly. Sanding the skin, seeing the bloody, pulpy reality underneath for the first time rather than smoothing edges out. She had never felt sharper edges or been more splintered, gasping imperceptibly, thinking, “I really got this one wrong.”

Could it be that this sudden need to wear down the surface is a need to create distance, or a smooth plane and flawlessly empty horizon? Was it a splinter she left behind and failed to pluck out? Or was it a command move of making sure no rough surfaces would assert themselves again – a reminder that nothing is joined, or even clamped, together in the way that one could so easily imagine?

the back-row lovers that we are

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21, 25
Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Heaven
was only half as far that night
at the poetry recital
listening to the burnt phrases
when I heard the poet have
a rhyming erection
then look away with a
lost look
‘Every animal’ he said at last
‘after intercourse is sad’
But the back-row lovers
looked oblivious
and glad

25
The world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don’t mind happiness
not always being
so very much fun
if you don’t mind a touch of hell
now and then
just when everything is fine
because even in heaven
they don’t sing
all the time

The world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don’t mind some people dying
all the time
or maybe only starving
some of the time
which isn’t half bad
if it isn’t you

Oh the world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don’t much mind
a few dead minds
in the higher places
or a bomb or two
now and then
in your upturned faces
or such other improprieties
as our Name Brand society
is prey to
with its men of distinction
and its men of extinction
and its priests
and other patrolmen

and its various segregations
and congressional investigations
and other constipations
that our fool flesh
is heir to

Yes the world is the best place of all
for a lot of such things as
making the fun scene
and making the love scene
and making the sad scene
and singing low songs and having inspirations
and walking around
looking at everything
and smelling flowers
and goosing statues
and even thinking
and kissing people and
making babies and wearing pants
and waving hats and
dancing
and going swimming in rivers
on picnics
in the middle of the summer
and just generally
‘living it up’
Yes
but then right in the middle of it
comes the smiling

mortician

outside the comfort zone: trials of marathoners

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“I’m not a human. I’m a piece of machinery. I don’t need to feel a thing. Just forge on ahead. I repeat this like a mantra.” –What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami

When I was young – somewhere in the febrile netherworld between adolescent and teenager, I dreamt that I married a marathon runner, which seemed ludicrous at the time. Bookish and living in libraries, it seemed highly unlikely that I would ever meet a marathon runner, let alone have anything in common with one. (It may or may not be worth noting that this dream-world marriage took place when I was quite young, and the dream ended with the young marathoner husband’s premature death at 30, which led to my grieving by riding around in a car with a group of gay male friends.)

In the many, many years since I had this dream, I have never married. I am well beyond 30 myself now. I have, however, been involved with so many triathletes and long-distance runners, and lately I wonder, being as obsessed as I am with how things intersect and connect, why this thread has woven its way through my life. I have had my other phases, unconscious and unintentional, such as the French phase, the Microsoft employee phase, and so on (most likely these ‘trends’ happened because the people you end up meeting are all part of the ‘web’ in which you are woven and the circles in which you travel. Being with a French Microsoftie would probably lead you both to more French people and more Microsoft employees). But through all of the various phases, it seemed these people who chose to push and exploit their own bodies to extremes reappeared everywhere. I had always imagined I would have nothing in common with these human-endurance outliers, but I suppose there are aspects of personality I relate to: grit, solitude, being drawn to extremes, obsession with transformation.

Lately I have been trying to understand the desire and resolve to run in this way, to these distances and at such extremes of human capability or need. It was not a burning question, but things kept popping up to return the question to the forefront of my mind. First I read about a sedentary academic who eventually began to run 100-mile marathons. His article led me to read Scott Jurek’s book Eat & Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness. Not a great book nor high literature by any stretch of the imagination (one of my “filler” books really) but nevertheless peppered with cliché tidbits and the odd literary quotes that add some texture as well as a how-and-why journey to the motivation behind this kind of lifestyle:

  • “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.” —ERNEST HEMINGWAY
  • “Not all pain is significant.” (from painscience.com: “It’s the difference between engine trouble and trouble with that light on your dashboard that says there’s engine trouble.”)
  • As Thoreau, an American practitioner (though he probably didn’t realize it) of bushido and a pretty good distance walker himself, wrote, “Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers . . . simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.”
  • Stotan sessions “beautiful and painful . . . underneath it all there was a sort of sound philosophy based on ‘Let’s improve ourselves as human beings, let’s become more compassionate, let’s become bigger, let’s become stronger, let’s become nicer people.’”
  • “You only ever grow as a human being if you’re outside your comfort zone.”

Then I thought, well, Haruki Murakami has written about his own running in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. His insights weren’t much different from any other long-distance runner’s except that he often creates parallels with his writing:

  • “Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life—and for me, for writing as well. I believe many runners would agree.”
  • “In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.”
  • “So the fact that I’m me and no one else is one of my greatest assets. Emotional hurt is the price a person has to pay in order to be independent.”
  • “Each person has his own likes. Once when I had a chance to talk with a sales rep from Mizuno, he admitted, “Our shoes are kind of plain and don’t stand out. We stand by our quality, but they aren’t that attractive.” I know what he’s trying to say. They have no gimmicks, no sense of style, no catchy slogan. So to the average consumer, they have little appeal. (The Subaru of the shoe world, in other words.)” (I liked this one just because it highlights functionality and personal preference – what works versus what looks flashy. I have always, after all, driven Subarus.)

But eventually I get some clarity from these readings and others – everything from personal reflections and essays to the more scientific and clinical approaches, such as an article on whether or not ultra-marathoners feel less pain, thanks to the Twitter feed of Al Jazeera English news anchor Peter Dobbie (yes, this kind of stuff comes from everywhere, doesn’t it?). Of course they don’t feel less pain – it’s psychological really – so it comes down to brain over pain (as the article states: “theory of pain catastrophizing and how that might be translated into pain management when you are 40 miles in and everything feels bad”). It all ties together so that these symptoms, if not catastrophic or apt to do lasting damage, can be assessed as non-critical discomfort rather than critical pain, can be overcome with some of the psychology, the tying the effort into a greater good, a philosophical drive toward being greater.

Someone asked me the other day about why I think our mutual acquaintance runs in insane ultra-marathon-type events. (Sure, in this case, she just wanted to find excuses to talk to me about the acquaintance, but I treated it academically, as I do with most things.)

She asked: “Why do you think he does it?”

Impersonally, I replied, “I don’t think it’s something anyone who doesn’t do it can understand.”

I have recently read several books to try to gain insight into marathon and ultra-marathon “thinking”. I told this ‘interrogator’: “I cannot claim to understand the pathology.”

She exclaimed: “So you think it is a pathology!”

Me: (haltingly) “Not in the strictest sense, no. But as a deviation from what most people do, yes, it is a pathology in that sense.”

Some exchange/banter followed about the insanity of it, but I started outlining (at least for myself) what I think defines the reasons why (if we must understand or seek understanding):

  • The people who do this kind of running often also tend to think it is as crazy as non-runners do … in the sense that they push their bodies beyond the limits of what a body should be able to do. Pushing beyond physical limits. Feeling more alive than ever while also being almost dead. This drives the process, the motivation and desire to continue.
  • An ‘extreme’ runner is not doing it because s/he thinks it’s “normal” or “middle of the road” even if it becomes normal for her/him.
  • The opposing forces of isolation/solitude, as long-distance running is a solitary activity, and community/camaraderie built with a group of others who find this ‘insanity’ to be a worthwhile pursuit.
  • The opposing forces of feeling control while also feeling out of control (i.e. “I can undertake this unfathomable feat; I can’t feel my feet/hands/can’t stop vomiting – can I go on? Can I do this?”)
  • A unique/unusual sense of accomplishment from doing something that most other people cannot do, even if they did not find it insane to consider.
  • Added bonus if the running endeavor can be connected to some concept of “doing good in the world” (a charity component, etc.)

I engage in my own form of marathon, which has nothing to do with running, and it tests resolve and endurance, too. It is my test for whether someone, in coming up against me, is built to last. The drive to run, but not running from something, cannot be entirely dissimilar – it is a constant test of tiring but continuing, reaching an outcome, elated and exhausted, but facing the demand to get up and do it again, insane or not.

Photo by David Marcu on Unsplash

“her agile tongue”

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Tongue
Zbigniew Herbert
Inadvertently I passed the border of her teeth and swallowed
her agile tongue. It lives inside me now, like a Japanese fish. It
brushes against my heart and my diaphragm as if against the walls
of an aquarium. It stirs silt from the bottom.
She whom I deprived of a voice stares at me with big eyes
and waits for a word.
Yet I do not know which tongue to use when speaking to
her – the stolen one or the one which melts in my mouth from an
excess of heavy goodness.

Photo by Sora Sagano on Unsplash

 

Rousing sessions, furious responses

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“Part of what interests me is the impulse to dismiss and how often it slides into the very incoherence or hysteria of which women are routinely accused.” –Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit

When not enunciated clearly, “betrayal” and “portrayal” sound very much the same. And in reality, they are.

Applicable in many situations, it seems most apt when thinking about the portrayal women must give so often in the world, consciously or not, in the workplace, in their private lives, even in their friendships. And in giving this portrayal (or portrayals), she performs or reflects a kind of betrayal – of herself, other women and even the truth of what women are or can be. I wrote a bit about this – or about false feminism – or carrying the flag of feminism only when it is convenient or aligns with one’s own individual conception of feminism. But I can think of very little that betrays oneself and womankind – and does the least amount of good for all of humanity – than the idea of portraying a role, fitting into a mold, being or showing some unreality to the world and perpetuating it. At the same time, though, it is so ingrained as the expectation that it’s hard to do otherwise. After all, no one appears ready to take a woman at her word.

“I told you, but what does the proverb say? A woman’s prophecy is always taken lightly until it comes to pass.” –The Dance of the Jakaranda, Peter Kimani

At face value

I think of this often: we don’t take what women say at face value. Even if we believe them, and even if what they tell us bears out, e.g. Bill Cosby’s many accusers, Cosby’s own admissions of what he had done (without accepting any culpability, i.e. “I did it but it wasn’t wrong; it was consensual”), we still don’t apply the logic or truths of what women say, we still don’t hold anyone accountable for what women endure, reinforcing the idea that we might as well just shut up or contentedly portray our role.

“If we could recognize or even name this pattern of discrediting, we could bypass recommencing the credibility conversation every time a woman speaks. One more thing about Cassandra: in the most famous version of the myth, the disbelief with which her prophecies were met was the result of a curse placed on her by Apollo when she refused to have sex with the god. The idea that loss of credibility is tied to asserting rights over your own body was there all along. But with the real-life Cassandras among us, we can lift the curse by making up our own minds about who to believe and why.” –Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit

Crazy label: Unspoken message

“As you know, men are apt to idolize or fear that which they cannot understand, especially if it be a woman.” –Cane, Jean Toomer

I read this week about Sylvia Plath, and how she is widely regarded in academia and in general as a gifted but troubled woman. Clearly if you’d commit suicide, you must have been crazy. She was just a jealous woman who had been cheated on, like so many before her, and could not handle it. Unhinged. Hysterical. But is any story or person that simple? It’s so easy to dismiss her this way because this is what evidence we have; this is the narrative that her ex-husband sought to craft in her death. Not to preserve her reputation as a literary voice but to protect his.

The article I read asks: “Why are we so unwilling to take Sylvia Plath at her word?” The “crazy label” assigned to her (which, granted, is not hard to assign when a person kills herself and is therefore left defenseless; any written evidence she left behind was destroyed by the aforementioned ex-husband) automatically makes her an unreliable witness to her own existence, all the more so because she was a woman. The hushed-up, unspoken message is clear: You don’t need to listen to a woman if she’s crazy, and much of the language used to describe women and their behavior (as if it can be so easily classified and compartmentalized) makes all women seem crazy in some way. All women then are unreliable or biased witnesses. When an individual woman’s own situation becomes unbearable and visible to others, it is demanded: “But why didn’t you say anything?” Answer: “I did and no one listened/believed me” or eventually, “Who would have believed me?” When their prescience comes to prove itself, later people ask, “But why didn’t anyone say anything?” Well, we did. It went unheard until it came to pass.

Uncontrollable circumstances, self-blame

As Dorthe Nors writes in So Much for that Winter, “and it is woman’s weakness to believe it’s because she isn’t good enough that things don’t go according to plan (and it is woman’s weakness that things should go according to plan).” Perhaps it is this near-built-in inferiority coupled with the idea that somehow you (as a woman) should be perfect that makes one seem crazy. Even though this is exactly the portrayal women are asked to give every single day.

Meanwhile, as Alice Munro writes on men in Hateship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage:

“Men were not like this, in my experience. Men looked away from frightful happenings as soon as they could and behaved as if there was no use, once things were over with, in mentioning them or thinking about them ever again. They didn’t want to stir themselves up, or stir other people up.”

(Wo)man with a plan

It’s overly simplified and not universally true (in other words: here are some sweeping generalizations for you), but in very broad strokes, women plan and then feel guilty and inadequate when that plan does not work precisely, dwelling on the consequences (even if they often have also performed risk assessment and made contingency plans even for the simplest of maneuvers). Men do not plan, and walk away without a second thought when the things around them fall apart, feeling no connection at all to the consequences.

Or, men’s and women’s idea of what constitutes a “plan” are fundamentally different: A man makes a plan, points A through Z. He rarely seems to follow the threads of what happens if any of those alphabetical points does not go to plan, which is where many women excel. She is thinking about point A1, and the contingency plans A2, A3 and how those interact and meet with the next possible steps in the plan, points B-Z and their subplans. If she thinks this way, how can she not foresee and foretell pitfalls and disasters? It’s a bit like a Choose Your Own Adventure book but without any real surprises. A bit like a woman’s life at times: chaos and silence, ignoring and being ignored and many rousing sessions and furious responses that lead nowhere.

“your own hands are lying”

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Taking Off My Clothes
Carolyn Forché
I take off my shirt, I show you.
I shaved the hair out under my arms.
I roll up my pants, I scraped off the hair
on my legs with a knife, getting white.

My hair is the color of chopped maples.
My eyes dark as beans cooked in the south.
(Coal fields in the moon on torn-up hills)

Skin polished as a Ming bowl
showing its blood cracks, its age, I have hundreds
of names for the snow, for this, all of them quiet.

In the night I come to you and it seems a shame
to waste my deepest shudders on a wall of a man.

You recognize strangers,
think you lived through destruction.
You can’t explain this night, my face, your memory.

You want to know what I know?
Your own hands are lying.