How someone holds the elevator for another in the hospital is different from how someone holds the elevator for another almost anywhere else. It means so much. And a person who has just received clearance about her loved one’s heart has to contain her rapture, if not her weeping, inside her, when descending floors, after days indoors, lit by television’s apathetic blue.
Each gown has a Hawaiian long board print. You are equally clad: hardly, confined by strings. Your roommate is 96, “almost 97!” In halted English, he tells the doctor, “I make my arms into a helicopter,” and demonstrates how he will continue his life like this. Toward evening, he carries his own diaper to the shared bathroom. Catching your eye, he laughs, freeing you from the mortal embarrassments of your bodies.
To be the only soul in the corridor when traversing the eerie, underground pathway to the cafeteria, past doorways labeled “Hazard,” to purchase the kinds of foods he will eat. The cashier, touching your palm lightly with the coins, calls you “dear.” “Here you go, dear.” At her gentleness, you all but collapse.
The Body in Parts
So often we experience the body in parts, the body in phases. For instance, cheek where it touches windowpane: the nerves rise along the surface. In moments of terror, we are unable to feel the body at all, formless, pointless, it lays in shadow, unable to speak.
Remember sitting, touching knees with a friend in the unmown grass in summer, a radio in the basement drifted Stevie Nicks euphorically losing it, and the sense that all, in its messy way, would be well—
A brilliant child describes her memory of being born: a shadow, a specter of lights, and a pressure, like a never-ending swallow in reverse. Then the sudden nothingness around her body. Where closeness was, was air, a sense of this is it. It was a beginning. Her heart remembered that.
The heart is our first organ, thus the heart has the longest dream and the longest memory. While its rapidly evolving cluster of cells may be in close competition with development of the brain, try to imagine the heart on its own for a while, dreaming.
The word trauma feels like what it is, though trauma is defined per person, the most personal. To say the word is to retreat into our own. The tr- is heavy and the tongue tries to lift it toward the light, but very often, halfway through the word, we’re overtaken by the urge to lie down and go to sleep. How to explain jerking awake at merely the wind? There’s a point in feeling beyond which every alphabet tangles,
every center recedes.
In the ER, a patient’s voice grows familiar in the long afternoon. The voice could be bodiless, almost, except each time the curtain opens a pair of feet are revealed, sore and mangled, flesh not even visible beneath layers of dirt. The patient doesn’t remember why he fell, doesn’t care, doesn’t want to be here. He fights the doctor but sometimes adds an “I’m sorry” or “please.” As in, “Please don’t stitch my head up.” Why won’t someone bathe his feet, cover them in cotton socks? “Something to eat!” he shouts, “Nurse! Something to eat!” The entire ward prickles at the intensity of a something so specific compared to his age, race, history, unknown. Where did the man go after his head was stitched? How he exited the hospital is suddenly so important. Alone, on foot, in the rain? Searching, not crying out, for food?
At home, we collapse on couches under familiar blankets. Our partners, mothers, children bring us tea. Our animals lie warmly breathing across our knees. Physically, we are fine, only we can’t stop weeping. Maybe all trauma resides in the ultimate, fear of having a body. That we come from humans, as animals, as algae, as underwater breathing, brings peace.
The Present is Full of Thirst
When he was weak, she smoothed the sheet across his chest. She asked for a bigger cup, because she too, was thirsty. “Because life is short and you too are thirsty.”1 The nurse brought them a kind of geometric pitcher, not intended for this, and two straws. She put one straw to her lips, held the other to his, and said, “We are on a date now, drink.” In a different year, your mother held you to the metal lip of the fountain, your knees banging the long, awkward box of it, your back to her front, your head at her heart, shadowly ricocheting in the folds between. You pushed your mouth toward the simplest thing, now, at a button, the cold stream.
To remember all our vulnerability when a stranger uses her arm to keep the heavy, metallic doors from closing in your face. Later, to do the same for another, panicked at first—to exert considerable force, like pushing back a boulder—before it gives.
When she’s wheeled away for testing, you follow the hurricane’s spiral across a landscape, the whirling tip shepherding forth the energy of unpredictable molecules. You know the landedness of your body in the leather recliner is all but an illusion, that a map itself can say nothing about where we are. Somewhere beyond the curtain the mountains are present, and beyond the mountains the ocean, and above the ocean the conditions for destruction, or silence.
As if by magic, the single slice of wheat bread in cellophane transforms itself into the condition of waiting.
When it began to rain, you helped your sister pull the freshly-cut pine branches over your bodies. Even then you had the sense, if not the language, to know that this was one manner of coffin, or hideout, say, in earlier times, or desperate conditions. You loved a situation both desperate and old-fashioned, so you convinced yourselves not to answer your mother when, from the distant back door, she called. The rain grew louder on the branches; your jackets stuck to your skin. You breathed damply the cut pine and heavy resin of your fortress, your mother growing frantic by the minute. You could hardly hear your name, paralyzed by all you could see of the sky, sliced into interstices and offered to your eyes. Paralyzed by the pressure of your sister’s shoulder to yours, warm and certain but also, how now like a couple of little bones, tumbled together in the earth.
Thirty years later, you rarely embrace, but you can feel her shoulder still.
In Chantal Akerman’s short film about a lazy woman, the woman is not so much lazy, as wanting to feel like what she does matters. Her life matters. For a solid minute we watch her pour vitamins into a glass, her hands above a still of crumpled papers, stubbed-out cigarettes and a half-eaten watermelon, the this and that that comprise a life. We watch her drink the vitamins in a portrait we would normally never see, the microcosmic events sustaining, here, the life of an artist, who, without her art, may or may not take the vitamins, may or may not feel like any of it matters. Once or twice, she looks at us. And in reporting, “I’ll take some vitamins, then I’ll clear the table,”2we are asked to acknowledge these acts, this life, the minutiae that, unrecorded, can mean only something to herself, a fact, on difficult days, that can prove not enough. So it is, by our witness, we may release the young woman for a moment from her loneliness, however far we are into the future, however far she’s gone inside the past.
Against all odds, try to penetrate his dream: In a hundred years, when neither of us is living, find me.
The street so early is quiet, nearly empty. In the relative emptiness, a small bird flies in a frantic loop around the mirror of a parked car, diving repeatedly into the glass until, stunned, feathers askew, it alights on the mirror for a moment before beginning the process again. It seems at first as though the bird is ill, but drawing closer, it’s clear, this process of trying to love another, by flying again and again into oneself.
“How we live: I look into my face in the square glass.”3 Only after you can see your own face, can we see you, too.
Certain afternoons, trying to say how you feel—it’s too much. To escape the heaviness you sit with your dog in the sun. You lean into one another, attentive to the yard’s flowering trees. She’s more attentive, as evinced by her ears’ constant twitch. Animal to animal, your loneliness dissolves, as you let the heat seep into your hair, your throats, your backs and wrists and skin. In the hospital, we long for our dogs. We want them wildly jumping on the bed, rolling across our chests, claiming us.
Pencils dented by the teeth of children, rugged beneath our fingertips when, gripping the wood we write, I am, we, tired yes, love, I forgot, I have forgotten, our time to, maybe. For, on some level, to be claimed is to be. My very fear of having a body is too big for my own body most of the time. I need to learn to live along, if not inside, it.
Concerning the Miraculous
To find not one, not two, but three lone marbles, in three different forests over a span of years. The recurring disbelief, retrieving the half-buried forms and wiping away earth. Orange, lavender, rose, shines. By the third encounter, alone among the silence of trees, it seems a message quivers for deciphering. To pocket the question. To later, tell it to another, the vibrancy continuing.
Some sleepless nights, what else can you do but line up the proverbial marbles like letters toward speech, say, “this means this,” fiercely, toward meaning?
This means this, and hope someone is listening.
1. Adrienne Rich, “Dedications,” An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems 1988–1991 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991).
2. Chantal Akerman, Portrait d’Une Paresseuse (Portrait of a Lazy Woman)/Sloth (1986).
3. Muriel Rukeyser, “Breaking Open,” Breaking Open (New York: Random House, 1973).
Meg Shevenock is a writer and private teacher specializing in giftedness and alternative education. She lives in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, Best New Poets 2006, Prairie Schooner, Denver Quarterly, jublilat, and the Kenyon Review blog.