I was reading the New York Times Magazine in a restaurant yesterday, and I was stopped in my tracks by this week’s New Sentences section, which quoted a poem by Ben Purkert. The sentence, which obviously also drew the awe of reporter Sam Anderson, was this: “I’d like to meet my bones.”
As Anderson notes, “Purkert highlights a familiar paradox of human life. We are both radically connected to, and yet disconnected from, our physical bodies.” In reading Purkert’s sentence, I was feeling the ache in his words, the longing for connection to things that are so close and yet untouchable, and I haven’t even read the whole poem yet.
How often are we inches or millimeters away from an incredible something we can’t see or can’t touch? How often am I standing a foot away from another person with just a wall between us, each of us experiencing solitude despite our proximity? What do I do with the knowledge that I’ll never actually see the tattoo on the back of my neck or look at the lungs that sustain me, that I take for granted? With the fact that my lovers’ heartbeats will sync with mine when our hearts are resting in our bodies, side-by-side even though they’ll never touch, just pulsing in our pressed-together chests?
In her article for Bust on fatness and race, “On Being Fat in Ways White Girls Don’t Understand,” Savala Nolan Trepczynski says, “I’m fat in ways that are okay because I’m black. I’ve always been thankful to be fat and black, not fat and white. My white sisters at least could look like models, so maybe they ought to. No matter what I try, I’ll never be white. There’s freedom in never.”
“There’s freedom in never,”–another sentence that stopped me in my tracks, months ago when I first read this article online. I acknowledge that I’m taking one small portion of Trepczynski’s article out of context here, and I encourage you to go read the full piece to fully understand the context of her words. I also need to bring this sentence forward here because it has popped up in my consciousness so many times in my day-to-day since I first read it, and it’s coming up again as I take this gander of thought through proximity and this paradox of dissociation and connection.
We are only able to feel the freedom of solitude when we’re a foot away from a stranger because walls have been built between us–we’ll never have to interact. We don’t fear a tiger caged behind glass at the zoo, even when our children place their palms to that barrier, mere inches between their jaws and a powerful cat’s–the cat will never touch the child. We’re able to survive in our human bodies because our vital life organs are behind biologic barriers of their own–we’re free to live, and move, and experience pain and joy and love and pleasure because (for the most part anyway) we’ll never meet our bones. There is, no doubt, freedom in never.
But. It’s also important to recognize that this freedom comes at the price of separateness, division. When we build walls, what gets locked out? Who LOSES freedom, access? Sure, the walls dividing apartments in your building provide privacy, but what about the walls in your city’s prison? That zoo window at the tiger exhibit allows for the child’s free ability to witness natural power, but what of the animal’s freedom? Surely it’s a good thing that our anatomical insides stay inside, that we can walk around, live our lives, but what does that mean for those of us on a quest to connect inward?
When I take my human body as a whole, I realize that there are actually means of entry, doorways, places where the barriers are thin. Without them, I couldn’t eat or inhale–we as a species could never reproduce. I may never meet my bones, but thank goodness I can meet my breath. I may be freely held by the barriers of my flesh, but those barriers have their vulnerable places, their tender openings, inviting interaction and connection with the rest of existence. I owe my life to the barriers and to the openings. I think this might be one of the primary lessons my body has to teach.
Boundaries, barriers, and nevers can offer freedom, but when they’re built where they don’t belong, they stifle us. This week, in my personal practice and in my classes, I’m asking: are we building the right walls? Setting the right boundaries? Are we as free as we can be? Are we building systems and structures that offer freedom to others? Are we actively tearing down the walls and institutions that prevent us from acting as agents of connection? Which of our “nevers” are actually freeing our loving hearts and lovely bones, and which ones are holding us back?