I will tell you about myself. I am 70, I am married to a woman called Fumiko, and we have three children.
I have curvature of the spine. I realize that people no longer have curvature of the spine; the medical profession has deleted it. The term is thought to be coarse, unscientific, too close to the bone, so to speak. Up-to-date people have scoliosis. Don"t let them fool you: it is plain old curvature. Had I been born twenty years later a fle xible steel rod could have been inserted on either side of the backbone and today I would be as tall as my father and I would be indistin-guishable from the man in the street. In fact, I would BE a man in the street. I have to say that being MARKED in this fashion has not stopped me from doing what I wanted. But it is there. It is a fact, perhaps THE fact of my life.
This is why I introduce it so early, even though it is only an attribute, and not, I think, the primary attribute. My image of myself is simply that of a man, but I am compelled to see myself as an asymmetrical figure. People scan me in the street and instantly register the disproportion between legs and torso. Children between three and ninestare candidly while gnawing at their popsicles until their mothers drag them away, embarrassed. Do I mind? Yes I do. Always.
I mind on the surface. At a deeper level I"m not sure how I feel about being marked. How does one feel about anything or anyone who is close? The closer the more at stake. Consequently the more deeply hidden. How do I feel about Fumiko? To say, "I love her" would be cant. If pressed, I would be as tongue-tied as Cordelia. I know that once when I was in a hospital after an operation I glimpsed the range and power of her feelings about me. I presume mine about her are equally intense, but I have no way of knowing.
Although there is perhaps a clue. Once in a nightmare a dreadful woman was shouting at Fumiko and had reduced her to tears cowering in a corner of a room. I became so enraged that only my waking up averted a homicide. I don"t know how I feel about my children either. The only hint I have is an incident when they were small. In the midst of a crowd on the main floor in Woodwards I heard the scream of a small child from the escalator. I turned and began to burrow through the crowd. I soon came in sight of the child. He was with an adult, he had only pinched his finger in the mechanism, there was no crisis. I instantly became so nauseated that I nearly threw up between peoples" feet. A threat to any child, it seemed, was a threat to my own.
If we have no access to our feelings about our nearest and dearest, how can we know what we feel about our own body, of all phenomena the most near, the most dear ? Do we HAVE bodies, separate from us, as christians and gnostics originally claimed? Or ARE we our bodies? If so, can we have feelings about ourselves? Temple Grandin is an autistic woman who wrote a remarkable book, Emergence: Labelled Autistic. According to the writer Oliver Sacks, she has said, "If I could snap my fingers and be nonautistic, I would not because then I wouldn"t be me. Autism is part of who I am."
So. Supposing by some sort of surgical jiggery-pokery I could have myself unkinked, would I? I haven"t given it much thought since it is all so hyhpothetical, but I doubt that I would.
There is a kind of shame attached to being different. I had a friend who for years could not bring himself to go skinny-dipping (swimming naked) with others because he had a scar on his back from a childhood burn. It seemed to me a scar was a mere cosmetic trifle. But it was not a trifle to him, obviously. I always took care not to be seen naked from behind when living in bunkhouses in work camps or at the beach with friends. Anyone is welcome -- by appointment only -- to see my pecker, (a slang word for penis) but not my backside. Bibliophiles: biblephiles -- will note that this is the opposite of God"s pudicity (sexual modesty or shame). In Exodus, during a conference between God and Moses, God put his hand over Moses" eyes to keep him from looking at his private parts. Afterwards, in compensation, he let Moses see his "back parts" as he walked away. Moses is the only human known to have seen the lord"s"s naked bum.Why does my body induce this sense of shame? We do not feel shame in that curious asexual limbo of the doctor"s office, or in bed with women where all is revealed. Only with the world.
I will write down two other aspects of me that you should know. One is that I have a deeply recessive personality. I suppose it relates to this shame. It takes many forms, some amusing, most not. When I was young I often found in my dreams that by holding my breath in a certa in way I could fly. You would think I would leap -- up up and awayyyy (Superman"s cry in the old radio program from the forties). Far from it. I would float with my feet a modest six inches above the sidewalk. I told myself I didn"t want to seem ostentatious, I didn"t want to flaunt my skill in the face of earthbound pedestrains. In truth it was simply a profound inhibition on my part.
In waking life, in dealing with people in ordinary everyday conversation, this inhibition was (and is) based in some way on fear. I cannot get at the root of this fear, or even of its nature. Is it an irrational fear of arousing the anger of others, perhaps? I know I am afraid of witnessing emotional violence between people, especially in families. Paradoxically, on the few occasions when I have been threatened with physical violence I have not been frightened, even disturbed, only alert and watchful.
Whatever the reason, the effect has been to make it hard for me to respond spontaneously to people on a moment-to-moment basis in situations that call for more than conventional politeness.
This may seem like a trivial matter, but it has affected my life far more than the curvature itself. Timing is all. In social conversation, as with the big bang, the first few seconds are what matters. One has to respond, to improvise, play it by ear, give a response off the cuff, right then. A reasoned response fifteen seconds later doesn"t cut much ice. The give and take with people at the office or over the backyard fence is bread and butter to most people, but it perplexes me, I cannot mount a relevant response. Particularly when argument is called for, or when someone needs to be put in their place. Failed moments. Recently when a man in a jeep pulled out alongside me in traffic and informed me at the top of his voice that in his opinion I drive in the manner that a chinese man drives while indulging in sexual intercourse (I paraphrase: he was more terse*) it didn"t even occur to me, even privately, to compare him to an anal aperture.This caution on my part is particularly unfortunate when someone is mutely calling for help. I have a list in my mind of things unsaid going back fifty years. Even in the free-and-easy seventies I never "let it all hang out, man." Kept myself reined in with a hard hand. It is a caution that never let up.
A moment in my twenties makes this clear. A friend and I walked north from Banff up through the Cuthead country and then west toward Lake Louise. He left me one morning at five or six thousand feet to climb Mt Coleman by himelf, and we agreed to meet on the other side of Badger Pass. So I plodded up the trail in a leisurely way. At noon I came to the first snowdrifts near the timberline and then within a hundred yards I came to the summit. When I looked down over the ridgepole of the world down into the next valley and up to the dim ranges beyond I was so elated that I wanted to shout in sheer exhuberance and unlock the echoes between those walls of rock. Anyone else would have. But I held back for a fraction out of this inherent caution. Only a fraction, but that was enough, the moment had passed me by. After that, to have shouted would have been contrived.
Rebecca West, in Black Lamb, Grey Falcon, remarks about form in people"s lives. "If one's own existence has no form . . . we feel ourselves as though we were reading a bad book." Exactly so. A small matter, but I walked down the trail, deeply dissapointed in myself.
The other thing is commitment. I don"t know if this has something to do with my scoliotic configuration or no. All my life I dithered between ambition and privacy. Being talented I pottered with drawing, writing, photography, collage, carving in wood. I thought I had plenty of time to commit myself to one medium or another. How I ever imagined I could get away with this I can"t imagine. Only a short time ago I wasshocked to see that time was running out. One must put one"s heart into something. That means taking the heart out of something else. It was piss or get off the pot. (another vulgar expression about making a decision)
And at that time, Montaigne showed me the essay form.