More honoured in the breach

I never realized that I might have a talent for phenomenalism. I mean after all these years you’d think somebody would have said something. In fairness, though, I suppose I’m not always present when I experience things; I’m sometimes somewhere else -well my I is anyway. You have to be there in your body to be a phenomenalist, and not thinking about something else if you really want to earn merit badges; depending on the experience, I sometimes have to escape to an inner landscape whose wallpaper is more soothing, however. But maybe that’s permitted. Maybe that’s what minds are for: doors to somewhere else.

Still, to qualify for the club, I need to spend more time in my body, I think -not just walking around with it, but actually sitting in it and finding a place to put my feet up there. Getting to know it with all its warts as it were. That’s just an expression, by the way -I don’t have any warts.

But one of my elderly friends got me interested in the subject -phenomenalism, not the other, you understand. Anyway, she said that every so often, she tried to spend some time in her body just looking around. Being there was entirely different than watching things from her head, apparently. She said something about her skin feeling different -or was it her feet…? I forget now, but at any rate she travelled all over the place in there.

I have to admit it sounded nice, but I told her I would feel a little apprehensive about leaving my head up top with no one at home to watch it.

“That’s just silly, G,” she said after a botched attempt at an eye-roll –she was really quite elderly, I realized. “You only use your head to gain access to your body. You don’t actually leave it or anything…”

Perhaps it was a protective reflex, but I suddenly became aware that I was shaking my head at her. It was having none of it, I guess. Or maybe it was just my body volunteering…

She didn’t give up, though -I suppose she really figured she was on to something. “It’s just an awareness of the body, actually -a non-thinking awareness… sort of like going to a hotel for a while, maybe.”

Her analogies were not very helpful, but I could tell she was sincere. Something important was going on when she was in her body, apparently.

“So why is it any different, Martha?” The body in me was curious, I think.

She shrugged. “It’s an experiential thing, G -sort of like riding a bike: you just do it, you can’t explain what, or how.”

I could sense it was unwise to mess any more deeply with her neurological tangles, but she did seem happier than she used to be. “Where are you now…?” I thought I should ask in case it was important.

She shrugged, and a wisp of a smile raced across her face and disappeared in a wrinkle. “I alternate,” she explained. She had been a teacher before retirement, and I could see traces of her ‘careful: slow student!’ expression as she gazed at me.

I nodded, but slowly as if I understood. “Are you doing Mindfulness?” I kind of lidded my eyes when I said that -a sign that I was on to what she was really doing.

She sighed -rather impatiently, I thought. “That’s old hat, G,” she said, outlidding me with her eyes -I might have known she’d see it as a contest. “And anyway, I never liked the term.”

I mounted a tiny shrug to admit it was probably a wise decision. “So…”

Her eyes suddenly opened wide and pinned me to the wall I’d been leaning against. “You want me to name what I’m talking about -is that what you’re asking…?”

I enlarged the shrug. I’ve never liked being put on the spot.

Her eyes relaxed and retreated closer to her face. “Well, to start with, living in the experience, being in the body is hardly filling the mind is it…?”

She was starting to use ellipses -never a good sign in a teacher. Back in Grade 3 it meant that somebody was going to be selected to answer -and seldom the ones waving their arms. No, the task usually fell to the only person in the front row with his arm conspicuously absent from the air above him: me.

But I could see her face relent, and the ghost of a smile reappeared, if only evanescently on her lips. “With all due deference to the popular opinion that something needs to be ‘filled’ (she used air-quotes here) I like to call it ‘Bodyfullness’…”

I whispered a sotto voce ‘Uhmm…” and struggled with my eyes to keep them level. “It makes sense, I guess…” Damn -now I was doing it: the ellipsis thing.

“Exactly,” she said with a self-satisfied set of facial wrinkles slowly hobbling into formation. “It’s a way of feeling the experience without having to pass judgment on it. A way of being present…”

I blinked inwardly -now she was combining italics with ellipses. This was getting serious.

“But…” I hesitated for a moment, unsure of what I wanted to say.

I could almost feel her eyes walking over me, and her wrinkles thickened as she studied the way I was leaning against the wall. “You’re too much in your head right now, G.”

I moved a little away from the wall. “How do you…?” Her eyes jumped onto my face, and her head began to shake disapprovingly. Suddenly, I felt as guilty as the little boy who was always doodling on his wooden desk rather than waving his arm to curry the teacher’s favour.

“The drawbridge is usually down, G,” she said as she performed the little sigh teachers are so practiced at. “You’re never barred from the castle just because you’ve chosen to picnic outside the walls,” she added smugly, although perhaps a little sadly as well.

Her eyes softened as she said it, though. In fact, I thought I could see a proto-tear forming in the corner of one of them. She had ventured a little too closely to her fears I suspect. There’s a time when all of us are afraid to leave the palace in case we are permanently trapped outside.

I leaned over and hugged her as she lay back in her bed. Her head seemed heavy now, and firmly wedded to the pillow. And anyway, I realized as I glanced at my watch, visiting hours were coming to a close…


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