The body’s I

There is something that has occupied me of late: Where am I? Not ‘Who am I?’, or ‘Why am I?’ -they are all important questions, to be sure, and yet somehow they all beg the question of ‘I’, don’t they?

But, let’s not get too serious, eh? I mean, I know where I am: I’m up here, in my head -well, at least that’s what my brain wants me to think. Still, I sometimes wonder about that.

There was an episode I remember from when my daughter was very young that gives me pause; it was something she said. Lunch was ready, and I was trying to find her. I finally gave up wandering through the house and shouted out her name, but it was still several minutes before she arrived.

“Where were you?” I asked, not a little peeved that she hadn’t answered me.

She looked up at me with an innocent smile on her face. “I was in my feet, daddy,” she answered. “They were taking me somewhere.”

Did she know something about her body that I didn’t? Something that you have to be three years old to understand? Somehow she could still marvel at the rainbow that the poet John Keats accused Isaac Newton of unweaving when he reduced it to mere colours in a prism.

I’m being a little disingenuous, of course -the adult I is well aware that it is actually the brain that experiences the world; it is the brain that understands and clarifies its neural input from the rest of the body. We only sense reality second hand -once-removed- but it is an altered perspective that brings joy to experience. Who has not gloried in the shiver induced by a magnificent sunset, the warmth of a long-awaited hug, or even the muscle ache after a rewarding hike? After all, I am present in my body as much as in my head. Sometimes I wonder if I should spend more time there.

That thought (the Brain again!) occurred to me on a recent hike through the woods behind my house. I figured maybe I should allot some time to my various appendages -let them loose on training wheels, as it were. I decided to start with my hands because I know both of them pretty well, and have found that they’ve always been good at, well, handling things.

I discovered that it’s hard neglect other parts of the body and live entirely in your hands, however. I suspect they would have been just as happy hanging out in my pockets while the feet did all the real work. Hands are used to delegating authority: they think of themselves as being higher up in the chain of command, I suppose.

I mean, let’s face it -hands are touchy-feely, so my brain modified the parameters of the exercise and tasked them with handling stuff along the trail -mainly at shoulder level, so the knees wouldn’t feel upset that they were being asked to work harder without commensurate recognition. Feet, the brain in me decided, would stay as feet. There are some tough choices when you’re a boss.

A trail, however, is not a Skinner Box; a path is a path for a good reason: other people use it from time to time, and the sight of an old man touching assorted twigs and leaves along his way was bound to attract attention. I had stopped at a dying tree that had largely shed its leaves; it was in its terminal throes, and one solitary mottled and wizened leaf close to the trail caught the attention of an errant hand.

But, despite a valiant attempt to focus solely on my hands, I had neglected to disengage my ears; I  stopped at a choke point on the trail, and I heard a sudden intake of breath nearby. Then a child’s shouty attempt at a whisper to her mother, re-enlisted my eyes to evaluate the situation.

“Why is that man petting the leaf, mommy?” A little girl in a rumpled blue jacket, dirty jeans and messy blond hair, stared at me with wide-eyed fascination. Her mother, similarly dressed although with neatly brushed hair that she’d gathered into a ponytail, eyed me with suspicion and grabbed the girl’s hand to stop her from approaching me.

I smiled to set them at ease, but I could tell the mother was worried -we were all supposed to be practicing social-distancing, of course, and I was pretty sure my hands had obeyed. She whispered something to the daughter that I couldn’t make out, but the little girl seemed surprised.

“But I think he likes the leaf,” she whispered -loudly again.

“Maddy!” the mother chided her, this time at a normal volume, but clearly not agreeing with Maddy’s opinion.

The girl looked up at her mother with a puzzled expression on her little face. “But…” She hesitated for a moment to find the right words. “…But maybe his hands knew the leaf wanted petting, mommy. Maybe they could tell it was all by itself on the tree…”

The mother hushed the child and dragged her quickly past me through some bushes beside the trail.

“Mommy…!” I could hear her protest when her jeans tangled in some thistles. But her mother seemed insistent on protecting her child from my perverted tactility, and only rejoined the trail a few metres downstream. Then she hurried her away, throwing a worried look over her shoulder when she judged her daughter safe from further contagion.

Of course, the fear of viral transmission was still an issue, so perhaps that was what led to the mother’s insisting on a the detour through the thistles, but I can only hope she explained that to her daughter further up the trail.

Maddy reminded me that children experience the world quite differently from adults, and that the magic of a lonely leaf beckoning to a hand for a final caress before it falls should valued, not ignored. Maybe there really are some voices that adults can no longer hear; maybe for some, the rainbow is still unwoven…


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