I read this letter to my secret at Joe's Pub, as part of Women of Letters with Sofija Stefanovic, Audrey Gelman, Ji Min, JD Samson, Elena El-Husseini, and Amanda Duarte.
I hope you’re doing well. How’s your summer going? Don’t tell me, I already know.
You are the feelings that I wake up with, that I carry through the day. Feelings that sometimes follow me into my dreams, leading me to wake, blurry eyed, and pad to the toilet, reaching for my phone on the way so I can read Web MD while you wreak your midnight havoc on my butt.
I’m not talking about emotions. I’m not talking about sadness, or happiness, or fear, or pride. I’m talking about the constant, private communication between my body and me. Those urgent telegraphs - I need to shit, my thumb hurts, is that pain coming from my ovary?
These are the feelings that run my life, more so than emotions. The last time I cried, it was because there was a ringing in my ear that wouldn’t stop. I felt that more than love. When I look back on my life, I will talk about romances won and lost, about family, travel, books I read, career highlights. And I will forget that, through all these events, my immediate thoughts were taken up by needing to pee, by a callous on my middle finger that I touch all the time.
When I reminisce about this summer, I will pass over how annoying it was that the socks I like have a hole in them, so that, even though my ankles are perfectly adorned with the Calvin Klein logo, I can always feel my second toe wrestling free of its cotton prison, poking towards freedom only to hit against the darker, more solid limits of my shoe.
Maybe one day I will see a photo of myself this summer, smiling next to a friend, or playing an instrument in front of an audience, and I will forget that the whole time, I was thinking, ‘Fuck this, fuck this, I am so uncomfortable, fuck my socks.’
That’s the nature of our communication. I take it for granted, I don’t notice everything you’re trying to tell me. But you are my most loyal companion, the physical realness that roots me in existence.
Consciousness is unmapped. Some think it lives in the brain, others that its a web we all share. Some people think we have eternal souls, that will flutter, perfect, up to heaven when we die, leaving our bodies behind. But where does this empty, untouched soul finish, and our body-beholden, mortal personalities begin? In heaven, a place without hormones, or PMS, will I weep less, smile more? Without backache, or bug bites, or pants that ride up my crotch, what will I think about? Where will I put my hands?
According to the neuroscientist David Eagleman, we are more likely to say we had a good relationship with our mothers if we are holding hot coffee, rather than cold. If we are in the vicinity of a bad smell, we will make harsher moral decisions. Does it blow you away, my body, to know how much you control? How much power you have over who we are, and how we behave?
It’s enough to make you wonder how many times the world has gone to war because a man has undiagnosed IBS.
In these precarious times, I find myself wondering more and more about the bodies of world leaders. I wonder if Donald Trump is the first male politician to receive this much scrutiny about his. I don’t need a show of hands, but I’m sure I’m not the only person in this room who has wondered if his rumoured diet of carbs and dark meats, and the absolute gridlock it must cause in his intestines, are the reason we are living under the shadow of the end times? As the Doomsday Clock ticks closer to midnight, I imagine the thing pushing its second hand as one great, unspent turd, inching through the gut of the 45th president.
Henry the VIII had leg ulcers, Mao Zedong had venereal disease, but what historian could catalogue every tickle and burp that accompanied the arbiters of our world as they drew their lines across it? We will never know what it was like inside anyone but ourselves.
In George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, a ghost inhabits the body of Abraham Lincoln as he mourns the death of his son, Willie. In this moment, as well as the grief and the regret, the ghost feels the sloped back of a tall man, and the chafe of a boot that is too tight.
I wish I could inhabit bodies. I want to feel Marie Antoinette’s UTI flaring up during a banquet. I want to know the ache of Mary Seacole’s bunions. I want to sense every nerve ending on Buzz Aldrin’s skin, as he steps onto the moon.
I would like to go inside the audience's bodies. I would like to feel a baby squashing up against my kidneys right now, I would like to hear the rumblings of their dinners rolling down their systems, warning that this speaker better hurry up.
I would like to invite others into my body, to see the web of floating spots between my eyes and the world, to hear that ringing, that has not yet gone away.
But our selfhood is personal, it’s intimate, it’s erotic. It colours the world with our hormones, with the food we ate, with the amount we slept last night.
Many people have longed to escape their bodies. The bohemian Ida Johns wrote, in a letter, “Wouldn’t it be lovely to be free … just be a beautiful mind growing from outward impressions.” The artist Genesis P Orridge refers to their’s as a ‘flesh suitcase’, which they will one day transcend.
But you, my body, are my friend, my reminder that the day begins and ends, that the earth rotates around the sun. That no matter what I am going through, no matter what comes to pass, I am just an animal who turns food into poop.
Without the machine, we would only be the ghost. This letter is just to tell you I can hear you. I am listening all the time.
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