Balsamic Moon Blog #6

Meredith Monk in Book of Days, courtesy of the Jewish Film Institute.

The Body Keeps the Score

Welcome back to my monthly meditation on change, loss, and transformation. This month brings us into meditations on peak experiences when death feels near, and how collective rituals can bring us back into awe for shared aliveness.

For several years of my life, the nearness of death was like the nearness of my own breath. Like the knight in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, awareness of death was a frequent visitor. I was in my early thirties and functionally disabled by mysterious, recurrent illnesses. I had no diagnosis, no clear understanding of why my body caught every infection as a paralyzing blow. Days spun out, my consciousness hovering between wakefulness and trance. Over time, I lived in a corner of my mind that was tethered to but not entirely immersed in my body, which I experienced as a baffling and antagonizing companion. 

When I developed a kidney infection that progressed alarmingly fast the doctors prescribed a powerful broad-spectrum antibiotic that I was terrified to take, and terrified not to take. After a few days, an allergic reaction to the drug rushed me to the hospital. If the infection hadn’t cleared, I’d be in trouble—hospitalization and a trial of less effective drugs would be the next step.

I waited for the test results on the raised ER bed, listening to machines beeping and nurses’ footsteps in the hallway. The infection itself had drained me. The drug seemed to have beaten me up from the inside, leaving every inner organ bruised. Too weak to lift my head, I let my eyes focus on what was closest—my outstretched arm. I felt the nearness of death. And, for what felt like the first time, I was moved by how beautiful my skin was—every pore on my arm lifting every delicate hair, every freckle, every ridge and bump. Beauty was no longer a comparative process (is this part of my body pretty or ugly?) but was inherent in sheer existence. My arm, my hand, these were mine. Being alive, having a body—why had I never understood what immeasurable beauty these things held? I made an unkeepable vow—if I could only recover and go home, I’d never be critical or apathetic about my body again. 

And I did get to go home. The infection had cleared and I needed a few weeks of bed rest. And it would take a few more years to find the doctors and the diagnosis and the treatment that brought me back to functional health. Now it seems ordinary to wake up pain-free most days and able to ride a bicycle and lift weights. But ordinary is the opposite of transcendent. When I was at my sickest, transcendent gratitude was with me as much as fear was. I felt then that if I could only have a life where I’d be well enough to ride my bicycle a few times a year—that, even that, would be enough for eternal gratitude, eternal joy. I have that now, but such gratitude is nearly impossible to maintain. I can’t access the deep epiphanies I had when it felt like my life was a gift I may not get to keep for long. And though I’m mending my relationship with my body, I don’t marvel at its beauty nearly as much as I wish I could. Because that awe requires a shift from the ordinary to the transcendent—where we can be amazed by the small moments, the imperfections, the exactly-as-it-is-right-now-ness of merely being.

Catastrophes can catapult us out of the ordinary, as can profound joy. Both are shocking states—to be in love, to be in religious ecstasy, to be on the other side of a brush with death—these draw huge spikes across the electrical currents of our being. Intensity is the express route away from ordinary perspective, but there is also a slower pace with less adrenalin-charged highs and lows.

So far in this post, we’ve been dwelling in the Scorpionic depths—as this blog is intended to do, as we do whenever go into deep pain and trauma and nearness to death. But my Balsamic Moon Ritual this month took place under the sign of Pisces, and as I share this with you we’re experiencing the Virgo Full Moon that rounds out Pisces energy. This polarity of Pisces and Virgo is the polarity between finding perfection and finding imperfections, being outside of time and being in the here and now, flowing into bliss and clarifying analysis. When we integrate these opposites, we find ourselves experiencing extraordinary states of communion within the ordinariness of our living bodies, here and now. The transcendent and mundane, together.  

The ritual I experienced this month wasn’t one that I planned, and I didn’t experience it alone. Rather, a small group of friends gathered for shabbat, knowing we wanted to sing together. Usually we sing in Hebrew or Yiddish, tasting the words of our ancestors on our tongues, but this week we began by singing a wordless song by Meredith Monk. We had been speaking of memories, and one friend suggested we try to sing our memories to this tune, improvising in turns and seeing what happened. Another friend made an important amendment: that these memories not be our biggest ones, not the major stories we tell about our lives. We allowed memories to arise, one’s we perhaps hadn’t remembered until that moment, the ritual became a way of accessing these simple moments that held something about our being, but were not well-worn stories in our memories. This moved us from memories that might be highly charged—the express route—to smaller, quieter impressions that floated to the surface and were charged with a sense of wonder.

So we started to sing together, one person at a time finding words for a small moment from their past as the others hummed or chanted the melody with them. For hours we wove this spell, memories feeding other memories, until we began to feel part of a larger consciousness, not just our own. As our bodies entrained together through song, we wove these small moments into our own memories: The sound of wind blowing through holes left by reeds in a frozen pond. Going to the corner store with a friend you secretly liked. Making leaf bouquets for your mom that she kept in coolers on the porch. Wisconsin, 1992. Playing with rubber cement at your uncle’s graphic design studio. Ephemera of memory: precise, small, beautiful.

As we sung together, our memories became a story of our collective memory. This is what is has been like, being alive together in these times. These are the stray fragments that rise to the surface that are ordinary, that are beautiful, that were lost until just now and may be lost again. 

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(the title for this blog post comes from this excellent book)

Balsamic Moon Blog Schedule: 

March 22: Ritual #7

April 8: Blog Post #7

April 22: Ritual #8

May 7: Blog Post # 8

May 20: Ritual #9

June 5: Blog Post #9

June 19: Ritual #10

July 5: Blog Post #10

August 17: Ritual #11

September 2: Blog Post #11

September 2: Blog Post

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