The Faraway Nearby Book Club: Bodies, Betrayal and Love

I am brooding over my son’s latest MRI results, and his surgeon’s recommendation for another operation on his knee. The injury first ended his golf season. Then, nagging symptoms post-surgery ended his basketball season. Now, a second arthroscopy will erase his tennis season and threatens to encroach on the rigors of his summer basketball schedule.

In the long view, of course, it’s merely one slow curve along hundreds of miles of straight road interspersed with a lifetime of dips and hills and switchbacks and detours. In the short view, the one on which it is easier to focus, the road itself is obscured by the dense fog of teenage dreams vaporizing in real time.

With the precision of a surgeon my friend makes a tiny incision into my thoughts: “What would his body really want from him right now?”

What would his body want? The corpus knows a thousand ways to betray the anima, and this boy’s body has learned a few of those tricks. It discharged itself early from the womb and now rushes itself to perilous heights without first shoring up the joists (and joints) which must sustain it. He has the moves and dexterity of a seasoned athlete, straining against the encumbrance of a body always trying to catch up with itself.

I pinch the Windsor knot to a perfect dimple under the points of his black collar so he can sit packed in ice another night on the bench: a boy and his body lashed together with a blue silk tie, all dressed up with nowhere to go.

Even the body most fluent in the language of betrayal will communicate something of what it most deeply needs. But the body that has forgotten how to speak would seem less interested in betraying the soul than separating from it completely. This is the process Rebecca Solnit recounts in describing the way leprosy seeks to destroy a person, a process by which mind and body dissociate from one another through the absence of that siren we spend our lives looking to silence. We mute pain to our peril, it seems, for in the case of leprosy’s brutal assault, the rub is that “the disease strangles nerves, kills off feeling, and what you cannot feel you cannot take care of: not the disease, but the patient does the damage. You begin nicking, burning, bruising, abrading, and otherwise wearing out your fingers, toes, feet, hands, and then losing them.” (The Faraway Nearby, p. 102)

In the end, it’s not only hands and feet that are lost, but the self: “The nerveless part of the body remains alive, but pain and sensation define the self; what you cannot feel is not you…” Solnit quotes Lorca’s “Somnambule Ballad” to describe the detachment, Pero yo ya no soy yo, ni mi casa es mi casa. “But I am no more I, nor is my house still my house.” (p. 103)

Dr. Paul Brand worked with leprosy patients in India, witnessing firsthand young men who saw their hands as “no longer part of themselves, and his job was to teach them to take care of these insensible, alienated limbs with the kindness with which they might attend to someone else. … Brand wrote, ‘Sometimes I felt like a schoolmaster, with the odd sense that I was introducing the boys to their own limbs, begging their minds to welcome the insensitive parts of their bodies.'” (p. 103)

And as if retention of one’s sense of self were not sufficient in her apologetic for pain, Solnit goes on to make the case that it’s necessary for a sense of others, for development of empathy, for love itself:

Physical pain defines the physical boundaries of the self but these identifications define a larger self, a map of affections and alliances, and the limits of this psychic self are nothing more or less than the limits of love. Which is to say love enlarges; it annexes affectionately; at its utmost it dissolves all boundaries. (p. 107)

Which is to say, perhaps, that Nazareth was right: Love Hurts.


We’re reading Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby together. This week we read the chapters 5-7, in which Solnit wrote of empathy, of the disintegration that opens space for growth, of the way weavers (like storytellers) make form from formlessness, and as I’ve written here of the need for pain in defining and retaining a sense of the self. What themes in the reading echoed in your own thoughts? Perhaps you’d share with us in the comments, or if you wrote a post on your own website, feel free to share a link.

We’d love for you to join us again next week for chapters 8-10.

Wednesday, February 19: The Stories We Tell Ourselves (Chapters 1-4)
Wednesday, February 26: Bodies, Betrayal and Love Chapters 5-7
Wednesday, March 5: Chapters 8-10
Wednesday, March 12: Chapters 11-13

Photo by Georgie Pauwells. Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by L. Willingham Lindquist.

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  1. says

    Yes, the biological self. Because Solnit has such a brilliant, cerebral, intellectual self, it was nice to spend time in these chapters as she connected with her body, and with bodily sorts of pleasures, like cooking. I loved what she wrote on pp. 82-83: “I wish that I could put up yesterday’s evening sky for all posterity, could preserve a single night of love, the sound of a mountain stream, a realization as it sets my mind afire, a dance, a day of harmony, ten thousand glorious days of clouds that will instead vanish and never be seen again, line them up in jars where they might be admitted in the interim and tasted again as needed.” It is hard to realize that our bodies vanish day by day (our bodies don’t seem very cloud-like). Often it takes an operation or an illness to realize that–or thinking about other people, who have diseases like leprosy. I had a major sort of operation last March, and in its aftermath I found some days of the “serenity” that she mentions on p. 137, where I took permission to put my body first, but only because it had been sliced into and organs removed! After discovering yoga about 8 years ago, I have become much more conscious of the body and the breath, that we cannot know things intellectually unless we let the body feel them. This should be intuitive, but it was not for me. I loved Lamaze training for that reason. My tendency during my first child’s birth was to hold my breath throughout, stiffening into a near rigor mortis, which was not helpful, but when I remembered to breathe, the pain was bearable, understandable. My sympathies are with your son. So many of my student athletes wrote about knee surgeries in Personal Essay. Being sidelined from “flight” was so difficult– but they were able to write great essays about the experience in the aftermath. (I don’t expect this to be comforting to your son.)

    • says

      Just this, Elizabeth: “That we cannot know things intellectually unless we let the body feel them.”

      Such an intriguing statement. And I wonder if it goes vice versa as well.

    • says

      I was taken by that same line. “We cannot know things intellectually unless we let the body feel them.” Whoosh… :) Such profound discoveries about connections between body/mind the last number of years, so this portion of Solnit’s writing really captured my thoughts.

      And this idea of the body vanishing day by day… It’s true, and yet there are ways that we can preserve what we have.

      Thanks for your thoughts on my son. I’m hopeful he’ll be better for the surgery, and just a matter of a few moments lost rather than the future he’s planning on. :)

  2. says

    ” . . . the road itself is obscured by the dense fog of teenage dreams vaporizing in real time.”

    Dang, girl–that line is some pretty writing!

    It also speaks to me, because teenage boys aren’t the only ones who see the road ahead disappear into dense fog. The one I’ve been traveling lately has had much to teach me about the connections between mind, body and spirit.

    And compassion.

  3. says

    “Even the body most fluent in the language of betrayal will communicate something of what it most deeply needs.”–Wow, Lyla. That sentence could either damn me or liberate me, but it sure shakes me up.

  4. says

    Beautifully written, Lyla.

    Body and Soul

    In real time, dreams
    mute pain. The body
    speaks to the mind
    of what it needs most,

    and the hands take care
    of discharging fingers
    to erase the one part
    still fluent in betrayal.

    But the body separating
    from itself is not like
    the mind shoring up
    against thoughts of love.

    Nothing can be perfect
    that is not alive to feeling
    even what we are losing
    of our self.

  5. says

    I found it interesting when she said, in regard to leprosy and how it transcends our emotional and spiritual well being that, “if the boundaries of the self are defined by what we feel, then those who cannot feel even for themselves shrink within their own boundaries, while those who feel for others are enlarged, and those who feel compassion for all beings must be boundless.” How true that is, that we need to feel in order to live, which in turn, would help us to give permission to ourselves, to also feel more deeply. I think, for me, this has been my downfall for many years as an adult. As a child, I felt too much, was too emotional {weepy}, too empathic that I’d worry about how much water I was using to brush my teeth because of the water that I needed to save for the thirsty kids in Africa. That’s why I toughened up, hardened my heart so it wouldn’t hurt so much, but even more, so I wouldn’t embarrass myself with my feelings or so I could function by letting it “slide of my back” like a duck. But as an adult, later in life, I realized how that hardened was like leprosy. Hurting myself and others in the process. Feeling is essential to living and have compassion. As she said in this chapter, “pain serves a purpose. Without it you are in danger. What you cannot feel you cannot take care of.”

    • says

      Takes me back to the scene in one of the earlier chapters where the woman wore the ice stilettos, and the numbness she experienced (as well as the pain with the thawing).

      What you cannot feel you cannot take care of. The idea of it becoming, in essence, detached from the self was such a powerful thing.

      • says

        Tammy, I know that voice that says one is “too emotional,” “too caring,”….It is sad that we cannot give ourselves permission to follow emotional, compassionate ways in the hubhub of contemporary culture (though many do, of course, some notable like Thich Nhat Hanh). We do not need to be silenced, but it is so hard not to be, as we face the overwhelming complexity of how human beings relate to others and their environment. I realize that leprosy as a metaphor can be used to describe what has happened to the human relationship with the environment/nature. If we cannot feel or empathize with the pain of ourselves and other creatures, then we do not work to honor caring ways.

  6. says

    I read that book by Btand/Yancey years ago (and share community with Brand’s youngest daughter and her family) and when I read it, I was struck by its theme: we need pain. It keeps us alive and connected to life. But when you’re in the middle of it? OUCH. That’s about all there is to say. Not nearly as eloquent as you with this rich and thoughtful piece, Lyla, but grateful for this reminder of a foundational truth in life. I am sorry, however, for your boy’s loss . . . and your own, as you grieve with him.

    • says

      I read the Brand/Yancey text a few years back as well, and was really intrigued to see it in the context of this writing. So illuminating on this matter of pain and its necessity, whether we want it or not. Of course, it seems to go without saying that it’s not just pain but other, more pleasant, sensations as well, that we can’t do well without.

      The boy should be fine. Surgery tomorrow. He’s feeling positive about it, and that’s a good part of the game right there.

      Glad to see you here, my wise friend. :)

  7. Sheila Dailie says

    Totally caught me off-guard to read about Dr. Brand’s work with leprosy here, but such a great reminder that pain is not always the enemy. (Feel like my age is showing, ah!)

    I also find myself thinking about the sterile, might we say, “perfect” environment of the canned apricots. Good for putting up on a shelf for later, but not giving life until it is opened up again.

    Prayers for the surgery and recovery!

  8. says

    That “blue silk tie” sentence. I’ll just say what Nancy said: “Dang, girl–that line is some pretty writing!” (Except I’d have to copy and paste a whole bunch of lines.)

    Anyway, on pain. I really appreciate what Solnit said about leprosy, and what you said: “We mute our pain to our peril.” It’s the reason I avoid pain killers when I’m sick. They deceive me into thinking I’m well, and I go on trying to do life as usual, which prolongs the illness. The pain makes me stay in bed to rest, which is the faster way to real healing.

    In preparation for childbirth, I was taught not to distract myself from the pain but do the opposite: actually focus on the pain (and therefore focus on—and cooperate with—what the body is trying to accomplish). And it has occurred to me that the same goes for emotional pain—I should cooperate with it instead of trying to fight it and hinder whatever it’s trying to accomplish. Whatever it’s trying to give birth to.

    • says

      You are so right about avoiding painkillers when you are sick! NPR carried a disturbing story this week about a new painkiller that is about to go on the market that is more powerful than the ones out there now that have caused so much anguish to people not knowledgeable about the dangers of prescription drugs. We need to understand pain, rather than demonize it.

    • says

      Not to be contrary (and of course honoring the honor of the words given by both you and Nancy, regarding the writing), but I truly think I would be more inclined to say something like this to LW…

      Boy, that is some knife-edge writing—glittering in its ability to wound and heal with a single set of incisive words.

      Because, honestly, pretty writing is something I never see in this particular writer. It is clear-eyed, hard-edged while being so gently probing. It cuts you. And you aren’t sure whether to laugh or cry. And, in the end, you might do both, and you’ll be the better for it.


  1. […] though empowering the looking-glass were not enough, we often ask others to be a mirror for us, to reflect us back to ourselves, forgetting in the process that a person can’t do the work of […]

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