The body’s memory and affect. That’s the title of a talk, or at least the topic I must pursue for a paper I’m about to give at the next post grad seminar but I cannot get inspired beyond the basic, though if I try hard, I shall find something I’m sure.
When do I first remember an awareness of my body? Was it through the experience of pain? In my bed in Camberwell in the room I shared with two of my sisters. I could not sit up, much less walk. My body felt hot and cold simultaneously. For days I curled up in bed crawling out only occasionally to use the potty. I could not bear to go as far as the bathroom. In those days we had an outside toilet. The first time I could travel that far my head felt light. Is this what it’s like to be ill, I remember thinking, as though it had only just occurred to me.
For a long time I disregarded my body. It was merely a suitcase to me, the thing that I carried my insides in. My insides, my mind and my soul. My soul so close to my bottom worried me, how easily it could be stained by poo. It was hard to keep my soul and mind separate. I preferred my mind to my soul. It was higher in my body, perched atop, inside my head, behind my eyes. I could see out from my mind onto the world. I could hear from there, too, and taste and smell. All the good things happened at that level, only in the middle somewhere adjacent to my hands could I feel.
I felt things with my hands and occasionally marveled at the feel of my fingers on my skin. How would it feel if someone else were to touch me? Would I know it? The difference between two parts of me touching one another and one part of me being touched by another person or thing preoccupied me for hours.
My fingernails were a constant torment. I could not keep them clean. ‘Wash your hands before you do your needlework,’ Mother Mary John said. ‘This is a disgrace.’
How could it be, I wondered then that the dirt from my fingers should so easily spread to the pattern on my needlework? Sky blue cornflowers and red poppies with bright yellow and black stamens. We held the fabric firm with a circular frame the nuns had lent us. I kept my needlework in a paper bag. I did not enjoy the thought of sewing, only the process once I got started.
The nuns taught us to keep the thread at an optimal length, too short and you would be needing another thread too soon and your work on the back would be full of knots and finishings off. Too long and the thread would get tangled and knot up to the point it could no longer pass through the fine weave of the fabric.
My fingers pricked blood on the sharp point of the needle, faded brown spots appeared between the cornflowers.
‘You will need to ask your mother to wash this once it’s done,’ Mother Mary John said. ‘You can’t present it like this.’
Shame burned red around my ears. I write now as though I felt none of it. This was the way things were, but my insides blazed with shame whenever Mother Mary John looked my way. She dressed entirely in black, apart from the white band across her forehead. She smelled of mothballs and musk. She wore an apron, also black, over her long black dress and never seemed to attract a fleck of dirt.
It was then I decided that nuns did not have bodies. They were machines underneath. They did not eat, and because they did not eat, they never used a toilet. They gave off no signs of being human apart from their faces where their eyes, ears, noses and mouths suggested they could see smell and hear, and speak. The fact of their legs and arms suggested they could walk and carry things, but their thoughts were circumscribed to quotes from the bible and injunctions about what to do and what not to do. They did not sleep. They only taught and prayed. These inhuman creatures were my first teachers for the first fifteen years of my life. They terrified me. And taught me about the sanctity of the body as if preserved in aspic.
My father, on the other hand, taught me a different sense of my body.