Dante’s mysterious mountain
body dysmorphia, touch repulsion, the process of being restored/transformed
I don’t like my hands or the right side of my face. I don’t know if body dysmorphia is something one ever fully outgrows. Disgust tends to fade more into distaste or apathy rather than a form of recompense. I am not interested or looking for methods of empowerment or voyeurism - perhaps due to a lasting and combined touch repulsion/starvation that I still cannot put into words, save the end of Shauna Barbosa’s “GPS”:
You kiss the back of my legs, and I want to cry. Only the sun has come this close, only the sun.
There’s an intangible grief in mourning the unreality of things that were once deemed authentic. Perhaps a profound and more shameful sadness lies in the discovery that the standard by which everything else was measured by was, in itself, counterfeit.
Complex grief can be, and initially is destructive for anyone. It’s a type of purgatory. There’s always a part of it that’s impassable, a proverbial wall of fire that prevents you from moving anywhere, except through it. I’ve found that with sustained grief, that wall can reappear whenever it wants. You can be in line at Target, and it’ll put you on the floor (at least the first time).
I think part of the transformation is about finding the courage to persist, to go through that fire, again and again. That process has continually refined me. It’s made me stronger and more tender than I ever thought possible; it’s also given me courage in other areas of my life. I don’t live in fear or terror anymore. I can be a little reckless at times (like free climbing in the Sierra’s), but I’m coming to more of a balance. I’m not afraid to establish and enforce boundaries (for others and myself). I know the type of questions that lead to emotional self-harm, so I don’t ask them anymore. I stopped RSVPing “maybe” for my life, and I bought those tickets and climbed that mountain - especially when I had to do it alone.
Tattoos, at least for me, have been a way of reclaiming my body in the form of outwardly and internally saying, “this is my body, it is no one’s but mine."
My hands are deeply scarred on the base of my palms where I once ripped the skin down past the dermis after being nearly run over by a car while skateboarding on campus when I was an undergraduate. I’ll never have a skull without plates in it, or a spine without dura hardware. The question isn’t whether or not I can go back to having a body that hasn’t been beaten, broken, molested, or traumatized. The problem is - how can I live in a body that doesn’t want to be seen or touched?
In Krista Tippett’s Interview with Ester Perel: "The Erotic Is an Antidote to Death,” Perel earnestly reminds us that eroticism is genuinely (intimately) linked to how people connect to quality of aliveness, vibrancy, vitality, and renewal. She goes on to say:
Because desire is to own the wanting — that’s one way of looking at it. And in order to own something, there needs to be a sovereign self that is free to choose and, of course, feels worthy of wanting and feels worthy of receiving. That’s why desire is so intimately connected with a sense of self-worth.
I’m not sure if it’s possible to separate the body of the world from the body of the (my) self because both are always acting upon each other. And yet, somehow, I am also perpetually struggling against the tyranny of both of those bodies. And that struggle can often leave me feeling disembodied entirely.
I think being disembodied is a synonym for not feeling understood. So it’s not the wanting, but the willingness to be vulnerable and still be misunderstood. No amount of self-awareness or actualization will ever make me master of everything inside of me. My body and soul often speak in languages I don’t understand cognitively yet. I have to remind myself that it’s unrealistic to expect someone else to understand something in a matter of hours that took me years to live into. I don’t have to be fully known to be worthy. I just have to lean into the fall.
It’s not that through writing, I realize some political, corporeal, or erotic autonomy. Instead, in the moment of the creative act, I am suddenly only aware of the immediate, immortal now - and that, in itself, is a kind of freedom. And then, having had that experience, I am constantly reminded of its possibility, and I can move forward through the mundane and the banal until the next such time and place as this. In that sense, it’s permanent freedom, no matter how brief the moment itself, that I will always carry inside me.
The problem with transformation isn’t just the means, but the will to do it. In my own experience, when we seek that will from a place solely based on anger that lacks conviction, try to do it alone, are ill-equipped, or focus on the insurmountable, it is not scalable or sustainable.
We burn out, sometimes quite quickly, because shame, spite, anxiety, fear, and misanthropy are not regenerative places - they are exhausting. If, however, we come to a metamorphosis from conviction, passion, or desperation, then we can return to quietly sitting still, breathing, and experiencing not only our own but the world’s potential and capacity for change. Then we can be renewed daily.
I know that I am continually in the process of being restored. I also know that I don’t have to fix everything at once. The regenerative engine for change inside us is fueled—among other ways—by the power of art, connection, and nature - by poetry. The beautiful thing is once you kick start that engine the first time - it can go on forever. All it takes is a spark.
Maybe that’s what the wall of fire is for.