Image Credit: CB Wilson
When did I first become aware I have a body? In the podcast “Living in this Queer Body,” host Asher Pandjiris begins each interview by asking this question. Reminiscent of Krista Tippett’s traditional inquiry about spiritual or religious life in the interviewee’s childhood in “On Being,” the question launches us down a winding tunnel to explore our entrance-points to existence. This question now asks us to call upon concrete awarenesses both of being in the context of global pandemic and of being in a fallible human body. In tracking the awareness of my body under quarantine and social distancing, what strikes me the most is not the recall of what is present, but what is absent.
The weekend before shelter-in-place orders came down on Oakland, I turned thirty in a rental cabin in the Russian River valley. My nervous system was frayed; I desired water and love. Four friends joined me, including this essay’s co-author Jordan, whose presence was a surprise and who I greeted with the type of sobbing joyful hug that my body aches for now, however cinematic. In the cabin, cooking meals and putting together puzzles and arranging wildflowers, we were consumed with discussion of the virus. We held a singing circle and read poetry for the dying and the dead. We wept and mourned the things we already missed, including each other.
Both therapists, Jordan and I, in our many conversations since the pandemic, remind one another of these concrete and ambiguous losses of what they call “everyday intimacies.” Lockdown has me sitting with these questions: When did I first notice that I, too, was real? Where do efficiency and pleasure live in the heart of my body during a global pandemic? And what rituals—both private and public—reinforce the value and validity of my body? The answers shift the more we look at them. But we continue to share a mutual desire to put language to the body so we can make sense of it.
On day 75 in lockdown, I remind myself I am still a birth doula and a therapist. My focus is turned so often onto other peoples’ needs that it took me many days to recognize my own “off” feeling. So much of my work is about cultivating space for people to reach their most vulnerable – and, coincidentally, their most powerful. As I go along with them in that journey, I too am able to connect with a deeper part of myself. I attended a birth during quarantine where my attunement to my client felt unbelievably potent. By that point, I had gone over two months without even casual touch and then, in one 24-hour span, I maxed myself out. That potency was both exhilarating and draining; my hypervigilant trauma brain wordlessly screaming TABOO and RISK over and over again when I emerged from the hospital, mask on, and walked the half-mile home. We need touch and now we fear it. We fear touch and now we need it.
Intimacy requires safety. When I practice therapy, I connect with my clients’ vulnerability through more than words alone. Without ever touching, the body cues intimacy or reluctance through gesture and the subtle language of micro-movements. Though I’m not perfect at it, I can get a sense of when a client is bored or relaxed or tense often before they name that emotion explicitly. And now, lacking outside stimuli, that focus has been turned inward towards myself.
I believe that in order for us to make sense of this moment, we must understand our nervous system and its resonance or discord with the environment surrounding it. The nervous system’s fight/flight/freeze/fawn response is a blunt instrument taken to this highly specific context. We rely on the archetypes of things that have harmed us in the past to determine current danger. The unseen predator shapeshifts into whatever we might fear most – strangers on the street, our own shadows. We may not even have a conscious representation of the fear, we just feel it.
A couple of weeks ago, I listened to the audiobook of The Book of Delights by Ross Gay. In it, with his quintessential poet’s playfulness, Gay writes short essayettes about a personal delight he observed each day over the span of a year. At chapter nine, leaning against my kitchen counter for support, I replayed the same fifteen seconds over and over again as I sobbed. If you haven’t read or listened to the book, that is the delight in which Gay gets a high five from a high school student in a coffee shop. He goes on to talk about the delight of “unequivocally pleasant public physical interactions” with strangers as “a body that is… large-ish, male, cisgender and not white.” The coffee shop. The high five. The congenial stranger. Every word of that sentence now provokes in me a profound sense of loss. In our current context, delight has become coupled with anxiety – and with craving.
Barely a week passed in Oakland before I decided to come home. I craved stabilization and familiarity. So I prematurely ended a blossoming love affair with the West Coast, blurring out that other craving for novelty and freshness. My clinical internship had been terminated early and I could not afford to live there without guarantee of a rent-freeze, so I returned to the South. I told myself–I tell myself–I can always go back, which is its own brand of reality testing.
I knew that in North Carolina, I would go into a two-week quarantine period as suggested by the CDC. Over text to my family before takeoff, I firmly stated I could not touch them until this time period resolved without viral symptoms. In a state of suspended anxiety, it was difficult to predict the degree to which my mother and sister, in a county where numbers were still in the single digits and isolation was more or less a way of life, would accept my skittishness, cracked hands, and exhaustion.
My sister picked me up from the airport. It was easy to not touch, I was surprised to notice. Taking in her visage–her solidity of frame and white-blonde hair, her known gesticulations–closed the loop on my anxiety instead. I was there. She was there.
I stumbled from klonopin. I craved grease. My sister took me through the Bojangles drive thru and I devoured fistfuls of seasoned fries, wolfed a spicy fried chicken sandwich in two bites, washed down with syrup-rich sweet tea. And God it was so good. Even though the caffeine and calories hit my bloodstream with a force, I was down in a bed my mother made for me twenty minutes after arrival. And God it was so good. To be fed, to be put down for a nap. I have body-recall for good meals and naps with the same sensuous lurch I imagine to be reserved in some for good sex. As Jordan writes, this sense of safety is in both its vulnerability and its power–to be nourished, to be rested.
I had been primed to expect the most difficult part of self-quarantine to be the inability to touch those in my household. Friends and colleagues anticipated my pain of being unable to hug my mother with soft, sympathetic eyes.
But touch is not one of our love languages. My mother and sisters and I, we toss “Love you’s,” offers of service, trinkets, book recommendations, and decades old inside jokes around in such fluid manners that when we are in close proximity to one another, I feel an electrical spark in the air, love so laden that I become in need of rest and repose to collect myself for more dives into our hemisphere of delight. We may smack one another’s forearms or thighs at the advent of a good laugh (a habit I had to unlearn with others, but comes freely in their company); hugs are rarely spontaneous, and often done from the side of each other’s bodies. In other words, touch is not part of the landscape here at home.
Over the past few weeks, a friend of mine goes into and out of critical care. Two friends lose their family members. Another loses a close loved one. We watch the news as the names of black people killed by police continue to roll in. My child body, nested like a Russian doll in the core of my chest, screams “It’s not fair!” I cannot face the fact that people are still suffering such painful everyday kinds of losses. I cannot physically go to them to comfort. I am angry at a universe that won’t slow down or stop, that won’t let this unrelenting disaster just pause everything else. I think about precarity and how, for many of us who are privileged with relative stability and whose non-black bodies are not targeted, this may be the closest we come to confronting the reality of death. And then I am called away to a birth.
My hair is growing wild; short curls spring from the once-shaved side, thick and rebellious. I love them and I tuck them lovingly under headbands and scarves to join a Zoom meeting. Over the phone I ask, “Should I chop off all my hair?” You say, “You can do anything you want,” and for some reason that makes me feel mournful. What I want is containment, someone to tell me a yes or no, to utter that one hard syllable. What I want is to stop free-floating through my days, now only punctuated by an ever-growing list of disappointments. Today we were supposed to finish our internships. Today I was supposed to go to New York. Today I was supposed to move across the country. To start my final summer of classes. To graduate. What I want is ritual. And we can make ritual of anything, I think—even our sorrow. Contrary to what you might like to believe, therapists don’t necessarily have themselves all figured out.
On my morning and evening walks in the countryside, I bring bouquets of soft blue grass, then spiky fresh green, then red clover to the pastured horses nearby. Smelling them—their sweat and the dirt caked on their shoulders—rubbing the velveteen space between their hot nostrils—is the most deeply sensual part of my day. It is here I experience touch. It is here I create new rituals, without requiring the reflections of others.
The bedroom I had as a teenager is mine again. I stay up late chatting with friends and watching horror movies that, really, I have no business watching. A neighbor at a safe distance of ten, twenty feet, mistakes me for a high schooler. I have returned, ultimately, to the body and home of my teenagehood. Days open and close with little fanfare or movement. I start to wonder if maybe I am regressing to a moody sixteen year old. As I wash my face at night and apply the numerous milky serums designed to safeguard me against aging, I look at myself in the mirror with varying degrees of intensity. Who goes there? And where are those around me who could help me know?
On the phone, Jordan and I remind each other of what we have lost simply by remembering our once commonplace joys. I am struck by the longing in my body to be on a bus again, see a stranger, wonder about their routine, catching their eye and flashing the micro-smile of the unacquainted. The everyday intimacy of self-comparison and self-optimization has been a part of how I build my own realness since I was a child. I recognize these urges are structurally created as much as anything else, but I was still the girl tearing up dELiA*s catalogs in rage at the simulacrum of tween bodies I was supposed to have.
“I would give anything to be on the train again, bored out of my mind, hating myself and admiring women’s outfits,” I sobbed on the phone to a beloved during the week I was packing to come home. For the last two months, I see my body more or less in proximity to my mother and younger sister. I have a sense of my body because I look at theirs all day long, without the influx of others that comes from living in a major metropolitan area. Instead, I think: my mother’s shoulders are narrow, but mine are broad; my sister’s nose is button, but mine is aquiline. One night looking at my hand on my expansive stomach, I am struck by the recall of my father’s hands, dead eighteen years this December.
I have a body. I tend outward. I notice your body before I notice mine.
In this moment, my nervous system feels pandemic as a threat. In the language of nervous system responses, I am a classic freeze individual: stop moving and don’t make any sound, then the predator won’t get you. I’m still working out how to give myself permission to let go of the tight hold I have over my emotions – the stoic body, the freeze, mandates that I swallow it in order to stay alive. How much of that have I learned from generations of survivors who passed on their traits for keeping their shit together all the way down to me?
Loss is not only a feeling state: it is an unclosed loop in our stress cycle. We sometimes have to artificially close it. In these moments of great transition, I communicate with Allah. I bring them my human concerns, as if they do not already know. As if saying a thing and wishing hard enough could make it so. This year, we spent the entire month of Ramadan under quarantine, and a group of queer Muslim friends and I read the Qur’an together in its entirety over Google Meets. We laughed at the differences in our English translations; we put things into their historical context. And at the same time every day, before touching my Qur’an, I performed oju (wudu) – the ritual ablution one does every time you pray. In front of the bathroom mirror, I inhaled and mouthed Bismillahir Rahmanir Raheem and then washed each of my hands. I brought the water up to my mouth, then my nostrils—once, twice, three times. Warm water, clean skin, my shallow breath lengthening. It’s not that the harshness of reality fades away by the time that I am washing my feet and whispering the dua. I have just slowed down enough to engage with the quiet power of noticing.
Quarantine has made me painfully aware that I have a body; that body is now primarily the container for my grief. No surprise then that my own desire for intimacy feels underwater, inaccessible. I couldn’t get to it if I tried. If Allah is sending us signs, I take them to mean that this is the moment to cultivate a greater intimacy with myself and to let that self-awareness touch my every action going forward. I don’t miss what came before – my workaholic pace, my tendency to maintain a placid exterior when my insides are boiling – those things too were not good for me. And that’s why listening to Ross Gay was such a gift. It offered me one vital way to close the loop, to move out of that moment of freeze and into the next one. What will I do with the next one?
On the morning that I write this, I have been in my childhood home in Appalachia for two months. It is a large home, and it is worn and sagging at the seams. There is a leak in my ceiling; the carpets are stained. Noises carry through the house. I know when my mother or sister are hitting the side of the sink while brushing their teeth; they are both tall women who push their weight onto their heels as they walk. It is an interiority I know, and my body came with me. And often, very often, I edge the liminal place of settlement and displacement, of homesickness for a life disrupted and nervy bouncy joy to have landed.
In order to make sense of my body, I am no longer looking outward. I cannot. So much pleasure and delight in my body lost to diet culture and self-harm, I find myself treating my body with the kind of nurturance that had up until now been last-ditch efforts to revitalize after long days, weeks, months, years working the floor and in clinics. I take long luxurious rests on the ground outside while watching my cats hunt in the yard. I have popcorn and Coca-Cola for supper. I shut off all notifications on social media that sought to give me advice or steer me, forsaking the lists and figures I had obsessively honed as someone socialized into the trap of self-betterment. I lose myself entirely to what my best friend calls “crying jags” while reading the slice of life obituaries written for those who have died, both of COVID-19 and of police violence. Sometimes, too, I cry for my teenage self. I’ve become more curious about what my eye and heart might train itself on without the constant parade of influence.
I have a home; I have a body. A graduate student, totally non-essential, and without any of the disabilities that may have landed me here earlier, I stay home. A new ritual of movement through our days, the requirement reads: Stay home. Sit with yourself. Learn to stand it.
Jordan Alam is a queer Bangladeshi-American writer, performer, social worker, and doula based out of Seattle. Their work engages with moments of rupture and transformation in the lives of people on the margins. Jordan has performed on stage and facilitated workshops on embodied writing nationwide, most recently at Hugo House and Town Hall Seattle. Their short stories and articles have been published in The Atlantic, SeattleMet, Autostraddle, CultureStrike Magazine, and The Rumpus among others. They are currently working on a debut novel which explores magical realism, Bengali folklore, and how intergenerational trauma and resilience are written on the body. Learn more about their work at their website: www.jordanalam.com.
CB Wilson is a white queer-femme poet and clinical social worker, skipping back and forth between Appalachia and the West Coast. Her work has appeared in Headwaters Journal, The Pedestal Review, Spitjaw Review, Rogue Agent, and Your One Phone Call, among others. She has been rejected by prestigious journals such as Ambit, The Adroit Journal, Tin House, and many more. In a former life, CB co-curated and hosted the decade-old quarterly reading series Juniper Bends out of Western North Carolina.