Shape Shifters




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 ‘We are lived by powers we pretend to understand,’” writes W.H. Auden.

Do you remember when you realized a particular idea was a power, when an inkling become a new perspective, a door swinging open or inward, revealing a reality you never knew existed?  As I shared in this blog last time, the Greek word for “idea” is eidos, from idein, “to see,” and is related to a noun meaning two things: a) something seen like a form and b) a way of seeing like a perspective.  Our minds are formed by ideas and we see by means of them.      

In recent years, the discovery of mirror neurons reveals that the brain literally is formed by what we see.  When I was in school we were told our brains stopped growing at a certain improbably young age, that by fifteen, sixteen, eighteen or twenty-one we had the final number of brain cells that we would ever have.  Sixteen, seventeen years old, I received this idea being as a grave and scary warning in high school “health” class and also in biology class.  Unlike the rest of the body, brain cells lacked the power of regeneration—they could only be destroyed. 

This always struck me as inexplicable and cruel, if the rest of the body could heal after an injury, even grow stronger in the broken places, why not the brain?  How and why was the head subject to different laws than the body?  I received no satisfactory answer from my teachers (earlier in this blog, I mentioned a kerfuffle in the same biology class, involving the asking of difficult questions). 

It was unfair and cruel beyond the particular cruelty of injury.  How could we be finished so soon, finalized, frozen and incapable of growth and recreation before we knew anything of life? How and why would we be doomed to be diminished by the experiments with beer and marijuana and random psychedelics that were adolescent rites of passage in the 1970’s?   Yet certain and irredeemable destruction of brain cells was presented in a fire and brimstone way: one sip, one toke, even one night without sleep and we were less than we were. 

How could the fate of the adult be trusted to the child?  I remember looking out a classroom window at an icy winter sky, picturing my poor benighted young brain trudging down into the sad grey hell of self-inflicted stupidity.  It was challenging enough to be raised Protestant in a Northern New York,  where even in a religiously tepid family there was the shadow of predetermination, the sense of being doomed for no good reason, now here was biological doom. 

I remember one line of an unfinished adolescent sonnet I wrote back then:  “The sky is like the icy eyes of liars.”  With every doomed and finite cell, I rebelled against the idea that any of us doomed before we started—or even really finished.   There was a secret shaman in me who sensed the way out of hell might be through it—or at least through the body.  Definitely, in high school I was influenced by the counter-culture, and a group of high school friends and I did our best to recreate it.  But the shaman came from childhood.

As a child, I knew we need the body to know truth, knew the real truth cannot be thought, sterilized and sealed away from life in the hermetic chamber of the head.  I sensed the truth must be lived, to know it we must enter the wild territory of the body. 

In high school, in my own private counter culture, I remembered being eight or nine, padding around the living room with my imaginary black panther Striker in the living room in the depths of winter.   I remember the pleasure of the game was deepened by a sense of contrast—how good it was to be warm after playing outside in the snow, how wonderful it was to move freely on bare feet after being encumbered by a bulky snowsuit and boots.  How nice it was to be indoors and away from the boys next door, careless creatures who smashed snow tunnels that took hours of labor, who put snow down innocent people’s backs.   I remembered being alone but not lonely.  Somehow, in a child’s way, I sensed the enormity of life. I was a solitary pilgrim on a quest that none of the adults around me seemed to be able to see or sense.   Without being able to comprehend it in thought, decades before the reports came in from neuroscience, I skirted a new and ancient idea:  we are not closed and finished but open to the whole of creation.  Our minds and our hearts and bodies can change form, can grow and become more flexible.  We are made to live in relation.

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