I participated in an exercise years back when I was visiting the University of Texas at Austin. I had been hired to direct one of the MFA plays and was there for couple of weeks. Several other guest artists were there at the same time and we were each asked to lead an exercise during our tenure.
Entering the classroom studio that morning, large pieces of what we used to call butcher paper were laid on the floor around the room. We were a small group, 8 or 9 people.
The person leading the exercise explained that we were going to make maps of our bodies.
I’ve thought of my body as many things over the course of my life—a battlefield, a bus stop, a canvas, a hanger, a thing to be used, a thing to be cherished and yes, I’ve thought of my body as a place where things happened, visible in scars and stretchmarks, tan lines and flab--but also things unseen, the mesh in my groin from hernia surgey. Lungs that used to be grey from years of smoking, with new cilla, like a forest coming back. But I had never thought to map all of that out.
“I want you to lie on your back on the pieces of paper.” She said. It was a bright Texas spring day, sunlight poured in the large windows, the floor was painted a glossy gray, the walls of the studio were flat white. The atmosphere wasn’t clinical but there was a seriousness to the space, it was well-ordered, as if the things that would be made in that room mattered. Like a laboratory.
For the sake of the exercise, the heavy blonde wood tables and matching chairs had been pushed to the sides of the room.
Half of us lay on the floor. Instantly there was the slight discomfort that comes from being asked to pair up with strangers. Bodies suddenly shy, each of us figuring out how we might fit together, would we fit together. A smattering of laughter—it was awkward.
Awk. Ward. I love that word, I like to think it means to move like an awk. Then I imagine the awk, a large, gangly bird I just made up—now extinct, its skeleton grew in an illogical and inefficient way. To see an awk move was to marvel at how it could keep moving, the strange lope, the tilted limp of its carriage. Not that any humans ever witnessed an awk, our only knowledge comes from discovered bones, recreated by anthropologiests. The first scientist to discover an awk bone thought, what? This is nuts! Beginning to reassemble the body of the awk was an experience of such illogic. Our best guess shows the awk in textbooks on prehistoric times, and museum dioramas—here’s what an awk might have looked like, but the models of the ancient birds standing still, wearing their extravagant plumage, couldn’t show the very thing that made them special, their ungainly movement. Awkward—to move without grace, discomfort.
I’ve known awkwardness. But I’ve known grace, too. A dancer floats across the stage, a pale green forest of bamboo bends in the wind. The most graceful part of me has always been my imagination, which must be housed somewhere in the body, also unseen.
Once half of us were on the floor, our partners used black markers to outline each of us onto the paper. I felt self conscious, the way I used to feel when I spent time in the hospital as a kid, the doctor came into the room whenever he wanted and asked me to sit up. He lifted my gown, lay his hand gently on my neck and belly. His touch delicate, my skin shivered. My partner traced my body on the floor, I was almost afraid to see it, splayed out that way. I stood. And there I was, a shape on paper.
We switched and I outlined my partner. Once we had outlined we were given colored markers and tape and asked to fill in the maps—where on your body did things happen, where was your center of town, what was the topography, were there bodies of water, trails? Or was it wilderness?
These days of self-isolation, awareness of my body is keen. I rub my legs at night before sleep and feel the small bumps on my skin, hm, where did these come from? Going for my walk, I feel the fresh air entering my lungs: ooh, I like that. My hands kneading dough are strong.
The slowing down, the paring away affects our. Some of us are struggling to hold onto some kind of routine in terms of our eating; without structure, our bodies slump, lose their tautness. I’ve always loved that expression: to let one’s self go, like an empty lot gone to seed. Not for those who have a strong need for exercise—don’t let go, never let go.
We’ve all seen joggers and runners and bikers, their sweaty outings and maskless sprints, microbes flying, lungs exploding. They seem dangerous.
Because bodies can be dangerous, others, our own—we slap, hit, kick. We infect each other, too. And, we become infected. That’s what this is all about, right? How to keep one’s body safe. We don’t live in museums, we are not imaginary creatures, crouching in dioramas; we are flesh and blood, as the saying goes, breathing, pulsing, sweating, living, dying bodies. Eventual corpses, laid to rest—then burned or buried, in dirt or at sea, boxed or bagged.
Our bones will probably never be found, nor reassembled; our skeletons and movements will be lost when we’re gone.
Awkward or graceful—moving or still, our bodies are fleeting.