Tuesday, January 27, 2004

all things have the same shapes, or, bring on the deep woo-woo

I recognize that this is kind of gross, but I have a big flake of dried skin sitting on my desk from where I peeled it off my heel earlier this evening, before I went out. It's about the size of a small tooth, if the tooth were thin and flat. I love my clogs, but they rub against my heels in this odd way and leave callouses. Go ahead, tell me that you've never picked at your callouses, or cuticles, or scabs. Chewed a bit of your own skin with curiosity, or tasted your own blood.

I'm waiting. Speak up.

It's really no different from having an actual tooth, or little bleached bird skull, or the reconstructed skeleton of some small animal. No different from having a preserved bit of fur. A couple of years ago, I liked a boy so much that I gave him my cat jaw on the second date. Not as much of a non sequitir as it sounds; he collected bones and made art from them. Except of course that this bit of skin is on my desk, and not part of a diorama depicting, oh, the lives of early Miwok hunter-gatherers. Which reminds me of another story, with sex in it, that I will save for another time.

God bless editors, can I just say that? I may be a disgrace to my kind, but I'll say it: I love editors. But I'm taking a while here because it has been an incredibly long and dense day, and if I just go straight into it, I might lose something.

The first thing that strikes me is how quickly things die when pulled away from our bodies. I know; the outer layer of skin is essentially dead while it's on the body. And all those keratinous structures upon which we lavish so much money, time, and fetishization--I speak of course of nails and hair--all dead. I always find it amusing when a shampoo ad says that the product will make your hair "full of life," when in fact the only part of your hair that's alive is still percolating under your scalp.

But then you cut the hair, or peel away the skin. You cut off the nail. And it finally looks dead, alien. Separate. You can observe it as being different from you, part of some other system, perhaps. The artifact or end product of some other process than human life.

So the second thing is how much my shed skin looks like a similar-sized piece of mica. Obviously it's not reflective like that fine, smooth surface, but the color and layering are similar. And the translucence. Another thing the skin must be away from the body for us to understand: light passes through us. Tattooed people know this, those of us with ink sitting a few layers down. We'd be wasting our time, money, and endorphins if our skin didn't let that color show.

We are porous to light. There is something in this idea that comforts me, even as I curse twelve--no, almost thirteen--years in Northern California that makes such a statement come so easily off my cynical Midwestern tongue.

We are porous to light. Light comes in, and sometimes goes out as well. Too easy to forget. I feel more and more exposed, like I'm being peeled, like the light outside is seeking its counterpart inside. It's not bad, it's not even entirely scary. It is huge, though, and I sometimes feel like too weak a vessel to contain the feeling. Even before this transition began, I would occasionally have flashes where I saw the world as a vast multicellular organism, each cell with an animal in it, or a plant, or people sitting at the dinner table. Next to and under and surrounded by other cells, all just the same, all with the same weight, all with the same importance, the same value. It is an image that comes more easily these days, and I feel as much as see it.

A piece of skin, a pane of mica, the striations in the cliffs that run along the roads of much of the American West, the sign of huge masses of stone rubbing uneasily against each other, jostled by the energy of a living earth. Photos from the Spirit show us that Mars is littered with rocks (big surprise); and I wonder, when they drill for core samples, whether what they get will be striped, proof of more layers. Proof that everything is layered.

The laminar structure of this hunk of abandoned self tells me that certain natural patterns reflect others. Down in Pescadero over Christmas, for example, I stood on the beach and realized that the rain- and ocean-groomed sand looked like the scales of a snake. Glittering black sand formed a net over the lighter sand in a pattern of diamonds, and those diamonds fit together into larger diamonds. I stood with my back to the ocean (respectfully!) and admired the massive shining snakeskin, broken here and there with rocks and hanks of seaweed and those ubiquitous ragged blue chunks of styrofoam. It was like being in grade school again, and being shown how the nautilus is reflected in the Golden Mean . Which I am just now learning is a useful way of calculating the rate of growth of living things. Hmmm. Snake scales in the sand for me, fractals for Snufkina (who is looking for a tattoo artist who can handle that), bones arranged to look like other things by my friend the sculptor, who looked askance at the cat jaw in its tiny Ziploc bag, a bone much smaller than anything he used.

One of the best things Robert Heinlein ever did for us--and I am not counting some of the later novels, which were just embarrassing--was write a short story about a man who invents a machine that can measure how long a person will live. The story itself is nothing special in terms of character development or language; it's workmanlike on those counts. But the really cool part is his depiction of a human lifetime being like, well, a worm. Long and skinny. At any given time, we are only seeing a cross section, but the whole lifetime is still present. I wouldn't have used a worm myself, but then I didn't write the story. I would go Heinlein one further (he's dead and can't stop me) and note that the worm isn't really discrete.

Think about this. When did you really begin to exist? When the egg welcomed the sperm? What about those two components? They were in your parents when they were born, albeit tiny and undeveloped. Isn't that amazing? We have, each of us, existed in some form or another for billions of years. Also, we have all the stuff to manifest every stage of our development. We still have the DNA to make fins. And gills. And tails! Scientists know this because occasionally those particular switches get hit, and the townsfolk recoil. I am still disappointed, myself, that I did not get a tail like a monkey's, but I soldier on.

The specifics change but the basic nature is the same.

The place I'm going with this has to do with my idea about death. For several years now, I've thought that we don't really die all the way. Especially if we've produced bambini, of course, that's obvious. But even if we haven't. A lifetime of rubbing up against other people's lives, leaving stuff there, stuff that's helped, stuff that's hindered. And what happens to that part of us that is energy? When my grandmother died a few years ago, suddenly I noticed that my cooking improved markedly, and I had this weird compulsion to start knitting; I was convinced she had taken up residence. My mother still talks to her father, who died when I was eight. Marjorie lives on in my work, even though she passed away my first year of college. I know she is resident in the hearts of her students, as well as the people with whom she acted, or sang, or made puppets. The law of conservation of energy tells me that we must go somewhere.

I've been telling myself this, rather glibly, for a while. And now the theory is coming up against the practice. My father has been alive in some way for thousands of years; he will continue to be alive in another form, albeit a different one, after his body ceases to function. Maybe I will be able to talk with him the way my mother talks to her father, although I expect his visits will be announced by the strains of Bob Seger and not "Tsingano Vizen." Perhaps he will visit my dreams and we will sit in the dining room at midnight with the lights off, eating cereal together. My father's function in the greater organism may change, but his significance, his value, his impact, will not.

Whether this knowledge will make things any easier remains to be seen. I sort of doubt it. I imagine, not having been through this before, that it's still going to be pretty awful right around the actual shedding the mortal coil part of the operation. I take tremendous comfort from the knowledge that he feels pretty good about the life he's led, that he's pleased with the work he performed, and that he loves and is proud of me, even when I doubt whether I've contributed anything of value to the world. Especially then. I'm also glad that he has gone ahead and retired--he emailed the other day that he's been reading a lot of history lately, and enjoying it; he's letting Arthur Koestler convince him that we actually descended from some fearsome Central Asian nomads and not those goat-herding Middle Eastern ones. I look forward to being home and talking to him about that.

I'm scared, yes, and sad. I've been crying a lot lately. But we have some time. Weeks or months or years in these forms. Eternity in the other. The small shapes of individual lives mirror the larger shapes those lives add up to, which in turn...