Friday, January 1, 2010
Although scientists readily admit that the human brain is an unexplored universe of unknowing, neurologists know enough to tell us that the centre of our emotions is the limbic system – one brain layer down from the good old rational “thinking” neocortex. In the limbic system, we store our memories and we respond to stimulus with love, anger, fear, and even bliss.
As a teacher of poetry, I know that the brain isn’t the only place we hold emotion. When I teach poetry, I try to help people understand how to read with their bodies as well as with their minds. We might respond to a Patrick Lane poem with what we refer to as a “visceral reaction”. Your viscera is your guts, and sometimes when you read a poem or see an image (a film image say, like this: young man on tile floor as someone forces his face to be held under water in a toilet) you might have a “visceral” reaction. You will feel a tightening of your abdominal muscles and you might feel nauseated by what you’ve read or seen.
That’s how you read with your body.
Of course, it’s not only bad feelings that engage our bodies. We feel passion in a reddening of the skin; we might breathe in deep at the anticipation of love; we might feel something tingle in our spine when we’re moved to laugh.
I had a lump on my upper back between the shoulder blades. I first noticed it about 18 years ago and I went to a clinic where the doctor lanced it and it went down. But it grew back, slowly over time. I didn’t want to go get it cut again so I let it go longer than I should have and when I did finally go to my GP, it was diagnosed as a lipoma, a benign lump of fat. I didn’t want to have it removed in summer so I waited and then another year went by and by last summer, it was baseball like and was starting to annoy me when I sat back in a chair.
I was referred and was supposed to go see a surgeon in a month, but it wasn’t a lipoma, it was an inclusion cyst and it ruptured a few weeks ago and became acutely painful. I went to a clinic and they got me in very quickly with a surgeon who met me a few hours later in emergency and cut the thing out.
It was about the size of two ice cubes and its removal was intensely painful. The picture looks just like what came out of me. It was full of a sebaceous substance and had a bad smell – a little like the smell of skin after carpet burn.
As I recovered from the surgery, I felt wave after wave of sadness and these waves were accompanied by images of people close to me in pain. It seemed to me I was seeing all the moments in the last 18 years when I had hurt anyone, all the times I had made someone else suffer in some way and it was hard. I wasn’t all jazzed up on pain killers either (the surgeon apparently of the Sylvester Stalone school of pain management which is `shut up and quit complaining’). So I’ve been trying to explain to myself why I suffered through the night with all this suffering of others. I was like Ebenezer Scrooge reliving all the “my bad” moments of my past. What I think is that I was holding all that darkness in that lump. It was, according to the pathology report, a benign cyst. I have no doubt that it was not cancerous and I’m happy about that, but I’m not sure “benign” is the right word for it. It was full of badness and full of pain that I was holding there. In my back. In a place I would not want to be stabbed in. In a way, I guess I stabbed myself in the back by keeping it there all that time. But it’s gone now and I feel a little lighter and I have a strong urge to protect that wound both by stopping anyone from hurting me and by not causing any more pain myself.