Black, Body, Family, Personal Narrative

Body Stories: Mirror, Falling, Shaking

I have to admit that, like many Black people, the murder trial of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin took me out of my groove, broke my productive stride. The anxiety related to the verdict and the trial’s cultural, historical, and global implications notwithstanding, my anxiety was mostly related to seeing the depictions of George Floyd in video and stills, the encounter with his body. The stories told about him and his body via medical experts, defense, and witnesses ultimately remain, enshrined by the State in court documents and by Media-as-a-discursive-arm of the State. I began thinking about the stories that compose me, the ones that I knowingly bring with me through life. It’s no surprise that these stories involve some type of trauma, a body/corporeal trauma that the senses must interpret, meaning the process is somatic and aesthetic. My hope is that my Body Stories will prompt you to think about your own body stories: the narratives shaping you that you’ve chosen to bring along with you, and the stories shaping you that have yet to surface.

***

Frederica, Delaware. 1975. A dusty, white and turquoise mobile home sits, slanted, on a little bump of a hill. The trailer is on a dead-end street abutting a dirt field seemingly leading to nowhere, but actually leading to the infamous Murderkill River. I move into this roach-infested trailer to live with my grandparents when I am a five year-old boy. I’m fleeing the inherent responsibilities as the oldest child of four (though only by eleven months) of a twenty year-old mother and an alcoholic father. Living with my grandparents and my four uncles in a six-hundred square foot trailer is less chaotic than staying with my parents on the isolated southern New Jersey farm, but by no means calm. The move is traumatic yet something I feel I have to do. I know—for some reason, on some level—that my life will be negatively impacted if I stay. I’m struggling with a severe stutter and have all but retreated into myself. The manifestation of one particular moment in this trailer begins to inform my body, existence, and life. Of course, it involves a mirror.

The mirror is above a mantle. It is three squares tall, six wide, of twelve-by-twelve “gold” speckled glass. (I realize now that the mantle was about four and one-half feet from the floor.) It holds graduation pictures, photos of my dead great-grandparents, trophies from my uncles’ various athletic glories, and scraps of paper with words I don’t yet comprehend. I use the mantle as a measuring stick of my growth, knowing that one day I will eventually surpass it on my way to the actual mirror, the place where: I see my uncles pat down and pick out their afros; I watch my grandmother adjust her earrings; I think, when I’m on the right piece of furniture, I catch glimpses of myself.

I ask my youngest uncle, Darryl, to lift me up. He is four years older than I, and seems tall for his age, at least to four-year old me. “He could give me a boost,” I think. The moment he finally relents changes my life. He holds me up to the mirror; I see myself, but I don’t connect to what I see in the mirror. I test this by moving my head side to side, sticking out my tongue, and making faces at myself. I stare, amazed at my reflection in the mirror. “That is me,” I think. However, it doesn’t feel like me. I don’t feel connected to my reflection, the representation of my body. 

I have never forgotten this mirror moment, the disconnected feeling contributing to the foundation upon which my personal philosophy is built. My mother told me the following stories related to my body journey that I’ve connected to my experience of my body while being molested when I was twelve. Being physically and psychically overwhelmed pushed me out of myself, forced/enabled me to objectify myself, and somehow kept me partially connected by, what felt like, at times, a thin, vulnerable thread. The main theme of my personal philosophy is that my body is something that I inhabit and can be twisted around in (falling downstairs), trapped in (trauma from actual birth), and released from (as in abuse). In light of the perpetual vulnerability of embodiment, I opted for a calmer approach to my existence, all of its blissful, chaotic, and lurid components.

***

The second body story is about my mother during her pregnancy with me. It was April, 1970, and she was a stubborn, fifteen year-old girl who was six months pregnant and no longer able to see her feet due to the size of her belly. She lived upstairs in a big, old, drafty farm house. She was attached to a worn, pink pair of bedroom slippers with slick soles. She had refused to give up her bedroom and move into a downstairs bedroom. She wouldn’t let go of the slippers. So, when she took the stairs, arrived at the fifth step from the floor, she would inevitably lose her balance, go tumbling down the rest of the stairs. My mother and grandmother both recount this story: my grandmother told of hearing tumbling and “Aaaaaah, Mom!” My mother speaks of bruises.  

When I first heard this story, I had been studying energy patterns in the body. I work in wellness and fitness. I use aspects of fitness, meditation, kundalini energy, chakras, and dance to create a personal philosophy regarding how I relate to my body: in the world, on Earth, and in space. When my mother recounted this story, I immediately drew connections to the disconnectedness I felt in and with my body. I imagined myself—six months, developing fetus—rolling around, tumbling in a traumatized pre-natal dance, my energy loops and meridians jostled around, twisted. Upon hearing this story, I began a conscious journey to re-align my body.

During this journey, in my attempt to connect to the energy all around, I realized that I am a part of this omnipresent, communal energy, a reflection—holographic. I discovered that I energetically experience various layers and parts of my body differently. For instance, when I placed my hand on my chin, I experienced a different energetic connection to my mandible (bone) than I did to my lips (muscle) as compared to my skin. I began paying closer attention to others’ bodies concluding—because we are all reflections of the same energy—that they must be experiencing something similar. This conclusion helped me connect to the notion of a larger, shared experience. This revelation also helped me allay some of my fears related to the new physical sensations I was experiencing because I knew others and the Universe had experienced similar, if not the same, sensations.

The major impact of this story is that it prompted me to continue my quest for connection and balance. It laid the groundwork for my being open to existence not only as something I experience, but also as something I AM.

***

I was in the midst of my energetic journey, home from college on Christmas break, when my mother told me the third body story of the actual day/moment of my birth. She was surprised that she hadn’t told me before. She was fifteen years-old, having mild contractions during the morning. She had sat around all day watching TV, disregarding her mother’s proddings to get ready to go to the hospital. She was supposed to call my father so that he could drive them. But, as my mother waited, my father got drunker at the local bar. My mother’s water broke and the chaos ensued, including still trying to reach my father at the bar. He eventually borrowed his boss’s truck and, along with my mom’s cousin, navigated the winding country roads then up the long lane to the house. My mom, father, and grandmother piled into the truck, my father behind the wheel. He was a little to a lot tipsy and, of course, anxious about my birth, his first child. He swerved and almost ran off the road. My grandmother finally made him give up the driver’s seat. She drove the rest of the way to the hospital. Upon arrival, my mother was hemorrhaging, bleeding profusely. She was rushed into delivery where she literally shook me out of her body. Her doctor berated my grandmother asking her why my mother hadn’t been taking her anemia medication. He apparently also yelled that if they had been two minutes later, he would not have been able to save either of us. 

This traumatic entrance into the cold, scary world, being violently shaken out of my mother’s body (two weeks late by the way) has forever shaped my relationship to my body, the planet, and existence. What this story connected and awakened in me is the integral nature of movement to my journey of alignment and balance. I have always felt most free and alive when I am moving, especially dancing, and now this made sense. I began to incorporate dance into my everyday ritual of connecting to my body, the earth, and existence, which means other people. What I learned was the power of energy directed into creative movement. I learned that purposeful movement conserves energy and requires focus. I apply this revelation to all aspects of my life: Focus. Move purposefully. Conserve energy. 

I learned the importance of acknowledging and participating with involuntary movement as well. This surrender to the chaos, of our bodies feeling compelled to move, is at once frightening and beautiful. I began to perceive existence in much of the same way: at once beautiful and frightening. The horror of life is so when we objectify it, try to separate the catastrophic and horrific from ourselves. In other words, the thread remains, no matter how thin at any given moment. This view helps me experience myself as connected, meaning others as part of me, consisting of the same energy as do I, experiencing, ultimately, the different-same experience.

***

 Awhile back, my mother became guardian of my deceased sister’s four and five year-old boys. I offered to help. Together, we had aimed to raise kind, thoughtful, respectable, inquisitive young Black people, co-inhabitants of this fragile planet: human beings. Becoming a parent of sorts pushed my personal philosophy to another level, one of necessary reflection and re-evaluation as the result of being a caregiver and role model. Engaging these stories has helped ground me in my body and existence, aided in my attempts to successfully navigate life’s complexities including my own tremulous encounters with police. This is what I had planned to teach to my nephews: how to develop a personal philosophy that encompasses not only their individual stories including their bodies, but also our collective stories as families, cultures, and societies on Earth. I will continue to use my stories to help guide their journeys by continuing to move through the world and life with choice as my greatest tool and most intimate vulnerability. I had hoped that my nephews wouldn’t have to suffer the trauma and abuses like I did, but—sadly and optimistically, as we all do—they have. S|F Blog*



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