Meet the 2017 Scythe Prize nonfiction winner, Rachel Wyman, and read her piece, “Body Snatching/A Love Letter”

Last week, I announced the winner of the 2017 Scythe Prize for fiction. Meagan Lucas, a grad student from Southern New Hampshire University, took first in the story category for her visceral tale, “Kittens.” Read it by clicking here. 

rachel wyman

And now, please help me in congratulating Pratt Institute’s Rachel Wyman, winner of the 2017 Scythe Prize for essay/creative nonfiction. Her piece, “Body Snatching/A Love Letter” received two-thirds of the first place votes on its way to earning $200 for Rachel.

Rachel Wyman is a dancer, writer, and researcher from Walla Walla, WA. Her creative and academic work explores the body, picking apart and blurring such dichotomies as body/mind, inner/outer, and visible/invisible. She is currently completing her Master’s thesis in Dance/Movement Therapy at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Her movement diary can be found on Instagram @daisybuckwheat.

And now, please enjoy her piece. Congratulations Rachel!

 

Body Snatching/A Love Letter

muscle memory

A while ago I began envisioning backs all the time. It started with aimless doodling, then I began painting them, sculpting them in clay, and finally I set out to make a life-sized model with chicken wire and plaster. Neck (no head), shoulders (no arms), tapered torso (no pelvis). I couldn’t explain why, only that each time I felt an idle creative urge, my hands went to work automatically and another back would appear. My fingers knew how gently to pinch the clay to form a spine; the shape of the back was so familiar I could feel my hand tracing it while sitting still.

You usually fall asleep before I do, and I catch myself listening to make sure your breath is regular, as I did as a kid with my parents, lying between them. Last night I also noticed myself smoothing my hands against your back, waiting for sleep to take me where you had already gone. It occurred to me that I’m always doing this—that I’ve been doing it for years. You might not even know, since you’re elsewhere when I do my mapping.

That’s what it is- not massage, but mapping. Mapping and magical thinking. I’ve spent years imprinting the surface of your back in my hand. Trying all the while to penetrate the outmost layer and hold you by the bones.

 

danger

Being a body is dangerous; I don’t recommend it. I realize that if you’re reading this, you are almost definitely a body. But you may also be thinking, “I have a body, but that’s not me. I’m me.” If that’s the case, you’re on the right track and I admire the way you think. I’ll put it this way instead: letting that “Me” feeling settle into your body is dangerous and should probably be avoided.

By that, I mean feeling your self in your body the way your body might feel in a safe and easy place, like a childhood home. You slouch around with great comfort, noticing as familiar surfaces gather dust. Familiarity, ease, tenderness—danger.

Here’s a question: has a not-too-intimate acquaintance, showing her supreme trust and generosity, ever let you stay in her home for a night or two? Better to feel your body like that—very lightly, cautious, almost wary. Tread softly on the carpet. Don’t open the cupboards.

I only say so because I know how easily a person attaches to those physical joys, and as everyone knows by now, attachment means suffering sooner or later. I’m attached to my body, so attached that I believe Body is all there is and all I want. I know I’d be better off as Essence or Spirit, or whatever you prefer to call formlessness that is safe from rot. The stuff that’s supposed to be everlasting. Make the choice while you still can. Be Spirit. Be comforted knowing that the echo calling “I am me” from its bone cave is what makes you real, not the bones themselves.

Comfort from a stroke on the back is more complicated.

 

body plans

Body things can obsess a person. Both inside things like feelings, and surface things like colors, textures, the shapes of parts, and how gracefully they fit together. I’ve obsessed my way through the insides and outsides of my body. Just when I believe I have obsessed exhaustively, something new comes up to distress or delight me.

In fact, there is obsession now. I fantasize about being mated and impregnated, of my body making a body. I hear this is typical at a certain point in the lifespan, but I feel betrayed by my body for conjuring such a mundane plan for itself.

I tell myself I would like to live out some kind of successful adulthood. I know passing on genes isn’t the only way, but I’m impressed by how hard the body fights for it. It’s the most personal universal way of leaving something of yourself, because it doesn’t get more personal than making a body from your body, yet almost every body on earth feels the same compulsion. I hate doing what everyone else does. I thought I had different plans for myself (I ruled out aging, dying, and procreating), but my body has hijacked those ambitions in the name of the Great Body Plan. All bodies share the same agenda.

I never knew about the agenda until I got a bit older, but I don’t believe this is because the body’s plan kicks in at a certain age. I think that whereas childhood is a time of more body than thought, adults experience more thought than body. A thought-full person is more likely to notice and be disturbed when her body’s plan diverges from her thoughts.

I do miss that body-full time. A time of rituals instead of words.

 

rituals

A ritual is a body putting itself through the same motions, over and over. But what makes rituals different from routines? Some say the context and purpose: rituals are reverent and conscious; routines are dutiful and thoughtless. Rituals revolve around the invisible, like a person’s soul; routines tend to the tangible, like a person’s teeth.

Either way, everything happens through the body. Isn’t a soul stuck in the same receptacle as the teeth? Whether it’s a ritual or a routine, aren’t the soul, bones, and organs all going through the motions together in one container?

I can intellectually see why candle-lighting and prayer get elevated over tooth-brushing, but it feels arbitrary.

 

memory muscle

There’s a moment at the dinner table when it’s time to get up, go to my father, and ask to be excused. The body knows when its supply of stillness has run out. Still, parents know how to prolong the supply. I stand next to him while he absent-mindedly caresses my back and continues whatever conversation is droning on. There’s no such thing as waiting when you are soft, stroked, unfocused body-ness. Time suspended in the mulling over. Better than liberation.

The body is a heat-seeking missile. Invisible things like thoughts and dreams are cold. Hurry away from those intangibles where any terrible thing is possible! There is no space so safe as between bodies. Especially the bodies that made you. Warm and breathing and rhythmic in all their functions. Join the quiet symphony of heartbeats and respiration and borborygmi.

I am their bodies and theirs are mine.

 

invisible things

 

Some say they see people’s energy, auras, vibrations and other useful personal information. I imagine all of this as a bunch of squiggly lines and rainbows emanating from every body, only visible to the sensitive and gifted. I’m not gifted in that way, although I’d like to be.

The body tells a lot, but evidently not as explicitly as those invisible things. Bodies speak to other bodies, in messages that have no words and appear in the head as half-formed thoughts and gobbledygook. Much of the time, I find my thoughts simply don’t know.

 

not knowing

But then at times the body doesn’t know either, as in learning sequences of movement—a dancer’s choreography. The eyes see actions unfold and disappear. The body repeats what it thinks it has seen, but hasn’t yet felt. The movement is moving—moving from the instructor’s body, which knows and feels it, to a body that doesn’t know. During that time, the movement is body-less and undefined in the space between.

The body that doesn’t yet hold it moves vaguely with only the faintest hint of the movement. Repetition changes it each time. It comes slowly into the body with more volume and realization. The movement becomes clearer, boldly outlined, definite. It finally becomes a something that is consciously known to the body and mind.

The mind doesn’t know when it doesn’t know something. In the mind, the something stands fully in light or in darkness. Bodies move through the full spectrum of not knowing.

 

bones

To be honest, I’m happier without the thoughts. The human species has come so far that I’m ashamed to say I’m ungrateful for the benefits. And to have stumbled into a safe and privileged human existence at a relatively good time in history at that. I don’t deny I’m an ingrate. It’s just how I feel.

Maybe I would not give up the thoughts entirely. But it’s so easy to lose track of reality up there, and to time-travel, and ruminate, and redo conversations and take all kinds of bold action. To inflict feelings upon the body with thoughts alone, in complete absence of external stimuli.

Happiness is body-ness. Immediate, physical, real. Eating and sexing and sweating and shitting. I’d be lying if I said I was smiling just thinking about it. I only smile while I’m doing it.

This is why I’d trade all of our words—our stimulating conversations, our pedantic arguments, our fearful confessions and murmured revelations of truth and feeling— for another few moments of soft shared body-ness. Your back breathing my belly breath. Holding you by the bones.

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