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Excerpt from A Language Older Than Words

A Language Older Than Words (p. 308)

From chapter "Death and Awakening"

Not only bees died in 1985. I died also, from Crohn’s disease, pain, internal bleeding, and self-control.

Looking back, it’s clear I’ve had Crohn’s since I was young, but it wasn’t diagnosed until I was twenty-four. As a child I often had stomach cramps that doubled me over, or left me pressing my face to the surface of my desk at school, closing my eyes, and going away. Also, my growth spurt was late—I was five feet, two inches, in eighth grade, before shooting to six feet by the end of high school—something I’ve since learned is symptomatic of Crohn’s. And then there’s my metabolism: even among teenaged boys I had a reputation as a trencherman, easily putting away fifteen or twenty tacos at a meal and still, at six feet, weighing less than a hundred and forty pounds.

The real problems commenced in college. After I started jumping (my weight now up to one fifty-five), I began to suffer diarrhea the day of every meet. I thought it was nerves. Then I got diarrhea the day before, then the day before that, then the day before that, until more often than not, in season and out, I had the flux. At the time the cramps were not severe.

Crohn’s is an incurable progressive disease which, during flareups, causes sores to appear along the gastrointestinal tract, anywhere from the lips to the anus, centering on the bowels, especially the colon. It has many side effects, some of which I have (arthritis, anemia, constant fatigue, clubbing of the fingers), and some of which I don’t (fistulas, iridis, a horrifying skin condition called pyoderma gangrenosum). It is characterized, as I discovered in the summer of 1985, by abdominal cramping more painful than broken bones, more painful, I’ve since heard from women who have the disease, than childbirth.

No one knows what causes it. Studies have shown the bowels of those with Crohn’s to be generally more permeable to large molecules than the norm, but no one knows what, if anything, that means. Studies have also shown that the disease is extremely rare in nonindustrialized nations, even after accounting for misdiagnoses at less sophisticated medical facilities; for example, believing that someone who actually died of Crohn’s died of dysentery. Then as industries enter a region, so does the disease: Japan had few cases prior to World War II, and now has one of the highest rates in the world. This means that not only metaphorically but in all physical truth industrial civilization is eating away at my guts.

The disease came on hard in the weeks after the death of the bees, probably in great measure because of the physical strain of too little sleep for too many months in the front of the truck, and too many nights moving bees. But something else was happening as well. I was dying.

There are deaths such as the death of a chicken in the jaws of a coyote, an aphid in the jaws of a ladybug larva, a duck as I bring down the hatchet to split him head from body. And there are deaths such as that of the larva who falls asleep to awaken as a ladybug, the grub who spins a black cocoon before becoming a honeybee, and each of us each night dying to one world to find ourselves in another, and each morning dying in the other to walk again in the present.

My old way of living—or rather surviving—that had allowed me to persevere through the violence of my childhood was no longer sustainable. Perhaps it never had been, but was all along a stopgap response to a pathological environment. In any case, I could not continue controlling or ignoring my emotions, nor could I, and this amounts to the same thing, continue to ignore my body. A way of living based on ignoring the body can lead only to bodily collapse.

I didn’t see it that way at the time. I just knew I hurt like hell, and that I was defecating thirty times per day (defecating what? I could keep nothing down, so in time I simply quit eating), and throwing up at least that many times, from the pain that rolled across my lower abdomen.

That summer, I could sleep in only one position: on my back, knees clutched to my chest. Any other position immediately precipitated cramps that caused me to dash doubled over to the toilet. This made nights especially difficult, because as a child I had trained myself to sleep only on my stomach, neck tucked under upraised shoulder to keep vampires or others from sucking me dry.

I didn’t go to the hospital. I had no way to pay, nor did I have any sense. I kept thinking that if I ignored the symptoms with enough determination and for a long enough time, the sickness would go away on its own.

Then one morning I awoke to no pain at all, only a grainy pulling at my full bowels, not unlike the feel of rough-hewn lumber sliding under fingertips. I stood up straight and smiled briefly before tripping down the stairs to the toilet. What came out was liquid, but I couldn’t expect all the symptoms to disappear in one night, could I? I cleaned myself, and looked in the bowl. Bright red. Blood. I was bleeding internally. I finally understood that it would not work to ignore the sickness. I checked into the hospital.

It didn’t help. As I came to know later, the doctors misdiagnosed me and performed inappropriate and damaging procedures. They over-prescribed some medications and under-prescribed others.

One of the worst things they did—and there was obviously no reason for it—was to one night give me a laxative. The cramps worsened. I had not thought that possible. For the first time in my life—and I remember experiencing a sense of sickly wonder at this encounter with a new feeling—I could not cope. The pain was too much. At some point long after midnight I felt my will buckle and collapse, a feeling as physical as the implosion of an overburdened archway. Had someone entered the room, handed me a gun, and said, “I will let you sleep if you shoot the person in the other bed,” I would have done it. Had this person suggested I shoot my nieces, who lived down the street from the hospital, I would have done that, too. I would have shot anyone or destroyed anything to sleep. Not so much because I was tired, though I was, but because I was empty. I had ceased entirely to care, nor even to exist. I was dead.

* * *

There is a language older by far and deeper than words. It is the language of the earth, and it is the language of our bodies. It is the language of dreams, and of action. It is the language of meaning, and of metaphor. This language is not safe, as Jim Nollman said of metaphor, and to believe in its safety is to diminish the importance of the embodied. Metaphors are dangerous because if true they open us to our bodies, and thus to action, and because they slip— sometimes wordlessly, sometimes articulated—between the seen and unseen. This language of symbol is the umbilical cord that binds us to the beginning, to whatever is the source of who we are, where we come from, and where we return. To follow this language of metaphor is to trace words back to our bodies, back to the earth.

We suffer from misperceiving the world. We believe ourselves separated from each other and from all others by words and by thoughts. We believe—rationally, we think—that we are separated by rationality, and that to perceive the world “rationally” is to perceive the world as it is. But perceiving the world “as it is” is also to misperceive it entirely, to blind ourselves to an even greater body of truth.

The world is a great dream. No, not fleeting, evanescent, unreal, immaterial, less than. These words do not describe even our dreams of night. But alive, vivid, every moment present to and pregnant with meaning, speaking symbolically. To perceive the world as we perceive our dreams would be to more closely perceive it as it is. The sky is crying, from joy or grief I do not know. Waves in a wild river form bowbacked lovers and speak to me of union. Industrial civilization tears apart my insides.

The world is speaking, every moment of every day, and because so often it does not choose to speak English—or in the case of caged apes, American Sign Language—we choose to believe it does not speak. How sad. Our bodies speak, too, and to them, too, so often we choose not to listen. A woman once said to me, “I love my children, and I’m glad they exist, but I now know I wanted so much to be born that three times I went through the process of giving birth. Finally I know what I wanted all along.”

Our actions also speak to us of death. I’ve often wondered if the urge to destroy is really the desire to do away with a way of living that does not bring us joy. Perhaps what we want is not to destroy the world with plutonium, but to stop living the way we do. We know that to be reborn we must die, but we do not know what form this death must take. Having denied the existence of the spirit (it can’t be measured in the laboratory), or at the very least having attempted to sever the ties between spirit and flesh (flesh bringing “the manly mind down from the heights”), we have forgotten their interconnectedness.

For my father to have stopped beating us, to have stopped raping us, he would have had to die to his own bitter childhood. Because he clearly did not beat my sister over the stated reason of finding drowned puppies, we can know that his anger had to be located elsewhere. It lurked among the internalized images of those who froze his psyche in a state of perpetual fear and anger. A bubbling pot frozen mid-boil. To let that go, he would have to fall into it, let the significance of his own actions—for actions, as they say, speak so much louder than words— surround him. He would have to let them speak to him. What does the rape of his daughter, his son, his wife, mean? What deep desires do they manifest? As he brings back his fist to strike his son, how does the fist signify?

It is not easy. Earlier I said that the way to step past atrocity is to step toward experience. But experience is tied intimately to perception, which is tied intimately to prior experience. How does one know that experiences are what they seem? My father’s experience was undoubtedly of anger: so listen to it, man, and pop that fucking smartass kid across the mouth. It ends up that we must not stop at direct experience, but instead pause there to listen again to that voice of anger or sorrow or hatred or even perceived love, and then while stepping again forward even further into experience step also into meaning.

But even that is of no use. My earlier wish for my father—that he would understand the effects of his actions—is wishful thinking. It is likely that he, like so many of us, like the monkeys made psychotic by removing them from their community, like the race of the indecent mentioned by Viktor Frankl, is simply unreachable. If that is the case, trying to make someone like my father understand this is a waste of time. In order to understand, he would have to first die. As we all do.

Jesus in the grave, Jonah in the whale, Moses in the desert, Jesus once again and also in the desert, the Phoenix burning to rise from its own ashes, the snake shedding its old and dead skin, caterpillars forming cocoons, trees dropping leaves: everyone understands that for there to be growth, there must always be a dying away.

George Gurdjieff wrote, “A man may be born, but in order to be born he must first die, and in order to die he must first awake.” Being born without dying is false, and leads only to a reaffirmation and strengthening of the same impulses that drive us terrified toward death while disallowing us from entering that cleansing abyss. Dying without awakening is just as false, playing out as we see in the unquenchable cannibalism of the somnambular undead, those who enact a death wish never realizing that what they want to kill—or rather to allow to die—is wholly inside. The trick is to walk that sharp line between death and life, and to allow yourself, with full cognizance of the risks involved, to collapse, to let a part of your life die so another may emerge, to dive as fully into death as you do life, to embrace it and let it embrace you, to eat the fish of collapse and death as well as the fish of life and experience, and to let its line also pull you to the bottom of the ocean.