August 5, 2012

Geography of the Body

I flex my hands experimentally, as I do, these days, in the way that any careful workman checks his tools. They're good: flexible, only a faint muscle soreness along the thumb metacarpal – the adductor pollicis brevis and the opponens pollicis; under what palmists apparently call the mons veneris (yes, I know! You'll have to ask them.) No hesitations, no glitches, no twinges in the joints. Good to go.

I have to be careful what I do with my hands – especially, how long I leave them wet. I can't let the skin get too soft: It's risky, for instance, do a lot of dishes and then take a long shower, because it leaves my skin dangerously soft, too soft for the strength of my hands. Before I was a massage therapist, I scorned work gloves: now I always wear them to sling lumber or cinder blocks around. I'll tear the flesh right off my fingers if I don't watch it.

“I'm so grateful for your hands,” said a client, yesterday. “Paws,” she added, which surprised me. I always think of my hands as being distinctive for their sensitivity: I like to imagine that my brain, like that of a raccoon, devotes an inordinate amount of room to the sensory map of my hands. But it was an intriguing glimpse into how they were being received. What did “paws” mean? Large, blunt, friendly, undemanding? It was clearly meant as praise. I'll have to mull that over.

There's a gulf between bodyworkers and most other people. For us, the whole landscape of the body is closely mapped, full of named landmarks: we can easily describe any location within a quarter inch or so. Each particular spinal vertebra has a name, and distinct parts: a body, tranverse and spinal processes, facet joints. To the layman, it's all a vast unknown, unmarked country. A client says “my back's been hurting,” and asking for details plunges him into confusion. It's sort of the middle of the back? Or maybe the lower back? It's not just the lack of vocabulary, but a lack of sensory training: I don't think their brains really bother to map these sensations to different places. It's not just that they can't say: it's that they don't know. It's just the back. It hurts. It might have a left side and a right side, it might have a lower, a middle, and an upper, but that's about it.

It strikes me as a deep, pathological alienation, not knowing the landscape of your own body, not having names for all these parts that creak and hurt and impinge, that give comfort and pleasure or pain and distress. I feel about our general anatomical ignorance the same way I feel about Americans' geographical ignorance: no wonder the world is such a threatening, mysterious place, if you can't really locate anything in it, if you can't tell Saudi Arabia from Pakistan. All news is equally bad news: none of them can be up to any good.


  1. And most people don't know the names of the common weeds that grow in their yards or the birds whose songs they've heard since childhood. That too is a sign of our alienation epidemic.