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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

Our Bodies Are Maps

Our bodies are maps—not of regions but of history. And not only of our own history, but of the history of our ancestors. So when I learn history, I'm learning and feeling it in my body.


I'm reading The Cost of Free Land: Jews, Lakota, and an American Inheritance, the personal research and story of author Rebecca Clarren about her Jewish ancestors and how they came to settle in South Dakota—specifically land that had been stolen from the Lakota, and to this day, still legally belongs to them (the Black Hills), because they refused a monetary settlement from the U.S. government. This is a region where Trump held a rally, and his supporters yelled at the Lakota protestors to "go back to where they came from"—ignorant to the truth that they were standing on Lakota land.


To me, this is beyond the pale.


Did you ever wonder where the expression "beyond the pale" comes from?


The Pale was a region—or more accurately, a reservation or ghetto that Jews were relegated to by the Russian empire.


In the bad old days of a dysfunctional relationship with my late mother, she often yelled at me, "This is beyond the pale!"—her judgment about everything from the way I thought and the things I didn't care about to the way I was in the world. This changed after I banned her from calling me and refused to see her, except when I initiated it. The ban lasted for a year, during which she got some behavioral therapy that taught her not to criticize me; she didn't need to understand why. So she practiced it, and we became best friends.


But just now, reading about the history carried in her and my own DNA—a history relegating us and life itself to a narrow body of land called the Pale, a region outside of which you would be killed, and even within it, you were subject to chronic terrorist attacks, called Pogroms, from the Cossacks when they would butcher, rape, and burn everybody in a town, I understand the fear that must have constricted my mother and that was behind judgments whose deepest wish was to keep me alive.


No wonder that as I read this book, my body feels battered and exhausted.

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Now Must Be the Dawning of the Age of Introspection

In summer 2023, Anderson Cooper devoted a whole hour on his show The Whole Story to The Gilgo Beach Killer, about an accused serial killer, an architect who was a family man employed in New York City and living on Long Island, where he allegedly deposited his victims on a beach. In the process of reporting this story, CNN reporters mentioned that other serial killers such as John Wayne Gacy also were family men. A few weeks later, authorities arrested a violent serial kidnapper and sex assaulter who lived an apparently ordinary life with his wife and two kids.


And yet, this "dangerous loner" trope survives.


In my essay "Walking Alone: Dangerous or Heroic" in Prairie Fire magazine, I point out that it is just as likely to be a well-adjusted, non-homicidal loner as it is to be a happy anybody else.


And yet, as a culture, we cling to our sweeping stereotypes—notions that take the place of discerning thought and the subsequent processing of information that may be different from what we believe, and therefore may elicit an inner struggle and change.


Although I'm an introvert, I have lots of extrovert friends. They are in constant social interaction and thrive in the company of others. Occasionally one will confide that they feel as if they are neglecting "who they really are"—ignoring their inner lives. That's funny because it's obvious "who they really are" is people who love people—according to song lyrics, the luckiest people. Likewise, I think people like me—contemplatives who are excited by the inner journey while examining the outer one; people who thrive by having insights, connecting metaphor to meaning, and creating something that has not existed before—live who we really are with a different emphasis.


Author Amina Cain has brilliantly turned this quiet journey, as well as a woman's need for it—a need as strong as any mammal's for oxygen—into a novella called Indelicacy (‎Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020). Reading it made my brain pop with identification, associations, appreciation, and flat-out glee. In the novel, a woman who works as a museum cleaner, craving freedom to deeply enter and write about the world of the paintings that surround her, finally achieves this. She makes mistakes along the way, gets involved with a man she doesn't want to marry but marries him anyway, and does some hilarious things—hilarious because they're honest and yet incongruent to people who live primarily in the "outer world"—and eventually she is happy. In fact she sometimes experiences being one with everything when she writes about paintings. In a quick search through the book for the word "open," there are many salient quotes about the power of looking within. One example:


All the windows in the restaurant were open, and as I wrote, the waves were crashing right outside them. It began to help me. I began to feel I was in a trance of writing. All around me were plump insects. They too were very alive, beating their wings, landing.


You can read this 158-page entertainment in one sitting and I did (twice)—in a state of near-ecstasy. Then I knocked out a Goodreads review, posted it, and proceeded to get really sad reading other readers' reviews calling the book "insubstantial," "cold," or, even more distressing, this comment by one who loved it: "I mourn for her [the protagonist] to break out of her self-imposed limitations, but she doesn't want to." All of this exposed a social bias I don't understand: Why do people who love connection assume that this is the only real life, the only proper way to be, and that "self-imposed limitations" in favor of time and freedom to travel one's unique inner journey is something to mourn? What limitation is there in feeling one with all that is? Were the great visionaries and mystics who changed our understanding of life and love tragic figures? Or is it that one must declare oneself by some avocation to justify this excitement of discovery? One reader who identified herself as a writer (an introvert?) commented, "This book scared me, honestly. I didn't want to be her, even if I liked her for the most part." I posit that this woman's fear is not of Cain's protagonist but of a part of herself she wants to avoid. Why? Read More 

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