Sunday, November 23, 2003

Self Sufficiency

When I was very small, I imagined that a turtle, pulling into its shell, was retreating into a cozy little house: bed, lamp, little kitchen, radiator, all the necessities for a warm, safe, self-sufficient existence were in there.

In another favorite game, I'd stack cans of soup in a child-sized cubby hole beneath our kitchen counter. It was my den, my turtle's shell, my self-sufficient retreat.

(I note that my zafu is shaped like a turtle, and my zabuton is the size of a little room, a little hermitage.)

Later, I would stock the basket of my bicycle with things I'd need for a flight, alone, into the world. I had no intention of fleeing. It was all a game, a game in which I rehearsed self-sufficiency. I told my mother about this one. She was offended that I would imagine leaving.

Little wonder that Admiral Byrd's book about his winter cached under the ice in Antarctica -- with stove, food, victrola, books -- has held such a magical attraction for me. The title is, significantly, Alone.

The images in Margaret Morton's books "Fragile Dwelling," and "Tunnel" -- images of the rudimentary shelters constructed by urban homeless people -- move me in a similar way.

Byrd's winter ended disastrously. His stove leaked, and he was slowly poisoned by the fumes. His comrades had to brave the impossibly awful conditions to come rescue him.

Comrades. That struck a foreign note. It seemed, for that, a spoiled idyll. I had no quibble with the radio -- that remote tether to base camp seemed only to heighten the romantic solitude.

After I had my son, the animating images became more dyadic. They were of two sorts.

In the first, the mother/child unit is horribly menaced. The holocaust provided most of these images. I sought them out with an unhealthy passion, using their horror, even as I imagined my own infant smashed against a wall or torn asunder by soldiers, as a twisted reassurance of his safety. Here is a poem I wrote about that time. It's a Frostian dialogue of a sick game that a mother and father play while driving in the snow with their new infant.

In the second set of images, the mother and child are safe, cozy and warm together in a small, sufficient shelter. I am thinking of a page from Margaret Brown's The Runaway Bunny -- a famous children's picture book illustrated by Clement Hurd. The book's about a tiny bunny's various claims that he will run away, and his mother's counterclaims that she will follow and find him.

The final picture is a cutaway of a cozy rabbit warren under the roots of a big tree, just big enough for mother and son, soft, warm, well-lit, and well-stocked with carrots. (If you "look inside" the book at Amazon you can see this lovely picture a few clicks in.)

As my son has grown, the self-sufficient solitary has re-emerged. There is a wonderful book by Anneli Rufus, "party of one," that is subtitled "The Loner's Manifesto." She is a lovely writer, and discusses with insight and conviction the lives of people drawn to solitude. She sees the trait as virtue, not illness. Something to celebrate, not revile.

There's a biological substrate to it all, of course.

My marriage works because, along with intimacy, there is space. When I described the river hermit to DK he asked, jokingly, but knowingly, whether I was going to go off in my own tent.

At the scene of my accident last September I had to make a decision. My instinct is always, and was then, to claim I'm fine and go off and lick my wounds in private. My inner physician, thank goodness, won out (you idiot -- you've got terrible neck pain and two of your fingers are numb -- hadn't you ought to make sure you're not about to become quadriplegic ???)

It was hard for the caretaker, the one in control, the self-sufficient one, to say: OK, yes, take care of me.

But it was a relief, an "into thy hands" moment, a surrender.

And it was frightening. I identified a strange, disturbing satisfaction in the passive experience of being a patient. Something I'd always scorned and recoiled from when I'd detected it in my own patients. Being injured and cared for had uncovered an abyss of need in me so bottomless it might never be filled. I'd have to return to the underground rabbit den, to my mother and the over-arching, sheltering roots of the paternal tree. I'd have to develop Munchausen's Syndrome ! Become a drama queen !

Well, I do wax a little histrionic at times.

None of those things has happened.

But if my carefully maintained, isolating carapace of self-sufficiency cracked just a bit along with my C2 vertebral bone, it's probably for the good.

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