The Body Is a Doorway
A four-part course with Sophie Strand
We live in an age of loss, illness, and pain: personal and ecological, human and more-than-human. But our wounds don’t just show up in our bodies. They show up in our ecosystems. When we feel discomfort, we immediately attempt to stop the sensations and resolve the cause of the pain. But for many, pain has no cure and no definitive etiology. When the pills don’t work and we “fail” treatments, our bodies are doubly cursed – with illness and illegibility.
What does it mean to have an illness – physical or psychological – that is incurable or terminal? What does it feel like to have a condition that is resistant to diagnoses, treatment, and resolution? Those who are permanently exiled to the kingdom of the unwell are still expected to perform daily penitential rituals of “wellness”, handing over money, time, and physical energy to a process that is closer to haunting than it is to healing.
When the cut refuses to close, when the neurological glitch clicks into constancy, we must pause and become curious. We are not the only organisms experiencing unresolvable agony. In fact, most ecosystems are contending with pollution and physical disruption. Most species find themselves stranded in a frayed web of symbiotic extinctions.
This course is for those with treatment fatigue. For those lying on the bathroom floor with no hope left. For those who cannot get out of bed. Who cannot try another drug or treatment. This course is for those with emotional, physical, and spiritual exhaustion. It is for those with medical debt and disability. It is for those who have tried every medicine, every therapy, and every healing modality, and still have not accomplished “wholeness” or “health”. This course is for the parents and friends and lovers of the incurable and the unwell. It is for the healers and doctors who realize that their modalities must not become an apparatus of capitalistic optimization. As we relax the Europatriarchal idea of the atomized self as being personally responsible for disease, we can begin to see that unwellness is an entangled web of oppressions within which we are all ensnared, a territory that many beings cohabitate.
Communally, through story, conversation, questions, and weekly exercises, we will begin to release the need to complete a healing narrative. We will create fallow space in our bodies and lives. We will weave tapestries with our failures that cannot be witnessed with human eyes. We will borrow shrimp eyes, bumble bee eyes, dog eyes, to look at a world that refuses visual and narrative resolution. Drawing on research into extended cognition, we will let our minds slip from the prison of our physical selves into our wider webbing of relations, learning from rivers and spiders and hermit crabs and hummingbirds how to inhabit different physicalities and sensory universes.
We will get nothing done. We will lie fallow in each other’s arms. We will sabbath the body and erase our debts. We will see that our wounds are physical and psychic invitations to collaborate with otherness in ways that far exceed our ideas of safety and comfort. We will celebrate that we have done enough for today. For this meal. For this moment. For this empty space that summons the next breath.
Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful. Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful. Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful. Therefore profit comes from what is there; Usefulness from what is not there.
— Tao Te Ching – Lao Tzu – chapter 11
Join Sophie Strand for this 4-part webinar series.
The Body Is a Doorway: Essay by Sophie Strand
I Will Not be Purified: Essay by Sophie Strand in “Art Papers”
New Gods at the End of the World SAND Community Conversation with Sophie Strand and Bayo Akomolafe
Your Body is an Ancestor: Essay by Sophie Stand in “Braided Way”
Reclaiming the ancient tradition of the Jubilee year when debts are erased, slaves released, and the land lies fallow, we come together to say, no matter how sick and burdened we are, there is no more healing to be done. For today, for this moment together, we do not need to work on our bodies. We do not need to be well. Jubilee may come from the word yovel. While its meaning is uncertain, yovel’s Hebrew root may refer to the ram horn that was blown to signal the beginning of the sacred year. It has also been linked to the Proto-Indo European word *yu which meant to “shout with joy”. Calling on the hermit crab for lessons in communal liminality, we lay our dread and defeat and failures on the ground and refuse to begin another story. We call on the inter-species shout for joy to signal the start of our journey.
Advances in everything from forest ecology to extended cognition, demonstrate that we are not siloed selves, but relational networks, built metabolically by our every biome-laced breath, thinking through filamentous connectivity rather than inside one neatly bounded brain. We use ecosystems as mnemonic devices and make conceptual breakthroughs only in physical motion and conversation. When do you like your body? Many of us like our bodies best as hybrid. Body plus lover. Body plus baby. Body plus huge body of water. We forget that it is not the wings of the bird that allow for flight, but the bird plus the lifting air. Where does flight live? In the wings or the air? Or interstitially – between the two? Our bodies become pleasurable, become livable and lovable, not alone but through material interaction. Isn’t it strange, then, that the thing we fear most medically and personally is physical trespass? We fear the infection, the parasite, the physical breach. Body-plus is the calculus that allows for pleasure and flight and birth and digestion but it is also the opening into more ambiguous communions. Those with long term illness and with a legacy of trauma understand that hybridity is not something you order off the menu. It arrives and makes a home in your body. Suddenly you are more than you ever thought you could be, in ways both terrifying and curious. We summon the porousness of the unwell body to create extended minds and webs of connection that can help us think and feel with more distributed vitality.
Together we investigate our illnesses and hurts as photo negatives that reveal the shape of other species. Whose light have we been an aperture built to capture? We explore the “umwelts” – sensory worlds – of plants and birds and fungi as a way of understanding that we live in a “world within which many worlds fit”. Diving into deep time meditations, we realize that disability and disease are evolution’s favorite tool for symbiotic mergers that hold the potential to change the very geological face of the earth.
In this last session we assemble our symptoms and glitches and sensory disruptions into a pantheon perfectly tailored for an age of extinction and collapse. Following the advice of the hermit crab in the first module, we help each other “exchange shells”. Working by process of addition, we add the good and the bad to the embodiment compost heap. We honor that metaphors are often an attempt to “root” a word back to the world of multi-species matter from which it originally emerged. We work to create wilder metaphors and involuted containers capable of holding us while we ferment, melt, molt, and unbecome.
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Questions explored in this series:
- How can we let chronic illness, incurable disease, disability, and grief galvanize us into greater connection with other species and beings?
- What if my joy, my ease, my bodily ecstasy was not achievable in a single human self, but somewhere past my skin-silhouette, in the body of a bird, or a vine, or mycorrhizal network?
- What if the ways our bodies adjusted to trauma, trespass, and illness were not universally problematic, but often deeply creative?
- What if the bodies of the disabled, the survivors of violence and abuse, the neurodivergent, and the chronically ill were not broken and in need of correction?