On Kindness, and the Soft Animal of My Body

“You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” -Mary Oliver

I’m trying to be kind. It’s difficult, because the word is tied up in the abstracted character-building of my childhood. Around the atrium of my intermediate school there were a series of child-shaped cutouts, each emblazoned with different value: respect, responsibility, kindness. I stood below them for the unveiling – one each month, as we passed through the first year of the school. The building was new, the star-shaped entrance hall vaulted with red-framed skylights and walled in postmodern grey brick. A group of us were selected (though I don’t remember how, or for what reason) to be the Character Ambassadors; we would gather in the center of the hall as a janitor climbed the ladder and hung the silhouettes and we went through the motions of ceremony. I remember feeling self conscious about my hair, my body, my new glasses. I don’t remember what was said about the characters.

When I think about being kind, the part of me that stood through that ceremony and tried, after, to fit in with the childscorn of cool that was budding in the girls’ room and the cafeteria, that young, confused part of me crystalized under those cutouts and in the gossipstreams after, still scoffs. What’s the point of kind?

Here’s what I really learned in that year as Character Ambassador: how to shrink my self to fit into the crowd. That it was fine to be honored but not too honored. Okay be special as long as I did not make my self a target with my specialness; if the crowd realized I wasn’t part of it they would eat me on the bus in the girls’ room on the line for lunch. Even with my careful observation and the one act of brutality with which I shrunk myself, even when I thought I understood the rules of how to be among and invisible, I felt myself a failure. Instead of kindness, I learned too much about the power of those who fit in over those who transgress. Instead of kindness, I learned to marshall my intellect to focus my body on performing my role correctly. Instead of kindness, I learned conformity.

Almost two decades later, the characters are still hanging there. The laminated poster paper has faded under the sky light – kindness is no longer true blue but stormy grey.

I haven’t thought about being 10 in a long time. I’ve thought abstractly about my childself over the course of the last few years, ALFing and deschooling, sure. But thinking about the child I was at 10 years old, standing in the atrium of C.V. Starr Intermediate School feels shockingly concrete – the kid whose flute was perpetually at the wrong parent’s house, who loved the quiet of art class and the intimacy of music lessons, the newly-bespeckled one whose mind drifted while we read aloud in class because I’d already read the whole page, whole chapter, whole novel and I was just counting the minutes until we were done with this interminable readaloud exercise. 10 is first time in my life I can begin to remember feeling wrong in my body, the beginning of a self consciousness that did not originate with me but that I wrapped around my own bones nonetheless. The lessons in the atrium stuck, but not the ones that were intended to.

This is the point at which I feel compelled to tell you that I am an anxious, depressed trans person living in chronic pain; that those are clinical (and therefore somehow validated?) identities. Five years ago, I fell down a flight of stairs and injured my spine. Three years ago, I developed crippling eczema that makes the skin on my hands flake off and break open. One year ago, I realized with a shock that I am not a cisgender woman. I am talking to you about kindness not out of virtuousness, but selfishness; I don’t want to live in pain any more. All the years of punishing myself have come to a head and my body has said no more. It will not tolerate my bruising, fixated intellectualism any more; it will not let me push aside my discomfort in order to fit in. This is the limit of tolerance: nearly two decades of making myself less, for fear of being too much.

As the brilliant Sonia Renee Taylor reminds us in The Body Is Not An Apology, “You, my dear, have a body. And should you desire to remain on this spinning rock hurtling through space, you will need a body to do it.” This isn’t about the state of my soul, though winter does bring, for me, an existential dimension to all these musings. This is about the soft animal of my body, and what it means to be kind to it.

Some days I am angry at the choices I made based on the lessons of the atrium, angry that I live in this pain. I am trying to honor my anger, to exorcise it. Some days I mourn the sense of safety, dignity, and belonging that that I don’t feel. I am trying to honor my grief, to exorcise it. I am trying to be kind. To value my flesh enough to feed it well, to smooth salve over the places I’ve cracked open, to sleep and stretch and wrap my self in soft, heavy blankets and feel the sensuousness of their weight and texture here, in this body, now.

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Mel

Writing about the self in the third person makes Mel uncomfortable.

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