Friday, August 13, 2010


WHO MAY EMBRACE? (em-bras: in arms)

An old woman who is out of the “game” might be the only sort of person who can regard the idea of intimacy -- I mean all kinds of intimacy -- with a clear eye. I don’t have children or grandchildren. My most intense moments of touching now are hugs when “passing the peace” at funerals. Let me try my ethical teeth on the subject.

Starting from the origins of the embrace, it has to be the womb and then the arms of the midwife. But I used to have a little sermon that asserted the idea that the womb is the mother’s embrace of the not-yet-child, the father’s arms are the embrace of the mother, the family kin are the embrace of both mother and father, the community embraces the families, the nation embraces the communities, and so on until at the planetary level all life is embraced by the envelope of breathable air. That about covers it. Except that the cover is falling away.

If one goes the other way, towards the end-days of humans, the subject is far more frayed and controversial. More than a few of the hospital patients I visited as a chaplain would flinch away from even the lightest touch. Perhaps it is the setting: a place where things are thrust into a person, things are stripped off and cut out and permanently altered -- albeit in the name of saving a life. I defend the person who wants to die as well as the person who wants to live. The sorting out is the difficulty. And there are always those who will take advantage of those in a gray area: making money, being disrespectful, revealing too much or too little, destroying privacy and one’s ownership of one’s self. But then there are also those who are not afraid to reach out arms to rock and soothe.

In the middle between birth and death, looms the great monster of commercial sexuality which shoves every skin contact, every beautiful limb, every crackling wave of hair into its sodden bag of assumptions and sneering. Surely other times have not been so crass and opportunistic, even when men sold their daughters while sons captured wives by killing their husbands. I read the instructions for “game” on “The Rawness,” and find them both appallingly true and abysmally funny: life as a crap game when crap about describes what one gets from it.

Both “The Rawness” and Merrill Singer, in a study of ghetto kids, have said that women use sex to bargain for the best father: someone with good genes and a solid money-making ability, plus the wisdom and moxie to protect his family. (Why can’t women do this, too?) And the men use sex to bargain for emotional support, the assurance that they really CAN be a hero, praise for their anatomy and achievements -- just as mom used to do. (No, I have not forgotten that man -- you will never find out who he was -- so upset that his wife wouldn’t come admire his bowel movements the way his mother used to do. It never seemed to get through to him that she might have been checking for illness. But forget the shit.)

Where are the descriptions of the hand on the shoulder, the brief brush of hands sharing a meal, the steadying arm, the matched steps? Bob used to ask me to come wash his hair when he was in the tub, because his second wife -- a beautician -- used to do that, and I did it willingly. Remember that wonderful scene in “Out of Africa” when Redford (oh, drop the disguise) washed Streep’s hair and poured a pitcher of water over her tipped-back head so steadily? And now Tim tells about shampooing Tristan’s hair because the boy’s increasing dementia has made it impossible for him to manage himself. And the boy says in a wondering voice, “You’re washing my hair?”

Carl Cree Medicine just passed away and I remember how Carl and I gently lowered Bob Scriver into bed by putting a big piece of plywood behind his back -- Bob had broken his sternum and every effort of muscle was torture. Carl’s sons were the ones who helped Bob in old age, and yet Bob was horrified at the idea of a male nurse. So familiarity has something to do with this. How can people who never knew you when you were well know what to do when you’re not?

We have rules in our society, as rigid as those of any Victorians, and mostly based in the idea that the stronger will take advantage of the weaker, rather then protecting them. Older people are not to be intimate with much younger people. (Bob and I broke that one.) People of the same sex are not to be intimate, regardless of age, but particularly not if one of them is a child. People of two different races (isn’t the idea of race about due to be retired?) -- well, they can be the president of the USA, but . . . Two different species . . . aaaaaaaeeeeeoooooow!! A machine and a human? Oh, sure. But, you know, lots of soap and water. If a Martian shows up and wants to make love . . . Where do you GET these ideas? Well, maybe Greek mythology or the Bible. Angels, djinns, gods and goddesses, etc. And, of course, some people will make love to a vegetable or even kiss a frog.

But that’s not making love, is it? A certain amount of reciprocity, welcoming, response, is pretty basic. More than that, beyond the actual skin contact of lovers and parents are the grand and glorious thunderheads of ideas and poetry and image and possibility -- they rule out or at least diminish any messing around with veggies, robots, or the unwilling. ( Are frogs willing to be kissed?)

Traditionally old women washed and dressed the dead, a last intimacy from people presumably invested in propriety. I’m not sure what goes on now. Who washes and dresses the mutilated soldier-parts from the battlefields or does anyone? How many morticians are female? None are robots or vegetables, I’m sure. None from another species.

Just reflecting. I see thunderheads out my window, slashed with lightning. Oddly close, personal. Intimate, even.

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