In 2011, I was named a Thomas J Watson Fellow, awarding me twelve months of international travel to engage in a topic of my own choosing. Through my project, Performing 'Model' Humans: What Puppets Can Teach Us About Empathy, I examined the relationship between puppets and people in a variety of performance cultures as a means for exploring ideas of imagination, projection, and empathy. I also kept a log of my discoveries, thoughts, travels, and adventures. You can read them all below. I hope you enjoy!
I’m sitting on an airplane and I keep thinking about this short story called Kaspar Hauser Speaks. It’s written by an American author named Steven Millhauser and I first read it while riding the tube in London last fall. The thing’s a work of fiction, but it reads like it could have been real, written as if presenting the historical record of an important address given by the aforementioned Kaspar Hauser to the public of a town with a German name. “Distinguished guests,” it begins. “It is with no small measure of amazement that I stand before you today.”
It is possible that Kaspar Hauser is not entirely human. When he first arrived to this place, he was—by his own account— “a brutish creature, half idiot and half animal.” But he has made considerable progress since then. Through hard work and human help, Kaspar Hauser has quickly grown into the image of all those around him. “I am you—and you—and you” he says, “I who only a few short years ago was lower than any beast.”
Because of this, Kaspar Hauser’s human admirers think of him as a most impressive specimen. In the span of just three years his mental life has leapt forward an astonishing twenty. “I stand before you, a civilized man… a Wundermensch, as I have been called,” he notes. But to himself, Kaspar Hauser is trapped in limbo. While his friends and colleagues marvel at how far he has come, he feels only the unbridgeable distance left to travel. “Even the leap of which I speak, the tremendous leap toward you and away from me, a leap that leaves the bruise of my heels in my own sides,” he admits, “even this leap is no more than a sign of my difference.”
And so, for this publicized speech, Kaspar Hauser has invited the brave, the curious, the civilized, and the outraged to hear him answer the question they’ve all wondered since the first day they laid eyes on him: what is it like to be Kaspar Hauser?
To this, he offers his answer:
“To be Kaspar Hauser is to long, at every moment of your dubious existence, with every fiber of your questionable being, not to be Kaspar Hauser… My deepest wish is not to be an exception. My deepest wish is not to be a curiosity, an object of wonder. It is to be unremarkable. To become you— to sink into you— to merge with you until you cannot tell me from yourselves; to be uninteresting; to be nothing at all; to experience the ecstasy of mediocrity— is it so much to ask?”
I am not Kaspar Hauser. I will admit, however, to moments throughout my Watson when Kaspar Hauser and his speech rang loud and clear to me. A real high point of my year came in Japan when, communicating in only Japanese, I contacted and met up with an elderly maker of Karakuri— ancient Japanese automata. Sitting in his small workshop in an outer suburb of Osaka, I caught myself marveling at my own situation as much as I marveled at his ancient wind-up figures. Here I was cracking jokes and asking questions about the precursors to robots and the Bunraku puppet theatre in a language whose most basic characters had been nothing more than esoteric designs to me only a few years back.
It wasn’t twenty years mental progress in a span of three, but it was more than enough to make me feel like I’d arrived somehow. Within a world of unbridgeable gaps, it made for a good day.
But then there was the next day, and on that day I was back at the Japanese grocery store, my vocabulary nemesis, trying to determine the differences between containers of garlic sauce without having to ask an employee for help. Holding the two experiences side by side might make the second seem all the more trivial, but that’s sort of the point: even minor attempts to venture into foreign territory could all too easily lead me back to myself and to my own idiosyncratic traps and shortcomings. I believe in transformation— that’s what puppets do— but I found for myself this year that there is no such thing as reinvention or truly running away. There are only similarities and differences, gradients of change, measured from vague but oddly fixed points of origin.
It reminds me of a particular puppet featured in the last performance I worked on while in Melbourne, a human figure made of duct tape, who leapt through the air but froze in mid-stride to notice his own little duct tape limbs just before they all crumbled in on himself.
Puppets cannot save the world— if you’re inclined to believe in that kind of thing at all. They can make you laugh, they can frighten, they can tug at the strings of your deeply buried childhood wonder, and, if you’re lucky, they can even make you think, catch you off guard by how deeply they resonate after sneaking in through the back door.
Another figure with a German name once proposed the idea that a hammer is only a hammer to us when it breaks— only when an object ceases to fulfill its function will its user stop taking its existence for granted. Now, at the end of my year, I wonder how much further we can take this idea. Instead of breaking, what would happen if a hammer came to life? Or better yet, what would happen if two hammers came to life, one large and grouchy, the other small and optimistic? What if these hammers didn’t even know they were hammers? Imagine: an empty stage littered with old tools and suddenly two hammers rise up, look at one another, and begin to perform the opening scene of Aristophanes’ The Birds. Nothing about that scenario strikes me as inherently better or worse than a more expected, more physiologically human performance. True, most hammers are small and, so far as I know, all hammers lack the independent parts needed for dynamic movements or visible shifts in expression, but once this year, when I saw hammers perform, I was reminded of earlier, human performances I’d seen on nights when I could only afford cheap tickets and wound up sitting so far from the stage that I could barely make out the actors. What is so different between watching a human from two hundred feet away and a hammer up close? What if I replaced the hammer with a hand puppet?
I do not think these are trivial questions— not in an age when Tupac can return as a hologram to perform at Coachella and, in Japan, a fictional singer named Miku has been selling-out stadiums with her hologram shows for nearly half a decade. These are strange and brilliant times we live in. On the last day of my Watson, an unmanned, mechanical piano played Clair de Lune for me as I walked to my departure gate in the Melbourne Airport. It was unnerving.
I want to find a way to tackle these kinds of questions seriously without denying their beautiful absurdity, and I think puppet theatre can help.
Giving voices, faces, and even temporary souls to inanimate materials can de-familiarize the every day. It reminds us that just as we use things, we relate to them; that they gain lives because we can’t help but put ourselves into them. My mother still keeps the small pinecone she absent-mindedly held as she and my father walked around Walden Pond on their first, real date. She showed it to me once when I was sixteen and it was alive. I saw it breathe in time with her. It was puppet theatre before I knew what puppet theatre could be.
We in the Western world say animism, “but that simply places something primitive we can neatly file away and shelve, otherwise too troubling to look at,” writes Kenneth Gross. We flee from animism to thinking about the world only in terms of what things do and how they serve us— and technological advancements gainfully help us along. A puppeteer in Melbourne shook his head as he spoke about a child who stood in front of the refrigerator shouting “OPEN,” growing increasingly frustrated when the thing refused to do so. “Maybe our flight from animism is our flight from madness,” writes Gross, now quoting the playwright and puppet theorist, Dennis Silk. “We’re afraid of the life we’re meager enough to term inanimate. Meager because we can’t cope with those witnesses… if a cross is a witness, why not a loaf of bread, or a shoe-tree, or a sugar-tongs, or a piece of string?”
Or a person?— I would add.
At a puppetry conference in London last fall, I attended a panel discussion on directing puppet shows. At one point, the conversation turned to the question of what to look for when you’re unable to cast experienced puppeteers in your production. Consensus quickly settled on one main piece of advice: if you’re stuck with first-time puppeteers, it’s generally a good idea to seek out dancers before actors because most actors just don’t know what to do with a puppet. Actors want to make a puppet do what they want, the panelists agreed. Dancers are more willing to place themselves in service of the object.
I was struck by this conclusion in part because I remembered a similar conversation I’d once heard about good and bad acting. Good acting, some older, better actors told me, is always about the other person, while bad acting is about yourself. Good acting is truly listening to your scene partner, and then trying your very best to answer in turn. Bad acting is admiring your own performance and ignoring everything else. It is reducing your scene partner to some primitive thing to be placed on a shelf, shutting out others until they are no longer able to bear witness to you.
I hope I can be a good actor. And a dancer. And a mime. And a puppeteer. I want to. I’m really trying. This year, I've begun to think that puppets can help all of it — these are high stakes we're dealing with, but it’s hard to take yourself too seriously while wearing little monkeys on your fingers, and I think that’s a great thing to remember. Just for fun, when returning to the States, for the first time I tried putting “puppeteer” under the occupational heading on my disembarkation card. When I gave it to the woman at the booth, she saw what I’d written, chuckled, and asked, “So, what’s that like?”
“It’s nice,” I replied. “You get to make funny sounds.”
She paused for a moment, then smiled and sent me through.
There is a home video of my Wayang Kulit teacher’s daughter playing with his puppets. She’s only three years old in the footage and her head barely reaches the bottom of the puppet screen. That doesn’t seem to bother her, though — sitting there at the base of the frame, she swoops one character up into the playing space with a quiet and determined focus. She moves its arm to touch another character’s face. She takes up the other character, too, and is soon pushing them together into an embrace that’s all the more endearing for its clumsiness. Her attention never strays from the puppets.
This is a girl who, now, a few years older, has become a perennial performer. She actively seeks out cameras, always wanting to show off the newest dance she’s picked up from youtube — and even more interested in subsequently watching herself in playback over and over again. Yet, in this video, as a little three year old, she never once turns to the camera. In fact, nothing about the video feels like an outright performance, at all — and why should it? This isn’t a puppet show for anyone but herself.
That was the only way he could capture the moment, my teacher interjects as we watch the footage one day. He begins to explain to me his frustrations surrounding the event: how, back then, his daughter would outright refuse whenever he asked her to perform for his friends; how she’d run away when he would ask again. If she’d known he was secretly filming her, she probably would have stopped then, too, he reasons. I tune my attention back to his daughter in the film. Now and again, I can barely make out her voice as it softly alternates between the two figures, creating dialogue and monologue, together. My daughter is fickle, my teacher mutters quietly.
I’m trying my best to recount this scene without over-sentimentalizing it, or, even worse, smothering it all together under too much “adult-speak." (Run, don’t walk, should you read the word “ludic" anywhere in this post.) Suffice it to say, the whole thing was beyond adorable — even as it was an all-together everyday moment. What little child hasn’t, at some point, played with their dolls or LEGOs or stuffed animals or miniature dinosaurs or pieces of fabric or a collection of sticks (and so on, and so on), bringing imaginative life to beloved toys and making everyday things a little more fun and personal? And what little child hasn’t done so in a way that was near exclusively intended for his or her own enjoyment? Entry into someone else’s imaginary (magical?) world is rare thing. Such places are expansive but fragile; you must tred lightly, careful not to break any rules you never knew existed — they do exist, they always do, and they’re integral to the reality of the place.
There was a while when I was younger — though older than three (and post Dog-and-Dog-and-Pillow days) — that my best friend and I got really into professional wrestling. Before we could get our hands on real action figures or any of the video games, we built three dimensional wrestling rings out of construction paper where we’d stage never-ending feuds between hand-made, cut-out paper figures. It was always too complicated to fight each other, so we’d take turns, each getting our own chance to play both characters, ring-side announcer, sound effect man, and crowd all at once. Watching this video of my teacher's daughter led me to think about those wrestling matches for the first time in years. I remembered how close I felt to that friend, how even with another person at my side, those matches were play, not performance. It makes me wonder whether that had had something to do with us being best friends.
When I return my focus to the video, though, it all suddenly feels different. Here was a three year old playing, but she's doing so with her father’s Wayang Kulit puppets, specifically. All-too-smooth universal associations aside, there are some undeniably specific cultural curiosities peppering this video. The skinny character with the elaborate headdress, for example, has his back arm positioned just right, so that its elbow carves a deliberately acute angle back towards its waist. And each puppet enters and exits in precise arcs, following trace forms that — I now know — are essential for casting expansive shadows upon their backdrop. And it's here that, as so often this year, something at once profound and obvious hits me: this is play and not performance, but it is also tradition. Sitting at her father’s screen, my teacher’s daughter was acting like any other little girl but also already training to become a dalang puppeteer.
Of all the forms of puppetry I’ve learned this year, Balinese Wayang Kulit puppets are the simplest to individually manipulate. There really is something childlike in the way they move. Built from cow’s hide and manipulated from below, Wayang Kulit rarely have more than three points of individuated articulation. Each puppet is stabilized by a thick rod running up its middle. Some characters’ arms move on their own, with additional, thinner rods affixed to their hands that stretch down long enough for you to hold in yours, and the clown characters can move their mouths by pulling on a string running from the lower jaw to the base of the rod below. But — save a few special exceptions — that’s it. As dalang, you are the show’s only puppeteer. It is your job to bring these puppets, often as many as thirty or forty per show, to life. Should you need to control more than one puppet at once, you’ll usually be limited to a single hand per puppet, further reducing each character’s movement to a vocabulary of full body swings and turns and jumps and shakes. When two puppets fight, it’s not all that far removed from my days staging wrestling matches; figures fly around the playing space, full bodies collide, and only in special, intricate moments, will the more articulate arms come into play, with one puppet grabbing the other and tossing him about.
Artaud once described Balinese actors as animated hieroglyphs but the definition feels far more literally applicable for Wayang. These are figures forever confined to two-dimensions. Many characters feature designs that straddle front and profile views simultaneously— sideways heads and feet improbably cut by torsos turned directly towards their audience— but even these geometric twists are rendered flat on the cow’s hide and by the shadows they cast.
For all their limitations and lack of dimensions, though, Wayang Kulit puppets come to absolute life under the care of a skillful puppeteer. Their shapes speak words and their interplay makes sentences. Up on their screen, broad gestures gain new subtleties. A male puppet’s two arms dance around its waist until suddenly, with a swift diagonal motion, you realize that he’s tying his sash. Soon after, a clown character grows all the more arrogant and absurd through his continued attempts to turn his back on his comedic foil mid-conversation. I know this guy — you think as he moves from side to side, mouth furiously flapping to match the dalang’s snorting laugh. And then there are the shadows; each puppet is in constant collaboration with the fire hung less than a foot behind the screen. With nothing more than a quick shift of a puppet’s orientation to the flame, a single arrow can suddenly fire twenty times at rapid speeds by transforming back and forth from its realistic shape to a jetting streak of black. A worm can grow into a dragon by pulling the puppet closer to the flame, casting a larger, more terrifying figure on the screen. And even when a puppet remains still, its base rod affixed into material beneath the screen so it can remain onstage without being held by the dalang, its shadow continues to dance. As the flame moves, so does the puppet’s silhouette.
There is Arjuna, the crafty prince; Hanoman, the monkey king; Twalen, a lazy, overweight servant for protagonists; Delem, the boisterous, over-energetic aid to the antagonists— these are characters known by everyone who comes to see the show. Night after night these characters enact the same stories of princes and demons and animal lords locked in battle, tested by the gods, or spurned by love. Even as the plot varies from show to show, the super-structure remains the same. Protagonists enter from the dalang’s right, antagonists from the left. Love and seduction scenes come early, then travel scenes, then the big battles. The stories play out like animated comic books, fitting all the action within that familiar, rectangular frame, and supplanting all those explosive SMACK, POW, and THUD word bubbles with the percussive sounds of the cepalo, a wooden hammer clutched by two biggest toes on the dalang’s right foot that is rhythmically beat against the side of the puppet box throughout the show.
The use of this cepalo might help to hint at how much more than puppet manipulation a dalang must do. Beyond animating the puppets, during a performance the dalang must voice all the characters, speak in two to three languages, sing in ancient Kawi, relate all scenes and puppet movement to the accompanying Gamelan music, and join in the music by striking the cepalo. Get ready to improvise, too; not once have I seen an actual, written script, and local audiences aren’t too forgiving when they watch over-done gags or hear recycled material. Within the set format, clown characters may pop up whenever they so please, doling out tangential jokes, running vaudeville gags, even providing meta-commentary on the night’s offerings. These are some of my favorite moments in a Wayang Kulit show. The physical humor transcends language my barriers — though whatever they’re saying must be pretty good; I’ve seen audience members laugh so hard they’ve fallen out of their seats. During these moments, the dalang feels almost like a stand-up comedian, one who uses puppets to deliver his jokes from behind the screen (multiple dalang I’ve met work as bondres, masked clowns, as well). These bits can carry on for so long that you almost forget there is a plot, but then suddenly Bima, the warrior prince, comes crashing across the screen in a tussle with a large demon, and the story continues right where it left off.
As you watch Wayang, you’re not restricted to any one area of the performance space. If you’re tired of viewing the shadows, you can get up and walk behind the screen for a look at the dalang as he (or she, though usually he) conducts the evening’s adventure. Despite all the disjointed multitasking, the backstage atmosphere at a good Wayang peformance is strikingly calm. Assistants to the dalang prepare the next puppets for their entrance and tend to the flame while the dalang bounces from character to character, swinging his voice from high and nasally to deep and guttural with astounding ease. It’s easy to run things at a frenetic pace, but the best dalangs can always turn at a moment’s notice, throwing puppets around before stopping all at once to deliver a punchline.
But even watching from behind the screen cannot offer a complete picture of the dalang’s role; though a puppeteer, a dalang is equal parts shaman and priest, as well. He is a conduit of the cosmos. He begins every show with prayers to the Gods, seeking permission and assistance in the task of replicating their roles in miniature. The white screen that houses the night’s shadows mirrors the holy emptiness from which the world sprung — a fact acknowledged in a passage of ancient Kawi language that opens all traditional Wayang performances. It’s no coincidence that the vocal inflections and rhythmic patterns accompanying a dalang’s Kawi recitations sound so similar to the Kawi recitations heard at religious ceremonies, weddings, and offerings.
The dalang’s priestly and shamanistic duties come out in full when he is tasked with transforming normal water into tirta, holy water blessed by the gods and sought by ailing individuals who require purification. Following a special performance, specific puppets are positioned onscreen to create a holy tableau that will bear witness to the offerings and transformation. Flowers are placed in some of the puppets’ hands. The dalang performs a series of mantras and incantations while interacting with an elaborate system of offerings and religious instruments. Beginning with his puppet of the God Siva, the dalang stirs the tirta water with the base rods of the puppets in the tableau. Through the puppets, the gods reach the water. When the ritual is complete, the puppet screen is removed to reveal the intended recipients dutifully seated on the other side of the puppet frame. With tirta water in hand, the dalang blesses the recipients across this threshold at once literal and symbolic.
I was completely caught off-guard by the first purification ceremony I witnessed. Armed with a description similar to what I recounted in the previous paragraph, I assumed that the ceremony’s preceding puppet show would reflect the piety of the occasion with an appropriately austere performance. Instead, a massive demon soldier puppet suddenly appeared on the screen with a great spear in both hands and a penis twice as large. This other weapon had its own stick for manipulating and would rise and fall in coordination with the demon’s high pitched cough. For the next fifteen minutes, I watched in hilarious disbelief as one of the clown characters — who, up until now, had been head-butting his enemies in the crotch — tried to figure out how to defeat his most formidable opponent yet. The audience ate it up. Forty-five minutes later, they sat respectfully quiet as the holy water was blessed.
It’s experiences like these that leave me feeling like I’m always at least one step behind whatever’s happening in Wayang Kulit. That’s not at all a bad thing— I should add— and it’s hardly surprising; Wayang Kulit is thought to be the oldest form of puppetry in all of Asia — centuries of culture and tradition have been distilled into these two-dimensional figures made of cow’s hide, black leather sealer, and acrylic colors. To study Wayang Kulit is to be thrown right into the middle of it all, and even more so if you’re entering its surrounding culture for the first time.
In the days leading up to my first performance, I felt particularly overwhelmed by all that I was stacking up against. There was just too much to learn— too many disparate skills to practice, too many languages to remember, too many cross-cultural peculiarities to bridge. I kept dwelling on something Jerzy Grotowski once wrote: A Westerner doing “Oriental" theatre is either "free" - and thus like a monkey imitating his master, making pseudo-signs without precision or usefulness, trying to find the “forces" manifested by actor/mediums, etc …. the affective imagination — or else he is a near-perfect Balinese, though not quite so good. Except, words twisted in my memory, all I could remember was that my two best options were to be a performing monkey or simply not as good as local.
At the top of the show, as the overture began, my timing was off on a few of my first cepalo strikes. I winced. Already, I was making a mess of things.
But the show went on, no problem. When you get down to it, it’s really just me and puppets back there — so long as I didn’t stop, no one else could. By the end of the opening scene I had loosened up. Jokes came easily, sudden improvisations surprised even me, and people laughed. This wasn’t so different than my paper cut-out wrestling matches, after all— and “broad humor" is called so for a reason. By the end of the show, my right leg had gone numb from gripping the cepalo and striking the box. My voice was ragged. A few embers sat in my lap, loosened from the torch when a dragon puppet’s tail swung wildly at its eagle opponent. Never before had I sweat so much while sitting down. But I made it through, and it was pure fun.
There’s a whole lot about Wayang that plays out like that. Amidst the whirl of activities and sectioning of brain activity, you get to sit beneath the stars and tell stupid jokes that are somehow much funnier coming out of the mouths of puppet shadows. Characters speak in voices and sounds you stopped making when you turned fourteen and decided to “be mature" (next time you run into me, ask about the Wayang monkey voice). And when it’s all over, you’re just a guy again— most of your audience usually leaves as the show is wrapping, wisely recognizing that all the best parts have come and gone. It’s grounding, even as it’s fleeting, as exhilarating as exhausting.
Most of all, participating in a Wayang Kulit show — be you performer or audience —affords you the opportunity to share in an ancient tradition that is still thriving today. The performance culture surrounding Wayang Kulit feels equal parts respect for its own history and attention to little shifts in local life. Somewhere in every show you will find a quixotic collision of now and forever — a demon from the Mahabharata gets compared to Jet Li, or Siwa’s older brother meets a puppet with jerry-curl who speaks in gibberish skat and finishes every sentence with the word Jazzzzzz. Some things stay from night to night and century to century; others come and go, conceived by a dalang’s imagination but given life — or killed off — by the public. I think it’s this marriage of the longstanding and the one-time idiosyncratic that allows a three-year-old’s playtime and a holy ceremony to juxtapose so easily within the same evening. Everywhere you go, puppets are serious, religious figures. They hang on walls to invite good energy into a room. They have their own temples and holy days. They are to be treated with respect (whatever you do, don’t step directly over one). At the same time, they’re never treated with the kind of perverted preciousness many religious figurations receive in the West. These are mystical hieroglyphics, but dammit, if they want to fart on screen you can bet they will— and most people love them all the more for it.
I gave my first full-length Wayang Kulit performance a little over a week ago. A clip from the show made it online so I figured— why not post it up on the blog, too?
Those good old nerves were acting up for this one more than for anything else I’ve performed in quite a while, but once the show got going I tried my best to loosen up and just have some fun. Watching the playback, I can see plenty of room for improvement all over— I think priority numero uno is developing a stronger awareness of the play between my light source and shadows (if only to better keep my hands out of view). That’s all par for the course, though, considering I’ve had only about two months of training so far. Those who came out to watch— English speaking and otherwise— all seemed to enjoy themselves, which is always a good sign. As for me, I’m just happy to now know that I can do it!
Plenty more words about Wayang to add to the blog soon, but in the meantime I hope you enjoy the show.
Things are afoot!
I finished making this guy today and was proud enough to want to share it on the blog, where literally dozens of other people might see it. Much more on the way soon…
In Prague I began my Watson year by studying wood carving for marionette construction. It was an exercise of negative creation; you chip away at your material until, miraculously, a figure emerges. In Abian Semal, a small village in Bali, I recently attended a tooth filing ceremony. This was a ritual of blunting revelation; they filed away at your sharpest fangs, rounding off any demonic semblances until, as expected, your more human figure emerged.
In London I met a woman who suggested that the first puppet I ever encountered was my own skeleton.
In Kyoto I met an antique dealer who kept Bunraku heads, arms, and whole bodies among his collection of Japanese relics. Here I explored the inner mechanics of Bunraku manipulations: stick your left arm into the puppet’s back and grab hold of its neck where you’ll find a small network of levers affixed to strings running out into the puppet’s head. Pull the left one and the puppet blinks. Pull the front one and its head snaps into place. Only days earlier in Tokyo, on the recommendation of my friend Daiji, a Butoh dancers, I had booked an appointment to receive a special kind of single-needle acupuncture. It was invasive and intense. The acupuncturist, a former dancer himself, asked, "かんじる?"— do you feel it?— after every insertion. The correct answer was always yes. You were meant to feel the needle enter your body, meant to experience the resulting waves crashing beneath your skin, appearing out of nowhere yet clearly emanating from the tiniest of source points. Stick my right calf and my hip socket throbs. Stick the inside of my thigh and my big toe twitches uncontrollably.
Here in Denpasar, I slightly dislocated that same big toe last week after a night of barefoot Futsal with friends. It wasn’t awful but it was enough to impact my stride and my landlord’s son noticed. He recommended I show it to his father, who I guessed was an expert at this sort of thing based on his son’s broken English and the popping sounds he made as he pantomimed an invisible limb. The next day, his father prepared a small bowl of water and a vegetable that looked like a shallot. He cut the vegetable and mashed it in the water while reciting a prayer, then spread the mixture all over my foot. He pressed and kneaded into my leg. He massaged the top of my foot with his thumbs until the veins shown blue beneath the surface. He pressed into the middle digit of my second smallest toe, sending a searing sensation up my leg and into my face, clouding my vision. Letting go, he placed my two feet together and pressed into the space between my big and second toes with the tips of his biggest toes. From this position, we held hands as I stood up and sat down six times. Finally, he let go and asked how my toe felt. It was perfect. I was able walk as if nothing had happened— and indeed, I understood very little of all that had just happened.
Recounting these experiences, I feel myself growing newly aware of the beguiling honesty buried within the words, “second-nature". I see how the exuberance found in assimilating things formerly foreign can easily obscure an integral truth so clearly contained in the very construction of the phrase— that these are second-tiered masteries, at best. Breathing isn’t second nature, it is nature itself. But movement, our own bodies— these remain questions for me.
If there is any truth to be found in what I was told in London, if our own bodies really are our oldest puppets, it is a truth that I find difficult to comprehend from moment to moment. My own skeleton is hardly a foreign object; it ceased to be so soon after our first introduction. Over time, I grew so proficient at its daily manipulation that I stopped seeing it as manipulation at all. I had swaddled my skeleton. Physically inhabiting space— piloting my own body in real-time— no longer seemed miraculous; it was second nature. But this year has served me a global flow of contrarian reminders. I can no longer brush aside the gnawing fact that something alien lies buried deep in the relationship I keep with my own body. Though our now-twenty-three-year-old partnership feels like an old embrace, only my muscles know its deepest contours. Only they know the secrets resting in those most intimate pockets, secrets that they, too, have swaddled. My muscles have pressed these secrets so firmly against my bones that they are now etched into the calcium as invisibly as the prayer that my landlord silently etched into the shallot-like vegetable when he fixed my big toe.
I already feel that the deepest, most preciously kept answers to these secrets will remain inaccessible, inside me yet forever out of reach. It seems to me that they have been designed so as to be taken to my grave, only to be made visible after all that covers them has turned to dust. Nevertheless, I will continue to seek them out as I live. In my travels, I have found that this search can be an act of positive reverence; rather than hacking away at what we have in search of things buried beneath, we create metaphorical bodies and physical fictions as a way to pay our respects to mysteries at once too foreign and intimate to ever fully comprehend.