It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night
is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.
— John Steinbeck
In the days when companies could still afford to send their employees out of town to engage, free of other demands, in strategic thinking and planning, it wasn’t uncommon for planning sessions to last two days and to include an overnight.
When I’ve designed or facilitated such meetings, that first day would be about uncovering the “current situation” and the call for change — the reasons the strategic planning was needed in the first place. Faint visions of more desirable futures might begin to emerge toward the very end of that first day. However, one certainly couldn’t expect the assembled group to get anywhere near deciding how to move the organization from “here” to there” — to action steps or implementation — by evening.
Between the two days of hard collective thinking, those executives had to sleep. Sleep was perhaps “personal time,” a chance to get away, not only from the hard work of thinking but from the too-well-known voices of colleagues. But that night, a good number of those highly paid workers would no doubt dream about the stuff of the day — the conflicts, the skewed perceptions of reality held by their colleagues, the politics of coaxing a behemoth organization into a new gait.
The second morning was often when collaboration could really take off. Excited by the unfinished, broad-field visioning work of the first day and refreshed by sleep, group members would enter into the second morning’s work with zest and optimism, ready to make their vision whole.
Much has been made through the ages of the power of breaking bread together, of sharing meals; indeed, having meals together is regarded in many cultures as the way to build a sense of commonality prior to reaching important agreements. (If you like, take a look at the story on Nanette Sawyer’s book Hospitality in the November issue of Skin in the Game.) But we rarely talk of sleeping together with co-workers, except as a euphemism for sexual relationships.
Yet sharing the cycles of energy and exhaustion, giving collective attention with co-workers to those bodily rhythms, is a key factor in building the energy for change in those retreats. The “Design Shops” that master facilitators Matt and Gail Taylor have run, as well as the “Future Search” method developed by Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff, carefully build in sleep time for the socially creative process that’s required.
Weisbord & Janoff even recommend a three-day, “sleep twice” design for meetings, saying, “It’s not the total hours worked, but the spacing of learning — the ‘soak time’ — that leads us to understand each other’s views, fully accept the high and low points, and do new things together.”
The intimacy of shared exhaustion, a mutual inability to speak or listen any further, makes wholeness of the talking, the advocacy, the standoffs. Sharing the bodily underbelly of conscious, vocal collective presence changes everything once the energetic “professional” self returns, transformed and integrated, in the morning.
Comment from Mary Bast: I once did a retreat for an executive team whose leader wanted to move them from a competitive to a collaborative way of operating. After dinner the first evening of the two-day session, we arranged a volleyball game where, after about a half-hour of casual competitive play, I asked them to get together and figure out how to change the game of volleyball so it was collaborative instead of competitive. At first there were a lot of puzzled looks, but then they got into it. There was a lot of laughter, which was true of the competitive version, as well, but there were no more joking taunts about the “losers.” Instead, their energy went up several notches as they engaged together in a communal effort. This definitely changed our effort for the better on the second day.
In 1973, determining that they would “investigate human behavior from the back end,” William Rathje and a team of “garbage archaeologists” at the University of Arizona began combing through and coding the household garbage they found in the strata of urban landfills.
After all, just like ancient ruins, modern landfills “contain in concentrated form the artifacts and comestibles and remnants of behavior of the people who used them.” From garbage, archaeologists have been learning about our brand loyalties, our recycling patterns, our dieting behavior (and our erroneous self-reports of our own eating habits). Rubbish can even provide evidence of the specific populations living in a given locale — perhaps more accurately, Rathje and Murphy argue, than can the U.S. Census.
The Garbage Project’s work had its less systematic predecessors. In 1941, two enlisted men in the U.S. Army worked their way through meal discards to find out why the men’s first complaint was about the quality of Army food. The mid-1970s saw a fad of journalists grabbing and sifting through the trash of prominent political figures and celebrities, including Henry Kissinger, Bob Dylan, Neil Simon, Muhammad Ali, and Abbie Hoffman. (Once it was determined through several court cases that going through someone’s garbage was no invasion of privacy, a person’s refuse became legal game for analysis.)
In the Garbage Project’s product-lifecycle analyses, we see the karmic life cycle of goods, which are bought or otherwise obtained, digested, regurgitated or excreted, and transmogrified in new stewards’ hands. We see, in relationship to ever-hungry people, the ever-changing forms and uses of matter.
What is the difference between maintaining privacy and harboring secrets? Often we think about this question with regard to our verbal behavior, but what if we consider it with respect to our physical behavior, in our “outer bodies,” our homes?
Consider, why do we clean our homes before we have even our closest friends over? With our cultural prohibitions about sharing our financial information, we put away checking account statements, with our protection of our personal searches we put away our self-help books, with reluctance to have to engage in conversation about our unfinished novels, we store their leaves in a desk drawer.
But why do we scour our kitchens and bathrooms, spray and wipe the bookshelves of the living room, beat our rugs when, un-companied, we may live with them unscoured, undusted, unbeaten?
Observe your cleaning behaviors prior to having guests over to your home. Periodically cease your cleaning and consider what would happen if you stopped entirely, if you had your company over to see the house you actually live in, rather than the house you’d like them to believe you live in? What is the dominant thought, emotion, or gut-level sense that propels you to pick up the dust rag again?
Comment from Mary Ann Murray: Most of my life, I’ve been so into keeping things picked up and having the house I live in be fairly neat that it’s been hard to do much more when company came. This is probably where a trait of mine meshed well with being a minister’s wife. Over the years people in the congregations have been in and out of our house, and I got used to wanting to have our secrets hidden.
Still there have been times when this wasn’t so. When we were living in a farming community called Galatia, the people were so good to Charley and me. I still remember a visit from a member of the congregation when I was in the midst of getting a roll of toilet tissue from the commode where our young son Ed had deposited it and then gotten terribly upset when it wouldn’t flush. The kind soul who came for a visit, held Ed and comforted him and got me a plumber before she left.
I’m just not comfortable with mess, though. I honestly think my thoughts go this way, “If I can get some external order in my life perhaps internal calm and order will follow.”
Comment from Shana Steinberg: I don’t think I clean for guests to present them with a house I want them to think I live in, guests motivate me to get the cleaning done that is long overdue so that I can live in the house I want to live in.
The real secret of class distinctions in the West [can be] summed up in four frightful words …The lower classes smell.
~ George Orwell
~ Anne Fadiman
When, as a staunch New Yorker, I had the chance in 1994 to move to Kentucky for the second time for work, I saw it as a sign of three things.
I felt that I must be meant to (1) make a pilgrimage down to Memphis to visit my beloved Elvis’s Graceland; (2) host a Tupperware party, there in middle America, as a kind of welcome-back to this pragmatic place (so unlike the coasts on which I had always lived); and (3) at last get the dog I’d been wanting during all those years of living in a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn.
I named my excessively effervescent six-week-old black Lab mix Elope, like the tail end of Penelope. A Kentucky farm puppy, Elope’s name suited her. Her loping gait, which in adolescence would become a coltish canter, made sense of some of the name. And the zeal, frequency, and volume with which she peed in our front yard in the small college town of Berea, Kentucky, helped others remember this made-up name for her.
Early into new motherhood with Elope, I had a queer, sudden, but absolutely gut-level feeling that this dog had been given to me for a specific learning purpose — to help me “make peace with poop.” But what did that mean? And hadn’t I done that by age 3?
How could making peace with poop feel as if it were a spiritual path?
Planning to write this month about this strange developmental moment and how it might “read” for someone besides me, I Googled that disturbing recurring phrase and laughed at the first page of hits: There is actually a “movement” called “Poop for Peace.” OK, a bit different from what I had identified as a mysterious spiritual path, but not entirely unrelated.
Poop for Peace, an apparently worldwide annual observance begun in 2003 by author-activist (and obviously humorist) Dave Praeger, “is about acknowledging the fundamental basis of shared humanity: black or white, liberal or conservative, Christian or Muslim or Jew.”
The website is graphic with humor and links to supportive organizations. Poop for Peace even has a music video. (And for those who are inspired, the seventh annual observance will be in mid-April 2010.) On the appointed day, participants engage in their elimination effort, meditating, as per a set of written instructions on all those who share in this common practice. Pooping for Peace is democratizing, not unlike Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or the medieval woodcuts depicting how death inevitably comes to everyone.
The conclusion of the meditation: “Each one of us — popes, presidents, politicians, patriots, peasants, policemen, your parents, and on — each one of us has the same needs, wants, and desires. We all must eat, must drink, and must poop. Whatever our differences are, they pale in comparison to the great commonality: we are all human beings. And boy, does each of us stink.” Should you feel like commenting on your experience, the Poop Report’s website offers room for community sharing.
The concept is something like the performance works of the 1960s and 70s in which participants would receive written instructions for activities that they would perform, with only their own consciousness as audience. Inventor Allan Kaprow practiced his own toothbrushing as art. In many cases, the knowledge that others were engaged in like activity at like moments as they were making their own contribution to the artwork. Naturally, worldwide prayer activities have long emphasized our common humanity across disparate locations. Supported nowadays by Internet technology, simultaneous meditations truly achieve worldwide simultaneity and, one can hope, a sense of the the global community’s bond.
Not everyone wants to hook into human elimination within the sphere of public dialogue. Though pooping is universal, disgust, after all, has also been identified as a universal human expression.
Charles Darwin tried to specify the features of disgust, “Is disgust shown by the lower lip being turned down, the upper lip slightly raised, with a sudden expiration, something like incipient vomiting, or like something spit out of the mouth?” His 1872 book, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, generated public discussion on the question of whether man was really nothing but a worm — an image used in Eastern teachings and meditations to ease acceptance of the universality of decline and death.
In the 1960s, psychologist Paul Ekman began documenting “universals” of the expression of human emotion, finding common abilities across cultures to identify expressions of seven emotions: anger, fear, sadness, happiness, surprise, contempt, and disgust, and isolating 43 muscles of the face that would be pulled in specific patterns to indicate each one.
A contemporary expression of the notion of the human worm is the bestselling children’s book Everyone Poops. Full of whimsical illustrations of different members of the animal kingdom relieving themselves, the book has generated more than 200 reviews on Amazon.com, many of them favorable and often written by parents who have recently gone through the process of toilet training a child. Several reviews however, exhibit our universal potential for a disgust reaction. It’s possible this reviewer was aiming for a comic effect yet, because of our cultural inhibitions about elimination, the following might have been written by someone entirely serious:
“I worked as an aide for an after school program where I helped take care of 2-to-6 year olds almost every afternoon. One thing I continuously taught them was how they should try to poop as LITTLE as possible. … I taught them to hold it in — why? It SHOULD make you feel ashamed of yourself! It derides you morally, it’s a most indecorous behavior. … I would strongly suggest to anyone – ESPECIALLY children – not to poop more than 120 times a year. My personal goal was 97 poops in a year and I did it in 2005.”
Others made a connection, between a common bodily process — humbling for many — and our connectedness to all living beings. As an Everyone Poops reader wrote on the Amazon site, “I don’t think the purpose of this book is to describe in detail the workings of the digestive tract. On the contrary, it appears to me that its purpose is to create a safe, fun, inquisitive environment for children to consider the functions of their own body, and to realize that many animals (including humans) are united by those very functions.” Another reviewer linked humans’ becoming more comfortable with, or “demystifying” poop, as an excellent preparation for the field naturalist’s core task of “identifying scat.”
A mother wrote an Amazon review about the civilizing effect on her young daughter, about whom the family had been worried, of making peace with poop. The relieved parent wrote:
“For a while, we were all worried that this child would be in diapers for several years. She didn’t seem to mind having a dirty or wet diaper — didn’t even notice. We could all be sitting around playing and then the most noxious smell would emanate from her. I’d look her straight in the eyes and say, “E, did you poop?” And she’d look back at me, eyes as wide as big blue saucers, and slowly shake her little head, saying, “Nooooo.”
“One day, when she had insisted that, indeed, she did NOT have a poopy diaper, I remembered this book, long forgotten on my shelf, and said to her, “E, it’s okay. Everyone poops.” At that moment, something clicked. She stopped crying and fighting, looked at me and said, “Everyone poops?” I nodded and started listing everyone she knows. (SuSu poops. Nana poops. Daddy poops. Gamma poops. Baby Arthur poops. The cat poops, etc.) And after that diaper change, I got this book down from the shelf and showed her. …
“Thanks to this book, whenever she has a poopy diaper, she’ll walk up to me (or my mother or grandmother … ) and say, “Poop!” She now understands that it’s okay that she did it, that it’s natural, that everyone does it. And sometimes, when she feels the urge to poop, she’ll come up to us and say, “Everyone poops!”
How have you “made peace with poop”?
Comment from Jim Orlando: Your subject matter reminds me of something that just happened last Saturday. I was at my grandson’s 2nd birthday party. My daughter-in-law’s father and I were sitting next to each other on the couch. He was reading the Bible to himself. (Sounds like a wild party, huh?) So, I picked up a kids’ book that was sitting on the coffee table. Picture this …. He was reading the Bible and I was reading a book titled “Everybody Poops.”
Comment by Faye Klitsner: Must go outside now to pick up the mountains of poop my dog deposited. I’ve noticed some really cool poop formations, and I view my dog as an artiste extraordinaire. Vinny’s “Leaning Tower of Pisa” is definitely my favorite of all his creations. Yesterday he did an interesting poop in the style of Van Gogh!
And then I looked at the numbers on the cars, on the license plates going down the road and I could see what I am it was in all the letters and numbers in the license plates. And then it was in all the colors. There wasn’t anywhere I could look that I wasn’t that. I even got home and there was this big old pile of dog mess right there in the driveway, and I thought, I wonder if it’s there, and I looked and, sure enough! There’s nothing profane or profound when it comes to what you and I are. Those are just tags we put on things.
When I first started drafting this story, I created a little formula for myself, tapping into memories of those old SAT analogies tests.
I’m not proud to admit I first put it this way:
An athlete: “normal” person ::
an abled person: person with a disability.
Many have noticed the fascination that so-called normals have with the movements of those with visible disabilities, as well as their scuffling attempts to disguise their curiosity. (I’d wager that the most curious are people who view those with disabilities as being fundamentally unlike themselves.)
In the even more public sphere, the hyper-flexible athlete-performers called contortionists also attract a gaze that comes from a sense of difference and otherness. While their physical capabilities are really not unlike those of some advanced yoga practitioners, dancers, and gymnasts, the drastic nature of the positions into which they get themselves can evoke for spectators a kind of kinesthetic horror; some people even describe getting nauseous watching contortionists’ circus acts.
They don’t all do “everything.” Contortionists may specialize in forward bending, like when they turn themselves into a “human knot,” their legs behind neck or shoulders; backbending, their heads tucked up to their buttocks (called a “head-set,” in case you’re ever asked this on a quiz show); splits and oversplits, the legs separated by 180 or more degrees; joint dislocations; or enterology, bodies squeezed into miniscule boxes.
The extreme limberness of these performer-athletes, developed over years of intense training, challenges our ideas of what the human body “should” be able to do, and what just seems beyond the human. When we see a knee turn inward, we generally assume something’s going to tear. It’s the deeds that challenge our ideas of the body’s structure that horrify us.
Olympic athletes also perform extreme feats, far beyond what the “normal” body can do. However, the realm of what they do tends far more often to lie in the realms of endurance, speed, coordination, and lift, as well as in an extraordinarily developed ability to select from among a panoply of specialized movements and predict the biomechanical consequences of infinitesimally small weight shifts. Less visible but no less exceptional is the discipline they bring to their work.
Speed and height seem to exhilarate rather than repel us. Snowboarding gold medalist Shaun White achieves fantastic heights as slopes and curves throw him into the air. He rotates his body in multiple aerial spins (“900s” and “1080s,” named for the number of degrees turned), somersault-axis flips, and combinations in both planes at once. White’s virtuosic jumps and turns and his control of the board have garnered YouTube viewings in the millions, a sign of attraction to rather than horror at the forms his excellence takes. It probably doesn’t hurt that, because of the speed with which a snowboarder traverses space, he has to be filmed from afar–which may help to ameliorate the intensity of our fascination with the workings of an extraordinarily developed body; he’s just not as threatening as a contortionist, though arguably is more talented. Although we can see, even at a distance, how he takes the upper body first into a turn, corkscrewing his lower body around after it, we keep a safe distance.
In America, we get a bit squeamish about getting too close to a male athlete’s beauty, grace, and especially body. As the late David Foster Wallace noted, it’s rare in sports commentaries or writing to find reference to any of these. His 2006 New York Times story, extravagantly entitled “Federer as Religious Experience,” offered tribute to tennis player Roger Federer. Like Michael Jordan, Wallace opined, Federer seems to be “exempt” from the law of gravity, possessing a kind of “kinetic beauty” that is rarely talked about in men’s sports. Beauty has a place in sports–even men’s sports, Wallace reminds us: while it’s “not the goal of competitive sports, … high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.”
Thankfully, on reflection, I realized my original formulation is all backwards and inside-out. The so-called disabled and the virtuosic athlete or performing artist both press outward our prior beliefs in the limits of human potential. Indeed, both experiences of the body are about specialization and adaptation.
So maybe my SAT test item should read:
An athlete: “normal” person :: a person with a disability: an abled person.
I remember the black and white cans lining the shelves, the cans advertising “Muscles in Heavy Syrup.” This was the Brooklyn Superhero Supply, which I happened upon during a recent walk-the-hood touch-base with my beloved old haunt.
Park Slope, Brooklyn was my home for eight formative years, with 8 x 52 x 5 of walking down 5th Avenue each morning on my way to the F station and stopping at Anthony’s Italian deli to pick up my usual breakfast–two cans of Diet Coke and a brownie–as Anthony, hearing my voice, would scurry up with a dripping taster’s spoonful of the eggplant parmigiana he was already preparing for commuters’ lunches.
Brooklyn has changed since then. There’s now a remarkable community writing center on 5th Avenue, fronted and funded by the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Store. Here, one’s most cherished visions of extra-human powers can be storebought:
A 16-ounce can of X-Ray Vision. A half gallon of Invisibility, described as “the oldest, most trusted strategy for remaining undetectable while fighting crime. When coated in Bugayenko Invisibility, you will not absorb or reflect light. Please keep that in mind when crossing the street or attempting to ask someone out.” Or catalog item #03578, Strong Vacuum Suction Cups, listed as “the ultimate solution for flightless superheroes.”
As an entering superhero, my difference from mortal humans is validated with signs covering all the walls, such as “If you are invisible, please make your presence known,” and “Rivalries and archrivalries must be left outside the store.” I see, too, that “The vow of heroism is not to be taken lightly.”
The Brooklyn Superhero Supply store is utilitarian, all except for the cape-testing station, where a highly regarded floor fan billows out the customer’s choice of red or black garment so that its movement against an internal image of one’s flying superhuman self. I instantly channel the companionship of my friend Charley, a Presbyterian minister with the playful spirit of an otter, who has on occasion jumped out of closets wearing his clergy gown and, inspired by the superheroes of comics past, declared, “It’s … … Clergy Man!”
I breathed the air of so many places without keeping a sample of any. In the end, everyone is aware of this: nobody keeps any of what he has, and life is only a borrowing of bones.
My friend David recently attended a Sunday evening church service at a predominantly African-American church on Chicago’s South Side. Hand waving, dancing, singing were only a sampling of the forms that bodily and vocal participation took there.
That preacher inspired one congregant to activate her electric wheelchair and whiz up and down the church aisles as she warmed up to the night’s message. Nothing stopped this worshipper from using everything she had. Who knows what others experienced as they witnessed this unusual expression of fervor?
In their duet She Without Arm, He Without Leg: Hand in Hand, Chinese performers Ma Li and Zhai Xiaowei make moving use of their unique body capabilities. In their first contact, her gaze travels from the bottom of his crutch all the way up to his eyes; it is the crutch she sees first. Later, Ma Li curves into the crutch that Zhai Xiaowei uses to balance his weight, given that he is working off of one leg. He supports her with both arms around her waist, as her one remaining arm wraps around his neck.
You might be glad you clicked on the five-minute video of She Without Arm, He Without Leg (and then come on back!). Ma Li and Zhai Xiaowei’s technique is virtuosic, a jaw-dropping display of the extended capabilities of bodies that had to create workarounds. The refined beauty of their choreography often derives both from the shapes the bodies make in space and the power to inspire of these two athletes–he a former Special Olympics cyclist, she a ballerina–who overcame their grief over lost movement options to invent others.
Perhaps the most stirring effect stems from the dancers’ presentation of expanded possibilities for partnering. Ordinary partnering allows dancers to become taller (as one dancer lifts another), to do spins in quantity (as one dancer supports the waist or hand of the other), or to achieve positions that take an interplay between two bodies for balance. Yet in She Without Arm, He Without Leg, the partnering takes on a heartbreakingly tender quality as each dancer compensates for the limited movement range of the other.
Just as the extraordinary able-bodied athletes we watch compete in the Winter Olympics in Vancouver this month expand our notions of the bodily possible, the adaptations those with disabilities create point the way toward the unconceived-of potentials of the body–possibilities we can’t even conceive of until ingenuity and necessity show them to us.
Over the past couple of decades, dance companies have developed choreography for dancers with paraplegia, cerebral palsy, and other disabilities, partnering them with each other or with able-bodied dancers. In one such dance, two men partner each other, the one without legs spinning around and horning around and under his able-bodied partner.
As a member of the Heidi Latsky Dance Company producing The Gimp Project explains, people want to look at people with disabilities, despite a certain shame in doing so. TGP’s producer, Jeremy Alliger, says that this form of dance alters spectators’ very notions of what constitutes dance and dancing–and who gets to be considered a dancer. So does the explicit emphasis of this dance on the sexuality and sensuality of those with disabilities.
In his award-winning Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence, Matthew Sanford, who has been paraplegic since the age of 13, traces his development as a yogi and teacher of those with disabilities into greater body-mind awareness. Through the change in his circumstances Sanford came to recognize that those with apparent disabilities are not a specialized population different in kind from so-called normals: “We all live on a continuum of abilities and disabilities,” he says. “As a paraplegic, I can no longer rely on the normal course of my daily life to ensure a healthy connection between my mind and my body. The same is true for all of us.”
As he rehabilitated his body without the ability to move his legs, Sanford learned to use his arms in “double time.” His path eventually took him to the practice of hatha yoga. He has evolved into a remarkable teacher of yoga students, especially those with disabilities–able to talk them, in the detailed style characteristic of the hatha yoga style, through the sensations that he cannot feel physically, but nevertheless experiences at an energetic level. For Sanford, working with disabled yoga students has shown him that the “principles of yoga are nondiscriminating–they can travel through any body.”
If “difference” is the source of the particular way one moves, how might the motion of a depressed body look, or display to the gaze and being of an onlooker? How does the gait of someone with sciatic pain or irrepressible physical energy appear, and what does it convey or share to those who are in nearby bodies?
As we watch and experience with another–even one whose bodily capabilities and expressions we find foreign–we may feel a kinesthetic empathy, a movement in our bodies that seems to correspond to the energetic effort and experience of others. It may be what we feel watching the ballet of the woman with one arm and the man with one leg, or it could be what Matthew Sanford “feels” when coaching a yoga student who has the use of his legs.
That kinesthetic empathy is the surge in us as we watch a parent run to pull a straying child out of the street, the tightness in our own chests as we watch an elderly neighbor make the effort to shovel heavy snow. It is body to body, and is perhaps compassion’s essence–one person’s being mirroring, even within, what he perceives the other’s experience to be.
Perhaps more difficult than to experience the pain or bodily limitation of another is to fully experience one’s own. But could this be a root of compassion? As Sanford pungently comments about the power of facing one’s own bodily limitation, “I have never seen anyone truly become more aware of his or her body without also becoming more compassionate.”