Contraction and Extension

I taught Elaine Scarry’s book, Body in Pain, and thought a lot about her chapter on–bear with me, here–torture.

Suppose the tortured prisoner seeks solace in the familiar–the cell in his bed, e.g. The torturer beats him with the bed. Now the prisoner can not reach out for solace. Furthermore, in turning domestic comforts into a weapon, the torturer has alienated the prisoner from civilization, in turning the room (the smallest unit of civilization) into a weapon. The process continues, until the torturer makes the prisoner’s body turn against him. The torturer denies the prisoner voice. By cutting off all connections, the torturer has contracted the prisoner’s world. By forbidding all methods of external and internal relief, by denying recognition of the prisoner’s screams, the torturer unmakes the prisoner’s self.

In contrast, Scarry says, the struggle to stay alive is about extending oneself. We make connections with loved ones, with our community. We carry a “handbag of familiar objects,” bringing ourselves out with us into the world. (I figure this is why people get tattoos, or why my son brought his toy bus, which fit firmly into this little hand, when he’d go to daycare when he was two.) When people are old, Scarry says, their bodies debilitate, and their space might be contracted into a two-foot radius. So they use voice. It may come across as endless storytelling, but this is the effort to extend oneself in the struggle to be alive.

This, to me, is what freedom is.

This makes a lot of sense when applied to grief.

Last summer I contracted, because I was afraid. I held myself in so tightly that my back and arms were chronically sore. I wore long-sleeved shirts in public so as not to extend myself. My college roommate visited from lovely San Francisco and wondered why I wouldn’t leave our grungy little town or this house where my husband killed himself. “I feel safe here,” I told her.* Extension was so dangerous. Being closed in was safe.

Such contraction, over time, was untenable. I knew that I needed a healthy back to shovel the driveway and to lug the garbage and recycling bins up and down that driveway, and walk those two, giant dogs of mine. I needed to unclench so I could be calmer with my kids. I remember one of my first yoga classes, the teacher had us bend each finger, one at a time. “I have a finger!” I thought, with surprise. (That’s how closed in and closed off I was, even from my own body. In Scarry’s terms, that how far my world had contracted.) Yoga has taught me that extension could be under my control, it didn’t have to be so scary.**

Extending ourselves can, nevertheless, be scary (driving down the driveway in the snow), or painful (any number of home improvement projects), or just plain sad (Christmas).

Every once in a while extension is sort of fun (fixing the broken porch stair with our new power screwdriver, or bribing the kids with butterscotch and not giving a damn).

But, don’t get me wrong,  I won’t be skydiving anytime soon. There is no bucket list, no aspiration, no display of my good fortune for all to see on Facebook. This is a struggle to be alive, and it’s primarily defined by struggle. Any efforts are sincere efforts to inculcate good habits. These efforts lack vitality. Really, I don’t give a damn about the healthy things we do. The kayaking picture I added to my header was taken after my daughter and I nearly melted down in the middle of the lake. Even the beautiful stuff and our wacky little adventures are fraught with our pain and anxiety and other crap. And everything is just so hard. Still, I’ll just keep doing the healthy stuff until I feel something someday, I guess.***

And now that I look at that kayaking picture, it is a beautiful lake, so close to us, and aren’t we fortunate to have it, and isn’t my daughter an awesome human being. I can resist the beauty, but it’s there, whether I want it to be or not.

And you know, I’d pulled daughter out of school that day of this kayaking picture.  Maybe I did sign daughter out of school in Fall 2012 when half the rest of the town did. I don’t think she’ll get rejected from MIT because of it at the end of this decade, do you? I’ve gained the courage to say, Screw it, and I get away with it. Not-giving-a-damn is also liberating.

I also don’t care about including some people or things or norms or social pressures into my life as I rebuild. In struggling to be alive/make connections/”extend”,  I’m only making the connections I choose to make.

To wit: I haven’t gone to the parent-teacher conferences this school year. They send home the sign-up forms, I don’t sign up, and no teacher scolds me for not attending.

When I need to talk about my children, I email the teacher. The teacher responds. Done.

Screw those conferences. To tell you the truth, I never saw the point of those inane conferences  I dutifully attended in the past, because I felt obligated to Be a Good Parent.  Now, I’ve blown off the conferences, and no one has declared me a Negligent Parent or my child a Delinquent.

To wit: One day, in the retro grocery store where I shop so I can avoid most everybody in this small town, I ran into the Popular Mom. Seriously, the moms adore her. She is some sort of minor celebrity. And let me note for the record: her hair looked great. I smiled. I said hello. As I drifted past her, I heard her issue some small talk about this lovely store. I KEPT WALKING, smiling politely.

I’m freeing myself from the petty pressures that  normal folks give into. Here, in the marginal space I occupy, where I’m hardly invited anywhere anymore, and feel like both the Recipient of Community Charity and social outcast, I’m weirdly free. I’m kind, I’m grateful, but I’m not overly connected.

Back to Elaine Scarry. This is what extension looks like–everything has been stripped away, and I extend, on my own terms.

At this stage in the grief game, contraction continues to be a safety mechanism in my feeble efforts to extend. I was at a meeting this week, feeling decent energy, and I smiled and chatted when I sat down. See? I extended myself. Then, in the thick of the meeting, someone tossed out a funny one-liner, and someone else topped it. People broke out into ready laughter. They threw their heads back, or leaned over toward one another. That’s good camaraderie, but being swept away in this jocularity was scary to me. While the enthusiasm swarmed around me, I wouldn’t enter it, and I didn’t let it enter my space, either. I sat upright, smiling softly so as not to be a weirdo, and just waited for the laughter to subside.


*She received that with her kindly eyes, but her grimace betrayed her befuddlement. That’s when I saw my own pathos reflected back at me.

**Also, I couldn’t stand to be near babies.

***I still can’t bear to be near babies, by the way. The therapist nailed that one. “Were you a happy mother of babies?” she asked. Oh, I was, we were so, so happy and full of hope. Well, that explains that. Keep babies away from me, folks, until further notice. Your pink-cheeked baby is shattering my heart into a million pieces.


6 thoughts on “Contraction and Extension

  1. It is just me or is there irony in a person named ‘Scarry’ to have written definitive study of pain and inflicting pain? Interesting post. I need to come back and read it again.

  2. It’s a convoluted post. I don’t have all the ideas sorted out, but I wanted to get it down before I forgot. I probably should have deleted it, but I know it will be helpful later as a marker.

    This notion of contraction and extension has been a helpful device to gauge my behavior. Sometimes I feel like a freak, but then I see that I’m just not overextending. It’s helping me to see that some of my most peculiar behavior has been self-protection. And the small efforts are more significant when I see them through this lens.

  3. First–personally, I hope you don’t leave this grungy little town anytime soon, except for vacation! 🙂 Also, the meltdown and then kayaking, at least is better than just a meltdown and then nothing?
    I think it’s good not to care too much about what other people expect and about what other people think, whether it is at the office or among the other parents, and by living like this, you’re setting a good example for the kids.

  4. Pingback: Space | somenewnormal

  5. “This is what extension looks like–everything has been stripped away, and I extend, on my own terms.” Could that be said any better? I say things like, “I can’t be around anyone or anything that I don’t want to be.” You – and Scarry – just put it into words that make sense. I’m raw and fucked and I’ll be damned if “extension” includes anything I don’t think belongs there.

    In case I didn’t say this already, I absolutely love your writing.

    • Thank you for commenting on this! It seems like I wrote it ages ago, I was in such a tough space. It was only about 6 months ago. Still, the Scarry ideas continue to help me, no matter where I’m at. Thank you!

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