Mortal Lessons

Rear view of the bones of the torso-Flickr-U of Liverpool-12Nov2013-med

“I have learned more from studying the human body than I have from all the reading of my life. For me, the body is the source of truth. I continue to gaze and gaze at it until what gazes back at me is what, by some, might be called the soul.”

— Richard Selzer, The Exact Location of the Soul

In the first college writing class I ever taught I had students read aloud excerpts from Mortal Lessons, a collection of essays by surgeon Richard Selzer. The theme of the course was “The Art of Work,” and my reading list also included things like Studs Terkel’s Working. I was a grad student in Texas who’d left a corporate job to study the Humanities because I needed to get my body and mind out of a little gray cubicle–and yet, of course, I remained fascinated by gray cubicles, by our post-industrial rationales for working inside boxes of one kind or another, and by the leaps of imagination and ingenuity we still manage to make within or against them. After classes, without irony, I’d ponder all this in the basement of the library, sitting for hours in a wooden study carrell a third the size of my old cube.

Periodically, I’d untangle (or re-tangle) my limbs in a yoga studio near my apartment. The studio had just one teacher and his classes would center on one pose–you’d choose your class menu-style, by pointing to the photo of the yogi doing the pose you wanted to learn: peacock, pigeon, eagle, crow. The photos were what drew me to class. I liked the idea of them. I liked the metaphorical shapes. I was all up in my head no matter where I went or what I did.

To me, during this period, Selzer’s work was a demonstration of how critically reflective writing could generate empathy, and how creative nonfiction could be a kind of testimony. I wasn’t paying attention to the matter of bodies much at all–including my own, of course, short of my occasional attempts to fold myself into a bird.

Word of Ryan Brown’s upcoming San Francisco premiere of Mortal Lessons: A Medical Oratorio has brought me back to Selzer’s narrative voice.

Now I find my ears are trained less on the surgeon and more on the Body.

Over the years my own work has changed. I’m still a writing teacher but also a yoga teacher and story-worker. I’m returning to Selzer to listen more carefully to his biography of mortality. Now I encounter the Body as protagonist: objectified, injured, weary, intoxicated, misunderstood.

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