The woman with two spines

I needed a day like today at the beginning of this trip. I’ve stepped outside the round of meals, meetings, workshops and discussions which fill each day. I’ve been walking around, orienting myself to the campus of Hampshire College, as well as to the town about five miles away. Settling in, just in time to go home again.

In mid July, there’s a not a student to be seen. The campus is used as a conference centre for the summer months. There’s one area reserved for Feldenkrais practitioners, and a couple of camps for teenagers inhabit the dorms around the piney fringes. Three times a day, these groups compete for space in the dining hall, primal fears inducing us to elbow each other out of the way and fill our trays with more food than we can possibly eat.

Hampshire College feels like a newer and ritzier version of Bishop’s University in Quebec, where I did my B.A. It’s a large campus, with carefully spaced and well-maintained buildings, all of which appear to have been build since the 1970s.  The Bishop’s buildings are a hodgepodge, spanning over a century of architecture and crammed together in odd clumps rather than carefully spaced, as they are in this campus; still, the aura of a liberal arts college is inescapable. I can almost smell the combination of safety and adventure which thirty years ago opened up the world to me, and me to the world.

I remember my claustrophobic feelings as I realized that the sum total of my familiar faces for the next three years would be smaller than the population of my high school in Toronto. I remember crying myself to sleep for weeks on end in the dorm with its sandpaper carpet, its mattress covered in squeaky plastic, its pressboard desk facing a wall stained with tape marks from previous inhabitants. There was the constipating awkwardness of sharing a bathroom with strangers – all of whom seemed so ungovernably rowdy I refused to speak to them for fear of giving offense and being attacked in the night.

This soon gave way to excitement as I saw how much was available to me within that little circle of buildings. Soon, I turned to those formerly-threatening neighbours for dating advice. I came to love the intimacy of the place.

It took me a long time to write that.

It was painful to put every sentence together. I’m rusty. Out of practice, simple as that. All week I’ve been concentrating on a discipline which cultivates spontenaity, and puts me in touch with my most basic urges and fears, the traumas and joys of childhood development, the accommodations I have made, skeletally and emotionally, throughout adulthood. Rich material for writing. You’d think it would release a flood of verbal treasures but instead my thoughts have been fragmentary, words elusive.

Well, I haven’t been doing it. It’s all about the bum in the seat, the 10,000 hours that it takes to master a craft and the daily commitment it takes to maintain it. I’m oh so aware that those 10,000 hours of practitioner-craft are going to take a long time to accumulate, because they always come second to writing. At a certain basic point they’re part of the same thing. But at another basic point, they’re not. When it comes to spending time, there’s a always choice to be made. And I always choose writing.

Feldenkrais is supposed to calm the nervous system and to be sure, it was chronic pain and allergies that led me to seek out the method and become a practitioner myself. Feldenkrais is no less than ideal for folks like me who pretty much wear their nerves on the outside. It is the only thing that has helped. But only to a point. Not unlike in homeopathy, it’s a matter of finding the ideal dose. When immersed too much in my body, I become more, not less agitated. Yesterday as I lay on the floor doing a fascinating Awareness Through Movement lesson led by David Kaetz, I could literally feel the impulses firing up and down my spine. The situation was getting worse, not better, and I knew it was time for a day spent with words.

After cutting out of this morning’s worskhop I went to the Yiddish Book Centre. Built to look like an old east European shtetl, it houses thousands of Yiddish books which continue to be shipped in, daily, from all over the world, faster than they can be catalogued. The moment I walked through those doors, I felt the agitation and trouble of the week settle.

The centre houses not only books but posters, sheet music, films and recordings. They even have the old printing presses recovered from various sources. It’s a library within a museum, a museum within a library, where among the stacks you can read wall panels about various authors, and get information about how their books were recovered. You can sit at a listening station to hear music, or visit the theatre at the back, where videos of Yiddish comedy and music play constantly. There’s an audio-visual installation celebrating Jewish home life in America, where I spent more time eavesdropping on a couple reminiscing about their childhoods, than I did watching the images on the screen.

Best of all there are boxes of books in piles, everywhere. The unarchived books are part of the display, and part of the ongoing task of the museum. As a visitor, I felt I might as well open one of the boxes, roll up my sleeves and start working. There was so much to do. The vitality and oppenness of this struck me as lovely. I found no “Staff only beyond this point,” no “Please don’t touch.” A downstairs sorting and storage area had no door on it at all – no one stopped me from walking in and taking a look around.

The chaotic feeling — within a most beautifully designed and maintained facility – puts across the message that life is renewed in the preservation of history. Preserving history – through words – is quite simply one of the pillars of my existence. Another kind of spine.

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