Human Contact

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Brown dog with ears up peering out of shadowed doorway.

The skin of my hands; the skin of her back; the beat in my chest; the long pause. Her breath, shuddering.

There are so many things I found impossible to put into words last year. I massage a woman’s back with a feather-light touch as she labors, her body straining with contractions. On the television, the news anchor describes “riots” in Ferguson. This was in the fall – after Mike Brown’s death, before the non-indictment announcement. My stomach twists into knots, but my anger and grief are not useful here. I look over at the woman, still hooked up to too many machines and switch off the monitor.

We breathe together, then separately. At the height of her contractions, it is like no one else in the world is there. I love the feeling of a woman’s hand crushing mine as the rush moves through her; that’s when I can feel her energy engulfing mine, like two soap bubbles merging.

When I am out at a protest, several months later, I go alone. I want contact, but the energy of the protesters has some other quality to it – a buzz rather than a hum. I feel like I am bearing this weight inside that cannot be shared in language, so I march. Onto the pavement of darkened streets and over barricades and finally onto the West Side Highway where they turn off some of the streetlamps as we continue to move uptown. When I finally peel off, I see from afar that the group is shrouded in darkness, occasionally lit with an eerie purple from the mixed red and blue of the cop cars’ lights.

I feel useless. I babble to myself when I get home, and I cut off all my sentences midstream. To listen to me is unintelligible – metaphor, image, plot, concept, but no character. No contact. The skin of her back; the skin of my palms. I think about the philosophical things. I think about what would be useful to say. I want to write something that would heal my incapacitation, the deep sense of hopelessness I feel while watching the news. The beat in my chest; the long pause.

The baby arrives in the early morning, when we are all just about ready to take a nap. My co-doula and her husband have arrived, and we all take shifts, sleeping on hard wooden chairs. It’s when a new doctor arrives that we are all jolted to attention. She’s funny, and actually looks the mother straight in the eye, rather than keeping her gaze trained between her legs. It seems like in no time at all she’s fully dilated and a head covered in hair is spilling out into the doctor’s arms. I let go of the mother’s leg and the doctor places the baby on her chest.

I have to rock back and forth on my feet to stay awake when we are moved out of the labor and delivery ward; our bubble of shared energy has burst and I have started to feel how heavy my own limbs are. When I arrive home, I collapse into a deep sleep and do not write about it for months.

Everything has a gestation period. I’m seeing it in the actions we’re taking against anti-black racism, and I’m seeing it in my writing. I tend to agree with Lynda Barry: I write not to escape this world but to be able to live in it. And damn, did I want to do some escaping. Then I think about that woman’s shuddering breath, the one that called us to action and I remember. This is about making contact.