Thursday, November 19, 2009

An Idea That Is Hazardous to Your Health

At the end of last week an article on breastfeeding caught my eye. Apparently, some celebrities have recently boasted about breastfeeding’s bulge-burning benefits. The article offered a response, amassing anecdotes from Every Woman for and against, asking: Is it true?

On the one hand, as someone who might qualify for professional nurser status, I warmed to the article’s positive pose. Mother of five, I have nursed for a total of over ten years—nearly a quarter of my life—and haven’t stopped yet. It works for me, for my kids, for our family.

On the other hand, however, the article made me shudder, and not (just) because it appeared in a fashion segment focused on fat. Left intact and even reinforced by the discussion was the greatest obstacle there is to any women figuring out for herself what strategies for nurturing her child will work for her: the idea that her body is a thing. This idea is hazardous to our health.

While no one came out and said, my body is a thing, the discussion assumed that a maternal body is a material entity subject to rules that apply in most cases. Is breastfeeding-to-lose such a rule? Women interviewed in the article and those who responded to it lined up for and against the rule based on their experiences. Those for whom it was true expressed delight that their bodies worked as they should. Those for whom it wasn’t were resigned or resentful or rebellious, blaming their bodies, or citing variables that interfered with the rule's effect (like metabolism, not enough sleep, or inadequate exercise).

However, the point to take home is not the truism that every woman is unique. The unsung point concerns the nature of health itself. Health is whole. What is healthy for us is something we must work out for ourselves in the context of the relationships that sustain us. Health is not given to us, it is created by us, as we use the information at our disposal to discover and grow the seeds of what our own bodily selves know.

Health, in this sense, is both the ability to know what is good for us, and the willingness to align our thoughts and actions with that knowledge. To have it, we need to cultivate it in our sensory selves and for our sensory selves every day—even and especially when figuring out how best to nurture a child.
This “health” is absent from current “healthcare” debates as well. Health is not what we get when we secure cheap drugs, insurance policies, or the right diet and exercise plan.

Even so-called “preventative medicine” is not about health. It is about monitoring a few variables that scientists know how to measure, marking them as “indicators,” and then prescribing drugs or behavior modifications designed to keep our numbers within a specified range. It is about identifying and managing risks based on statistics gathered over other times, places, and persons.

Little in our contemporary approach to healthcare is about helping us learn for ourselves how to discern for ourselves what is good for us. We are told what is good for us and advised to implement it, for our own good. The assumption is that we don’t know.

Yet, the fact is that no stack of statistics can deliver the most important piece of information you need for your ongoing health: which dot on the curve is you? No one can tell you what you most need to know: what works to enhance your health?
Our bodies are not things. Our bodies are movement—movement that is constantly registering sensations of pain and pleasure designed to guide us in making choices that align with our best health.

Yet this capacity for knowing what is best for us remains a mere potential unless we develop it. Specifically, we need to learn to welcome, work with, and refine our sensations of pain and pleasure, so that our sensory selves can become surer guides.

Support in doing this kind of work is what mothers—as well as those concerned with health—need.
You must like nursing, people say. Well yes and no. It’s not really about liking it. It’s about making the movements that allow me to be the mother, dancer, and philosopher I am and want to be. It’s about making the movements that will enable me to keep working, keep sleeping, keep the child napping, stay sane. It’s about managing the flow of thoughts and feelings, laundry and lunching. It’s about convenience and challenge, pleasure and well-being, time saved and spent. It’s about investing in an immune system and trusting in touch. It’s about figuring out what works, and having the faith and fortitude to honor it. It's about health.

There is no way to measure the complexity of variables that make breastfeeding right for me, and thus no way for me to assume its rightness for anyone else.

Our health is something we cultivate through practices of attention to our own bodily selves. But we cannot begin to do so until we stop looking outside of ourselves for the rule that applies to our bodies, and start welcoming whatever information and stories come to us, not as grounds for judging ourselves, but as vital resources for helping us explore the movements we can make towards our own health. It's what our bodies know.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Thoreau's "Tonic of Wildness"

“Can I go for my walk?” Jessica asks the question halfway through our home-school day. The arc of her interest in geometry has waned; her eyes wander outside already. I let the rest of her go.

This will to walk is recent and new. One day she simply announced that she would. Even then she wasn’t interested in a walk, or walking per se, but in her walk, something done by her, for her, with her.

Since then she has owned her walks. And when she returns from the fields and forest, the glow in her eye and the ray on her cheek tell stories her words sometimes match. She shares tales of the chipmunk she saw nibbling nuts, the stick that took shape beneath her whittling knife, or the dreams of the garden she plans to plant that formed in her mind.

Is this how Jessica should be spending her home-school time?
I am rereading Walden, Henry David Thoreau’s account of his two-year “experiment in living” simply and deliberately on the shores of Walden Pond. Though I read him many years ago, I am startled this time by how familiar the work seems: he launched his experiment for reasons that resound through our family's move here to the farm. He wanted to establish a perspective on contemporary society that would allow him to evaluate its values and practices, with an eye to making improvements. He wanted to wake up his senses, free his thoughts from their ruts, and live a life he loved to live. We do too.

For his part Thoreau was concerned that the obsessive-consumptive habits of society were dulling people’s senses and enslaving them to a quantity and quality of labor that failed to nourish their best selves. As he laments, “The better part of man is soon plowed into the soil for compost,” with predictable results. While the production of goods and services and the technological mechanisms for making and marketing them all flourish, individual humans don’t. Depressed by the sense-numbing pace of life, people crave distraction from expensive entertainment that ties them ever more tightly to their treadmills.

In Thoreau’s memorable words: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation… concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind… There is no play in them.”

Here on the farm, we share his concern, especially when it comes to kids. Teen persons in our culture have no purpose but to be educated for enterprises they will not be able to accomplish for another ten years. They scramble to compete for grades, awards, and victories that have no immediate bearing on their daily lives. Otherwise, they exist to be entertained. So separated from their bodily selves, they are easily seduced by virtual visions of pleasure, and quickly addicted to the rush they get by plugging in and pulling away from their connectedness with natural world. Is it surprising that so many teens feel alienated and depressed? Is it so surprising that they too, like the rest of us, cast about for the quick fix?

Addressing his contemporaries with prophetic wit, Thoreau asks: “What is the pill which will keep us well, serene, contented?” Thoreau’s response expresses the same intuition that guided us here: the only possible pill comes from grandmother Nature’s medicinal chest. The tonic of wildness.

Why Nature? Nature, according to Thoreau, awakens his senses in ways that feed his thoughts; Nature thus entices him participate in the ongoing work of creation—his own included.

For sure, Thoreau is interested in natural phenomena in general. An avid observer of plants and animals, earth, pond, and sky, his book chronicles changes of seasons and the cycles of a day. Yet he doesn’t go to Walden to observe nature per se. He seeks a time, space, and experience that will help him to a true account of life in all its manifestations. Human life included. He wants to sink beneath the surfaces of social doing and find a rocky real on which to stand.

What does he find? What a body knows. He finds endless movement—an ongoing movement of universal creation creating itself in him, around him, and through him. The rhythms of the natural world train his senses to see and smell and hear and taste the waves and trajectories of life’s becoming.

Further, once trained by Nature to notice Her movement, he sees and senses his own participation in it. He too is part of Nature’s ongoing work; Nature lives through his currents of feeling, his arcs of sensations, and the meandering of his own daily walks. Most importantly, for Thoreau, Nature lives in and through the rooting and unfolding of his thoughts. To live like Nature, then, is to find the freedom to think the thoughts that make of the day what it can be. As he writes: The universe constantly and obediently answers to our conceptions... let us spend our lives in conceiving them.”

Nature, then, for Thoreau, is much more than a beautiful context or convenient set of metaphors for human pursuits. Nature is teacher and guide. Nature offers him the sensory education that he needs in order to be able to think about anything—whether railroad or woodchuck—with the same careful attention to its value relative to the “necessaries” of human life.

Our family moved for this same enabling proximity to the natural world so that we might bring our senses to life, find our freedom, and learn to live in love. Our mission: CliffsNotes to Walden.
Jessica comes back from her walk with tales of being stuck in a tree. She ventured out on a branch that led her onto another tree, and then found that the path was one way only.

“How did you get down?” I ask.

“I slid like a sloth down the branch and then dropped.” She smiles as she sits down to write. I smile too. I’m grateful. She is in good Hands.

In this home-schooling venture, I’ll take all the help I can get.