‘The soft animal of your body’

In a novel I recently read, a character’s hands were perpetually clenched. She wasn’t looking for a fistfight. She was steeling herself for the next struggle that her hard, sad, painful life would bring.

For me, it’s not the hands that clench involuntarily. It’s my jaw, my neck, my shoulders, my glutes, my legs.

“Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves,” Mary Oliver writes in “Wild Geese,” the poem that inspired me to quit my job, start this blog, and try to live Oliver’s advice. Mostly I have understood that advice metaphorically: giving myself permission to do what makes me feel whole and happy, and not to make the to-do list — or worrying about the to-do list — my main focus.

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Lately I am also thinking about the literal, physical animal of my body. It is not a soft animal. (Unless we’re talking about flab.) Deconditioned though I am after years of chronic illness, many of my muscles are not soft. They are tense, hard, painful.

The cause is mostly likely a combination of neurological (infections and/or inflammation) and physical (immune-triggered inflammation) and psychological/emotional. My doctors are helping with the neurological and physical — first through an onslaught of antibiotics, then through an extensive regimen of supplements to kill nasty microbes, support the good ones, and boost my immune system. In recent months, I’ve been following an anti-inflammatory diet: no wheat, dairy, peanuts, or nightshades. On top of my longstanding choice not to eat meat or fish, it’s quite restricted. But because it works — and because my wonderful husband enthusiastically cooks meals to fit the plan — I am sticking with it.

This week I’m limiting my food choices even further, as part of an Ayurvedic spring cleanse. I’ve never done any kind of cleanse before (fasting for Yom Kippur doesn’t count), and I’ve never practiced Ayurveda, the traditional Indian system of health and medicine. This cleanse calls for eating only cooked foods that are easily digestible — for example, some form of dal, rice, and vegetables at least once a day — and drinking only hot liquids. It calls for eating less of everything, especially at breakfast and dinner. It calls for going to bed earlier and getting up earlier (an ongoing challenge for me). It calls for practices I never expected to do, like tongue scraping and drinking melted ghee (better than it sounds) and, tomorrow, a castor oil purge (which might be every bit as bad as it sounds).

Part of the cleanse idea is to take it easy. Part of the idea is focusing inward. So when I woke up this morning, I could clearly acknowledge: the animal of my body is tired.

Tired, tired, tired. And sore. And clenched.

To address the tiredness, I’m trying to ease expectations for myself. As I write this, it’s 2 pm and I’m still in my pajamas. I haven’t worked at all on the to-do list — at least not the one that includes pre-Passover cleaning and filing health insurance claims.

To address the clenched soreness, I’m trying two other new things.

The first is very practical and hands-on: a form of stretching called PNF, for proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, a super-sciency way of saying that you create resistance with your own body to deepen the stretch. (Come to think of it, there’s a metaphor for you: the Ayurvedic cleanse is supposedly drawing toxins out of my system, possibly accounting for some of my current fatigue and pain. PNF consists of deliberately doing what my body subconsciously does all the time: create resistance. Both techniques involve bringing attention to what has been hidden in order to make it better.)

The second new thing I’m trying is … less practical-sounding, at least to me. I spoke by phone today with a hypnotist, and made an appointment for a Zoom session later this month. The tagline beneath her email signature is: “When Nothing Else Has Worked … Consider Hypnosis.”

For me, it’s not the case that nothing else has worked. So many things I’ve tried are helpful, even essential: yoga and psychotherapy, to name just two outside of the medical/naturopathic interventions.

But retraining my brain to stop clenching my muscles is a very large mountain to climb. It will take years at the rate I’m going. So I’m looking for a way to speed up the process — a castor oil purge for my brain.

As I tried to fall asleep last night, the familiar muscle spasms kicked in. They are always worst after I go to bed. I realized this morning that it’s almost as if my body is trying to keep me awake. Or my brain is trying to keep my body awake. I have no idea why. But it’s time to learn how to let the soft animal of my body … soften.

What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked. You can read about it here.

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