week 19: the skin of the heart

In September, 2016 I started a year-long personal challenge of doing something each week that I’d never done before then writing about it. This is week 19.

nun19In a matter of minutes, my body went from happy and healthy to curled and wretching on the bathroom floor. The stomach flu had found me. It was miserable but fascinating, the way everything in me went suddenly sour and still, followed by hours of feverish waves of nausea and vomiting. The violence of it was remarkable, especially in this body of mine, so unfamiliar with violence. In the calmer aftermath of recovery, I was impressed by what my body had done. The way it had so quickly reacted and attempted to reject this unwanted thing.

It was partly this impressive, whole-body experience that led me back to a series of dissection videos I’d started watching months ago. It was partly my need to return to the body as refuge and strength, oracle and mystery during these days when so much is being threatened and destroyed. Plus I had nearly two whole days in bed with nothing to do.

Gil Hedley is an instructor with a religion, ethics and bodywork background who now teaches Integral Anatomy (as opposed to regional anatomy). My hope is to one day save enough to take one of his dissection courses myself, but in the meantime he has generously uploaded seven hours of video that move, layer by layer through the body of several different human forms.

Some people recoil at this. Seeing a body with its skin flayed open to reveal the soft yellow suit of our superficial fascia (our glorious cushiony fat), can look violent and horrific. Seeing a familiar form lose its familiar shape can be disconcerting. We are reminded that we are bodies of mind-warping sophistication and gross mechanics. We are reminded that we get to exist in these beautiful structures for only a brief arc of time.

When I first started studying anatomy as a massage student it was from drawings in textbooks and coloring books and our own untrained hands prodding and poking at each other. Each muscle was isolated and named. Each system of the body had its moment when a cartoon depiction of it floated, detached from everything else, on the overhead projector. I wonder what it would have been like if I’d watched these videos first.

Hedley dissects in layers, differentiating between skin and superficial fascia, deep fascia, muscle, viscera and bone. With each slice of his scalpel, however, he is quick to note the connection between the layers rather than focusing on them as separate structures. He says, “We’re interested not just in the layers but in the relationship of the layers. It’s often in the relationships that we get gummed up.”

I watch as he holds up to the light, the fascia that binds the side of the leg. It’s a glorious web of fibers and vessels, shading and light. I watch as he releases an unenbalmed woman from her soft, yellow dress. I watch as he lifts off the basket of ribs and then inflates the beautiful pink wings of her lungs, gathers the elaborate folds of her intestines into a bouquet, cups her soft, slick heart. We see the separate shapes and colors but also the intimate connection of fibers attaching everything to everything else. Each shape is built to move with everything else and it does, sometimes beautifully and sometimes with great difficulty, but on we go, reacting and adapting.

“That pulse in the wrist is the arm of the heart,” Hedley says. “When you stroke the skin you are literally stroking someone’s brain. Touch is an intimate responsibility for the professional because it’s only possible to touch the whole person.”

With those words ringing in my head, I finished recovering, lifted my refreshed body out of bed and went back to work.

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