In the Mezzanine Between
Before I could really talk about trauma or even put it into words, I made sculptures.
I was also writing with words, but I felt the limits of the words, felt something gnawing at the edges, at the white space between the words.
And so when an artist friend handed me some clay, I liked how I could let the clay warm in my hands; my warmth could give it shape. My body could make another body. The body always became female. The female body always had scars. The first body was a young female body maybe about fourteen, and I carved very deep scars around the chest-- where the ancient Greeks thought the mind was located since language comes from breath, and breath from lungs.
I would worry about talking about scars in writing, as they seem too obvious, but I used them for the sculptures—or rather, they just appeared. They were what my body wrote on the body.
I brought the sculptures into therapy, to my therapist whose last name was Hearth.
When I had first started seeing him, I was anxious even though he came recommended by a friend. The room was small, no one was around, the first appointment took place after dark. I sat with him in his tiny office that had strange decorations—a tiny motorcycle model and a painting of a parrot. They belonged to the other doctor, the one he shared the office with.
I thought: he’s a small old man, I could take him if I had to.
At first, the space between us felt like something lodged between our bodies.
At the same time, in the rational part of my brain, I knew he was ok. The motorcycle didn’t belong to him.
He was an aging hippie, who was straight but read as queer; he had a ponytail and a tiny blue earring in one ear and bright blue eyes.
After awhile, the space between us softened and he would lean closer to me when I was upset, which always made me feel better. I had only told the therapists before him the barest of details: that my mother had died when I was fourteen and my father had a break down and I was supposed to raise my younger sister, but I couldn’t.
I had said the facts, but not what had been left on my skin: not about
the long distances I went without touch, not about the childhood doctor taking off my underwear and examining me, about how later my friends said this kind of exam never happened to them.
During this in-between time in my life, it was difficult for me to breathe; there was often a dull ache in my jaw. Thoughts might come from the lungs, but they can get lodged in your jaw.
And so I let the bodies take shape in my hands.
I picked up the sculpting tool that looked like writing implement but had a long needle point at the end instead of an ink-filled nib. As I wounded the surface of the clay body, I felt my own body respond as if I had also touched the tool to my own skin, as if the distance between the object I was creating and the force used to create it had collapsed.
When I showed Dr. Hearth my first sculpture, he held the small body in his hands.
He looked at the markings on the chest and stomach, which were deep and ragged. He saw how I hadn’t allowed the body a face, an expression.
He said: it must have hurt to make this.
I cried at the time because I didn’t know my suffering could ever extend beyond the confines of my own skin and lie curled in another person’s palms.
In their essay “The Extended Mind,” philosophers Andy Clark and David J. Chambers propose a theory of consciousness: tools we use—everything from language to a tape measure—are part of our cognition, our thinking, our minds, our selves. If this is true, they argue, the mind extends beyond “skin and skull.”
They use this example: two different people are going to a museum. One remembers where a museum is and so can find her way by using a mental map, an internal cognition. However, another person with Alzheimer’s must use a piece of paper to guide him to that same museum. Chambers and Clark believe these two people are more alike than they are different—a piece of paper can be an extension of the mind.
They also discuss the value of language, which they say “appears to be a central means by which cognitive processes are extended into the world. Think of a group of people brainstorming around a table, or a philosopher who thinks best by writing, developing her ideas as she goes. It may be that language evolved, in part, to enable such extensions of our cognitive resources within actively coupled systems.”
For most of my life, I’ve been obsessed with the edges of my body, which is where I felt I ended and everything else began. I often felt a literal ache on my skin— a psychosomatic pain that came from feeling severed from others.
Reading Clark and Chambers made me think about times when language can’t be even be conjured, when we are unable to let ourselves extend past our own skin, when we retreat behind it, when we hold something that can’t even become a thought, let alone a word.
Psychologists call this condition alexithymia—the Greek weaves together “A” (not), lexi (words), and thymia, (disorder)—however, the word “thymia” can also mean “the condition of the mind” since Greek, like most language, is a complex and slippery thing. But either way the intended meaning of the English is this: a person can’t connect feelings to language. Typically the person who struggles with these connections has been traumatized, and is lost in a space between what has happened and how to name it.
If we can’t find language for something, where does the mass of this un-namable space live, where do we hold it?
My body has made multiple stones—both kidney and gall. “Masonry of the body,” I’ve joked.
Even though I know Susan Sontag has told us all that we shouldn’t use illness as a metaphor, I can’t help thinking that my body has, on two occasions, made some small unbearable stone that I literally cannot hold, that I must pass or remove.
My gall bladder had to be cut out, but when my kidney stone wouldn’t pass, I had to get it broken up in a process called “lithotripsy.”
The name comes from Greek--“Litho” (stone), and “tripsy,” (crushed). In the procedure, extracorporal shock waves are sent through the body to shatter the stone.
In one version, the patient lies in a warm bath, and in another, on a cushion through which the waves pass. I lay on the cushion. I was put under a twilight anesthesia which gave me the distinct impression that everyone had left the room, even though I knew that probably wasn’t the case. I could hear the ultrasound shock waves clicking. It takes one or two thousand waves to break the stone, but I had no sense of time.
I still find the word “extracorporal” nonsensical—it means “outside the body” and yet the wave itself is made to move through the body.
Afterwards, my doctor said: “The remnants of the stone will pass through you like grains of sand.”
He neglected to tell me how the pain of passing the sand would be even worse than carrying the stone, though unlike the carrying, at least this agony would come to an end.
I’ve returned to words as a means to give shape to thoughts, but I still struggle to let them pass from my body and become marks on paper. To begin to write, I must say to myself: no one has to see this.
I know it is a lie, but it is one I must tell myself.
Also, even though I’m technically “good” at writing, it can feel just as clumsy as it sometimes did to make sculptures with my untrained hands. Both are acts of translation. As soon as words leave the body, they become something else. Like kidney stones pulverized to a sand—these thoughts are the simultaneously the same and yet utterly different.
Many years ago, I saw this interview with the artist Laura Faggoni, who made hand-sewn animals for The Science of Sleep, an unremarkable movie that I would not have remembered if not for this interview. The pieces she created were beautiful because they had a quality of imperfection, of being made objects, stitches visible. In the interview, she said something to the effect of: they are never as good as the ones in my head; I think of these beautiful things and they all come out kind of fucked-up.
It surprised me: the fucked up quality was the part I liked the best. The fucked up part manifested what Clark and Chambers would call a part of her consciousness, one that’s become visible to us.
But what if the word we’re looking for doesn’t exist—at least not in the language we are using?
I struggled to find a title for this essay because I don’t know how to hold these collected thoughts together with a word or phrase.
To try to figure it out, I google: “name for in between space” even though I know there’s not a name for this idea in English.
I find a chat in an English Language Usage Website:
Is there a single word that can be used instead of "the space in between"? I am looking for something general.
Few words I thought of are period, interspace, mezzanine.
The space in between fear and love is filled with uncertainty.
The space in between birth and death is life.
The space in between knowing and believing is something.
I like the word mezzanine but I am not sure if it fits since by definition it relates to architecture. Interspace, on the other hand, sounds like something related to science fiction. Period is about time.
An example of how I would like to use it:
[Word] of fear and love is filled with uncertainty. [The mezzanine] of fear and love is filled with uncertainty. [The interspace] of fear and love is filled with uncertainty.
Some of the responses from the users on the site suggest: gap, interval, in. But one user GEdgar says “It sounds poetic: Life is the mezzanine between birth and death.”
I’m a writing consultant and sometimes I work with those learning English and they ask questions like this one: what’s the word for this, they ask. I can’t find the right translation.
Usually I have to say: there isn’t one word.
The language specialist I work with calls this kind of discussion in which we try to figure out how to translate what isn’t directly translatable, “translanguaging.”
Often, like GEdgar, during translanguaging, I also say: you’ve found the poetic version—the best poetry, apparently, is created in the mezzanine between languages.
But other times, the writer I’m working with is trying to make a word in English contain too much.
“The meaning can’t be held in just that one word,” I say. “Try to tell me what you were trying to say.”
A Greek student tells me that he was trying to translate the word filotimo when he wrote something about honor.
“It’s my favorite word,” he says. “I don’t know how to explain.” His brow wrinkles into an omega shape. “It means that you serve your community and friends and that brings you honor, but you don’t do it for the greatness. You do it because the honor is in the act of serving.” He places his hand over his heart, as if making a pledge. (A helpful part of translanguaging, I’ve come to realize, is the involvement of the body--most people make gestures when trying to explain meaning.)
I tell him to write down what he just said.
Then, I ask him to write down the word on a piece of paper and I carry it home with me.
A quick search reveals that the word root splits it into “friend” (filo) and “honor” (timo).
One person writing about the word says: the Philosopher Thales of Miletus also said that filotimo to the Greek is like breathing.
My understanding of the word coalesces when I think of the opposite of filotimo, which also has no corresponding word or phrase that can be easily translated into English.
After my mother died, and my father disappeared from himself (his consciousness seemingly vacating his body), my extended family helped out some, but eventually, I could feel the sighs on the phone, the distances between us deepening. Maybe even in Greek, filotimo has its limits, but eventually, there was no one to care for me or my sister; we were no one’s priority and, even if I lacked words to name it, I felt this absence acutely in my body, along my edges.
In his book The Secret Lives of Trees, Peter Wohlleben writes that trees communicate through smell, through electrical impulses. Trees are meant to be connected—a forest is more one being than a collection of trees. A tree alone will become “deaf and dumb.”
I object to the use of the word “dumb” because it’s come to mean an insult rooted in ableism. But it makes sense to me that we conflate dumb with being unable to communicate. The word reflects the brutality of the experience, its blunt sound and shape evoking something cut off, heavy. It’s a sad word that makes you feel dumb even if you’re not.
My friend Aaron, who I met in college, was the first to hear the sad thoughts in my body even if I didn’t speak them, even if they made me feel dumb.
I think now that his body was also a lonely body, and that our lonely bodies heard each other. We only shared affection, touch, not sex. I was too afraid of sex at the time. Also, he was gay and I was gay and in some ways my love for him made me queer and not quite as gay, though I’m still mostly gay.
Between fear and love, I held so much uncertainty. This was the mezzanine I lived in.
At the time, I wrote about the hurt I held in my body, but I was otherwise silent. I didn’t let my words leave through my mouth, just my hands, just my hands marking paper. But I was still struggling to let all the thoughts become markings. I didn’t show all the markings, just some. But most of all, I had trouble letting the words leave my body through my mouth.
Still, one of the times I did let some of the words through my mouth, I asked Aaron to hold me, though I’m sure I didn’t use the world “hold” since I would have been too ashamed. It was one of the first times I let those words travel from my body; usually I put my head on his shoulder. Sometimes, I cried around him because I didn’t know how to ask for what I needed. I didn’t even let myself know this was what I was doing, but it was. Maybe part of my consciousness was spilling out no matter my intention, my fear.
But that day, I just asked. There was only a brief space between me asking and him putting down the laundry and wrapping his arms around me. I have written about this many times because it’s a memory I visit often. How warm he was, how I had almost forgotten what this kind of warmth felt like. How it was snowing outside, lightly, just enough to make a footprint. How I thought oh, I shouldn’t stay too long, I don’t want my body to impose. This thought made me shake, more specifically it made my breath shake, as if my mind was shaking and all my thoughts were shaking. He responded by holding me closer, closing the space between us. I was surprised; I forgot that my body could be heard. That the thoughts in my breath could be heard. I let him hold me and I let myself be warmed.
Often I see my life as being composed of all the moments before this one and the ones after. This was the in-between moment that held my life in place.
We couldn’t sustain our friendship though—I was overwhelming and he was easily overwhelmed.
I felt our friend break-up as a severing, and the physicality of it surprised me. Up until that point, I had always thought the word heartbreak was a metaphor. I didn’t know you could feel something smashed up shift inside you every time you tried to breathe.
Eventually, I fell in love with someone I slept with and during those years, I thought I had gotten better. In a way, I had—my skin didn’t hurt for a long stretch of time. But towards the end, we struggled to navigate the distances between our bodies.
In other words, I wanted more touch, more sex in particular.
After our break, the edges of my skin erupted in that cold burning again. I also had a cluster of triggers hit one after the other: dental work and an impatient OB-GYN; a living situation that wasn’t a home, but some in between space.
I needed someone to soothe my body so I went to get a massage because I couldn’t think of what else to do.
I go to a queer man. Another person at the health collective had been recommended to me, but when I look at the bios, this man’s name, whose name rhymes a little with Aaron’s name, came out of my mouth on the phone. I don’t think of this at the time. I just feel so compelled to choose him because he is queer and has a kind face.
I am thirty-four and it has been twenty years since my mother died. There is a blizzard outside, whipping against the window and when I walk to the health center two days later, I step in footprints that overlap with other dirty footprints. It’s hard to walk and I’m tired. I didn’t sleep much the night before. I’m nervous about the massage. I’m aware that I’m drifting into present tense, which is what I do when something in my consciousness shifts and I’m living in the memory again.
I visit this memory often, too.
At the collective health center, I meet Stephen and I like him—he’s wearing orange yoga pants with a blue floral border. He moves almost in a kind of dance and his dirty blonde hair falls into his eyes. He’s muscular, but he is gentle with my hand when he shakes it. I tell him that I have some trauma, PTSD, and am going through a hard time. I ask him to be careful.
When he starts working on me, he touches just my shoulder and says “I’m going to listen to your breathing and make sure you’re all right.”
He is very gentle, but more than that, it’s easy to hear him, as if his hands have the clearest speaking voice –as if I had been driving through a mountain range but suddenly the static on the radio just tunes to a station where the music plays so clearly. What his hands seem to say is hard to translate here, it gets static-y and fucked up and doesn’t sound as good in word-language. But it always seemed like he was speaking to my sadness, the trauma itself: I’m here with you, listening, which he also said with words, but his hands spoke that idea with deeper more resonant harmonies. I could tell he could hear me, that he was speaking to the thoughts held in my breath; he knew how to answer my jumpiness or tension with kindness, soothing.
The parts that are the most difficult to translate: the most beautiful parts —the ones that evoke the feelings of being a child, of him rubbing lavender oil into my hair and how that feels like laughter, him holding my head, which feels like the deepest safety and warmth, being cradled, held. If the Greeks thought that our minds were in our lungs, what did they think was in our heads? Maybe in our heads is always the memory of being held as a small child.
After a few months of seeing him, I ask him to work on my stomach-- the place under my ribs near where I once carved some of those deep lines into clay. I’m aware that my body is also speaking, saying: I trust you and something that can only be approximated in language as the word gratitude or thanks.
There is no word for how my body warmed in his hands, his warmth re-shaped me, my fascia, which is what massage therapists call the interconnected web of wavy fibers that link everything in the body: bone, muscle, tendons, organs; it can form into a hard shell, a kind of armor. There’s no one word for how his hands eased this armor back into softness; how my shoulders dropped back, my hips unlocked; how his hands released the ache from my jaw and now my jaw doesn’t crack like it used to (which is a sound heard when air held between joints is released). There’s no word for how my body became a different body.
There’s no one word for how I now know I was never actually severed to begin with, I was always in a forest, and always connected, I just had forgotten my language. I had forgotten the language that of course I knew, it was always there, since touch is everyone’s first language, and so it lived deep in my bones.
(I like how in Spanish you say “carne y hueso,” flesh and bone instead of flesh and blood since eventually bone is all that is left of us.)
The word that I can use to approximate what I think of when I visit these stories: relief. But the word relief only works if I consider two of its meanings at the same time—how it refers not just to be released from suffering but also to a story that is carved into a rock face or wood—a story you can feel even if blind.
I found relief through marking, both clay and paper. I found relief, but it’s hard to imagine others running their hands over them. Showing others my relief means exposing my skin and how it’s been marked.
Also: It’s still easier for me to mark paper and to let others see my markings on paper than to stand in front of them and let the words leave my body through my mouth. But I’m practicing this. When people ask: so what are you writing about, I’ve started to let the words dislodge from my jaw, from behind my lungs, from places I’ve been marked; I’ve let the words move into the space between us.
After letting the words out, during the small space in which the other person is quiet, I’ve been surprised to see my words have sculpted the same expression on each person: a kind of softening, warmth—not pity, which is what I had always expected. I can see something knitted between us—something that was already there, but is now visible, something connecting us like fascia, like the inter-webbings of fungus that connect trees, allowing them to speak, allowing them to become more like one being rather than solitary individuals.
I think of my other favorite word: tender, which like, relief, works best when I think of its multiple meanings: to be vulnerable or impressionable to hurt, but also to touch that hurt carefully; all of us inhabit both meanings simultaneously, even if we feel we are only on one side of it.
Kat Savino's writing often explores the need for touch, massage, language, and the spaces between. They have published in Narratively, DIAGRAM, and Belladonna: Matters of Feminist Practice, and have work forthcoming in The Matriarchy Report.