Coming to Our Senses: Simultaneous sensing—and a slave owner turns infamous abolitionist

Perplexity came to her from the beast. “What is this dark? What is this light? We do not understand. Your father and the boy, Calvin, have asked this, too. They say that it is night now on our planet, and that they cannot see. They have told us that our atmosphere is what they call opaque, so that the stars are not visible, and then they were surprised that we know stars, that we know their music and the movements of their dance far better than beings like you who spend hours studying them through what you call telescopes. We do not understand what this means, to see.”
–Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time

There is poor Meg, stuck on a fortunately friendly planet, a result of her father’ s clumsy tesseract. They have escaped, temporarily, the dark planet, but they have left her little brother Charles behind. They will have to return.

Meantime, they are being cared for by gentle, wise sightless creatures. Although they cannot see, these creatures have such finely tuned OTHER senses that being sightless is certainly no deficit. They can, as Aunt Beast tells Meg in the passage above, sense the stars and their dancing better than those who can see them.

It’s one of the points Jon Kabat-Zinn makes in Part 3: The Sensory World, of Coming to Our Senses. We have lost, through mindlessness, through lack of urgency, the keen abilities our ancestors enjoyed through using their sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. We see those who, deprived of one sense—the sightless, for example,–develop other senses to an amazing degree.

And we forget that our senses are a team of abilities that work together— so that the art of seeing a summer day is not as completely appreciated without the feel of the breeze against my skin or the fresh smell of newly cut grass.

I used to have an hour’s drive to work, through beautiful rolling country. As I drove, I would listen to audio books. Weeks and months later, rounding a curve, passing an Amish homestead, words from a book would come back to me in an audible memory. I would hear the reader’s voice saying the words I’d listened to in just this spot on a day past. I’m guessing some quality of light or temperature or scent was identical at that time, in that place, and that triggered a complete sensory memory.

I used to ask my composition classes to listen to the passage about Meg and Aunt Beast, and then I would say to them, “Pretend you’ve met someone who cannot see. Pick a color and make your blind friend KNOW what that color is.”

They would write about red in terms of fire and passion, warmth and danger. Blues came alive in coolness, depth, water, sky. Brown was muddy, earthy, fecund. The students used smell, touch, scent, and even taste to deliver the essence of what their chosen colors were. Their work was clear and true.

My challenge this week, as I read Part 3 of Kabat-Zinn’s book, is to be aware, and to consciously use as many senses as I can in that awareness. It’s a perfect season to be doing that—the flowering trees are bursting into Springtime life, the air is scented with those flowers, and warm sun alternates with soft gray days. The birds are raucous and joyful. I steal time from other things and work outside, digging in the dirt, unearthing tiny, tender shoots, displacing worms, and clearing out the matted leaves hidden since last fall.

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My story reading counterpoint this week was Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings. This book has slavery and subjugation at its core, from the harsh physical and mental slavery Handful and her mother endure to the more silken, sly subjugation of Sarah and her sister Angelina.

Set in South Carolina between 1805 and 1838, Kidd’s telling doesn’t spare us. The slaves are horribly abused, with terrible punishments that only a sadist could have spent time devising. Sarah is abused, too, with harsh condescension and scorn. A brilliant, plain girl, she is told, forcibly, to forget about being a lawyer and to settle for her lot, looking for a husband, looking forward to running a household.

The miracle of the story is that spirits survive intact. Sarah and her sister escape to the North, where they become notorious abolitionists. Handful and her sister, too, make it north, where they become free Blacks, working and living with pride and dignity.

What bravery that took. I have to wonder, faced with such an oppressive society, could I have struck out as boldly as these characters did? They made tough choices and let themselves be shaped by life’s forces without sacrificing their true beliefs.

Unsetting, The Invention of Wings, but the quiet triumph of the resolution (based on historical figures) suggests there’s hope.

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