Yes, we spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins. The boundary is so difficult to discern because, when all the stories fall away, there is no boundary — only a fluid, permeable membrane that is constantly shifting depending on the stories we tell ourselves about what we are and where we belong. Lynn Margulis captured this in ecological and evolutoinary terms when she observed that “life is a unitary phenomenon, no matter how we express that fact.” Dr. King captured the sociological equivalent in his insistence that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” Whitman captured its most elemental and most existential dimensions in that immortal line: “Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
When we fail to see the connections between things, we fail to anticipate the consequences of any one thing. A century before we began slaying entire ecosystems with pesticides meant to eradicate individual species, before we began tinkering with individual genes in the complex cathedral of the genome, the naturalist John Muir exulted that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe” — an exultation that now reads as an admonition.
How to unblind ourselves to this cosmos of connection and its attendant forcefield of consequence is what Jenn Shapland explores in her essay collection Thin Skin (public library) — “a corporeal account of how thin the membrane is between each of us and one another, between each of us and the world outside,” fomented by the medical reality of her epidermis missing a layer: a diagnosis of literally thin skin.
With an eye to the embodied metaphor of her condition, Shapland writes:
There is no “outside”… The world is a part of our cellular makeup… we impact it with every tiny choice we make.
I began to see what I now think of as literalized metaphors for my entanglement, my complicity, all over my life: in my dermatological diagnosis of “thin skin,” in my friends’ having babies as the world burned, in the crystals cropping up everywhere to heal us of something, in my own sense of vulnerability and my desire to feel safe. I began to question the idea of myself as a being in need of protection, indeed as something that could be protected. Nothing can protect us… It struck me as I wrote that I was utterly vulnerable to every other person, every other creature on Earth, and they were also vulnerable to me… I began to seek other ways of understanding the self that might be more useful than this shivering, weak thing we must shore up against the world.
And yet out of that singular vulnerability comes a singular strength — liberated from the standard boundaries between self and world, which serve as culture’s safety valve constricting what is possible and permissible, one is free to imagine “alternatives to our limited narratives about family, love, labor, longing, pleasure, safety, and legacy.” A century after D.H. Lawrence reverenced the strength of sensitivity, Shapland writes:
To be thin-skinned is to feel keenly, to perceive things that might go unseen, unnoticed, that others might prefer not to notice.
What she notices above all are the connections between things, the Rube Goldberg machine of consequences that binds past and future, self and other, here and everywhere else. She writes about about Los Alamos and Rachel Carson, about the traps of parenthood and the paradoxes of self-compassion, about mending clothes and mending hearts. Emerging from the essays is a reminder, both haunting and assuring, that in this increasingly fractured and fragmented world, life remains defiantly indivisible.
There is power in such porousness — a heightened ability to question the structures that make for fragmentation, perhaps none more tyrannical than the idea that the nuclear family is the optimal unit of belonging and connection, an idea rooted in our touching yearning for immortality despite our creaturely finitude: passing on our genes and values as a way of perpetuating ourselves beyond our mortal limits. Watching her friends freeze their eggs and go through rounds of IVF, Shapland reflects:
If we extend our idea of family beyond the individual to the wider world of creatures and ecosystems, we can begin to ask what we want for them. From them. We can begin to see ourselves in relation. Acknowledging and reckoning with death — with the limit on our existence, with the fact that we are temporary — can reframe what it means to live. What do we want to leave behind? What do we want to support, maintain, in the limited time we are here?
A beautiful answer comes from Shapland’s conversation with Marian Naranjo — a Native antinuclear activist from Santa Clara Pueblo, a stone’s throw from the birthplace of the atomic bomb. With an eye to the ancestral knowledge of how to live in peace and harmony — knowledge that has suffered the erasures of colonialism and capitalism — Naranjo envisions a new epoch of remembering what we have forgotten: how to be caretakers of connection. Sitting across from Shapland in the embodied space of mutuality, she echoes Ursula K. Le Guin’s passionate case for the transformative power of real human conversation and reflects:
That’s the next circle, that circle of balance. Where we do put back our heaven and earth, our heaven back on earth. Get it back. How do we do that? It’s this, it’s talking face-to-face. It’s doing more of this.
But somewhere along the arc of so-called progress, we forgot what indigenous cultures have known for millennia: that truth is a tapestry, no single thread of which can survive the wear and tear of reality in isolation, the reality against which truth must be continually tested in order to be true. This damaging isolationism haunts even the history of our understanding of the basic building blocks of life — the chemical elements that compose it, or discompose it.
With an eye to the discovery of radioactivity and Marie Curie’s epochal work on radium, Shapland writes:
Soon after its discovery, radium became a multimillion-dollar business. For four decades, you could buy rejuvenating radium skin cream, lipstick, tea, bath salts, hair growth tonic, “a bag containing radium worn near the scrotum” that “was said to restore virility.” There was radium toothpaste to boost whitening. Radium therapy, called Curietherapy in France, began to be used to treat cancer. It was first inserted by fifty needles into breast tissue, or by radon “seeds” that caused serious reactions. There existed a “vaginal radium bomb consisting of a lead sphere supported by a rod for insertion” for cancer treatment. Marie and her daughter Irene took a radiological car to the front in World War I to X-ray soldiers. Later, she supplied radium bulbs to the French health service to treat the military and civilian wounded and sick with radium therapy.
The discovery of radioactivity is a story of willful ignorance, of knowing but longing not to know, pretending not to know, how powerful and damaging it was. Scientists and salespeople alike believed in its power to cure, to heal. Radium was damaging enough to kill cancer, to burn Pierre’s skin through the glass vial in his vest pocket, but somehow not thought to be damaging enough to kill the scientists handling it all day, the people brushing their teeth with it. Marie kept a vial on her nightstand to bask in its glow as she slept. She called it her child.
This scientific refusal to believe what is obvious because it cannot be proven, because it is technically uncertain, accompanies our understanding of toxic substances to this day.
This blindness to connection, causality, and the consequences of radioactivity is hardly surprising: To achieve what she achieved, against the odds of her time and place, Marie Curie had to be thick-skinned. Perhaps a thinner skin, with its attendant power of seeing the permeability and interdependence of things, would have saved her life, would have spared her the tragedy Adrienne Rich captured so poignantly in the final words of her magnificent tribute to Curie:
She died a famous woman denying
her wounds came from the same source as her power
Complement with Marie Howe’s poem “Singularity” — a stunning antidote to our illusion of separateness — and the young poet Marissa Davis’s inspired echo of it, serenading our elemental bond with nature and each other.