Heart of Glass
From the stranger-than-fiction file: there were times in his turbulent life when Charles VI, king of France from 1380 to 1422, was convinced his body was made of glass.
During these episodes, the monarch – dubbed “Charles the Mad” by posterity – wrapped himself in extra layers of clothing reinforced with iron rods, forbid anyone to approach him, and sat motionless for hours for fear of breaking. Glass Delusion went on to become a fairly common malady in Europe from the 15th to the 17th century, spawning claims of glass shoulders, glass arms, and at least one case of glass butt. (The gentleman in question, a Parisian glassmaker, relieved himself standing up and kept a cushion fastened to his backside at all times.)
It’s tempting to assign this phenomenon to the kind of wacky medievalness that spawned ultra-long-toed shoes and putting animals on trial. With hindsight we could attribute it, as many historians do, to a form of schizophrenia, a concept which came into being at the start of the 20th century. But while his belief, and its persistence, obviously drove Charles VI to extremes, was his physical sensation really so absurd?
For when loss has come to call, when shocking news, illness, rejection, or betrayal have entered your life – did you not feel like you might shatter? Have you never avoided contact with people because you were afraid to “break”? Found ways to harden, to layer-up, to protect yourself, because you thought you’d crack? Have you never given in to hesitation or immobility for fear that the action you needed to take would cause you to fall to pieces?
In other words, have you never felt fragile?
If you have, and you’re reading this, then your fragility didn’t kill you. And you can see from your own painful experience that it is not a forever thing.
Let it hurt
When I was in my early twenties, my father, whom I loved, told me something that no daughter should ever hear. “You were always special to me,” he said in the middle of an argument, shaking his head, “but now you’ve lost your shine.” This, because I’d moved in with a man he disapproved of. Actually, because I’d moved in with a man, period. Living in sin, it was called then. Perhaps it still is. I was willful, headstrong, independent. I followed my heart. The relationship was short-lived; not so my father’s disappointment. Something in me buckled and turned shivery with doubt.
Thank goodness for that headstrong independence. I went about my life. Unable to deny how much my father’s judgement hurt, I let it hurt. I never stopped loving him, though I eventually stopped trying to please him. In time – and it did take time – I came to see this disavowal as an impossibility on his part. If I stay on my side – and I must – I have to see it as something he couldn’t do, a failure to love unconditionally, a heavy-handed morality that came between us. Did I make mistakes? Did I sometimes choose badly? Was I a smartass and also naïve? Yes. Yes of course. But none of that justifies being diminished. So I must see it as not-me. It doesn’t take the pain away, but it prevents the rejection from leaving me with the belief that I am damaged goods.
If you can feel your fragility without letting it define you, then you will live intensely, and, I believe, you will live on to be a better human being. Maybe this is the difference between intensity and madness – the ability to feel the fiercest sensations that life throws at us, without hardening them into beliefs about our capacity to move through and in the world.
And so, dear reader, if you think you are not enough, if you think you are damaged beyond repair, if you think that who you are, what you want to do, and how you want to be separates you from the love you need and the quietude you deserve, I say to you: own your heart of glass. But never allow your spirit to be broken.
What happens if you sit right now and close your eyes for a minute and imagine that your body is made of glass? Glass was a new commodity in the time of Charles VI, a mysterious substance on which fears were easily based. Not so for us.
The body as greenhouse. Its panes let in the light, which helps you grow, keeps you alive. They also contain and protect what’s inside: your microcosmos. Your personal garden, or forest, or jungle, depending on the level of wildness you’ve got blooming in there.
The body as light bulb. If you breathe in and open on all sides evenly – chest and belly, sides of ribs, your back, all of you expanding – the little filament in your center glows; breathing out, the light dims, but keep the awareness of that bulbous shape and very soon you’re moving toward it again, inhaling, expanding, the light getting brighter and brighter. Shining.
There are ways to be glass and be well. Still, it’s satisfying to come back to the reality of flesh and blood, muscle and bone, so beautifully suited for this life. Imperfect and finite though it may be, this body is also tough and smart, adaptive when given the attention and the chance. You can touch and be touched. Things can and do break. Bones. Hearts. But will? It may bend, but do not let it be crushed.
Learn the difference between what you feel and what you believe. Allow the former; examine the latter with lawyerly tenacity.
Surround yourself with people who treat you as the unique creature you are, but who do not spare you the truth.
And be on your side.
Be on your side.
Be on your side.
Elaine Konopka is the founder of The Attentive Body in Paris, offering private sessions in attention-based bodywork and pain management. You can also join her for Write & Breathe: regular meetups combining writing for wellbeing and conscious breathing.
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