Dana Levin

Jensen cracked my recalcitrant neck and I felt, finally, that I was fully facing the can’t-see of the future—

He said he felt like a whole new person was trying to be born from inside me—the way an island wells up from the ancient crust, all lava and steam, all heat and fire and mineral. That’s how I saw it, as he said it.

He said, Can you let yourself be completely rewired—

He said, This is what the earth is doing, we have to get ready—

He said, Something primordial eons ago ended up in you, so it could say something.

I found him because Walter, my osteopath, was leaving for medical school. Walter, who one day maneuvered my feet and my legs and my hips so that I felt—extraordinary!—what it was like to have normal posture and gait. I’d found Walter through M., a Canadian I was doing Pilates with. How had I found M.?

Santa Fe was like that: you’d make the rounds of healers, led by word-of-mouth. Back then, Jensen had no listed phone number or website or Facebook page. How had Walter found him?

“Who does what you do?” I’d asked Walter when he told me he was leaving. “Well…” he said slowly, “when I want body-work I call Jensen.” “Is he an osteopath?” I asked. “Well…” Walter said.

He gave me a phone number on a slip of paper. “He’s trained as a chiropractor…but he does a lot of things.”

Jensen was tall and lanky, and his face, in profile, looked like a hawk’s. Carved hawk face on a very tall stalk: his human flower.

Telling him about feeling confused and troubled by my inclination to mine the personal past, here at a moment when the collective present needs so much attention and aid—

He said, What if you could go back to before you were born—

He said, What if you could contact the barely Cro-Magnon ancestor—

And I saw her: young girl standing up on a branch near the top of a tree, facing a rising sun—she loved two things: dawn (it thrilled her!) and a piece of char, with which she could make a mark.

For most of the time I worked with him, his office was at his house. I say “office,” but it was really a shaman’s den. Feathers and drying plants hanging in various corners. Shelves and shelves of tinctures and herbs. Drums. Bones. Rocks. Flowers blooming or dying in a vase. Driftwood. Crystals. Postcards and framed pictures and tiles and figurines—gifts given over the years, you could tell, from people he had helped. Often they featured likenesses of one of the household gods: Buddha, Quan Yin, Virgen de Guadalupe, Lord Ganesh. Or the teachers: Dalai Lama, Amma, John Lennon, Thích Nhất Ha. nh, a tree, Pope Francis, Martin Luther King. Calaveras. Totemic animals. The spirit figures you’d find in any American neo-pagan household, of which there were so many in Santa Fe, including mine.

I don’t use the word “shaman” lightly.

Most of his patients were pregnant women or the dying—he specialized in people who were coming or going.

He told me he wanted a business card that said, “M. Jensen, Incarnation Specialist.” And that’s what he was for me.

How can I write about Jensen without writing about why I was there?

Every day, the map of scars incising my belly vanished from mind— every day, my fingers tracing its topography—

As they’re doing now.

I leave the couch and the yellow legal pad where I was writing about why I was working with Jensen to come into the bedroom and open this journal to write about crying about writing about it.

Like a dog seeking a more secret hole in which to bury the bone—

Bone that I am trying to dig up—

And hadn’t I dug it up once before, long ago, when I was young? A host of poems, dug out of the floor of the surgical theatre! Then buried in a book.

It sounds like a punishment, or a game: burying the bone so you have to dig up the bone, over and over—some kind of life assignment only your soul, or your dog, understands.

Today I realize that I have never looked up the actual biological thing that happened to me. So I Google. The results are overwhelming.

I read about the history of blood transfusions, the history of neo- natal surgery, the history of amniocentesis. I read obituaries of the doctors I should thank every day for my miraculous life.

I learn my condition was officially called Rh Disease, or rhesus iso- immunization, “rhesus” for a similar factor found in rhesus mon- key blood. I learn that Rhesus (Rh) factor is an inherited protein found on the surface of red blood cells. In 1937 “the serum that led to (its) discovery was produced by immunizing rabbits with red blood cells from a rhesus macaque,” and though Wikipedia doesn’t report what happened to the rabbit, or the monkey, I imagine cages and syringes and masked humans long inured to animal fear and pain in the name of science.

I watch an animated film, where the mother is covered in minus signs and the baby in plus signs. The mother’s y-shaped antibodies drop like wartime paratroopers into the portal where mother blood and baby blood meet. Suddenly the film zooms in on a mother microphage—astounding, microphages, the disease eaters in all of us!—looking like a battle jellyfish, enveloping and destroying an infant red blood cell inside its bell-shaped body and whisking the debris away.

I learn that I developed “hemolytic disease of the fetus and new- born,” that it came about because my blood, like my father’s, was positive for Rh factor, while my mother’s was Rh negative. After two previous pregnancies with my Rh positive sisters, my mother’s Rh negative body had developed enough immune sensitization to read me, her third viable fetus, as a disease to be eradicated, and this confirms everything about our difficult life together, my mother and me, always embattled, always a struggle to get to live, as myself—but that’s for another essay.

I read about the development of exchange transfusion in 1946, the complete blood transfusion of the affected infant: the only known cure, and which I myself endured.

I learn that Rh disease used to kill ten thousand infants a year in the United States alone. Then Dr. William Pollack developed a vac- cine, a gamma globulin solution later known by its brand name, RhoGAM, which was first tested, according to his New York Times obituary, “on volunteers at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, NY, and later on 600 Rh-negative women in clinical trials.” It worked 99 percent of the time, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration and went on the market in 1969, four years after I was born.

Wasn’t this too an exchange transfusion? The suffering of rabbits and monkeys and imprisoned “volunteers” and six hundred women who faced or had experienced miscarriage and stillbirth, as my mother had, so that I and babies like me might stop suffering in utero and live? Was that what incarnation was: a suffering exchange—

Dream: I’m involved in packing a suitcase. A male figure stands to my right, talking emphatically and pointedly, but I’m not really listening: I’m trying to stuff my large square maroon couch pillow into the suitcase. In life, it’s way too big for a suitcase, if I want to pack anything else—

I manage to pack the pillow and feel some accomplishment as I successfully shut the lid. Then I’m walking down a sidewalk in a city at night, alone, rolling the suitcase behind me. I’m a little concerned with how heavy it is, in terms of my own stamina, but brighten when I remember soon I can put it in checked luggage.

No one is about, in the night city. I roll along the perimeter of a park. And all at the edges where park meets sidewalk, fledglings have gathered, spreading their wings, too young really to make much display but displaying anyway—fledgling ravens and buzzards.

When I wake up, I think how those birds were the charnel ground birds: carrion eaters, the earth purifiers—how the perimeter of the park was like one of the perimeters of a Tibetan Buddhist mandala, where you have to walk through the cemeteries on your journey to the center of light. But in the dream, I am walking by, on the way to somewhere else. Now I think I should’ve stopped and done the heroic thing: entered the park-mandala, weaving through the cremation fires, feeling my way through the long night of ghosts and dogs and bones—

But I didn’t. Where was I going? (scars)

In the second month of my mother’s last trimester it became apparent that if they did not induce labor the fetus inside her would die. Thus, six weeks early, yellow with jaundice, I was pushed into the light. And after the exchange transfusion, after the complete exsanguination of my old diseased blood and the stream of new blood— you, you whose blood saved me, thank you—I started, once again, to die.

I Google “neonatal necrotizing enterocolitis,” which, best as I can tell after perusing numerous medical websites, was the complication induced by the exchange transfusion: gangrene of the intestine, which, my mother later told me, was discovered by a surgeon based on the guess of Dr. Harold Brown, the beloved family pediatrician. In a move unheard of in our age of medical malpractice, Brown rushed me into surgery before getting permission from my parents.

I was six days old. I weighed less than a bag of flour. The surgeon opened me up from sternum to pelvis and found the gangrenous ileum. They removed it and a portion of my intestine and attached a colostomy bag to my body. I spent the first two months of my life in an incubator, and I’m still attracted to the smallest, most bordered and ignored spaces of any room I am in—between the wall and a bed in a hotel room, for instance, or the empty space you might find behind a landing and a stair—wanting to nestle in, right there.

Once in the neonatal ward, nurses put a feeding tube in each ankle— was that scientifically accurate, feeding through the ankle? It’s what my mother told me; I wish she were alive to confirm. When I sit on a yoga mat with my legs straight out in front of me and stretch forward to grab hold of my ankles, I can feel the scars there, the depressions they left. My nails and my teeth are soft and discolored and easily chipped, because of how many antibiotics they gave me those first months of my life. My feet are pronated and my lower legs below the knee look to me like they’re misaligned with my thighs. My mother once told me that Dr. Brown, after the surgery, told my parents my legs might be affected and recommended leg braces to correct them, but my parents refused, remembering the shame and difficulty of President Roosevelt. Another time she told my oldest sister that they didn’t get the leg braces because she didn’t want me to look like the braced baby in the ads for March of Dimes.

And then, as I neared fifty, when knee and back and hip pain and numbness began to increase and alarm me, I wondered if musculoskeletal issues stemmed from what had happened to me. Which is how I ended up with Walter, who, for a time, aligned my legs, and then forwarded me to M. Jensen, Incarnation Specialist.

I let him cradle my head in his two hands for what seemed a universe of minutes.

Sometimes this cradling would stop flat everything clattering around in my skull and I would feel pure awareness, curious, alert, awake—

I always think of this as my essential soul state, before neurosis wells, before the needs and discomforts of the flesh re-assert them- selves: pure awareness, interested and bemused—by what it meant to be alive and aware, in a body—

Incubators in 1965 were like human terrariums. In the photo I have, taken by my father, I’m lying on my stomach asleep and massively diapered, or bandaged, or both. I face a closed round port- hole bigger than my little head and a closed round porthole at my bandaged feet: here’s where the gloved hands reached in to touch me—

Jensen’s large open expressive hands.

Sometimes he would tap his cupping fingers around the base of my skull and re-position my head with sudden precise assertive movements, muttering all the while.

He muttered in tongues, when he worked on me. It was in no language I could recognize. I never asked about it.

When he resorted to the tactics of chiropractic and something in my skeletal system released, he snapped his fingers in answer. Pop— snap! Call and response.

Sometimes he cradled my sacrum for what seemed a universe of minutes. All my conscious focus would assemble there, and I would calm.

Sometimes he would push a finger deep into the pit of my deepest scar.

He held me. Maybe just this was the healing, outside the portholes and gloved hands and glass house into which I had once been deposited, after a knife wounded me so I could live.

Sometimes we would talk while he worked on my scarred and mis- aligned body. Mostly we talked about the end of the world.

With absolute certainty in its imminence, we were in complete accord. It felt comforting to share our certainties about extinction, this healer and this healed, us.

We believed in the power and resiliency of the earth. We weren’t sure people would make it into the next age.

One time he told me his son worked in National Security and I didn’t believe him. Then he showed me a photo. It was like looking at Jensen in an alternate universe: same hawk face, younger, in military dress. Something like bars, or medals, pinned to his breast.

One time he said, “Guess what the number one concern in national security circles is—” Terrorism? No. Nukes? No. “What?” I asked. Pandemic.

He stopped working on me and stood and looked into my face, my eyes now open. “We have no idea what is going on,” he said. Then he leaned his hawk face forward and I closed my eyes again.

He said viruses were the way Mother Earth found out what was happening in her children, that viruses were readers. Based on the information viruses gather, he said, the earth injects change into the ecosystem.

He tells me about reading an article that posits that viruses are responsible for the development of higher consciousness. “Sit up—” he says, and I do, and he places some kind of board behind my back. “Did you know that between forty and eighty percent of our genome comes from ancient viruses? Lean forward—” He says, and I do. “Where’d you read that?” I ask, and fully expect him to cite some other suspect hippie healer. “In a journal called Cell.” He says. Later I look it up and it’s completely scientifically legit.

He replaces the board behind my back with his hand, his fingers pushing into my spine, mid-back. “Cross your arms over your chest—” He says, and I do. Suddenly he drops me back very suddenly and—pop! His fingers snap.

He starts to position my head in order to crack my neck. I brace and then immediately go into panic-quell mode, trying to relax my body, praying he doesn’t paralyze me. This happens at every visit, any time he readies to adjust my neck.

He never paralyzes me. The world never ends.

I keep thinking about the dream.

Next to “maroon pillow” I write: marooned.

I wonder if I am dreaming about my own heavy body, suitcase I’m lugging around while marooned inside it, body that is both me and not me, ever aware of the split between the bag of meat and the animating spirit, having to be the I they make together, what was that I, that psychoid thing—

I’s fate was to be a bridge and the awareness crossing it; its cross was to believe it was a fortified castle, a king.

Brightening up at the prospect of putting it in checked luggage!

Or am I dreaming about poetry, marooned inside me—I’d been having so much trouble writing, accepting what I was writing, being afraid to write because someone would see it (after four books!), publishing feeling like an invitation to attack or silence that I couldn’t possibly withstand, some kind of midlife paralysis going on for months and months and months and months—

It was like re-doing my time in the womb, except this time I was the mother, trying to kill what I was in the midst of making.

Next to “maroon pillow” I write: the “useless” thing I value is marooned inside my body as I lug it past the carrion birds—

Fledging death birds, eaters just beginning. Stamping and parading along the edge of the park-mandala, daring me to enter, spreading out their finalizing wings—

The way we imagine death is the way we experience birth: a harrow through the dark, and then a light—

All the little deaths you have to walk through, in order to be born and born and born.

Jensen pushed down hard on my clavicles on either side of my neck as I wept—

Wept and wept.

He said, Can you let yourself be completely rewired—

He said, This is what the earth is doing, we have to get ready—

Each of us alone inside our bodies, each of us marooned, in the suffering exchange, while the world burns—

I’d been feeling so paralyzed by Lord Time, how he numbered for- ward without sway by human hope or need or aspiration, riding his stolid horse Death-My-Fate—

Later on the phone I tell my sister about it. “Maybe,” she says, “the message of your life is that you can come through trauma and be okay”—an idea that completely floors me.

In my journal I write:

You’re afraid because you’re already
dead, really, when you think about it.
And since you’re already dead, don’t you just

want to live—

Scars and stars.

The heroic narrative. Did you know that in ancient Greek, the word hero and the name Hera are closely related: Hera, mother goddess, who watched over women bearing children—

And then I see it: to be a hero is to be a child of a mother—

The cervix opening its round door—

A sound welling up through the throat.

Dana Levin is the author of five books, including Now Do You Know Where You Are, a 2022 New York Times Notable Book and NPR “Book We Love.” She serves as Distinguished Writer in Residence at Maryville University in Saint Louis.
Originally published:
June 1, 2020


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