excerpt from “deep tissue”
Claire Donato’s hybrid essay “Deep Tissue” was published in late December 2020 by Fence. It combines an interview with Los Angeles, CA-based musician Jamie Stewart (Xiu Xiu) with meditations on doubling, art installations at Participant Inc (New York, NY) & Green-Wood Cemetery (Brooklyn, NY), two concerts at Knockdown Center (Queens, NY), Adrian Shirk’s late chickens, evil weasels, navigating bureaucracy after trauma, mysterious sigils, prayer, psychoanalysis, loss, and how to write about a book you haven’t read.
Read the full essay online at Fence
It is August 2021, and I am temporarily living in Hudson, New York. Five years ago, I took care of this house and had a nervous breakdown. This go-around, I am adept at being alone and neither hate nor blame myself—nor physically injure myself—for my most vulnerable attributes. I reflect on the passage of time while grooming an oversized Maine Coon, watering trees, reading a friend’s book about utopia, picking wildflowers, walking through a cemetery with crumbling tombstones in it, and writing the phrase OBJECT PERMANENCE on shirts with fabric markers. Each morning, I sit on the floor and do nothing. Each night, I eat dinner with an old friend who lives in town.
In Hudson, I finish memorizing 1 Corinthians 13, a process I started in Brooklyn. I recite the Bible verse aloud at the end of my daily Zazen practice, following my Buddhist-Quaker-Catholic loving-kindness litany. 1 Corinthians 13 is the Bible verse about love heterosexual Christian couples like to recite at weddings. The why of this Christian matrimonial curatorial decisionmaking makes clear sense to me: 1 Corinthians 13 is an astonishingly moving Bible passage. I began to feel it alchemize my body as my mind integrated it. At first, its language made me weep. Now that I have grieved something unknown, 1 Corinthians 13 feels comforting and innate:
“Love begins and love ends.” So are the lyrics to “PJ In the Streets...” from Xiu Xiu’s The Air Force. The record’s cover depicts Christ Crowned with Thorns, an Italian Renaissance tempera and gold leaf painting by Fra Angelico (1438-1439). The painter, a Dominican friar, purportedly wept as he painted his divine subjects. As I consider this lyric from “PJ in the Streets…,” I pose questions: Does real love end? Or is that which we frequently call love an imaginary, a fake? If we’re deluded by imaginary love, what deludes us? Do our own doomed repetitions serve as spectacles propping up the turbulence of our lives to which we’ve grown accustomed? And if real love is endless, per 1 Corinthians 13, what does forever feel like?
In the car, I am or was eating popcorn emblazoned with a cartoon Buddha, the religious deity who abandoned his wife and child to seek enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. I resent the Buddha’s story but miss the mise-en-scène of Zen Mountain Monastery, where I sat interminable sesshins before the world shut down. A monastery is quiet; the mind is very loud. In the grocery store, I opt for self-checkout so I don’t have to speak. It is or was a hot day. The car where I am or was eating popcorn is a sports car I was borrowing that I did not know was opulent. I don’t care much for cars. They have four wheels and are made of metal. I recently wrote the introduction to a book published by Fence about a car killing my friend. I have not driven since.
/—I have two different [meditation practices]. One is spiritually based, and one is more physically based. I had an unusual religious upbringing. My mom grew up an athiest but became religious after she had children, and my dad grew up a hardcore Catholic, and as people who grow up in hardcore Catholic environments often do, he turned away from that as he got older, and he became interested in… He was a hippie, so Eastern types of philosophy. I did not have a good childhood, but one thing that my parents did was that they set spirituality and religion out for us as an option to find some refuge in. It was never something that was compulsory, but it was something that could be turned to in whatever form made some kind of sense. And for that reason, spirituality is something that has remained a positive part of my life. But because it was amorphous, my quote-unquote practice is also fairly amorphous. There was a period where my dad and I were both going to this quasi-Hindu Christian church called Ananda. A lot of my meditation practice and spirituality is based on some things that I learned there. This was a long time ago—in my early 20s. But it stuck with me. [Ananda promotes] a very open conception about what god could possibly be, or not be. It’s borderline agnosticism, but I sort of … I guess the idea is to basically have no idea what’s going on, but to believe there is possibly something going on, and feel contentment in not-knowing. The other [meditation practice] is just to calm down when I’m stressing out. I had this one therapist who said, “Breathe in on the syllable ‘re,’ breathe out on the syllable ‘lax.’ Re-lax, relax.” It’s actually really good. It distracts me from whatever’s going on. I’m surprised at how effective it is. And anytime I’m doing any sort of spiritually-based meditation, I sometimes feel a certain amount of pressure to do it right. Which is just me. I know it has nothing to do with any positive spirits that are floating around.
In Hudson, a bat arrives—or is it a bird? It comes at night while I am sleeping, a few days after I conduct my interview for this essay, but before August 16th, the day I become a table. I hear the bat’s wings flutter, circumnavigating my sleep, and at first I think it is the oversized Maine Coon cat for whose well-being I am currently responsible.
I am afraid of the bat, whose dark, quick, frenetic presence activates my fight-or-flight response. The morning of its appearance, I flee to the couch at 5:00am and research so-called pests. Despite the fact these animals are not inherently vexing, language renders them as such. And although my fantasy has always been that I’m a rigorous critical thinker and lover of animals, I am leaving messages on pest control services’ voicemail systems and chatting with strangers on message boards about how to rid the house of this creature.
This is not my first time encountering a bat. The other time was in Fall 2019 at Zen Mountain Monastery, during an aforementioned sesshin retreat. Upon returning home from the retreat, I wrote:
During a silent meditation retreat, I was washing a window when a bat flew in. I screamed—something everyone wants to do during a silent meditation retreat. Was the bat a living bat, or a dead rat? Its body descended onto the floor.
I placed a garbage can atop the creature—a living bat, not a dead rat—and found the monk who finds me when I hide.
This is a moment in which to note there are three characters in this story. These characters are also thoughts: the living bat, the monk, and Claire.
The monk lifted the garbage can from atop the living bat and took the bat into his palms. “It's okay,” the monk said to the bat. He opened the window. “Be careful with your little wing,” he said.
The monk gently placed the bat onto the windowsill. My anxiety continued to loom. For weeks, I continued to think about this interaction: the bat as a thought in need; the monk as a model of care, tenderness, soothing, stillness amidst fear. A new way to think.
After I finished cleaning the window, I taped a sign to it: A bat lives outside this window. Please proceed with care.
The night after the bat arrives, a friend spends the night. We chase the bat with a broom. The bat can hear, but it can’t see. Then another friend comes to town and spends the night too, though this occasion is unplanned. He is married and wears a wedding band. This is prior to August 16, 2021. I spend most of my other nights with the oversized Maine Coon, Noodle. It is simple to wake up with her. She makes biscuits on my chest and never fails to show affection.
I will always be nicer to the cat than I am to you is a lyric on a Xiu Xiu record called Dear God, I Hate Myself, reissued by Kill Rock Stars at the end of July. I think about this lyric a lot because it speaks to my participation in a life partnership circa 2010, in which I did not know how to be alone and therefore couldn’t be together. Meanwhile, the house for which I am sitting, owned by a pair of married architects, is decorated with twin flame ephemera.
All good things happen in twos. All bad things are split in two, too.
Why are there always two of everything, I ask.
Why are there always two?
Claire Donato is the author of Burial (Tarpaulin Sky Press) and The Second Body (Poor Claudia), and recently wrote the foreword to The One on Earth: Selected Works of Mark Baumer (Fence Books). She teaches poetics at Pratt Institute, where she won the 2020 Distinguished Teacher Award. In addition to writing books, she takes 35mm photographs, illustrates herself naked in fish tanks, practices Zen meditation, and records songs. She lives in Brooklyn.