My third book, What a Body Knows (2009), recently hit a publishing milestone. Thank you, readers! To celebrate, I offer some fun facts about the book and writing process.
1. The original title was Prophetic Hungers.
I had the idea for this book when I was at Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study in 2000. I hadn’t even written my first two books, but I already knew that I wanted to take the philosophical ideas I was developing and demonstrate their relevance to the basic questions of day to day living.
Central to that mission was the notion that our hungers and wants are neither problems to manage, nor cravings to indulge. They aren’t inherently selfish. Rather, our desires are impulses to live – vital clues to who we are and what we have to give.
For sure, over time, we can learn to want what harms us, but from the moment we are born, our desires remain the best and most trustworthy resources we have for predicting what kinds of doing and being and giving will yield the most satisfaction. There are myriad ways to contribute to the well-being of our world, and each individual has to find the way that taps into the depths of what they can do.
As I write: All we have to offer the world is the work that the satisfaction of our desires demands (6).
2. My desire to write this book propelled our move to the farm.
I was living in the Boston area, and trying to write Prophetic Hungers. Researching. Outlining. Drafting. The book was simply not happening.
One day it occurred to me. How can I write about honoring one’s desire for spirit, if I am not honoring my own? I knew what I wanted – what Geoff and I had been dreaming about for years — to move to the country and create a place where we could do our art immersed in the natural world. I realized that the book wouldn’t come until I was practicing what I wanted to teach.
Within weeks of this revelation, my seven-year old daughter found a retired dairy farm for sale, by googling for “Farms in Vermont,” and because of my experiences trying to write this book, I was ready. A month later, the farm was ours. A month and a half after that, we moved. I gave birth to my fourth child, and began writing What a Body Knows.
3. Despite the title, the word “body” doesn’t appear in the pages of the book.
A primary aim in this book is to push beyond the idea that we have bodies, or live inside bodies, where “a body” is a material object. In this way of thinking, no matter how much you protest otherwise, “I” am not “my body.” The two are separated by conventions of speech.
The reality is that I not only am my body, but “my body” is a dynamic, rhythmic process of making “me,” enabling my “I” to think and feel and act at all. As I phrase it, I am a rhythm of bodily becoming. Or, I am the movement that is making me. And primary among those movements that make us are our desires. For what is desire? An impulse to move toward something I want.
Part of what a body knows is that “it” is not a thing.
4. Every chapter begins with a quotation by Friedrich Nietzsche.
Not only particulars of content, but the entire thrust of What a Body Knows owes much inspiration to Nietzsche. As I write in the Preface, Nietzsche was clear that any revaluation of values – in this case, any attempt to shift our perception of our bodies – involves far more than intellectual gymnastics. Our values take root in the movements of our bodily selves. If we want to reconsider the value of our desires, we need to relearn the small things – the many decisions we make every day about how to move in one moment and the next.
In this book, I aim to do what Nietzsche’s alter-ego Zarathustra admonishes his followers to do: create values that remain faithful to the earth.
5. I had to rewrite the book four times.
I didn’t just revise. I rewrote. And each time, I cut, cut, cut. I cut repetition, jargon, and patterns of academic-ese that I was not even aware I had internalized so deeply. The first draft was over 400 pages. The next was 300. The third shorter still.
Through this process, I realized that what appears as “natural” writing is itself a product of a long education – and in this case, re-education – in patterns of movement.
6. The three-part structure remains relevant.
What a Body Knows makes the case that our desires for food, sex, and spirit are entwined. The idea that these desires can be treated separately is itself a product of mind-over-body thinking. Once we take the leap to admit that we are bodily selves, we realize that a physical desire is never merely physical; a spiritual desire never merely spiritual. Impulses to move, to thrive find expression through every capacity of our bodily selves – physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual.
Considering these three desires together is useful in both directions. A disturbance in one area may be traced to a disturbance in another. For example, I may struggle with feeding myself healthy food because I am not engaged in a relationship that provides a life-enabling touch. I may struggle in a relationship because I have not tapped into a career that provides me with a sense of meaning and belonging.
So too, health in one area can provide vital resources for dealing with issues in another, as when a loving relationship supports us in finding ways to nourish ourselves with food, or take the risks needed to follow a dream. (Thank you, Geoffrey.)
7. What a Body Knows represents a microcosm of work that followed.
This part is wonky, but here is how I think. What a Body Knows is the first of three books that are less linear trilogy and more a set of fractals organized around the concepts self, other, and world.
In What a Body Knows, the desires for food (self), sex (other), and spirit (world) are addressed within the context of a person’s relationship to “self.”
Family Planting (2011), my second trade book, tackles desires that appear in the context of a person’s relationship to a triad of primary “others” – parents/caregivers, partners, and progeny (of varied kinds).
And in Why We Dance (2015), the hybrid capstone that completes the trilogy, I tackle issues pertaining to a human’s relationship to the “world” – including the history of human evolution, paths of psychological and social development, practices of ritual action, and nature/culture.
In each book, the action of rhythmic bodily movement – dancing – appears as a key that helps us to: discern wisdom in our desires (What a Body Knows), learn to love (Family Planting), and become human (Why We Dance).
In each case, the movements we make matter. We participate, with more or less awareness, in the ongoing bodily becoming of ourselves, our relationships with others, and the worlds in which we live.
8. I still rely on the cycle of breaths.
In What a Body Knows, I describe a pattern of four breaths I invented as an example of a simple rhythmic practice that can help a person open up space to discern the wisdom of desire. While I have never developed this cycle into a formal program, or taught it in any systematic way, I continue to use it myself – while running, while swimming, while doing yoga, while dancing – as a way to sink more deeply into the movement of the moment and open to what that movement is teaching me. It works.
So too, Geoffrey uses the cycle of breaths with his students, especially in warm-ups before a concert or show. Gathering the students in a circle, he guides them through the cycle, giving them a moment to settle themselves, find their sense of center, and feel their connection with the earth and with the group. They summon the best of what they have to offer and send it into the world.
9. The cover photo almost didn’t happen.
We were up in our fields, with the wind blowing. Geoffrey, carrying Kai in a backpack, was taking the photo. Kyra was at his feet. Jordan and Jessica were hiding in the grass about six feet from where I was dancing. The tripod tipped over more than once.
The photo was taken from the distance, and when zoomed in was blurry. I had to argue emphatically with the graphic designer that that blur was exactly what I wanted.
10. The critique stands.
So many of us in western culture suffer from a mind-over-body education that fails to help us develop the internal resources needed to make healthy, life-enabling decisions.
Engaging in practices of rhythmic bodily movement remains one of the most powerful interventions available.
At the same time, the explosion of Youtube and TikTok over the past thirteen years is creating a situation in which people spend lots of time watching and imitating the bodily movements of others. People are practicing the skills of rhythm, gesture, and play. In order to take advantage of the opportunities these technologies offer, we need a general consciousness of how valuable dancing can be in helping us cultivate the ability to discern the wisdom in our bodily selves.
Like anything else, growing this awareness takes time, attention, intention, practice – and most of all, a willingness to move and be moved. This too, is what a body knows.
Because of this book, an editor from Psychology Today contacted me and asked me to blog for them. From 2009 to 2020 I wrote over 100 posts on dancing, movement, parenting, farming, art, creativity, and more for this What a Body Knows Blog. Grateful! Enjoy.