Column: Holding the Bowl

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My dear one tells me how ze does it, and I forget. Or rather, I remember the shape of it, but not the details, and I make those up to suit myself.

Climb into the shower, clothes on, bowl in hand. Fiddle with the water until I find something between a steady stream and stillness. Hold the bowl. Catch as much as I can.

As an act, it’s simple- time spent standing still with cool water on one of the first hot days of summer. As a symbol, it’s something else entirely.

A Faroese stamp illustrating Janus Djurhuus’s poem “Loki Laufey’s Son,” Anker Eli Petersen, 2004 [public domain]

The Norse myths don’t have a clear narrative arc, or a timeline into which they fit neatly – but if they did, this would be near the end of it. Baldur, Odin’s bright burning boy, is held in Hela’s halls. The serpent is sent to slither through the seas, its brother baited and bound. And Sigyn stands stalwart.

Her husband is being tortured. He is bound in the entrails of his child, with a snake suspended above him to drip poison into his eyes. Every drop is painful and sets him screaming, writhing in an attempt to get away. Sigyn stands above him and holds a bowl to catch the drops before they can touch his face. She holds it until it is full and she has to go pour it out. While she is gone, the venom hits again, and her husband burns.

This is how she protects him. This is the limit of what she can do.

Some of us, who love her and her husband, offer this action as a way to help. This is my first time. I cannot take the burden from her arms, but I can share it. I can offer this.

I have grabbed the biggest bowl in the house, the massive steel mixer that I use to raise dough. It’s lightweight enough that I’m not too worried about endurance.  I’m determined to make this worthwhile, to offer something meaningful. I step up, breath even, and catch the first drop.

I hadn’t even considered splashing. Not in a bowl this big- not with a drip this slow. But the drop shatters on the bottom of the bowl and mists my arms with water. For a moment, it is venom. For a moment, I realize, it will smoke on my skin, leaving marks just a little too deep to be pores. A drop to the eyes is excruciating. What is a constant, steady patter of mist to the skin?

The second drop splashes up to my cheek and sits there like a tear. I turn my head away, and hold out my arms. With the third, I feel water on my lips.

I could stop, I think. I could reset the water, get a different bowl. Call this a false start.

I shift my weight, and my grip, and try to listen to what I am being taught.

“Held a cup to catch the venomous drops,” Arthur Rackham, 1901 [public domain]

At some point I lose track of time, cycling through my meditation on my purpose here, the shadowed half-seen cave in my mind’s eye, and the pressing urgency of my own body as the weight of the water grows. This is a choice, I remind myself as my muscles clench and start to shake, the contents of the bowl sloshing. I steady it as much as I can, forcing the weakness into my shoulders and back. I could leave. I could decide to do this another time, with a different bowl. I could decide that I have helped enough.

I stand as solidly as I can and, eventually, I realize that my hands are wet. How does condensation work, I ask myself? It is water in the bowl- if it was venom, would the condensation be water as well? I try to remember high school science as I shake again, and drops fall from the bottom of the bowl onto the tile. Just water, just tile – but also a moment in which, no matter what I can offer, how perfect my work, something slips through to harm the one I love.

The strain shifts, the longer I hold it. I didn’t expect the pain to settle at the base of my spine or snake across my shoulders and up into my neck. At some point this becomes work, real exercise. There are muscles straining that I know will change, if I keep this up. This is a different kind of strength I could build.

Gods, I am tired. I had not expected it to be this hard. I could take a break, maybe. Put it down for a minute. Hand it back. If I reach out with a foot and speed up the spray I could stand here for a little shorter time.

I reach out, careful, and the spray hits my face, my arms, the front of my shirt. I gasp and pull the bowl closer, changing the angle so that it catches as much as it can, as much as there is room for.

What keeps me from setting the bowl down is that I have the option to do so.

This is voluntary. I am here, we are all here, because we want to be. For a moment, as I am meditating, I see a forest of hands holding up the bowl, all of our strength united in catching the drops as they fall. Even Sigyn stands because she chooses to, her arms outstretched to guard her beloved. It is a heavy burden. We could all set it down.

The one we are protecting does not have that option. He is here because he has been bound, his dead child holding him in place. If I do not act to help him, am I complicit in his binding? This work is constant stinging pain – if we were not here it would be agony for him. It will be agony still – I cannot stop that. I can only share some of it, try to divert the rest.

This is a true story, and it is a myth, and it is a metaphor.

“Frame from an unexpected encounter with Saturday’s Black Lives Matter march through downtown Baltimore City,” John Lucia, 2016 [Wikimedia Commons, CC 2.0]

As I stand in my own shower and reach down carefully to cut off the spray, I think about my friend who came back from the protests last night with a black eye and bruises on her chest. I think about my friend who locks arms and steps up when they say “Allies to the front,” silent and implacable. I think about my coworker who shares stories of the bitter fights she’s had with relatives, my brother who is guiding their community as it splits and fractures. I think about the painful, ugly feeling every time I realize that I’ve uncovered another unexamined piece of racism, buried in my soul.

I hold this pain, and honor it, as the mist on my arms. These friends and I are white, middle class, highly educated. We could always set this work down.

I think of the many who can not. Then I kneel, and pour the liquid in my bowl slowly into the drain.


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