Lately, when I meditate, questions plague me. Perhaps plague is not the right word, as there is a negative connotation to it. Plague makes one think of rats and fleas and medieval London streets piled high with rotting corpses. I think I should say, questions arise unbidden and seep into my consciousness and niggle at me until I actively seek out the answer. The problem is that most of these questions either possess complex, multi tiered answers or none at all, more like a “fill in the blank” sort of thing. My latest curiosity involves the idea of soulfulness, or, more specifically, what does it mean to posses soul?
The quest for the answer led me to a young woman named Florence Welch; twenty-three, waifish, English, songtress, with a fierce voice that belies her slight stature, who wrote a pulsating with passion song called, “Kiss with a Fist (Is Better Than None)”. The chorus:
You hit me once I hit you back You gave a kick I gave a slap You smashed a plate over my head Then I set fire to our bed
She goes on to recount (in, at times, lurid detail) the innards of a possibly unhealthy passion that ensues between a couple. There are black eyes and broken limbs and ritualistic bed burnings. Now, one could take this as a treatise on spousal abuse, or, they could take it like I did, instinctively, as a metaphor for what love can do to us if we let it. What our souls wreak when we are not looking. Thich Naht Hahn, the Zen monk, would say this is not true love. I agree, but perhaps it is a sign of soul?
There are always (tiresome) feminists (you all know the type; plump, or wiry, but always in handspun kurtis and open toed sandals decrying beastly men but secretly hoping to land a man, ahem), who might say this song glorifies domestic violence. I say to anyone who does: you, my dear non profit goddess, lack imagination.
When Welch was asked why she wrote this song, she said she was inspired by a stellar, ( personally insecurity inducing) essay written by Zadie Smith called, “Their Eyes Were Watching God: What Does Soulful Mean?” I sought this essay out and read it almost thirstily, as another writer’s brilliance sometimes serves to give me hope.
In it Smith talks about the shades of soulfulness that Zora Neale Hurston’s seminal Harlem Renaissance novel evokes. First, she gives the dictionary’s take: expressing or appearing to express deep and often sorrowful feeling.
This seemed woefully inadequate to me, as it did to Smith so she describes “the several more shades of color” added by the “culturally black meaning” of the word and experience. It is as follows:
“First shade: soulfulness is sorrowful feeling transformed into something beautiful, creative and self-renewing, and – as it reaches a pitch – ecstatic. It is an alchemy of pain…Another shade: to be soulful is to follow and fall in line with a feeling, to go where it takes you and not to go against its grain. A final shade: the word soulful, like its Jewish cousin, schmaltz, has its roots in the digestive tract. ‘Soul food’ is simple, flavorsome, hearty, unfussy, with spice…(Changing My Mind, 2009).”
An aside: how I personally adore schmaltz! Schmaltz is, at times, my raison d’etre. It certainly informs my work lately, and my female protagonists all have a touch of the schmaltz. Being Bangali, they are most assuredly preoccupied with their digestive tracts. My latest heroine hails from Chittagong, where feelings of passion and romantic love are expressed most eloquently via the stomach. Literal translation of I love you in Chatgaya: my stomach is burning for you. That’s not to say that Chatgaya folks possess more soul than the rest of Bangladesh. I am sure Sylhetis have their fair share of passion. Not sure about people from Barisal, as I have limited experience with them. Growing up, however, I heard that wives from Barisal tended to be naughty. Whatever that means. That could bode well for their husbands or go horribly awry. Now that I think about it perhaps it was West Bengal in general that produced problematic daughters in law. But these were eastern and southern Bengali women talking.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez pointed out in his novella, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, that people from the southern, coastal regions of a country, tended to be more hotheaded, emotional, and eager to consume spicy food than their northern counterparts. Perhaps there is a correlation between consuming vast amounts of loita shutki (dried, stinky, oddly appetizing fish) and soulfulness. Maybe that is the Chotogram version of soul food. Bengali chitlins (fried, stinky, pig’s intestines and a staple of most southern African American soul food menus) if you will.
If we are to prescribe to Smith’s notion of soulfulness, then Welch’s song, as violent as it is, evokes that very alchemy of pain she talks about. There is an authenticity to Welch’s lyrics that makes me think she knows whereof she sings, that she is personally aquainted with this particular pain. When you hear her sing the words, that truthfulness is brought into even further mean relief.
Everyone experiences pain, heartache, fear, depression, the gamut. I do not think that merely having these things bumping around in the frontal lobe qualifies one as certifiably soulful. I am starting to understand that being true to one’e pain is where the soul resides. Maybe soulfulness is, in the end, simply tied to truth and authenticity, however terrible it may be at times. Maybe that is all it takes to possess it, to be true, to oneself and to the world, but most likely true to oneself. As it all begins with the “Me”, does it not? Because we are all, supposedly, made in God’s image and he/she is within us, perfect and whole. Like I said, no easy answers. Fill in the blank, add water. Have a soulful day.