Skin Aflame – A Poem and an Abstract

For that beautiful youth
Health in your hands…

For me let there be
An intercession!

Another deep night
Called to this vigil
Not by a soul on fire
With the compulsion
To peer into Abyss

But awake, alert
Beneath the harsh yoke
Of that all too old
long time companion:
Irritated skin

Dare to be precise:
Irritating skin!
Aflame and accursed
By who knows what kind–
Inner or outer–
Of new misery.

Medicated bath
and special lotions
Then some few minutes
Where arises hope
That rest can come soon.

But the needles start
Tingling… not yet.
More meditation,
Even more prayers.

I lift up my voice
In a Thanksgiving
For your blessed health…
Lift up your own voice
And remember me
In your most sacred

A Year without Skin
Proposal for a Chapter
in a New Book on Ecophenomenology

In the ecology of the human body, the skin is barrier and boundary, a permeable membrane between self and other. When in working order, skin is our primary defense against infection and disease. When diseased or broken, viruses, bacteria, natural allergens, and human generated chemicals are able to penetrate: the self becomes more diffuse or diaphanous. The skin is our largest organ and the only organ in constant contact with the world, waking and sleeping. Our physical limit, the skin presents us as a whole to those others with whom we share the world.

I was born in early October, 1964. By Christmas, my parents noticed that I had developed a persistent rash. They changed my formula and the soaps they used on my body and on my clothing. But the rash kept coming back. Around my brother’s birthday in April, my mother tells me, the family doctor sent them to a dermatologist. I was diagnosed with atopic eczema.

Atopic eczema is a chronic disorder of the skin. The term from the Greek translates as “unusual breaking out.” The ailment generally appears as a dry, itchy redness especially on the hands and around the folds of the skin at the elbows and the knees. These areas are prone to regular eruptions of itchiness that lead to sores. As the name “atopic” implies, there is no known cause for this disruption; doctors refer to it as idiopathic. In my own case, even when I watch what I eat, what I wear, where I go, how much lotion I apply, my skin quickly can move from mild localized irritation to severe general infection.

Over the course of my life, I have tried every possible remedy and combination of remedies to discover a final break from breaking out. There has never been a sure release or cure offered to me among the myriad concoctions, lotions, vitamins, or treatments. Aryuveda, Chinese, western holistic, folk remedy, osteopathy, or general pharmaceutical therapy have offered only temporary liberty from my skin.

In late 2006, I began to have more frequent outbreaks across my body. Large areas on my back and behind my knees would stay raw. More and more infections required larger doses of antibiotics. At one point cellulitis was so bad on my feet and hands that pustules made it difficult for me to walk or grasp anything. I visited the hospital twice for intravenous antibiotics; I feared that I might get a serious enough infection that I could lose my toes or a finger.

I was becoming skinned. My relationship to my self and the world was in flux. The persistent rawness on my back and behind my knees began to spread all over my body. By late January 2007, there were only a few inches of my body clear of rawness or free from constant weeping sores inflamed with serious infection. My body as ecosystem was completely disrupted in this way until early 2008. I call this my year without skin.

The purpose of the phenomenological reflections arising from this year without skin will be to describe body as ecosystem. I will touch on the philosophical work of Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, and Gilles Deleuze: the philosophers who helped me weather the disruption of my lifeworld. Specifically, I am interested in showing how being-in-the-world as an entity with atopic eczema situates embodiment in the unusual as usual. Do the scars and calluses left behind by the healing of severe eruptions offer different connections with others? How does an eruption in the skin lead to a disruption of the system? When new limits are placed on the whole organism to heal the skin, how does this alter exchange with the surrounding environment? In what ways do break outs show a need to transform habitat by habits of responsive control? In reflecting on the constant modulation of comfort and discomfort, I will describe skin as an always opening barrier onto the environment and an already changing boundary for a world.


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