James Baldwin, the towering black writer, can widen your comprehension of things you thought you understood. Take the word sensual.
The essayist and activist wrote this in The Fire Next Time:
To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.
Baldwin feared for those who are unable to “renew themselves at the fountain of their own lives.”
At times he found such renewal in his black community of the ’50s and ’60s, a quality “of zest and joy and a capacity for facing and surviving disaster. … a freedom that was close to love.”
He observed this characteristic at “church suppers and outings … where rage and sorrow sat in the darkness and did not stir, and we ate and drank and talked and laughed and danced and forgot all about the (white) man. We had the liquor, the chicken, the music, and each other, and had no need to pretend to be what we were not.”
Baldwin is talking about being in touch with all emotions and all five senses. A thing natural and unstudied.
He noticed this in unself-consciousness, in losing oneself to the sound and feel and texture of things. We see it in a gifted athlete’s abandon and grace as he speeds toward a distant, perhaps catchable ball and the same young man’s sense of muscular weariness after expending all his energy at the game’s end.
You needn’t search far for these experiences. One can reach down and claw up a clump of earth on a rainy day. The fragrance is the aroma of life and the potential for regeneration.
The sensual is at hand in rejoicing over birdsong and the concentrated, savoring, unrushed consumption of a tasty meal. It is there without charge in a subtle perfume evoking the skin of someone you love and the heartache when you are distant from her.
The songs that quicken us access the hidden truth we know of ourselves and in ourselves. When we say we are “moved” by an event, we should remember this: movement speaks to the urgency of the body to do what it was made for.
Sensuality inhabits the morning light of the bluest skies and the coyness of a shy smile. You recognize the sensual in the goosebumps of a homecoming where everyone waits for you – when you and they know of their incompleteness without you.
Perhaps you’ve found sensuality in poetry recited in hoped-for words from the right voice or a father’s protective arm around your shoulder. The mutual grip of his handshake would do as well. Your senses are engaged in each of these.
We give away too much of this in a cloud of unawareness. Routine and habit kill our aliveness to the world. Now is a moment to attend to our forgotten contact with nature outside of us and our nature inside of us.
Traps we call custom and convention interfere with showing our emotional response to the sensory corporeal world. We make sure no one sees our openness and sensitivity to the planet’s pulse, lest we become ashamed.
Concern about the opinion of others is necessary for civility, but causes us to hide anything the group might question. Religion’s focus on the sin of the erotic, for all that institution’s civilizing effects, inhibited mankind by comparison with our freer mammalian cousins.
One can find the possibility of the sensual in walking instead of riding in cars, in the buoyant life of the ocean’s salt rather than the antiseptic backyard or public pool. The computer screen offers digits and electric communication, but not the enlivening smell and slipperiness of sweat.
Weather makes no difference to our senses. Each season and atmospheric change presents its own physical gifts. Sensuality is not buttoned up or closed down, but the drumming heart of our essence, no matter the forecast.
Even in a time of limitation and disease, you can discover the reason you want to live in photos, melodies, and trees. No wonder children love fingerpainting. They don’t care how their art turns out so much as how the paint feels in their hands. They remain more at one with their bodies, joys, and sorrows than many of us.
All you need is in you.
All of the photographs are the work of the extraordinary Laura Hedien, reproduced with her generous permission: https://laura-hedien.pixels.com/ The first was taken at Wasatch Mountains, Utah. The second image depicts the Bobby Sock Area of Yellowstone National Park. The final picture shows The Milky Way and a Southwest, USA Arch. The single painting comes from Wikimedia Commons. It is Jan Davidsz de Heem’s Still Life with Ham, Lobster, and Fruit, c. 1653.