"There are 10 times more microbes in the body than there are human cells, with trillions of bacteria concentrated in the mouth, skin, lungs and especially the gut."--Agence France-Presse
"The human body contains ten times as many bacterial cells as it does human cells. Biologists have now taken a census of the bacteria that live on our skin, and it turns out that the diversity of life there is quite remarkable. The bacteria between our eyebrows are different from those on the elbow or in some other nook or cranny."--Richard Harris (NPR)
"We think of the inside of the nose as the rain forest, because it contains the greatest wealth of biological diversity."--Julie Segre
I am, it appears, never alone.
Nor are you.
Every single one of us homo sapiens functions as a great big Technicolor SUV -- heck, a painted-all-over-with-Islamic-graffiti-Pakistani-long-haul-truck -- for trillions of passengers, many of them paying their way by providing necessary services; some of them making us chronically ill; many of them interacting with one another (like the entire, noisy cast of some foreign-language soap opera) far more than they interact with us; and a good many hanging on for dear life (their own) after we ourselves have bitten the dust.
I've known this to be true since the days of high school science class, but I don't really think I'd ever grasped the fact that I contain trillions of fellow travelers till just recently. ("Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes." How correct Walt Whitman was.) If you want to get really graphic about all this, Discover Magazine's Josie Glausiusz has written a great article on our 90 trillion microbe-BFF's titled "Your Body Is a Planet".
Planet, my bottom! Multiverse, more like it.
Ninety trillion microbes!? No wonder our designers (who I am certain comprise a committee of North Korean engineering school drop-outs) made us so myopic. Imagine looking down at your arm and actually seeing what's really there.
So, here I am, a living, breathing congeries of beings, as crowded as the Hindu pantheon. How could I ever have imagined myself (there it is, hardwired into the language) as "a self"? I am everything but. I am neither a self; nor am I my self. I cannot even, in good conscience, use the first person singular ("I") again.
Like Pogo, in every significant way, "We have met the enemy, and he is us." We have also met the ally, and she is us. (Young whippersnappers, please see here for more on Pogo.)
When you gaze into the mirror, Oh Best Belovéd, trillions of microbes and bacteria and viruses and God knows what else, are gazing back at you (each in its fashion).
From this realization -- and holding it very, very firmly right in the front of your consciousness -- I want you to extrapolate outward towards the world as you thought you knew it.
Your significant other, for example. Not only do you share your own body with 90 trillion others; you also share your belovéd with 90 trillion others, give or take a billion or so.
Assuming you're sexually active, whenever you jump into that California King, it's never just the two of you. It's not even (as Freud has taught us) you, him, his ex-wife, your mother, his mother, your father, his father, etc., etc., etc., etc. It's also all those others permanently on board. In your psyche, you're an entire group of souls -- everyone who's left a mark, painful or pleasurable, on body or soul -- but your very being is teeming with "others," as well.
In every possible way, each of you is a group, and a big one.
(I once wrote a book of erotic poetry titled The Crowded Bed because, even as a very young woman, I knew that lovers are never on their own in the sack. What Americans term "baggage" and I, myself, tend to call "history -- whether great, bad and indifferent," brings lots of others along for even that most intimate of rides.)
Every day, in every way, we share our bodies with "others," who live upon and within us. By the same token, we can never come even close to possessing, to marrying-without-sharing, any other of our same species.
From before our first breath, from the moment of conception, we share. It is the fundamental verb of human existence.
Let me say that again: sharing is the fundamental verb of human existence. But it's not something most of us do with much grace.
Your mother shares with you her body. You live within her for nine months, more or less: a passenger, a guest.
Each member of your family shares just about everything with you, willy-nilly, from the moment you arrive on the scene. Your older brother's dust mites? Yours now, too. Your family dog's fleas? Yours. A lot of your entire family's DNA? Duplicated in you. Your neighbors' prejudices and fetishes? Alas, usually passed along to you with the measles and mumps.
You're about as "individual" as a universe full of stars, planets, space junk and black holes.
How, then, do we become so dog-goned "selfish"? How can we, knowing, as so many of us now know, that there is absolutely no real estate, anywhere, at any time, that we can own, or call our own, or stake a claim to, or make our mark on?
We're as temporary as sneezes, in the grand scheme of things.
How can we fail to empathize with the hungry, the disabled, the un-housed, the un-horsed, the dispossessed, the ethnically cleansed, the silenced, the raped, the injured, the abandoned, the tortured . . . all of the "others"? How can we, who have no true "selves," be so self-centered?
The older I get, the more outrageous possessiveness and territorial-ness and jealousy and envy and hoarding and coveting and self-seeking and imagining we can take anything with us we didn't come in with appear to me.
The older I get, the more I want to give away, to share, to pass on, to set free.
You know what? I wish we did have the vision of an electron microscope. I wish we could see the mites and the microbes and the bacteria and the viruses and the what-all-else that inhabits us.
Perhaps then, it would be more difficult for us to be the selfish sonsofbitches most of us are.
I can dream, can't I?
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