Metropolitan

by Heather Phillipson

By Heather Phillipson

Apparently, an urban brain is rigged differently to a rural brain. Those little synaptic shockers heat and cool and leap at different rates, to toughen or temper the mind. The urban environment requires a certain level of drop-out, give-up, de-zoning to get through a single day. It’s just not possible to be that in it at all times. We need out from the gunk around us. And if you can’t switch it off on your own, you’re going to need help to do it.

When I rehomed Marj, a border collie, her body specifically hers, she didn’t come wired for my corner of East London. The 38 bus within millimetres, infinite pedestrians, a loud sneeze, a helium balloon, a surprise bin-bag, a rogue squirrel – all causes for sudden alarm, and when she exerted her alarm on the lead, I felt it too. I felt it. Marj is a real, high-alert jumper, and she started rewiring me the same.

A rehomed dog and a lover have the same way of uploading their consciousness to yours. It’s like someone’s let themselves in, after dark, and laid their everything on your everything.

One of the best things about being companion to a dog is exposure to a title like Dr Overall’s ‘Protocol for Relaxation’. Marj has led me into a new realm of deep canine reading. Dr Overall’s thesis goes that, through trained relaxation, as embodied by you, you counter-condition your hepped-up dog-friend, encouraging less OTT behaviour. It’s like compensation for all the crap dogs have to withstand, trying to muddle in with humans. (Though, frankly, the human world is alarming, and we oughtn’t to forget it.)

Too attached to my renewed hypervigilance to be a model of chilled comportment, I submitted my body to a ‘double gong bath’ – 24 people prone in a dark room, candles, blankets, an incense waft and, at either end, a gong, made resonant by a person. (No dogs admitted??) Between them, the ripples were splashing up all over us. The full 90-minute job. It’s hard to place sensuality, but I know I got doped up on the scents and soundwaves, and quickly forgot the sharp facts of my life for the slackened fantasy it could become. The air didn’t feel entirely dry, as though it could be liquid, an unplumbed sonic fluid, but it wasn’t wet enough to swim in. More like floating. And then I was in deep. It was like breaking the seal on a jar of what you most crave, and then downing it. Drowning in it. And the whole thing ended with a crescendo of convincing rain sticks. Rain sticks!

Sometimes, at my most tranquilised, I let my mind dip into that comfy spread, peanut butter, and wonder: is there anything it wouldn’t go with?

Then, back out on the 38 bus-route – BLAM! Sirens, neons, Friday-night howlers.

Sometimes, at my most tranquilised, I let my mind dip into that comfy spread, peanut butter (no palm oil, no added sugar), and wonder: is there anything it wouldn’t go with? Methodically, I’ve conjured it all – vegetables, rices and pastas, sweet spreads, savoury snacks, hot puddings, fresh berries… and got nothing. It took a while to reach this conclusion – meeting a peanut in my muesli, I used to feel duped: they’re not real nuts. (And wasn’t it peanut butter, in fact, that fried Elvis?) But once I ignored their cultural and symbolic status, and really tasted the peanuts, I had to admit a special affection. The peanut’s interloper status, between nut and legume, is its singular, claggy transgression. And with every scoop, I remain astonished – how many lives sacrificed in a single teaspoon?

As it goes, one of the first poems that got to me, and that still, I mean it, gets me, is by Anon: ‘A peanut sat on a railroad track, / His heart was all a-flutter. / Along came a train, the 2.56 – / Toot toot! Peanut butter!’

Maybe deep down what I’m really considering isn’t peanuts and calm at all but the worthless consequences of my brief-lit body in toto and the passing connections it makes before: kaput. Now that persons come in byte-size portions, distributed ever quicker, worldwide, isn’t there all the more to be said for savouring each other’s specific tastiness? Staking a wager on the heat of love-aboutto- happen? Getting morphed? (I just thought of a baby’s chubby arms – so new and smooth and full – is it wrong to want to taste a baby’s skin, in deference to aliveness?) Are a lot of the best feelings like bathing? When I think of these mutual submersions, I can’t locate the feeling anywhere, exactly, but I’d like the rewiring to be extensive. Thank god there are still some things one can search for that remain unlocatable.

From the April 2017 issue of ArtReview