Getting my soul out of my body was harder than I thought it would be. A bottle of sleeping pills and a glass of merlot seemed like the right tools for the job. But my ex got in the way, as exes often do, and rushed my barely conscious body, soul intact, to the hospital.
That's all I wanted: to leave my body. Not to die and be dead; just be apart from it for a while, be without the
w e i g h t of my body. It had recently accumulated a lot of debt and scars, and it kept disobeying me.
Here's what I remember from the hospital:
1. Walking sloppily into the emergency room and being pleasantly surprised there was no line at the window. There were very few people in Samaritan Hospital that night, maybe three others in the waiting room, even fewer behind the ER doors.
2. Saying "yes" when a nurse asked me, "Did you want to go to sleep for a long time?" I feel like she had dark hair and eyes. Then I passed out and they pumped my stomach; several scenes after this have been lost, the story doesn’t resume until a few days later.
When I ate all those pills I didn’t think about where my soul would go if it successfully escaped my body. It wouldn’t hang listlessly above the operating table waiting for further instructions, this would not happen to me, this would be too much like various B movies. I had no sense of any place or possibility beyond my body. I don't believe in heaven or hell, but I have much faith in karma. Karma has made intrinsic sense to me since before I knew it had a name. I do not think I am escaping the wheel this time. God: I do not believe in as any kind of greater being. But yes, in the sense of greater energies, which sometimes intersect with human lives.
I used to know a few other people who've tried to take their own lives; we talked about what happened just before, during and after, but not about what we thought would happen to our souls. Just like no one talks about their weight or gray hairs, it's somehow off limits in polite conversation. No one I am very close to has attempted suicide, for which I am grateful. The people I knew who tried, I don’t know anymore. It seems important to mention this: I have witnessed the moment of death (for my grandmother) and there was a lightening of some kind in the body, the room filled up with something else, and then all the lights went out.
Look at the word itself, soul, try to understand why it occupies a background presence in our consciousness instead of a constant awareness. Try to feel it in my body. From an obscure 19th century French researcher, Charles Nodier: "The different names for the soul, among nearly all peoples, are just so many breath variations, and onomatopoeic expressions of breathing."
Here are some other languages' words for soul:
alma, âme, anima, ziel, seele, sielu, själ, sjel, sál, atman, nishama, yonghon, ling hun, tamashii, ΨγχΗ
(Spanish, French, Italian, Dutch, German, Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic, Hindi, Hebrew, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Greek)
The German and Finnish words feel the most like breathing. Also sjel, which in a trick of language wiring in my brain makes me think of shell, a counterpoint to a soul. Soul takes up four pages in the 1972 compact Oxford English Dictionary, I read through all of them with my magnifying glass. Definition 1: "The principle of life in man or animals; animate existence."
Soul first appeared in print in Beowulf (820 AD), as the Old English sawol. The OED traces the long history of phonetic, dialectic (and so, geographic) permutations that led to soul: sawol, sawul, sawel, (or sauwil, they seem to be two spellings of the same phonemes), sawl, sawle, sauel, saule (zavle, sauel), saul, saull, sal, sall, sale, salle, sowle, sowel, sowylle, sowll, showl, sowl, soule, soul. After mapping this long chain, and the Latin and Germanic roots, the OED concludes: “The ultimate etymology is uncertain.”
Fragile in sound, history, understanding. Soul is usually separate from I in my mind (which is also separate from soul). But when I think back to the hospital, that I joined with my soul, I even wrote it this way a few lines ago. I wanted to leave my body, and my I's vessel was my soul, so they merged. But only in that one instance, that way of thinking; now they are separate again. Do I sense my soul in my chest? No. In my hands? No. Head? Definitely not. I can't sense my soul anywhere in my body and perhaps this is why it feels separate from my body and I. Feeling, sensing: these are our informing actions, how our bodies tell us hard facts-this is hot, that is real. A soul is something a body can't access with its senses, it is beyond their reach. Is it hiding? Is my soul more mine than my body? Because I have to leave my body when I die? And then will soul and I be united again?
I can believe it’s there without direct sensory information, but some part of me wants to see it, badly. See the shadow of something inside my body besides fragile organs and gallons of water. What would it look like? Lots of religious and cultural suggestions; first thought is a translucent approximation of the body, loose enough to be carried off, thin enough to let light through. Opaque white or yellow, pale blue: these are the colors I associate with a soul. But what if mine is oxblood red? Or an awful color, like taupe? What if I die and a thick black cloud rushes out?
From Romeo and Juliet: "for Mercutio's soul is but a little way above our heads..." (3.1.125). Every time I see the play performed, at this line I look up over Romeo and Tybalt's heads for Mercutio's soul. I always expect to see it and am disappointed when it’s not there. In Elizabethan England there was no doubting the soul; you had one and it was going one way or another after you died. Was this certainty reassuring? The fear of hell had to be as frightening as wondering whether or not you had a soul, probably worse.
And you would go to hell if you committed suicide. People who died by their own hands were buried outside the churchyard, at a crossroads. This always felt cruelly ironic to me, how people so lost they took their own lives were condemned to be lost in the afterlife, tethered to an unfamiliar intersection, where no way welcomed them, none pointed home. The crime was undoing what God had made, destroying something not yours to destroy. Suicide was a theft and a murder combined, an unapproved change.
"the wood of the self-murderers: the suicides and the harpies,"
an illustrated scene from The Inferno with Dante and Virgil
as the figures creeping up behind
Not long before Mercutio’s birth and death, Dante Alighieri cast the suicides down in the Inferno’s Seventh Circle, Violence. Trapped in the middle of three rings, they were transformed into thorny bushes and trees, torn at by the Harpies. Worse than this, they would not be resurrected as bodies after the final judgment, having given their bodies away through suicide. Instead, they would keep their tree form, corpses hanging from their limbs. The trees are a metaphor. The only relief from suffering in their lives was through pain—the act of suicide; in hell, the only relief from their suffering is also through pain, breaking their tree limbs to bleed. It seems sadistic, how Dante has imprisoned these souls in hideous, frozen forms; their last desperate act in life was to free themselves of a heavy body.
Recently I went to a Catholic wedding in the expansive, gilded Basilica at the University of Notre Dame. I usually feel lonely in houses of worship. On the plane to Chicago I had a strange premonition of the wedding: everyone dressed up in the sanctuary with their souls neat in their bodies. People worrying for their own souls, praying for the souls of others, lighting candles for the departed ones. And then me dropped into their midst, staring blankly ahead with my soul buzzing wildly inside somewhere, studying the ceremony through a telescope. Misunderstanding every ritual. Watching the bride and groom take their lit candles to light the unlit one together, I’d look away.
But it didn’t happen like that. I pleasantly spaced out during the sermon and the stained glass saints were like fellow travelers. When the bride and groom lit the long candle together, I felt a tenderness for them; it was clear to the two of them their souls were joining, and for once I could accept the ritual without cynicism, skepticism, or sadness.
I wasn’t alone among devout Catholics, either; my atheist Uncle Bill kept up a steady stream of commentary on the drawn-out ceremony, the bored altar boys, the proliferation of Catholic babies in attendance. He did go down on his knees for the Eucharist, whispering, “I’m praying for my IRA.” I should have asked him how he felt about his soul, if he even thought he had one. How does an atheist reconcile body and soul? Was it easier for him to watch the sacred matrimonial, having no attachments or hang-ups, than it was for me, traveling blind, reading far into every minor event? How long did it take him to reach the place of non-attachment?
I get different responses from people when I tell them about my suicide attempt, when it somehow becomes relevant to the conversation. I have to be feeling brave; there is still a lot of shame around suicicde. “You took pills, so, you didn’t really mean it, right?” is a fairly common response. Sometimes I answer, “Well, my boyfriend took all the knives out of the apartment because I was enthusiastically cutting my arms, so sleeping pills were actually my second choice.” Usually I am more charitable and say, “I had PTSD and clinical depression for fifteen years. Yeah, I meant it.”
Some people get very quiet and don’t say anything, looking past me at the wall or the floor, which is somehow worse than the false bravado people. Occasionally I hear a variation on “I’m glad you’re still here,” and once in a great while, maybe three times in all, the other person has told me about their own suicide attempt, or attempts. This did not make us friends for life. There’s no brotherhood of suicide survivors, at least none I’ve come across yet. It’s fundamentally an individual question, the shame, stigma and guilt aside. Is my soul hurting so bad I have to cut it loose? No one else can answer that.
Looking at how language approaches something as tenuous as immortal energy is like staring down a bottomless well. Rather than forcing a reconciliation of all my earlier thoughts on this fragile partnership, I’ll leave you with the poem I started to write instead of this essay, then abandoned:
Like a home,
we edit and rewrite them. They’re drafty, these bodies.
Accidental traveling companions:
keep trying to communicate
through sign language
in a dark dark room.
Erin Virgil is a poet who lives in an RV. She has an MFA from Naropa University and her work has been published by Fast Forward Press, Indigo Ink, Wolverine Farm, and Colorado Life Magazine. Her prose chapbook, memory holes, was recently published by Monkey Puzzle Press, and she has a poetry chapbook forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press. She keeps up a literary kind of blog at emvlovely.wordpress.com.