Soul - noun - the spiritual or immaterial part of a human being or animal, regarded as immortal.
Often the ladder to success feels like the indentured apprenticeship system of yore. And when I say yore I'm talking yore as in medieval times, when poor families would give their young children (children they could not afford to feed, clothe, or even house) to various craftsmen in the hopes that the child would learn a trade and become self-sufficient. I worked as a fashion photographer's assistant for years. An overworked, underpaid, never sitting down, first one to arrive in the morning, last one to leave at night, always on my feet assistant, a sort of back-breaking serf-y arrangement that was never easy but was what was needed in order to learn the ropes of my chosen field. Thankfully I was not alone. There were numerous other downtrodden yet ambitious assistants floating around the photoshoot sets as well. Other assistant photographers of course but also assistant stylists, assistant hair and makeup artists, assistant set designers, assistant art directors, you name it, the list goes on and on. The assistants were always the hardest working (yet invisible and ignored) members of the crew and we would bond over the extreme injustice of it all. Although we were all learning valuable lessons from our mentors, when they weren't looking we would criticize and critique them mercilessly. We assured our comrades that when it was our turn to be the big Kahuna we would do it better, faster, smarter, cheaper and nicer than whoever it was we were working for at the time.
One of the the good things about being around all these other assistants with a dream was that we could get a crew together and on the weekends we could do our own practice photo shoots, called tests. Eventually after years of doing enough of these self funded tests an assistant could get a body of work together which (if the work was any good) might allow them to break free from the iron bonds of indentured servitude. An assistant could possibly become a master craftsman in their field, going out on their own and finally living the dream.
In my early 20s I met an assistant stylist named Beatrice. She had a fire in her belly to escape fashion serfdom like I did and we immediately started plotting. Beatrice and I did several test shoots together and got along very well. One summer evening I met Beatrice for drinks to go over the images from the test we had done the previous week.
There I was with my wine and my contact sheets and my magnifying glass (yes, I am prehistoric) waiting for Beatrice to arrive. She finally showed up almost an hour late, and after only 20 minutes she said she had to go. We had been briefly catching up during that time and had not even gone over the contact sheets yet but she promised we would do that later in the week. "How about Wednesday?" I said. "Yeah Wednesday, good. I'll call you.” She shouted a "see you soon" over her shoulder as she disappeared into the Union Square crowd.
Wednesday came and went with no word. I called Beatrice on Thursday and left a message but never heard back. This went on for about 2 weeks at which point I just gave up trying and figured she was out of town, traveling for work, as we both often did. I assumed she would get in touch when she returned.
Several weeks after our last meeting, still with no word back, I had all the prints from our test ready. I called Beatrice's apartment to let her know that I would like to drop them off.
Beatrice's husband answered the phone almost immediately. I had never met him before as my relationship with Beatrice was really centered around our shared passion more than about socializing together. Once I had explained who I was and asked when would be a good time to drop off the prints I heard a long weary sigh coming from the other end of the phone.
"You haven't heard then?" The husband asked me. "Heard what?" I asked cautiously. "Beatrice has had an accident" he said. "She was hit by car and she's in the hospital now, then going to a rehabilitation facility. Her back is broken. In several places. She's going to be there for a very long time."
"Oh my God" I blurted out loudly, "that’s terrible. I’m so sorry. Where is she? Can I go see her?" "No" he informed me "you can't. She will be gone for 6 months to a year, or so the doctors say. She may never walk again. She doesn't want to see or talk to anyone."
I was shocked. I couldn't believe it. I felt like I had just seen her. Waltzing away from me into the swirling early evening crowd. We had just had drinks at that cafe in Union Square...hadn't we?
"I have to go back to the hospital now. You can call in a few months if you want. I'll tell her you called." And I did call back, religiously, every month. Hoping that one fine day I would call and be told that Beatrice had made some miraculous recovery. That she would be up and walking, or at worst getting around with a walker, in no time at all.
But that was not to be. About a year after the accident Beatrice finally came home, in a wheelchair. She will never walk again as she is now completely paralyzed from the waist down. I begged to come visit and finally she relented. It had been over a year since we had seen each other and I was nervous. I think she was nervous too. I arrived at around 11 a.m. and was surprised to see her drinking a super-sized screwdriver. But could I blame her? Of course not.
The first thing Beatrice said to me was "You know it takes me an hour and 15 minutes to take a shower and get dressed now?" I was too upset to speak so I remained silent. What in the world was I going to say to her? What in the world could I say? Me with my fit healthy body and strong working legs? Suddenly Beatrice added as an afterthought "but that's down from 2 hours - which is what it took 4 months ago - so that's something."
I had brought Beatrice some flowers and I asked where I could find a vase. I went into the kitchen, put the flowers and water in the vase she had directed me to and brought them to her. The flowers were peonies, already opening and quite fragrant. We made small talk for a while and then Beatrice asked me to hand her the flowers. She buried her face in them, taking long deep breaths. At one point I thought she might be weeping into the flowers but I was sort of frozen in sadness and horror at the situation we were in and I remained tongue-tied. Finally she raised her face with a relaxed and happy expression on her face.
"Do you want to hear something weird?" she asked me. I answered yes, but in fact I was secretly terrified of what I was about to hear. "When the accident first happened and I woke up from the coma my doctors told me that I would most likely never walk again. And I told my husband then and there that if I couldn't walk that I wanted to die. That without the use of my legs I would rather be dead." Beatrice was 28 when the accident happened. 4 years older than I was at the time but still quite young.
"So I wouldn't eat, I wouldn't drink. They had to feed me intravenously. I wouldn't open my eyes or speak. I refused to do my exercises or work with the physical therapists. I just gave up completely. I just lay there in that bed with my paralyzed body and willed myself to die. I even asked my husband and family to end it for me. "Just put the pillow over my face" I told them, "I don't want to live like this. I can't live like this. And if you won't end it for me, I'll find a way to end it myself once I get out of here."
I was suddenly wildly uncomfortable. I deeply regretted not accepting the proffered screwdriver when I had first arrived. A drink would taste really good right about now I thought. Was she going to ask for my help to off her? Did she want me to put a pillow over her face and leave?
Then suddenly Beatrice unexpectedly switched tacks.
"One day someone brought be a bunch of fresh cut lilac when I was in the hospital to cheer me up. This friend knew I loved lilac and I guess she hoped that the flowers might help shake me out of my suicidal depression. As I lay there staring at the ceiling wishing I were dead, the sweet heady scent of the lilac snaked its way over to me. And as I lay there I thought "I used to love that smell…when I could walk". Right then the nurse came in and asked me if I needed anything. I asked her to please lift me into a sitting position and to bring the lilac over to me, which she did.
Then I did something that I had not expected to do at all. It happened quite spontaneously. I took that vase full of lilac and I buried my face into it and in doing that I realized that I still loved the scent of lilac. That I, Beatrice, was still in there! That even though I would never walk again I was still in there. It came to me immediately that my legs, that my body really, are not who I am. My body is just the vessel for whatever that was inside of me. That whatever it is internally that responded to the lilac is me. I think that's what the soul is. That thing inside of you that will never change. That will always be there. That is immortal. My body is broken, it no longer works, but my soul is intact. My soul remains exactly the same as it was before the accident. The being looking out of my eyes is the same now as it was before the accident. It's the same being that looked out of those eyes when I was a child, then a teenager, now an adult. My spirit, my essence is still whole. I still like the same things. The same flowers and flavors and colors and music and all of it. My reaction to those things is the same. They still bring me joy. Even in this wheelchair. I'm still in there. Me! My soul is not paralyzed. Only my legs are."
Then she inhaled the peonies once more. "These flowers" she murmured though the petals "have the same effect on me inside whether I can walk or not, whether I have the use of my legs or not.”
I was stunned. I had never heard anything like this in my life and I was too young to really comprehend the deep wisdom of her words at the time.
I stayed for a few hours and then took my leave. Beatrice and her husband soon moved out of the city to a different state to better accommodate her new lifestyle. Beatrice came to accept her condition and live with it in peace. She found a job she loves and was even able to have a child through a surrogate. After a few years of Christmas cards and sporadic emails we eventually fell out of touch. But I will never forget her.
After all the years that have passed since then I finally can sort of wrap my head around what Beatrice was talking about. The spiritual teacher Michael Singer talks about people that have lost limbs due to illness or accident. If you were to lose your vision, or an arm, or a leg, or even 2 fingers or 3 toes he asks us, wouldn't you still be the same inside? Wouldn't you still like the same foods and people and places and things with that arm or without it? According to what I learned from Beatrice the answer is a resounding yes. Yes you would.
We put so much stock into this idea that we are our bodies but I know that I am not. My body is the container that carries that spark, that energy, that soul. I have the same reaction to fresh ripe peaches, a summer night thunderstorm, and the first heavy snow of the year as I did when I was a child of 5 years old. The music that made me sing and dance as a teenager has the same effect on me now, decades later. The thrill of swimming in a wild ocean feels the same to me now as it did when I was 12. And probably will feel the same when I am 60 or 70…or 80. Like Beatrice, when I look out of my eyes now I am aware that the same soul that gazed out of them as a young child gazes out of them now.
I have no idea what a soul looks like, but I know that I have one. One without form, without shape, without size, without limitation. And I don't need to know what it looks like, only that I have one, and that it is my job to take care of it while I'm here.