Crafting Gentleness

Saturday, November 22, 2008


I'm sitting in my front room with my cat, Nila, stretched blissfully across my chest. She seems pretty content, sounds pretty content, purrpurr. There's an effortless generosity that comes with Nila. Yes, she can seem a bit needy sometimes, especially when I've been away for a bit, but I love her anyway. Yes, Cassie (dog), I love you too, with your boundless enthusiasm.

One of Nila's ways of showing affection is biting. At first I would pull away, and end up getting scars to record her attentions. Then I worked out that if I gently lean my hand into her as she bites, the bite turns to a lick, and scars are averted. It was a hard learning.

Nila likes a little human warmth and a quiet cuddle. As do I. The online etymological dictionary refers to 'cuddle' as follows

"c.1520, probably a variant of obs. cull, coll "to embrace" (see collar), or perhaps M.E. *couthelen, from couth "known," hence "comfortable with." The word has a spotty early history, and it seems to have been a nursery word at first."

I find it really interesting that the possible etymology through 'couth' refers to knowledge as a question of presence, of being-with, of relationship, and of emotional comfort or familiarity. This is very different from later dominant understandings of knowledge that abstract knowledge from relationships, link knowledge to mental cognition, and anchor knowledge to certitude, the absence of doubt.

Cuddles aren't about certitude for me. But they allow for a confidence about being-with, a confidence in being-present-with, a familiarity with bodily warmth, gentle breathing, and fitting-together. Cuddles tend to be unregulated; what I mean by that is that they allow us a space where we aren't enticed to manage ourselves or another, a space where the headiness of logic doesn't really get a look-in, where words often simply get in the way. Cuddles for me often constitute the quintessential uncommodifying moment.

A cuddle isn't just a hug with benefits. You can hug someone you don't really know. A cuddle implies a comfort, but a comfort that comes with familiarity and trust, a comfort that comes with a vital vulnerability that opens a space for gentleness to just happen. Whether it's Nila on my lap, or my niece cuddling up with her Granda to hear a story, or the comfort of a romantic moment, cuddles are for me about as beautiful as being human gets. I'm pleased that the word cuddle may have been a nursery word first. Babies are about as vulnerable as we ever get, and any words we might use are only helpful insofar as they communicate a soothing tone, an emotional texture, another reminder of being-with; without agendas, without schedules, without a felt need to control.

So, yes, if you want to understand what I mean by gentleness, think on cuddles for a while. Or, better still, go and find some.

Nila, at this point, has decided that lounging in the sun streaming in through the french windows is way more attractive than cuddles with me.


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