Each evening we covered Mabel with several damp gauzes like a
shroud and finally with a thick white poly sheet. It became my habit
to uncover Mabel each morning. This was a whole new sensory
experience, and the powerful odor of a fixed body is something I’ll
By now Mabel had no skin but still, a familiar form. Today’s task was
to remove the superficial layer of fascia, which is what lends many of
us our shape. This is essentially your fat layer. We all have this layer,
some have a thicker layer than others. Mabel was a woman in her 80’s
and not a fat woman, so I was amazed to see how much of it there
Under the superficial layer is the musculature, and the difference
between these layers in some places is clearly defined. In other
places, the muscle and fat interlock like fingers and this “fuzz” of
connective tissue holds everything together. The body has so much of
this fuzz that I will refer and talk more about in following posts.
The superficial layer is mostly yellow and white. Each cadaver in
the room had a different color, but colors are very affected by the
embalming process so it’s hard to know what color your cadaver’s
superficial layer once was. We spent 6 hours pulling this layer away.
During this time, I realized that much of the work I do has less to do
with muscle, and everything to do with this layer of fat that I’d never
seen in an anatomy book. For some of us, much of what we are is this
layer. I mean this literally, in terms of percentage of body mass.
I was fascinated by how much foreign matter was in my hands. The
anatomy books ignored it, but it must be critical or else why would
it be right there in our hands? This is more than just simple fat. This
is a layer that does so much human work: information gathering and
transmission, protection and safety. This is sensing, insulation, a
support mechanism, and an internal network linked to the external
world, all wrapped in one piece, one very big piece of us.
As I worked with Mabel, I came to realize is that this layer is very
much the layer of vibration. (If you’ve been to a gong bath at the
office, you know that I’m fascinated with vibration.) It would be the
softest layer to work with that week, and gradually I realized what a
point of entry the superficial layer is, allowing external vibration or
stimuli to enter us, penetrate our shell.
Dr. Headley talked about what he learned conducting human cadaver
workshops over the past 20 years. This layer, he said, may also be
the layer of emotion. At the very least this layer informs our emotion.
Having only begun to know this layer of the body, I am still learning
what this might mean.
I started to wonder about my work. When there’s that many layers
between you and what you’re working on, are you able to affect these
layers in any significant way? I started to think of stroking a cat on
the back. The cat purrs. When I’m working on muscles, maybe it’s
similar. Maybe it’s more of an information exchange rather than me
doing some awesome mechanical thing. Muscles know how to relax
and contract; this is what muscles naturally do. I’m just encouraging
muscles to purr.
That day, I left the lab feeling spent and exhausted. I dreamed of
textures and yellow. My hands dreamt of the superficial layer, trying to
understand it, a journey that will continue.