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  • Shayda Kafai

Sensitivity as Ritual

I went to the dentist earlier this October for a deep cleaning. After receiving two shots of lidocaine to numb the left side of my mouth, I stopped the hygenist and told her that I was still feeling pain. My hand would raise to stop her, a huge gesture of bravery, a rejection of everything normatively feminine. In each of those moments, I intervened in my own personal cycle of not saying anything and just taking it. I got loud. I got persistent. Each time I named my pain, the hygenist would look at me, surprised, and say, "You still aren't numb? You are so sensitive!"

As she worked, Gloria Anzaldua manifested in the empty dentist's chair next to me. I remembered reading the chapter she wrote about her tongue while at the dentist, her tongue with its refusal and rebel wetness: "'We are going to have to do something about your tongue,' I hear the anger rising in [the dentist's] voice. My tongue keeps pushing out the wads of cotton, pushing back the drills, the long thin needles. 'I've never seen anything as strong or as stubborn,' he says. And I think, how do you tame a wild tongue, train it to be quiet, how do you bridle and saddle it? How do you make it lie down?" ("How to Tame a Wild Tongue").

I found myself closing my eyes and imagining this legacy of queer, disabled people of color, especially femmes, who are unabashedly labeled as too much. I remembered the disabled, chronically ill, Mad femmes of color who have reminded me that our sensitivity is beauty, that we will always be seen as "too much" in a system that holds marginal space for us, that our beauty thrives in spoon-contingent meme and chubby animal GIF shares, in snail mail with stickers, and in one line love and check-in texts. We share our sensitivites, our bodymind needs with openness and with trust that they will be held most tenderly.

This moment at the dentist and my remembrance of the lineage in which I am situated prompts many questions: what happens when our deeply feeling, deeply resisting queer of color bodyminds express themselves? How can we stake claim to our sensitivity in a world that claims with great consistency that we are too much? What happens when we render messy the sterile, restrained places we occupy or visit? I find myself returning to this moment and to these questions now, on December 30th, with the desire to fashion these questions into portals of inquiry, into incantation for the coming year.

This month, sensitivity has guided much of what I have chosen to do and not to do. This has become a month of caregiving and hospitals, of spoon-saving and honest capacity check-ins. I have found myself led by embodied gratitudes: the luscious surprise of tasting the dark, ginger chocolate my sister made; watching a sunset on the rooftop parking lot after spending the day indoors in the cardiac unit; sitting on the floor, laughing, and working on a puzzle with my love; and spontaneous naps when my bodymind requested them. Sensitivity has led me to revel in these, the smallest of moments. Cumulatively, I felt their teachings: an awareness of reciprocity, a kindred weaving that connects me to my bodymind and to dear friends, all led by and through a practice of sensitivity.

My rest practice has involved joy reading, and now, I am reading Zena Sharman's anthology The Care We Dream Of: Liberatory & Transformative Approaches to LGBTQ+ Health. I just finished reading queer femme Blyth Barnow's chapter, "Ritualizing Queer Care" and in it, Blyth writes about queer ritual: "Ritual is simply an offering of respect for the reality of your life ... It offers you care on your terms ... Queer people rely on ritualizing our worth, even if we don't always name it in this way. We pattern our lives to honour our joy, our humanity, and our capacity to survive" (p. 225-26).

I am guided by this definition of ritual. I consider it a femme offering leading me toward a more determined imagining: what could sensitivity as ritual look like? Feel like? How might it shift this expression that has for so long been viewed as complaint?

In feeling through a sensitivity ritual for the coming year, I manifest morning-ish meditations of gratitude, a bowl of water, offerings of glitter, and a card from Cristy Road's tarot deck. I manifest hydration, snacks, and gentle yoga. I know that sensitivity as ritual must also accompany a robust flexibility. With this, my practice will welcome moments when the ritual of the day will simply be waking up and getting up out of bed, where the grand ritual of the day will be showering and eating. Sensitivity as ritual reminds me that I have permission to shift the practice according to my bodymind needs. That is part of the magic. That is how I survive.

What might it mean for you to engage with sensitivity, to reframe is as ritual, as that which emboldens you? How might you manifest a daily and sustaining practice led by sensitivity for the coming year?

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