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In her latest novel, A Mercy, Toni Morrison answers longing with self-possession. Florens, a slave all her life, is dangerously in love with a blacksmith — a never-enslaved African from Benin who has come to her owner’s homestead to build a magnificent gate. They sleep together, but he refuses to love her in return. Why? she begs. His answer: Because you are a slave. She tries to argue — her owner makes her a slave, after all. It wasn’t her choice. But that’s not the kind of slavery the blacksmith is talking about. “You have become one,” he says. “Your head is empty and your body is wild.” She tells him she adores him, and he says she’s a slave to that, too. “You alone own me,” she says. This is a bold statement — she’s willing to risk her life, to run away to be with him. “Own yourself, woman,” the blacksmith replies.
This novel is a masterpiece, and there’s much more contained in it to talk about than just ownership. But, reading as a dharma student, this thread struck me as the most potent: that slavery is as much mental as it is physical. Florens remains a slave because she, as Buddhists would put it, is attached. She wants the blacksmith to own her just as we want our desires to own us, be they lovers or other addictions. In practicing non-attachment — or, at least, noticing our attachments and practicing, if just for a moment, letting them go — we are taking a few steps toward self-possession.
I met Toni Morrison last year, as part of a scholarship program through Hunter College, and something of my experience of her confirms this. (An aside: I worked for her as a research assistant, digging through libraries to find what I could about early blacksmithing and iron ore extraction. Unlike in Benin, where iron has been worked for centuries and ore must be mined, iron ore in North America was literally sitting on the surface in 1670, abudant, like everything else in the natural world then. There for the taking.) Ms. Morrison, like a few Buddhists I’ve met, was intimidating at first. I don’t mean she was trying to be intimidating, or threatening at all — she laughed easily about her own trials with research so far, including one tricky spot where a wild boar had to be rewritten as a sow bear — but she filled the room with a certain sense of self-possession, of confiedence, that I think frightens some people who aren’t so possessed of themselves.
Sometimes teachers like to get pithy and boil the eight-hundred volumes of dharma down to two words. “No judgement,” Josh Korda likes to say. I’ve heard Noah Levine and Craig Swogger bring it down to “Letting go” or “Forgiveness” a few times each. After thinking about this novel, I’d add “Self-possession” to that list, too.
Reader, own yourself.