Our Eternal Itch

Eternal ItchThe butter melts out of habit

You know, the toast isn’t even warm

-Ani Difranco

The left side of my nose itches as I type this sentence. I notice this.

I’ve been wondering lately about the origins of itches, the origin of each itch. In my own observational experiments, itches seem to be triggered by thoughts. No itch without a thought.

How it happens: I think without trying to think. Thought manifests as skin sensation. I unconsciously scratch. I return to the time between that itch and scratch and the next.

Since the start of this blog, I have felt at least ten subsequent itches: on the back of my neck, the inside of my right nostril, my left ear, left arm, right foot. I’ve noticed them, returned to simply typing about them. Simply notice, type. Notice, type.

What happens if I don’t scratch?

Lately I’ve been trying to notice the moment following each itch: the release of the fingers, the lowering of my arm, noticing how someone or something—not me—lifted my arm to scratch my nose.

I wonder why we feel the need to scratch each itch. Though little work at the time, it seems a lot of work over so many years of scratching.

Scratching becomes symbolic of all my unconscious habits. What else am I not noticing? The typical—though no less scary—example is of course driving from home to work. At home one minute, at work the next, knowing I drove through so many traffic lights, negotiated so many turns, avoided so many collisions, all entirely outside my awareness. I wonder what else I missed along the way.

We scratch our eternal itch sings Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. Just did it again, scratched the left side of my nose without noticing, though I did notice just afterwards that I didn’t notice my scratching as I scratched.

That said, I do notice some small relief in having scratched.

My forehead itches. I notice this. I look out the bay window before me and see my mother walking out of a field with an old friend. My father passes in front of the window. I notice my feet contacting my brother’s dining room wood floor. I notice the taste and filmy residue of coffee between my cheek and gum. Something, a dog I believe, passes momentarily out of the corner of my eye. My left bicep throbs. I notice these things, not out of habit but awareness.

For a moment I am actually here.

Photo: Corbis