and the body, what about the body?
Sometimes it is my favorite child,
uncivilized. . .
And sometimes my body disgusts me.
Filling and emptying it disgusts me. . . .
This long struggle to be at home
in the body, this difficult friendship.
By Jane Kenyon (From: “Cages”)
“How is your back?” Kathi, my T’ai Chi teacher and friend welcomed me to class yesterday morning with an expression of concern. The week before, a day after bidding farewell to my daughter and 13 month old granddaughter at the airport, I’d been unable to attend our Saturday morning practice. When I climbed out of bed that morning, my back screamed, a delayed physical reaction to ten days of bending toward and lifting a cherubic toddler.
I managed a wan smile. “Okay,” I replied, “but let’s not talk about the body.” Kathi didn’t know that I’d spent the previous day in the doctor’s office discussing my body, my complaints initiated by sudden flare-ups of pain and swelling in my fingers, due, I feared, to my enthusiastic participation in African drumming classes. As I’d driven to my appointment on Friday, I kept repeating, “please don’t make me give up my djembe lessons,” as though my incantation could work some kind of magic. After an emotional session with my family doctor, I still wasn’t ready to discuss anything to do with my body.
My hands, as it turns out, were only the first thing on my list of bodily issues. My family doctor is a kind and gentle practitioner, and her compassionate manner invariably elicits an overdue confessional, admission that there are other, possibly more worrisome things going on in my body. I began by describing the pain in my hands, holding them out for her to see the troublesome fingers. Tears welled up in my eyes immediately. “But my hands were one of my nicest features,” I complained, “and now look at them.” One complaint led to another: the nagging pain in my right hip, the continuing aggravation of a digestive disorder that began twelve years ago, during my cancer treatment, the discovery of ulcers in my recent colonoscopy—a side effect of the medication I took for the digestive disorder, on and on… “I feel like my body is falling apart,” I said tearfully, then embarrassed, added, “I’m sorry,” as I sat on the exam unable to stop crying.
The thing is, I like to think of myself as energetic, strong, you know, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, or at least, tackle them with agility and determination. But my body is imposing revisions to my self-image, and one of them, the undeniable process of aging. This long struggle to be at home /in the body, this difficult friendship. And despite some serious accidents in childhood, surgeries and illness, I’m guilty of taking my body for granted. I’ve pushed on, undeterred by these physical set-backs, or at least undeterred until my body protested. Now I am forced to accept I might have to make concessions I previously refused to consider. Like giving up hand drumming on the djembe.
Sooner or later, our bodies fail us or change in ways we don’t like, and when they do, it’s difficult to admit we may have our physical health for granted—even denied our inevitable aging. The body, in illness or decline, is often described by poets, as in Jane Kenyon’s “Cages,” or Marilyn Hacker’s, “Cancer Winter,” for example, where she refers to her body as “self-betraying.” Mark Doty, in “Atlantis,” describes the body of a friend dying from AIDS: “When I put my head to his chest/I can hear the virus humming/like a refrigerator” (www.poets.org). But as I’ve considered my own bodily changes this week, it is May Swenson’s poem, “Question,” I find most thought-provoking. In it, she struggles to come to terms with the inevitable demise of a body that has carried her through life, but a life she can no longer take for granted.
Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen
Where will I sleep
How will I ride
What will I hunt
Where can I go
without my mount
all eager and quick
How will I know
in thicket ahead
is danger or treasure
when Body my good
bright dog is dead
How will it be
to lie in the sky
without roof or door
and wind for an eye
With cloud for shift
how will I hide?
(From: New & Selected Things Taking Place)
As it turns out, I’ve reluctantly agreed to give up my djembe classes. The tests and x-rays revealed arthritis, the flare-ups possibly due to the cessation of long-term medication and exacerbated by my enthusiastic hand drumming. But there’s a compromise as well. Drumming in a community of others is one of the more joyous activities I’ve undertaken in the past year, so I am balancing what’s good for my body with what’s good for my soul. Tomorrow evening I’ll shift to the dunun, the big drums that require the player to use a stick to beat out the background rhythms accompanying the djembes. I’m still not very happy about the aches and complaints of the body I inhabit, but it is the only one I’ve got, and I’m hoping it will carry me for a good many more years.
This week, I encourage you write about your body. When has it betrayed you? Let you down? Forced you to come to terms with a “new” normal? What precipitated the change? How did you feel? How have you made peace with an altered or changing body?