All her life, everybody told her that her body was bad. Family. School. Church. Magazines. Salesgirls. Boyfriends. “The world’s been telling me for 75 years that my body is bad. First for being female, then for being fat, and then for being sick.”
‘Why does everyone else want me to hate my body? What does it matter to them?”
These words were spoken by a dying woman and recorded in an article that I read recently on CNN. (Kerry Egan, “What the Dying Really Regret”, October 17, 2014)
According to Kerry Egan, who works as a hospital chaplain, dying people are often amazed at the beauty of their bodies at the brink of giving them up. They wonder why they have had to suffer so much self-punishment, and why they have been so deeply conditioned to hate themselves. The woman in the article runs her soft hands over her large breasts and the mounds of her belly and says, “I could really die happy if I was allowed just one more bite of caramel cake.”
At this time of life, people remember the simple, sensual moments they’ve had in the flesh. The smell of their babies’ heads. Skinning dipping in cold water. Tasting apples stolen from a neighbor’s orchard. Making love under the stars. And dancing. Especially dancing. In roadhouses and discos and community centers.
Ron Evans, a Metis storyteller and elder, once said that we don’t have to look too far to find our intimate connection with Mother Earth. She is our heart that beats for us, our brain that thinks for us, our lungs that breathe for us. We are in nature, we are expressions of her.
Many fairy tales challenge the vicious old narrative that turns us against our bodies. The Magic Drum, for example. It’s an Inuit story of a young woman who is rejected and thrown into the icy sea. In the fish-eat-fish world beneath, her flesh is nothing but food for sea creatures who strip her to the bone. Reduced to a rattling skeleton, she gives herself up to the sea. The currents sweep her along, but then one day she notices a faint source of light. With blazing resolve, she decides to get herself to warmth, in all its forms, whatever it takes. As she strides across the seafloor, she reverses the old myth that nature is cold and indifferent. She is not indifferent, and so she changes her story, and fleshes herself out, as others have done who have followed her journey through poetry, drumming, and song.
Over the years I’ve done a lot of thinking about my relationship with the body. It isn’t easy to inhabit a body that has as many complaints as mine does. People with chronic conditions like fibromyalgia are living in bodies that are speaking all the time, like children in constant need of attention. It’s easy to get mad at them. Or wall them off in a room. You want out of the house. You want to park them with a babysitter and go take a pill.
I sometimes call pain my “dark sister.” She comes and goes but she likes to stay for long periods of time. I’m learning how to live with her. I wouldn’t wish the experience on anyone else, and, at the same time, she has compelled me to develop skills of compassion and self-acceptance I wouldn’t have acquired otherwise. The other day I joked with a friend that she has lived with chronic illness for so many years that she should be given a Ph.D. in Living with Mystery. We wondered what we’d call the university. W T F came to mind.
In my view, graduates from this school belong to a special order of human beings. If others are in pain, bewildered, or lost, they are first people they’re likely to call. For one thing, they’re probably at home. They’re also open. They listen. And they can see under the surface, into the heart.
We’re all in the body’s embrace when you get right down to it, and it can be a pretty tempting to accept narratives of disgust for bodies that don’t please us. But I’m learning some respect. My body is fiercely intelligent. She seeks equilibrium, balance, and simplicity in this noisy world. She wants honest experiences of warmth, sensory contact, friendship, and art. In rhythm with the mysteries of the sea, she carries me home.