My body will turn 35 this summer. I think of 35 as the age at which you discover that all the while you’ve been thinking that you were breaking your body in, you find that all you were doing was breaking it down.
Look at this. The dimples in my cheeks that all my aunts used to find so cute have turned into creases. My scalp reflects light. Every morning when I harvest stubble from my face, I have to stretch sections of skin to expose deeper furrows to the razor. And lately I have found stiff gray hairs growing out of my ears and nose. It’s a little hard to believe that this is the same body that was nearly 30 when its owner was asked to prove its age at a bar. Now it looks as if it owns the bar.
I’m not a kid anymore, that’s for sure.
Then why do I still feel like one?
I think it may be because I was never an athlete. I never crossed a physical peak, so I never had to face a decline. At my age, most sports stars have long since passed into the front office or the restaurant business. Meanwhile, my outside shot (the only weapon I ever had in my basketball arsenal) is about as good as it ever was, which is to say more or less okay as long as nobody defends against it.
I remember the shock a few years ago at learning that Bob Kaufman, a 6’8” 250-pound bruiser who used to set the best picks in the NBA and a college classmate of mine, had retired to the front office at the age of 27 because of arthritis. Arthritis. I also remember the shock of learning, in my twenties, that other high school and college classmates had died of causes other than war or accidents. Cancer. Leukemia. Tumors. Heart failure.
I was sure, back in those days, that IT was going to get me. If other clearly superior samples of my species were made victims by age and disease, what were my chances — me, with my colossal appetite for leisure and garbage food? I figured I was good for 31 or 32, tops.
Then one day, half a year past my 32nd birthday, I was seized at work by chest pains. Couldn’t breathe. Felt a weak and rapid pulse. Dizziness. Fear of death. They took me to the doctor’s office where my friend in the white coat wore that look of reassuring concern they give you when they’re about to tell you that they’ll only have to amputate one of your legs. “You have a suspicious electrocardiogram,” he said, before sending me to the intensive care unit in an ambulance.
Three days and $1600 later I was free again, the recovered victim of some spontaneous disorder that did a good job of faking myocardial infarction. Turns out I’m just one of those people with a funny EKG. Next time I’ll know not to panic.
In the course of this adventure, I discovered that my main cardiac risk is “family history.” This is reassuring. True, my father died of a heart attack, but he was 70 and started killing himself with cigarettes in his teens. His mother is still fine, and she’ll be 100 this year.
I also discovered that my thumper isn’t too bad after all. It pumps along at a leisurely 56 beats a minute, and I have the blood pressure of a teenager. I have kept my system safe from abuses by cigarettes and alcohol.
So while my neck may crunch when I turn my head, and one day I may find more hair in the sink than on my scalp, I think I’ve got something to feel good about. As bodies go, the one with my name isn’t a bad place to live.
I’m sorry, Walt. My body is not electric. If it is, it must be short-circuited.
I want to have more energy. The only times when it comes in excess are on nights I wake up and can’t get back to sleep because I worry too much about situations or making a living, and thoughts plow my brain like bolts of boxed-in lightning. There I lie on my back streaming with energy — the only time all week I could jog without threatening and forcing myself, and it’s 3 a.m.
I yawn and stretch in the mornings like a cat to try to get my juices flowing and break lumps of lethargy. I feel like oatmeal. I don’t think I’ll jog this morning — maybe this afternoon when it’s warmer.
Here I am soaking sun like a solar cell, basking in an electrolytic solution of sweat and suntan oil. I throw my arms back behind my head. I point my toes and stretch myself across the lounge chair like a copper wire or a taught guitar string ready to pluck.
I’ll jog later this afternoon.
Iron Station, N.C.
I nursed my second daughter for fourteen months, long past the time usually expected of any mother — working or not. It was a most natural and comfortable duration, and until she was ready, I saw no need to end what had become an unencumbered exchange of human warmth. The summer suctioned us together in sticky sweat and hunger, the milky-sweet smells rising to interplay with the season’s humidity. Winter I recall as best, we two wrapping ourselves around each other like fleece blankets to keep away wolves and cold nights.
Those milk-and-honey days I felt in perfect step, in such tune with grander cyclic certainties that once I had merely viewed from outside their framework. Those days are now gone, and my three-year old dreams of ways to aggravate and enchant me. The feelings, however, still surface when I seem to need their comfort most. After all is quiet some nights and I drink hot chocolate or Sanka before bed, the steaming liquid soothes my throat, but often detours in its path to the stomach. The old needlelike sting, the tingle, the heaviness returns as the heat trickles down into the fibrous system of unused milk ducts. It’s as though my body speaks kind reassurance to me, saying, “You’re no less of the moon, tides, heavens than you once were. Your milk lies not barren or dry, but deeper within, underground and waiting.”
I get up in the morning because I have to. It’s a hard struggle to pull up from the sticky fingers of sleep things real enough to reground me. I feel old and empty; it is only the morning. There were dreams of a deep blueness with the feeling that my body was there somewhere. The guts, the bones.
At midday I drive past the body of a young black girl asleep face down on the side of the road. What’s her story? The hot sun softens her asphalt bed, yet she has bruises and the little pebbles stick to the palms of her hands. In this highest and hottest sun I feel my stomach and wonder how my body will betray me.
In the evening I piss and shit behind closed doors. Who and what is it that makes this substance? It feels good to piss and shit although I’m usually far away in a book of history or poems of the nineteenth century.
Dreams of the body with nightfall. Small motions of sex that sometime complete, sometime don’t, remind my heart to beat faster. But my dreams are of my grandfather’s body. As he lay dying in the hospital, he looked at my mother with tears in his eyes and said, “I want to go, mama.” Through the cigarette smoke she says she knew he was dead when his lips started turning blue. My body, my body, when will you forsake me?
My body is my best friend. When I really listen to it I receive the soundest advice.
My body is the part of me that really responds. It says, “Wow I like this!” or “Whoa — wait a minute honey, I’m not interested in this.” Lately I’ve begun to hear those responses and trust them.
When I’ve been busy with people and doing for several days in succession I learn that I’ve overextended myself by the heaviness in my limbs or the ache in my neck and upper back. When I become distracted from my exercise and stretching rituals I quickly grow irritable, tight, clenched, in both body and heart. Then I know I’ve been unkind to myself, for my old friendly body becomes an irascible grumpy bother. Coaxing it back to its happy radiant self is a gentle and centering process.
I am also grateful to my body because in it I go so many places and experience an astounding array of sights, smells, feelings and sounds. My body is my interpreter — through it I know the world and know what to say and do in return.
Chapel Hill, N.C.
Finally. As I approach these middle years with no apologies, I have come to love the me inside this body God covered with earth dark skin. I no longer need to wish for a body the hue of sunshine as a prerequisite for sacred love. Feeling new rhythms pulsing through these veins, my body finds comfort in being an abode for the loving spirit of a “black woman.” My heart beats content in its capacity to receive the love of a man whose skin color differs from mine. So . . . with all the energies in this body I will continue singing songs for children whose love has gone away.
Jeanette Drake Robinson
I look at a photograph of a cloistered nun whom I have never seen and I see my face. This woman in her late fifties is my aunt and though many miles are between, the resemblance is great. It is spooky when I am told how much I resemble my father, twelve years in passing. Grandfather Bender, 88 years old, resembles me even more than my father. It is fascinating to me that physical form is printed upon creation and acts as a theme upon which variations are played.
This particular physical form, my body, is just a little overweight, balding at age twenty-four and never made it to six feet tall. Ah, but it is great on mileage! So many miles I have run, walked, and biked. When I am on foot or pedaling, I feel closer to energy than matter. When I am walking or running, there is a point where the body becomes part of the scene and daydreams and surroundings blend. In use, my body becomes a metaphor for the spiritual, burning away veils hiding my true purpose.
William Jay Bender
My body is the house in which another little body dwells, swelling my tummy while the ligaments supporting the uterus pop and spring like rubber bands. I am not burdened by this physical responsibility yet, although I know that I shall be, having been this way before. Nothing grounds you into the physical like being pregnant. Soon my brain will begin to live in my uterus until I can no longer think with my head, only my womb.
There is something we humans deem sacred about a pregnant woman. However, I do not feel sacred. At first I felt invaded. It is always so with me even though this child was conceived by choice and not an accident. Now I feel vital and alive. This little one flutters and jumps, swims freely in her warm sea. Soon she will curl up tighter and tighter until each movement seems like a violence and I will think of nothing but the time when she will be out of me. I will relish the idea of the wrenching and opening that is necessary to make way for her to pass through — until it actually happens. Then I will undoubtedly wish to be burdened with her weight again just to escape the incredible pain.
So, my body is a house for now but it is more. I am not my body but I experience my reality through this amazing creature. I think my body has a consciousness all its own. How else could it function when I am away from it? How else could it behave with such seeming independence, thumping and pumping and twitching without my conscious awareness? It has an awareness of its own, almost but not entirely separate from me. My body and I work together in such perfect harmony that I become it and it becomes me. Together we are me — for now — but I know this is a temporary state of affairs. I perceive with my intellect that I will one day take leave of this body and live a life without it. Although I know this, I can’t say that I understand it. I am so accustomed to seeing the world with the abatement of my body that I don’t really consider what it is like to exist without having to think and act in physical terms.
What does one think about if not food, clothing, shelter? What can it be like to live without eating, evacuating, washing, dressing, and (heaven forbid!) sex? I know that I spend time away from my body nearly every night and yet when I am awake and aware as a physical being I don’t think that much about it. I intuitively know that I live somewhere in a realm where my body has no bonds on me but I choose not to remember it most of the time — undoubtedly because the joys of being physical would seem puny if one were to fully recall the joys of being non-physical. Also, it would be pretty distracting. Our awareness is better concentrated on the job at hand, that of being physical beings in a physical environment.
Isle au Haute, Maine