…Use to be I just had arthritis and rheumatism, now—it’s a pain
in the neck—I got a convulsive heart. I come from
Twenty-second and Eighth, where I’m helping
my brother. For me that’s a long walk.
So I wait.
I used to climb mountains! she says.
I was young like you, she says…
(From “Unknown Neighbor” by Kate Light from Open Slowly, 2003, in Writers’ Almanac, August 13, 2017)
“How’s your knee?” “Does your ankle hurt?” I’ve grown weary of my husband’s repetitive greeting every morning, and yet, I know he’s concerned and cares about my well-being. For weeks, but I have brushed his questions aside with a terse, “I’m doing fine,” continued with my morning stretches, warming up my stiff muscles and joints for a daily walk with my dog. But after many weeks of greater than average physical exertion (the wrong kind) of lifting, bending, pushing, and whatever else the process of packing up a house, unpacking and arranging our belongings in a new place involves. And then there are the stairs…
Some mornings, however, it’s difficult to hide my frustration with a body that is, apparently, sometimes determined to complain more loudly than I want to hear. My right knee, injured many years ago when I was hit by a car on a morning run, is now quite arthritic, and my Achilles tendon is chronically inflamed. Coming to terms with the changing body isn’t something I enjoy gracefully, and particularly first thing in the morning. When my husband quietly disappeared with the dog a few days ago as I was stretching and icing the aggravated knee and heel, I was in tears—touched by his concern, but completely frustrated. When he returned from his walk, the dog happy and exercised, he explained, “I think it’s easier if I take her out in the morning, and you have time to get fully warmed up before a walk.” It was something I had refused to consider, but walking and negotiating the stairs later in the day are easier than it is the first thing in the morning. Still, it was difficult to admit that he was right, and that my long-established morning routine may need changing.
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” in Otherwise: New & Selected Poems, 1996)
Whether aging or confronting the bodily changes that accompany a serious or life-threatening illness, our bodies will, sooner or later, force us to re-evaluate our self-images and rethink our physical capabilities. I’m guilty of taking my body for granted, despite some serious accidents in childhood, surgeries and illness. I’ve pushed on, undeterred by these physical set-backs, undeterred until my body delivered a proverbial “listen up” whack on the side of my head.. Now I am being forced to accept I may have to make concessions I never considered. Still, it’s a tough adjustment. This long struggle to be at home /in the body, this difficult friendship.
Sooner or later, our bodies fail us, whether in illness, the process of physical wear and tear or age-related change. When it happens—and no one is exempt– it’s difficult to admit we’ve taken our physical health for granted—denied the inevitable aging or even ignored troubling symptoms. The body, whether in illness or decline, is the subject of many poems, as Jane Kenyon’s “Cages,” or Marilyn Hacker’s, “Cancer Winter,” where she referred to her body as “self-betraying.” Mark Doty, in “Atlantis,” described 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).
“On the Other Side of the Diagnosis,” an article by Mary-Jo Murphy, MS, RN, CDE, describes the moment of disbelief felt when faced with the prospect of cancer and an altered body.
…Moments later, as he stares at my report, his face is suddenly devoid of the professional composure that doctors are so practiced at. I know from his shocked expression that it isn’t nothing.
“I can’t believe it,” he says staring at the paper. “It’s squamous cell carcinoma. You have anal cancer.”
I don’t ask him to repeat my diagnosis. I’ve seen too much to ask the usual questions: Are you sure? Why me? My mind is replete with the experiences of people with cancer whom I’ve cared for. Denial has been trained out of me. Disbelief and terror are instantly transformed into the understanding that from this moment, from the speaking of those words, nothing will ever be the same for me. (From: Coping with Cancer Magazine, March/April 2012).
Sooner or later, our bodies fail us, whether cancer, injury or the physical wear and tear from age related change. When they do, as Murphy’s article illustrates, it’s a shock, coupled by the realization that we will no longer be the same and must learn acceptance and new ways to “be” in an altered body. We also become clear about what matters most, as she expresses: “Now, trapped inside a body with a diagnosis attached, the most unexpected thing happens. Without conscious thought, words form into sentences that prioritize in an instant what my values are, what beliefs I took for granted.”
Yet it is May Swenson, perhaps, whose poem, “Question,” invites us to really consider the relationship we have with our bodies. She reveals she is coming to terms with the inevitable demise of a body that has carried her through life, one she can no longer take for granted. Swenson’s are the questions we must all ask as our lives develop and change, yet she reminds us to be grateful for the bodies that have carried us this far, despite accidents and illness, and ones, we hope, continue to carry us for the years to come.
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…?
(From: New & Selected Things Taking Place, 1978)
This week, write about your body.
- Pay tribute or complaint.
- Write about its aches or pains or a time when you felt as if your body betrayed you.
- How have you come to terms with a “new” normal?
- How have you made peace with an altered or changing body?
- What sometimes makes your relationship with your body into a “difficult friendship?”