Tuesday, September 29, 2009

notes: on bodies

I have an essay about bodies and incarnational faith in my head that has been percolating for months now, but it’s just going nowhere. I think this needs to be a conversation first before it can be an essay. So I’m going to throw out a list of things I’m thinking about, and if any of them resonates for you, leave me a comment won’t you? (I can’t tell you how much it makes my day when you all leave me comments!) Consider this a bunch of jumbled thoughts in search of a thesis and some organizing principle.


I have exactly no background in theology or philosophy, so I can’t and won’t try to talk with any authority about the so-called “mind-body dichotomy,” except to say that it seems to me to be alive and well, and I think that’s sort of a shame. Again, I have no idea what others have meant by “mind-body dichotomy,” but what I mean by it is this distinction we all seem to have between our “Selves” and our “bodies.” And how I hear this distinction play itself out in real life is that almost everyone is pretty critical of their bodies – no matter what kind of bodies they have (and see, there’s the distinction right there in the very language we use, this notion that we “have” a body, sort of like we “have” a light blue mini-van, or ratty brown dansko clogs, or a red clock in our kitchen; not that we “are” our bodies, but WE “have” them). Most of us think we’re a little too fat, or a lot too fat, or a little too skinny, or a lot too skinny; we don’t like the wrinkles here or the sags there, and our thighs are too lumpy or our hair is too frizzy or our boobs are too little or our butt is too big or or or … it’s pretty endless, isn’t it, the stream of judgment our Selves dish out to our bodies? And our bodies are just mute, everyone’s favorite whipping boy, the repository of so much shame and disappointment and judgment.

So sometimes I wonder what it would be like if the tables were turned, if the Selves just shut up for a minute, and let the bodies have a turn. I bet the bodies would have a thing or two to say to their Selves, don’t you think? I think most of the bodies that their Selves love to hate would be pretty damn pissed off at how ungrateful their Selves are. If you think about it, our bodies do a LOT of nice things for us … I just imagine them saying, “And all you can think about is how big your butt is? Really?” It just seems kind of petty, doesn’t it, in the face of everything else your body does for you?


Let’s make a list, shall we, of all the nice things our bodies do for our Selves. Be as specific as you can. I’ll start with a few thoughts. My body allows my Self to …

…hear Julie’s gorgeous descant floating above the congregation on Sunday mornings

…taste salt and vinegar potato chips and Three Philosophers beer

…walk on the beach, the waves roaring in my ears, the sun shining on the surf

…nurse a child, one I didn’t even give birth to

…run, sending endorphins to my brain and keeping my moody Self relatively happy

…lay hands on a dear friend and pray for healing in her life

How ‘bout you?


And, it turns out, even folks who have, by any objective standard, bodies that are simply exquisite, even they can’t get over themselves and just be grateful. I know this because my friend Jen, who is a dancer and a yogini and a Pilates instructor, tells me that her dance students and colleagues are often the most harsh critics she knows of their own bodies.

Jen and I do yoga together once a week in her beautiful apple green home studio, and I’ve never experienced yoga like I do with her. She approaches my body in yoga like an artist approaches a canvas – a serious artist, one who intends to create nothing short of a masterpiece; an artist who approaches her craft with both loving passion and exquisite technique, and so is both gentle and demanding, holistic and technical. That my body gets to be the medium of her art once a week feels like nothing short of a divine gift, and sometimes when I catch a glimpse of us in the mirror I gasp and say, “Oh my god, look at us! We’re so beautiful!” And Jen laughs in delight and tells me she’s going to take me to all her dance classes to give her dancers a pep talk, because they don’t so much see it.

And I have to just wonder, what’s up with that? I mean really. A couple of weeks ago, Trixie and I went to see Jen perform in the Fringe Festival, and I loved watching all the dancers, more than I ever have before, I think because I just forgot about wondering what it all “means” (which makes me feel stupid) and I just reveled in their bodies, which were so awesome, and moved in such gorgeous ways. There was one man in particular, whose body was different from many male dancers I’ve watched – he wasn’t built, his muscles weren’t round and pumped, in clothing you might even think he was just skinny, and not so strong. But when he danced, all his muscles showed themselves, long, strong lines stretching from joint to joint and moving him in the most beautiful lines imaginable. I was enthralled.

After the performance, Jen met me and Trixie for a cheese steak at Pat’s, which happened to be just a half a block away from the dance studio, and I grilled her: “Are you serious? Those dancers don’t understand that their bodies are near-perfect gifts? They don’t just walk through the world reveling all the time in how beautiful they are and in what their bodies can do? Really? I just don’t get it.”


I don’t know how I got so lucky (I like to give all the credit to my parents, who were pretty wonderful, but it may just be the way I’m wired), but I really love my body. And if you don’t know me in person, you should know that my body is pretty much just fine as a whole, and it has a few quite nice features, but it also has more than enough features that fall far short of any objective standard of “beautiful,” so if I wanted, I could be quite harshly critical. But for some reason, I’m just not. In fact, I seem to have the reverse of the body-image issues that plague so many folks who see their bodies as much less attractive than they really are. I generally feel much fitter and prettier than I probably am, in fact. Sometimes when I’m trying on clothes in the harsh light of a dressing room, I am startled and wonder, “Oh! Is that how I look to other folks? ‘Cause that’s sure not how I feel!” But then I just shrug and think, “Oh well, too bad for them if it is!”

I do try to take good care of my body, and I love it even more when it is strong and fit. But when I am doing things to make it so, like running or yoga, it’s not because I hate my body and want it to be different, but because I love my body and want to enjoy it even more. Even when my body has not been working so well – like when I struggled with infertility, and gained a lot of weight – even then, I’m pretty sure I didn’t hate my body so much as feel really alienated from it. The split felt pretty extreme. I felt much of the time like pure intellect and raw emotion, but pretty disembodied, and it took running a marathon and nursing Micah to connect everything back up. But even then, in my worst moments, I think my body’s self-image (and that’s interesting language, isn’t it?) was unrealistically positive, relatively speaking.

I count that as a blessing, by the way.


Now I know that there are many folks who have bodies that make life hard for them in very real ways. Their bodies keep them in chronic pain, or they don’t allow them the range of experiences they would like, or they are simply failing way too soon, or they are fundamentally wrong in some way, like they don’t match up with their Selves’ gender. I am trying to figure out how to be careful, and where folks like this fit into what I’m thinking. But it also seems to me, somewhat ironically, that those Selves who have the most legitimate complaints about their bodies are often the most loving and forgiving of their bodies, and the most grateful to them. That seems like something interesting to explore.


I have a vague notion that some of the blame for this mind-body dichotomy lies with our friend Paul (and/or sketchy interpretations of Paul), right? Except it’s possible that I’m just in over my head here. My friend Pierce, who was a Pauline scholar as an undergraduate, and with whom I went to law school, tried to give me a lesson on corporality in 1 and 2 Corinthians on Facebook, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to take a whole evening, face-to-face (i.e. our bodies actually in the same room), probably with beer … and good food … and of course a Bible. And even then I’m not so sure I’m gonna get it (and let’s face it, Pierce is way smarter than I am, and the only reason I did better in law school than he did is because I, being the total nerd that I am, never missed a class and briefed all my cases, whereas Pierce, being totally NOT a nerd, did not; and in the end it turns out maybe he was right because look who’s earning a living practicing law, and look who is doing neither!). But if any of you theologians want to take a stab at explaining what Paul had to say about bodies in the comments, I would be ever-so-grateful (or if you just want to make a date with me and Pierce for an evening discussion over beer and good food, leave your availability! I mean, how fun would that be?)


Okay, and since we’re talking about theology (where, I reiterate, I am in way over my head) … aren’t bodies sort of at the heart of being Christian? Isn’t incarnation and resurrection pretty central to our faith, for those of us who are Christians? Isn’t it the central scandal of Christianity, as Kathleen Norris says, that God “came to us and share our common lot” (in the words of the UCC statement of faith) … in the form of a fully human body we know as Jesus? So what’s up with Christians hating their bodies?

I’m not so good at praying, but the closest I sometimes feel I get is when I close my eyes and try to imagine Jesus as a real live person. I always imagine he is long and thin like that dancer I saw recently, the one whose muscles didn’t bulge but instead stretched in lines across his body that were as perfect as the lines his body in turn made in space as he danced. I imagine that Jesus had unruly hair, maybe even dreads, because who has time to groom on the road, right? And that his skin wasn’t as dark as Micah’s, but certainly darker than mine. And I wonder what he smelled like, because I’m sure it wasn’t deodorant or after-shave, and I wonder what it would feel like to hold his hands, and whether he snorted when he laughed. I would love to fix him a meal and watch him eat, because I bet he loved to eat, and I love to watch people who love to eat. And I wonder if his face got soft when he was listening to someone he loved, and I think he must have liked to touch people, and kiss them, and walk arm-in-arm.

I love communion, maybe because it’s as close as I feel like I get to the incarnate body of Christ as he lived in it; and I love all the messy, complicated relationships that make up church (and I like them in person better than email!), and I love worshipping and praying and working side-by-side, literally bodies touching, eating, singing, crying, laughing, sharing our stories, because that’s what makes me feel like part of the body of Christ, which is when resurrection feels most real to me.


See, I have no idea where this is going. So holla back!


Sara said...

wow, lotta stuff there. I want to jump in and conversate (that's a word from Toby - it kinda works) about much of it but will have to do later and possibly via FB or email as it needs to be way more interactive than blog comments! But yea, bodies do a huge range of good and fun things.

More later!

Patrick said...

My Dear. Oh my Dear. Oh oh oh. I say that a lot when writing thee. Yup, lots to respond to, feeling a bit overwhelmed, first feeling like I need to send a whole lot of other people I know here to read this... I'm sure I'll be back with more specific responses, but my first reaction is yes, that mind/body split is one I've been thinking about a lot recently as well (and I wonder how much Descartes has to do with the split as we see it now, between mind and body; I would assume Paul saw it as between soul and body, ie. the eternal and the temporal/irrelevant, but I'm shooting in the dark with both of them)... what was I talking about? Oh yeah, as I age, and notice things my body can't do as a performer that it could once, the connection between it and ME is an interesting question. How much am I my body, and how much is my selfness (selfdom? selfitude?) something distinct from my body, or at least from my body as it changes? I could lose a limb (knock wood) and still be ME, I know. Losing my mental capacity in key ways, would that have more of an effect? The people I've met suffering from dementia do seem to be losing themselves in certain ways, but how does that relate to the body? And here I get into my own confusion about the difference between the mind and the brain, and whether there is some part of us that can only be called a soul, and does IT exist separate from my corporeal self... Hmm. I said I wasn't going to rabbit on just yet, didn't I. Suffice to it to say thy thoughts, dear twin, are once again sparking off thoughts of my own this morning. XOXOXO

Jeff Wills said...

Hello, Marta. I was referred here by Patrick, and am very grateful for that. I love your thinking, and the way you've expressed it. Probably adding your 'blog to my Google Reader account, which will undoubtedly up the overall quality of what I subscribe to.

The way I see it, most of human intelligence and understanding comes of an ability to differentiate. I'm fascinated by the evolution that preceded the modern mind (talk about writing out of MY depth) and I keep coming back to our tendency to divide in pursuit of understanding -- letting go for a moment here the issue of "intelligence" and "understanding" being two totally different things (which they TOTALLY are). I think the ability to think, which eventually led to the possibility for self-awareness, began as a very binary function. At some point we figured out how to differentiate between 0 and 1 (or, Fellow Tribesman and Sabre-Toothed Tiger) and, seeing as how useful that turned out to be, we've been applying it ever since. Don't you find that a lot people define what they believe and who they are by what they DON'T believe, by who they AREN'T?

In many ways, I think approaching an understanding of ourselves and the world through an appreciation of the truth of oneness is a pretty good general description of religion. But there I go: separating myself from the world, if only syntactically.

I came to an appreciation of my own body rather late, not until I was an adult, and then I started exploiting it like mad, especially with regard to theatre and circus work. I still suffer from that strange subjectivity that makes us see abundant flaws and often blinds us to the glorious beauty of this corporeal form, but I try to counsel myself with this mantra: It's not about how you look, but what you can do. I realize even this idea will be tested by aging and may not hold for the rest of my bodily rental; still, I find a lot of understanding through it. We are not only our bodies and our souls or intellect, but also our actions. Energy. It's a lifetime of dancing, really -- some of it's just more choreographed than the rest.

Greg said...

Oh, wow. Bless you, Marta, for making me realize for the first time (maybe ever) that my body's been a pretty amazing friend to me, in gardens, on dancefloors, on stages, bike trails, the workplace and hundreds of other unsung locations throughout our years together.

I really should be kinder to it. After all, it's hardly my body that says, "Oh, wouldn't you rather sit around and eat fatty foods instead of going out there and getting some exercise?", is it? Thanks for that.

There IS lots in this post to think and write and talk about, so my response is necessarily incomplete, but I'm quite grateful for the thoughts you put in my head...and to our mutual PAL for sending me back to drink of your blog cup again! I really must Favorite you this time.

I just love the way you think when you imagine Jesus. He sounds a lot like the guy I've thought he was, too. : )

(PS: My faithful, under-valued bod wants to know why we enjoyed yogurt and dry cereal while reading about you and your cheese steaks. I tried to explain you just put that in there for local color.)

Marta said...

sara, no please do it here! i want to conversate (LOVE that) with everyone in the same place. and i would love to hear your thoughts, especially as the mom of a kid with cp. can't wait!

patrick, i think i just need to be in the same room with thee soon. thee can rub my feet and we can talk about the mind/body split (or not, LOL) ;-)

jeff, i'm so glad you stopped by, and i really appreciate your kind words. "In many ways, I think approaching an understanding of ourselves and the world through an appreciation of the truth of oneness is a pretty good general description of religion." -- i'm gonna be chewing on this for awhile, i love it so much. "not about how you look but what you can do" -- i'm chewing on that too. i just told jen (my yogini) that what i think is most beautiful about bodies is their functionality -- what they can do. it's just so awesome. but for me, there's this dynamic interplay between bodies and selves -- the more i love someone, the more their body becomes attractive to me, regardless of it's "objective" beauty (whatever that is, because that's just a social construct right?) but i guess what i mean is that i don't really see a distinction between "how you look" and "what you do" because if "what you do" is awesome and beautiful, then it makes "how you look" awesome and beautiful. at least it does for me. lots to think about, thanks!

greg: oh, wow, thanks right back to you, because you just made my day! but i think there's just one thing you might be wrong about -- i don't think fatty foods and cheese steaks ought to be set in opposition to getting exercise and being good to our bodies. our bodies love fatty food and cheese steaks. they also love to move. they also love kale salad right from the garden, and running by the river, and warm bread with butter, and hip-hop dancing, and bruschetta with fresh tomatoes, and yoga, and ice cream, and sex!, and steamed broccoli .... and and and ... our bodies love it all, right? and it seems that we should totally indulge our bodies in all of it, all in enough moderation that we're being healthy ... because we LOVE our bodies. and if our bodies hate yogurt and dry cereal, we should NEVER NEVER NEVER eat it, that's what i say!

Sara said...

Grin - my only issue with here is that it's a wonky place for back and forth interaction. A few random thoughts:

*I have zilch to say about the Christian/theological part of it all b/c I just don't speak that language or even have any sort of mindframe to tackle it. But it intrigues, so keep talking.

*What's my body dooooo - oh my goodness, why do you think I skate?? I used to run - I wasn't fast by any stretch of the imagination, and in large part it was my big dissertation avoidance tactic. I highly recommend training for and running a marathon or two as dissertation avoidance. Highly effective, highly self-rewarding, and highly conducive to letting ideas gel and percolate in your head. Skating is different though - it's like there's an endless amount of "skill" to be learned - I work and struggle and expend huge amounts of effort at mastering something, and once I do, poof, there's something new to figure out. My body does that. With a little help from my brain, but really, it's my body. Isn't it awesome?

*and eating. I resist *utterly* the massive efforts women (and some men) exert for virtually their entire lives (except perhaps for the pre-puberty years) on restricting their food intake. It drives me insane and it's really rather sad. I eat. Pretty much whatever I want to eat. Beyond the point of satiety often, but not b/c I like to feel uncomfortable, but b/c a little extra of something yummy - is just so yummy.

*the juxtaposition of skating and that food thing? Really rather wild at times. Few and far between are the skaters who totally love food and go at it with abandon.

*CP. See this: http://www.democratandchronicle.com/article/20090929/SPORTS/909290334/1007/SPORTS/Rochester+Rookies+sport+a++can+do++spirit
LOVE love love the "I can do anything" thing. I can't promise that Toby won't have a level of grief (?) about his body's shortcomings. There are times that are incredibly frustrating, and there are times where I just wish some things were easier for him. But all in all? He's very comfortable in his own skin. He prefers to crawl around the house? So what as far as he's concerned. It works. And the biggest irk I have in interacting with the General Public (of the variety where I'm actually conversating with them - not random folks I'm not interacting with) is when they get stuck on the label of CP and presumed limitations, rather than focusing all the awesomeness that is Toby. Like we're advocating like the dickens these days for a wheelchair for Toby - precisely b/c it'll *open* up stuff for him - but what folks see? Is that it's a limitation. Really, in the end only he can tell his body story - but so far? I don't sense a lot of loss/limitation about it in his head. He does notice difference - but it's not a grieving thing for him largely. He is frustrated at not being able to participate in some stuff (gym at school? Kids run away and he with his walker just can't keep up. See back to the wheelchair note...). But it's not negatively directed at his body.

********I'll continue in another comment, I have hit some sort of word limit and it won't post*******

Sara said...

*********here's the continuation*************

*More re what my body does - I've been doing this Rolfing stuff since this spring - and it's just incredible. I no longer get really painful back spasms, I am more grounded and centered and *present* in my own body - rather than sort of "hovering" over it. It's really a mind-boggling re-orientation to my body. I feel like I can tackle the world and be as large a presence as I need to be or something - rather than more or less skirting around the edges trying to squeeze myself in. I've been reading this book while in the waiting room heh - http://www.amazon.com/Rolfing-Personal-Empowerment-Brian-Anson/dp/1556432933. It's the most body/mind/emotional/spiritual experience I have ever had - and for me? Spiritual? Again, not a framework I have well-built in my head to hang much on. But in the end - it has been awesomely positive - not just in the physical "stuff works better" way, but in the whole being way - daily, hourly, every minute.... Stuff does work better too - I can do stuff on the ice that I was never able to do before. But more than that, I can just "be" better too.

Mostly - I would adore having this conversation with the lot of folks commenting here - can we set up a bulletin board like the old Parents Place ? !

Greg said...

I think I love you.

Marta said...

sara: i'm gonna get back to you soon! thanks for putting your comment here to keep the conversation going.

greg: back atcha! (and really, if you are a friend of my patrick's, then you are my friend too! and if you and patrick come visit me, i will feed you: yum yum!)

market 2 snow said...

Hi Marta -
I discovered your blog today via Facebook. I poked around a bit and then landed on your body vs. self post - which I took to be fate.

You are right - the self is a meany.

I have been engaged in that war for 40+ years and just recently began peace talks.

I did a meditation this past year where all I did was thank my body - head to toe for all it has done for me. It was very moving.

Then I did it again - after I learned all the internal organs. I think it is helping to heal the body and soften the self.

market 2 snow said...

one more thing to share...