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Body Language

I like my yoga practice.

It is to most folks—except Madonna, Sting and some other people—a particularly vigorous version of what we assume is yoga. Despite my equally vigorous dismissal of Madonna, I guess she and I are on the same wavelength here. Or om-length. Whatever.

So when I am getting ready for bed, and I look at my arms—previously on the normal/shapeless side of arms, not chubby, or flabby or anything really objectionable—I like them better.

Nowadays they look like an acceptably capable pair of arms. They’re not bulky (how unfeminine!) or scrawny (how osteoporotic!). They are decent, toned, capable arms, which is how I’ve always seen my brain—decent, toned, capable.

Something different must be said of my legs. Because I used to dance I have taken my legs quite for granted. That they are strong, flexible and reliable I have come to treat them much as we treat a loyal puppy or a loving partner—there when we need them, worthy of a bone when we happen to think of it, but on their own pretty much the rest of the time. A lame attitude if you think about it and a bad omen for legs, besides.

But before I go to bed, after I’ve reflected on the changed state of my arms, after I’ve reminded myself that my legs are useful, but not so important that I should be vain about them—pride goeth before a fall and all that, and a fall would be quite a drag in terms of my yoga practice—then I can’t help but see my face.

It is, frankly, a face I have also come to take for granted.

I think I was 30 before I realized I had blue eyes. It was not until recently I discovered, from pictures from the 1940s and 1950s, when my mother was a hot, red-haired babe, that I look like her—but as a chaste, dishwater blonde instead of a flaming redhead?

And then I have also seen pictures from my earlier adult years—slightly beer-plump and smiling from college days; wanly slim for my first wedding; slim and winsome, poolside, with my first daughter; red-cheeked and round, standing by a snowman when I was pregnant again.

The girl in those pictures is some pretty picture of me. The me I didn’t claim then. The me that seems not to be me now.

Because before I go to bed, after gazing at legs and arms more supple than in my sedentary 20s or 30s, I see a 42-year-old face, the eyes oddly downcast, as though smiling had—mysteriously—saddened them.

As I look, I can’t believe that the face in the mirror is my face any more than I can believe that the face in snapshots, smiling over the bald head of a nursing baby—a face amazed to give and nourish life—is also mine.

I mean, I really have come to like my face. But when I look at it, I see that it is older than my body. Despite my wanting to, I cannot erase what it has seen.

Because I am a pastor I visit older people in hospitals and nursing homes a lot. Those places smell of blood and mortality. There is no getting away from it. Still, such visits are inexplicably astonishing privileges.

The other day I visited someone in the hospital where my mother died less than a year ago. On the way in, I noticed a hearse parked by the door. How could I not imagine another hearse, the hearse driven by a dear friend of mine, that had come to collect my mother’s tired body?

But in spite of that, when I went in to see my elderly patient I saw someone whose body was vital beyond the etchings on his face.

Time and again, throughout the years that I have visited the elderly and the dying, I have seen the bedsheets disheveled, exposing bits of flesh that beg only to be private. But what I have seen is that our bodies live on—strangely and smoothly beautiful—even as our faces show both the wear and the wonder of our lives. We defy death with bodies that suggest and remind us of the insufficiency of time to explain our lives.

Because I had slept the night beside her before she died, when I awoke I saw my own mother’s belly peeking out from under the cloud of sheet. And before my coffee, before I had even risen from my bed, I saw her belly as the place of my birth, of my original belonging.

And what a smooth belly it was in the minutes before she died, round and soft with the muscle memory of the lives she had given. And her face, lined and careworn, carved around the breath she slowly gave up needing, was folded inward, as peacefully closed to her daughters’ scrutiny as a Japanese fan.

Sometimes, when I am not distressed with sleepiness or scheduling or the insistencies of desire, my body and my face undress themselves together.

And then my separate selves—the images of who I was, the body that I am now and the face that has seen all of my life—regard the other. Fleetingly, I am knit into a peculiar wholeness, imperfect and unmarketable.

But it reminds me, or maybe only assures me, that what is both lasting and changing are somehow—blessedly—at one in the turmoil of being.

—Jo Page

You can contact Jo Page at jopage@graceniska.org.


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