“Sometimes the body decides” a friend said to me in the context of our graduate training, as she switched out of the program we started together and into a different program. Her health just wouldn’t allow her to continue down the Ph.D.. Sometimes, the body decides. There’s something sexy about living “a life of the mind,” a life unimpeded by body troubles. I want it so badly, that life I didn’t realize I had, that life unencumbered by the clumsy, angry, malfunctioning body.
Actually, no. No I don’t I don’t want a life divorced from the body, or a life of the mind without a body. What I want so desperately is a functioning body. A body that works. I body I can live in, a body that I can take on adventures, a body to move through the everyday patterns of life without painstaking care. A body that will allow me to not think and feel cancer, a body that is different from the one I currently inhabit.
The idea that cancer teaches lessons that are productive or moving or inspiring is not an idea I want to cozy up with and talk about. However, there are certain lessons- lessons I never wanted, lessons I never needed, lessons I could have done just fine without- that cancer has dragged me through. And one of them is that sometimes, the body decides. I cannot seem to grasp this lesson, and I notice myself constantly rejecting my body’s truth, wishing my wounds were already healed, always hoping that what is so plainly obvious will vanish when I start to move. This isn’t a lesson I can fully trust right now, and I find myself testing, trying, experimenting often, only to come crashing down into my broken body when my flesh refuses.
It happened when I signed up for the NYC Marathon and decided to start running. I thought I could outwit my newly stitched-in fake boob by running slowly, keeping my torso from moving, wearing a sports bra with a snap. I was painfully wrong, let me tell you. Running is next to impossible when you’ve had this kind of major surgery. Cue, frustration. It happened when I tried to open a can of coconut water the other evening, and realized my nails still don’t have the strength to reach under the metal pull clasp. They are so brittle, so delicate, and so very prone to snapping right off of my finger nail beds if I try anything like opening a can. Cue, anger. It happened when I went to yoga this afternoon, and I left early after realizing the challenge was way more significant than lifting my arms over my head. Cue, meltdown.
Sometimes the body decides.
And so I sit on the couch. I watch movies. I wait. I’ll try again tomorrow. Maybe my body will be more up to what my mind needs. Maybe my body will need it, too. Being blasted into the land of body-first makes me think about embodiment and how centrally the body features in feminist scholarship. Many have argued that caring for the body is itself, political. I have long agreed. And yet, this is entirely different. My body doesn’t match my mind, and my mind is forced to follow my body. I still struggle with this lesson. I may always. I will try movement again tomorrow. But for now, I find comfort in Audre Lourde’s words- words spoken from a body, too inhabited by cancer. She writes….
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” — A Burst of Light: Essays
Tonight seems like a good night, to turn to literature, as we remember Maya Angelous, who just passed. I find comfort in her writing, and especially tonight, this poem:
Still I Rise
You may write me down in history With your bitter, twisted lies, You may trod me in the very dirt But still, like dust, I’ll rise. Does my sassiness upset you? Why are you beset with gloom? ‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells Pumping in my living room. Just like moons and like suns, With the certainty of tides, Just like hopes springing high, Still I’ll rise. Did you want to see me broken? Bowed head and lowered eyes? Shoulders falling down like teardrops, Weakened by my soulful cries? Does my haughtiness offend you? Don’t you take it awful hard ‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines Diggin’ in my own backyard. You may shoot me with your words, You may cut me with your eyes, You may kill me with your hatefulness, But still, like air, I’ll rise. Does my sexiness upset you? Does it come as a surprise That I dance like I’ve got diamonds At the meeting of my thighs? Out of the huts of history’s shame I rise Up from a past that’s rooted in pain I rise I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide, Welling and swelling I bear in the tide. Leaving behind nights of terror and fear I rise Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear I rise Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise I rise I rise.