By Sarah Anne Childers
Bodies tell stories. And we read stories in bodies. Like any narrative, body stories elicit emotion and inspire action. It is joy to hear the tale sung by a body that is healthy and strong, my own or another’s.
I could forever watch my daughter’s lithe frame circle the monkey bars. She pauses to swing here, change direction there; her dismount is a soundless fall to the earth. Oh, that supple spine! Oh, those palms’ rough, yellowed callouses! To me, her body is lyrical romantic verse. “Behold and delight in this,” it trills. But it is also the rough and demanding staccato of punk. “Live well! Now!” it growls.
My body is travel memoir and character study; I read in it where I have been and beneath that, who I am and my possibility. Among the inscriptions from living-moving-aging there is a thin vertical scar on the inside of my right wrist. Diminutive relative to its power, it is from a surgery to remove a cyst of gelatinous joint fluid. I struggle to read the story of this mark though I ask myself to revisit it each day because the scar covers an active fault line of shifting sensation and capacity.
Today my wrist is neither strong nor healthy, neither generous nor joyful. And yet. What would it take to find in this complicated and painful part of my body a story that inspires me to live well?
Several years ago, a clanging MRI machine spotted the dot in my wrist joint that oozed and twisted to strangle the medial nerve. This explained the magenta pain that swung from searing to pulsing and back but never entirely dissipated.
“You’ll stand on your hands again in a month,” the surgeon said as he marked the swell with an X of black ink. I smiled; this made sense to me. His assurance aligned neatly with my identity: I was a woman who stood on her hands.
As I balanced on my palms, the soles of my feet supported a precariously perched child and a career in higher education and a PhD program many years underway. Teetering alongside were a yoga mat and a bicycle with a basket holding an agenda for The Board meeting, rattling jars of spices and a pile of dusty tubers for the soup pot. All of this did not make me particularly unique, but it did make me Me.
This idea of Me, of course, is as cultural as it is individual. The story of the woman who walks on her hands, holding aloft her world like Atlas, is a version of a superwoman cultural narrative that I embraced long ago.
The surgery failed. An imaging test six weeks after the procedure confirmed what I already knew: The cyst was back.
I heard the news, said no to a second surgery and then I hid. I buried myself deep and from this place, blind as a sea slug, I told myself to buck up and accept the story I read in the scar at my wrist: Failure. I had failed my body. The cyst was my fault for taking on too much. My body failed me in being weak in the face of my ambition to do it all. I failed my body again in choosing surgery. The surgery failed to heal me. Failure.
I ignored the right side of my body while feigning acceptance. It was a new form of hiding.
“My wrist is my disability and I’m fine with it,” I chirped as I carried my daughter on my left hip and slung bags of groceries on my left shoulder and did side plank and flipped downward dog on my left side. Compensation led to nerve impingements across my body. At night I iced my wrist until it was numb, which felt right because I was numb to it.
The narrative of failure did not bring acceptance or relief. It did not inspire me to live in a way that was courageous or brought joy. This story did not support living well, but I lacked a model in my history to encounter or understand my body differently. I could not read the woman who stood on her hands in my broken body, and I did not know who else to be. I grieved the loss of her. Desperate, I cast about for perspective.
The mothers in my family bear imposing scars that are complex and tell stories of loss, mortality and shame, but also of life, mobility, and freedom. Their lives are full and rich. They are aging with grace. They live well. I watch them. I ask them.
“Soften,” they say. Soften.
What it would mean to find inspiration to live well in the scar at my wrist? Just to pose the question is a dazzling relief, like a sip of alpine air after panting in the smog. Like surfacing. My practice has become the modest act of taking up this question every day.
Doing so requires me to be present to my body as it is. I must slow and focus to feel the sensation at the scar’s epicenter and every other place in my body affected by its tremors. I must stick around for wet cheeks and clenched fists of emotion, too.
In the intimate quiet with my body, I work to listen to what it whispers beneath the din of cultural stories I’ll never abandon entirely but can at least recognize for what they are. I shake off what is prescriptive and hold open space to be surprised by plot and character. “Soften,” my scar says, echoing my mothers.
I had cast it as the villain keeping me from living well. Can I strip my scar of this burden and leave its role in my body’s story undetermined? Perhaps it will be a fool but just as easily it could be a sage. I am flooded with a sense of the possible. In this open space it is possible to see myself in different ways; I can imagine a women who is strong and yet softens.
The practice is simple and terrifying. It is an effort to be present; some days it’s the last place I want to be. I struggle. I harden. My wrist hurts, I ignore the pain, it hurts more. I take up the old stories and then, remembering, I slough them off like rough, ill-fitting garments. I settle into my body and this practice. I remind myself that it is a practice not an achievement. I try again.