The Secret Body

Body is something you need in order to stay
on this planet and you only get one.
And no matter which one you get, it will not
be satisfactory. It will not be beautiful
enough, it will not be fast enough, it will
not keep on for days at a time, but will
pull you down into a sleepy swamp and
demand apples and coffee and chocolate cake.
—Joyce Sutphen, “Living in the Body”

In my best moments, I am grateful to be walking around, upright and active. In those moments, I am not noticing the forward jut of my head, misaligned with age and bad postural habits built up over time. I am not worried about the creaking of my knees or my elbows. In my best moments, I am thinking about deep issues like world peace and schoolyard bullies and what’s for dinner. 

I sometimes stand with fists at my waist and elbows out, like Superman in a classic pose of power. They say (as the anonymous “they” are wont to say) that if I do this every day for only a few minutes I’m bound to feel good about myself. I stand in the Superman pose and throw my shoulders back, suck in my gut and lift up my chest. It does feel powerful. I can almost see the chiseled abs appearing. I can almost feel them all washboard at the belly. If only it were true.

Instead of washboard abs I have quiet cushioning that wraps around my hips and haunches. It reaches around the whole of my waist, like a comforting hug from a well-meaning aunt. I did not ask for this thickening, but mid-life granted it to me anyhow.

The promise I always fall for is the one that comes late at night when I’m poking that paunch that spills out over the top of my pajama pants. The promise comes in a pill or, if I'm lucky, a tasty citrus drink. Just add water. It “burns fat.” It blasts away the “belly.” It has my name written all over it. 

Take it once a day, the promise coaxes, and maybe do these seventeen exercises too. This promise has rose-drawn lips, smiling and sultry. This promise is only $39.95 for a three-month supply. This promise is sexy, and I am struggling to stay true to the quiet cushion of my hips and my belly that offers the comforting hug I did not ask for, the one that came with mid-life, stretch marks and all.

This is a good body — strong, courageous, supple, and soft. It is the one and only body I have. I remind myself of this when I look in the mirror, when I hitch up my jeans along the leg and thigh, over the rounding of my belly and hips and bottom. “This is a good body,” I say aloud as I stand in my Superman stance, but I do not always believe it. I am haunted by that late-night promise of a pill I can take to make it so. 

The pill promise comes accompanied by a full-color photo of a young woman’s torso — muscled and tanned. Her string bikini is a perfect shade of coral. Her hips are toned and her belly tight. I bargain with my psyche. “This is only temporary,” I say.

Instead of washboard abs I have a stitch in my back, and crackling knees. My doctor tells me that I should not worry about that crackling. So long as there isn’t pain it’s natural, it’s normal, it’s within reason given my age.  I'm not so old. I'm just barely middle-aged now.

Over time, gravity takes its toll, cartilage begins to wear away so that walking up the steps with loads of laundry, my knees make it sound as though I’m carrying cellophane in my pockets. I remember cellophane — wrapping baskets of fruit, flowers, or nuts. My grandmother brought those baskets to the house when they came, gifts of friends or relatives. I remember the sound, the crackling, the static in my ears. Her skin was flawless, her smile wide and breathy. She was always willowy in her build, even when she was old. The last time I saw her she might have been 90 pounds, lying in that hospital bed, dying from cancer. She was not wearing makeup. Her hair was a mess. She was concerned about that, but not about the cancer.

There is no good cure for aging. Ponce de Leon never found that damned fountain. In 1521, he was injured in Florida in a fight with Calusa Warriors. They say he was shot by a poisoned arrow, probably in the thigh. He died in Cuba not long after. It’s no mistake that Florida draws retirees and alligators. There is a beginning, and there is an end, but this is the middle. It is rough, but it transitional. There is still much to discover. This body is a garden.

He began to walk about, looking up in the trees and at the walls and bushes with a thoughtful expression.

"I wouldn't want to make it look like a gardener's garden, all clipped an' spick an' span, would you?" he said. "It's nicer like this with things runnin' wild, an' swingin' an' catchin' hold of each other."

"Don't let us make it tidy," said Mary anxiously. "It wouldn't seem like a secret garden if it was tidy."
—Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

Sometimes it seems that I woke up and found myself here all of a sudden, living this middle-aged version of myself. I catch sight of this body, this secret garden, in the mirror, and I am surprised. It is wild and untended but alive, so very alive. This is the key, unearthed. The decision to love this one body I’ve been given, the decision to care for it well.

When I see myself in that mirror, I have in mind two choices — look closer or look away. If I choose to look away, to leave the key buried, to leave the door locked, I am missing the beauty. I am disconnected from the whole of me. If I choose to look closer I have to be careful about what I say; I know that what I say about my body goes right to my hips and right to my head. I have to rein in the resignation and keep from hammering away at my self-esteem, my motivation to care well, my inclination to give up, lock the door and never look back. This body is a garden, and it is mine. I am responsible for its care. I am responsible for the words I use when I describe it, even to myself, even when I'm alone. Looking closer can be tricky too.

Today, as I stand in my Superman pose, arms into fists dug into my widening waist, I am thinking about this wild and growing garden. This good body, this strong body, this one body I've been gifted, reflects back to me here, in this moment. This body I’m discovering is a little bit wild, like the secret garden that Mary Lenox finds with the help of a cheeky robin. 

You have it too, this wild, secret garden. The key is the starting place. We need that key, the one presumably dropped so long ago, planted there and then turned up with tilling or lawn care or time. We need that key, not a pill or a tasty citrus drink, not the belly blast or fat burner. We need that key to unlock the motivation, to offer the care we did not know we needed, the discovery of those places in us that have been forgotten, left untended too long. Dig for that key daily, scouring the ground for it. Search until you find it and then be brave, pull back the ivy and unlock the door.

There is still much to discover.

Angela Doll Carlson is a poet and essayist whose work has appeared most recently in publications both online and offline, such as Burnside Writer's Collective, St. Katherine Review, Rock & Sling, Image Journal's Good Letters blog, Ruminate Magazine, and the Art House America Blog. Her memoir, Nearly Orthodox: On Being a Modern Woman in an Ancient Tradition (Ancient Faith Publishers) was released July 2014. Her latest book, Garden in the East: The Spiritual Life of the Body is due out from Ancient Faith Publishers in 2016. 

Angela currently lives in Chicago, IL, with her husband, David, and her four outrageously spirited yet remarkably likable children.

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