This is about bodies. Mine and yours. About flesh and rawness and dirtiness, about throbbing and sensing and sexiness. And brokenness. And heart-stopping sweetness. It’s about our bodies’ betrayals … and their divinities and their astonishing service.
For me, nothing captures all of this more potently than Dorianne Laux’s poem “The Shipfitter’s Wife.” I have been obsessed with this poem since I first read it several years ago. It electrifies me for the way it portrays a woman’s love for her husband, for his whole self, his entire calloused, pulsing physicality:
I loved him most / when he came home from work / his denim shirt ringed with sweat / and smelling of salt / the drying weeds of the ocean. I'd go to where he sat / on the edge of the bed, his forehead / anointed with grease, his cracked hands / jammed between his thighs, and unlace / the steel-toed boots, stroke his ankles / and calves, the pads and bones of his feet
I didn’t grow up with men—my dad wasn’t around, no brothers—so until marriage and motherhood, men were foreign and strange to me—even outlandish. Still now, Jon’s body is such an enigma. His crushed thumbnail with the flattened ridges—an old printing press injury. His muscular shoulders and his coarse hair that is also unexpectedly soft. Long, lean legs and the distinct narrow waist of that particularly male build of his. He has light blue eyes with comforting smile lines that I've memorized like a song, and yet, his body remains a compelling mystery, as in some ways does my own.
I have scoliosis. You probably wouldn’t notice it immediately, unless you know what you’re looking for. But my mid-back—the inflexible section of thoracic vertabrae—grows in a marked “S” curve instead of straight and true. For this reason, among others, my world is the slightest bit off kilter. My left hip is a tad higher than my right. I avoid skirts with center seams or distinct patterns that accentuate this asymmetry. My left breast is also larger than my right. What to do about this? Not much. My left shoulder has a height advantage as well, so straps must be adjusted accordingly, and some necklines will slip to the right. My gait is mildly wonky, so my shoes wear unevenly. I get a pain at the site of the curvature when I sit or stand for too long.
Ironically, I notice these things so much more now than I did when I was younger— but I am troubled by them so much less. For this, I credit yoga. Yoga has given me immeasurably more nuanced awareness of my body, including its balance and alignment. But the ironic part is this: being more aware of my misalignments has made me love and appreciate my body more than I ever have. I feel more tender toward and grateful for my body because of these imperfections, maybe because I’m all the more awed by what it can do. At least as much as pregnancy and the amazing healing power of childbirth and breastfeeding—transportive and transformative—yoga has brought me home to my own skin and flesh and blood.
Like everyone’s, my body’s rebellion began with puberty’s first sprinkling of pain. Then it kicked into high gear when I was thirteen, in the middle of my eighth-grade year, as I stood in line after gym class with all the other sweaty girls and waited my turn to bend over for the nice volunteer who was checking our backs.
"Just a minute," said the volunteer as my head hung between my knees. "Can you come over and take a look at this one," she called to the gym teacher. "Hmmm, I see," said Ms. Nick. She told me to stand up and get dressed, then handed me a form to take home. I had to have a doctor's appointment. A friend mentioned the girl down the street who had a brace. A brace? I'd read Judy Blume’s Deenie, a book about a teenaged girl with scoliosis who lived in a brace twenty-four hours a day. I was sure I wouldn’t survive that.
But that's exactly what the doctor ordered a couple of weeks later. Soon I was getting cast models made for a plastic brace that would be fitted around my torso from just under my breasts to the middle of my ass. It would fasten from behind with heavy-duty Velcro straps. It would be impossible to hide under my clothes, even the new pants my mom bought to fit over it.
I let my best friend, Kim, also my next-door neighbor, in on my terrible secret. She understood the special cruelty of our middle-school peers, and she was honest about the failure of my attempts to camouflage my thick, plastic corset as I pulled on and tore off one outfit after the next.
The first day I wore the brace to school, I was terrified someone would bump me and feel the hard plastic instead of flesh. Paranoid the lumps of the molded brace were visible beneath my clothes. Convinced people were laughing and making fun of me or soon would be. By the time the week was over, I was physically and emotionally wrecked.
Many months of sneaking out of my brace and battling with my parents (punctuated by my own escalating fears of disfigurement) led finally to an evaluation at a scoliosis specialty clinic. On the day of the appointment my stomach roiled and clutched. I felt embarrassed to be causing everyone so much trouble. I knew it was unreasonable not to wear the brace every day. What was wrong with me?
We rode the elevator up to one of the clinic's top floors and waited in the lobby until we were called back to meet a handsome young doctor with a kind, easy-going smile. He had me bend over for the millionth time. He traced a finger along the curve of my spine. He pinned my X-rays up against a lighted wall. He asked me lots of questions, mostly about how long I'd been getting my periods, which made me blush, but ended up being my passport to freedom. "Well, you're pretty much done growing, considering your menstrual history. Your spine isn't going to change rapidly now that your growth spurts are finished. So a brace won’t do much of anything."
"So I don't have to wear it?”
"Which one have you been wearing? The Milwaukee?” He was referring to the kind with the metal outer rods, the kind that goes up to your neck, the kind Deenie had. "No, not that one. I don't know the name of it."
He held out a chart showing many models of back braces, all so innocent looking on the glossy, laminated brochure. "Do you see it here?"
I pointed to the brace that sat guiltily at home under my bed.
"Hmmm. That's odd. That brace wouldn't have any effect on your curvature at all. You can go home and make a planter out of it.”
I was elated. But that happy day didn’t mark the end of my struggle to accept my physical body. Far, far from it. More than self-loathing, what I experienced in adolescence and beyond was a kind of total disconnect from my body, a local anesthetic that extended from my neck down. Numb. I felt physically dead but I didn't even know it. Coming back to my flesh was the work of a lifetime. Filthy, painful work. I had to remember and relive all kinds of repressed pain in my soft animal self. Being numb was safe, though deforming in its own way. Sensation was terrifying. My wounds were exposed. But, as Rumi says, the wound is where the light enters us. So I had to work to let in the light. And I had to stop working.
I had to surrender. Breathe. Love and be loved, thank god for that. It is a book of its own, this wonder of physical loving, a book inscribed in the flesh touch by touch, chapter after chapter overlaying the complex network of past scars that is me—human, curved, afraid, fierce, and alive. At home, in this one and only body that is both me and not me, at once my self and my shelter, a marvel.
The Shipfitter's Wife
By Dorianne Laux
I loved him most
when he came home from work,
his fingers still curled from fitting pipe,
his denim shirt ringed with sweat
and smelling of salt, the drying weeds
of the ocean. I'd go to where he sat
on the edge of the bed, his forehead
anointed with grease, his cracked hands
jammed between his thighs, and unlace
the steel-toed boots, stroke his ankles
and calves, the pads and bones of his feet.
Then I'd open his clothes and take
the whole day inside me — the ship's
gray sides, the miles of copper pipe,
the voice of the foreman clanging
off the hull's silver ribs. Spark of lead
kissing metal. The clamp, the winch,
the white fire of the torch, the whistle,
and the long drive home.
Crack open your fierce, original voice while deeply reconnecting to your own body and inner stillness this June at Stout's Island Lodge this June. Two spots still available for the Elephant Rock Summer Solstice Retreat for Writing & Yoga.