I live in my head, as do many writers, but I’ve been thinking about bodies lately. This is partly because this month I am in a writing workshop where we are writing essays on what the body remembers. Not much, if I ask mine. My head knows that there were triumphs and traumas, but my body prefers to stay mum. The truth is, I’ve spent way too much of my life paying attention to how my body looks and very little to how it works and what it knows.
It often takes danger to make us pay attention to our own bodies. The threat of Covid-19 has turned handshakes to elbow bumps, distanced us from others by six feet if we follow health alerts, and made us flinch from the slightest cough, the quietest sneeze. For some of us, wanting to protect our bodies is keeping us home and away from other bodies. Some of us who think the body is infallible are conducting business as usual, daring the virus to break through, the body to break down. Possibly endangering others.
Two weeks ago, I flew from Hong Kong to my childhood home in Washington State. Used to wearing face masks in Hong Kong, I wore one on the plane. Vancouver was the first place I had been in over a month where no one was covering their noses and mouths. I thought being free of the cultural compulsion to cover my face would be liberating. Instead, I felt vulnerable, unprotected. In Hong Kong, we were collectively masked, protecting the body politic and not just our own immune systems. So far America feels like a free-for-all of self-protection.
In any contest of the body and mind, the body has the edge. It’s capable of mutiny. I’m here at my mother’s house because my sister, who lives next door, was recently diagnosed with ovarian cancer, Stage 3C. When I saw her at Christmas, she looked fine. When I got here at the beginning of March, her abdomen was so swollen she found it hard to bend. Now that she has started chemo, the swelling is going down. It helps that in that old joke about an optimist and a pessimist getting a box of horse shit for Christmas, my sister would be the one looking for the pony. (I’d be saying it figures). She makes me believe that modern medicine and optimism can restore her body to balance.
Since I got here, I’ve been doing a lot of cooking to feed our bodies. My mother is ninety-four, and still living in her own house and driving. She is proof that the body can go on even as our muscles and bones wear out. Much shorter than she used to be and depending on a handful of pills every morning and night to regulate her aging body, she’s still in there. As my sister is still in hers. We need our bodies to live, and we are willing to go to great lengths to keep them working as long as possible.
The virus warnings categorize my sister and my mother as high risk for infection from Covid-19: my sister because of her compromised immune system as she goes through chemo, and my mother due to her advanced age. Technically, I am in that group as well because I live in a body that has been around for sixty-seven years. Sometimes, I forget that my body is aging. Then I look in a mirror, and I am disappointed by its sagging and softening. My vanity sighs over gray hairs and wrinkles, the extra padding around my waist. Focusing on the surface, I forget my body’s wisdom, that bodies are not separate from whoever it is we think we are in our heads. We live in our bodies. They need us to take care, pay attention, listen up, say thank you every day.
In this moment of danger, they also need us to wash our hands and keep our distance, so all of us can all be safe together.