The Joy Menu #33: Body

Your author contemplates the body as a vessel—neither his father's nor his own.

Dear Creators,

The body is a vessel, grown according to a received code. 

Today, I wake and stretch and I see my own leg—hairy around the thigh, ligaments along the back running tight with a slight protrusion; plump at the calf, giving way to a long, flat foot—and for more than a second it is not mine. It is distinctly and explicitly his.  

It's disorienting; something in the movement, a vertigo of otherness. Then it’s comforting, connective. Familiar. Familial.

What to do with this information?

I remember as he lay on his deathbed, one leg stretched out from under the sheet—for cool air, to stretch (just as he slept every night; just as I do now)—I put my foot next to his foot, lay my leg down next to his leg, and took a photo. 

I thought: this is us; we are the same; we share the same code.

I hoped to capture this sameness. To hold it. To record it.

Now, I feel I am him. (Where else is his body if not in mine?)

Somewhere in an icy Lithuanian field, that same leg squats in dirt to lay the foundation for a wooden structure which will become the bar my grandmother remembers with “wood-chipped floors, smelling of fermentation.” That same leg squats on a dusty Johannesburg lot, where my grandfather will later run by yelling, playing stickball in the dirt.

For how many thousands of years did that leg squat in such fields, in front of such lots, and in how many other parts of the world? 

And in all these places, all these legs born of other legs; a Fibonacci spiral of legs, each exploding into the next; each exactly the same as all the others, and yet each entirely different.

My father was never ashamed of his body. At the pool he never wore anything other than a speedo. At home, rarely more than speedo briefs. He was broad chested, hairy, and stood with absolute composure at any stage of undress. 

He answers the door in his underwear. He gets the mail in only his briefs. 

(I tell myself this as if to convince myself that the memories are true: did he really walk outside in suburban Orange County like that? He did. And he never thought twice.)

We teased him about it; he smiled along. But really we watched with wonder and admiration. I don’t remember any embarrassment—only pride.

We were Americans swallowed by nagging fears of our own flesh. A generation asked to come clothed to gym class, to change nothing more than a sweaty shirt. Boy Scouts who undressed inside our sleeping bags; swimmers who drove home with towels wrapped around still-dripping suits.

Where did his nonchalance come from? His confidence as absolute as his muscular thighs? From years of forced showers at his British-style grammar school? Years playing cricket or soccer, or changing at friend’s pools? From his time in the army, where the demanded sameness of basic training, or the flea-infested indignities of military jail, robbed him of any option to feel shame? 

Or was it just an innate sense, a self-worth—derived from personality and never lost?

I remember myself as a child, a teen, a young man: body-shy, painfully insecure. No fear greater than someone seeing my penis; at someone catching sight of my soft belly; of anyone seeing my thighs, my butt, my balls. I remember wanting desperately to wear a T-shirt at the pool, a wetsuit at the beach. Being jealous of the girls whose suits covered their full torsos. I remember wearing my a bathing suit in the wood sauna at college. The embarrassment of being seen far outweighing the embarrassment of being seen to be embarrassed.

How did it feel for my father to perceive in me such fear, such shame, such hesitation, such discomfort in my—in his—in our body? Did it make him sad to see me hold back? Did it concern him? Did he take it personally? Did he feel any way at all? (Did he even notice?)

Today, I stand in front of the mirror: the slope of my penis, his; the cliff of my ass, his; the placements of muscle, the sequences of hair, the concentrations of fat—his

I marvel now at his brazen comfort. As an embodied man. As a body. As a man.

You learn a body intimately when you help it die. 

Intimately, like you know a baby’s—each crease a navigation, each crevice a challenge, each surface a story you can tell.

My father must have known my body that way. I was, after all, his baby.

I see my father’s body in my own now as a reflection of how I knew it as he died. 

When I lifted him to the toilet, when I wiped him after he was done. When I shaved him, and undressed him, and cleaned around the collapsed organ which had once given me life. 

I think his dying came easier because lacked body-shame. As he lost control, he let himself be seen, held, moved, lifted, washed, touched. And not just by me, by whomever was needed. Family, friends, nurses. He sighed, he smiled, he laughed.

He held himself in that vessel without clinging. As for a thousand years it was passed down from who-knows-where to who-knows-when. 

He sat in his body like a child sits in a car seat. Waiting to be lifted. Waiting to be told of arrival. Waiting to be carried home.

Onward toward creative joy,