Here is my body

Johanna Shapiro, PhD

Here is my body
I know its wounded places
Here a scarred remnant
Here an imperfect healing
Fissures and canyons of pain
Flowers of suffering
In steps now uncertain
The body still stumbles
Forward. It is ready
I am ready
Here I am.

After four major surgeries (and two cataract implants), my body does feel wounded, marred, and scarred. It has shown itself to be far from invulnerable, in fact deeply flawed and unable to do many of the things it once did. No matter our postmodernist discourse in the academy, on a personal level it is hard to give up the modernist project of the perfect body – or at least, perfect enough not to require much attention or thought. Or the imperfect body that with enough surgeries, medications, and rehabilitation can be restored to its former glory. When you discover that you inhabit a declining and fragile structure, despair and shame become easily accessible. The patient feels she has somehow failed the exam, has not tried hard enough, has let others down, and is no longer worthy. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to know how to find one’s place in the world.

And yet… Here I am. I am not dead, for the moment my health is holding, and what else is there but to proceed, even though the forward thrust has become more like an awkward stagger than a graceful leap. It is confusing to know exactly how to move forward as a different, and let’s be honest, a less well-functioning assemblage than you once were. In the end, this poem is deeply about embodiment, about the fact that we cannot separate ourselves from our aging, sickening, failing bodies; and that in a way to try to do so would be a betrayal of “self.” There is no way we “move forward” on an earthly plane in the absence of our bodies. Cartesian dichotomies prove themselves to be limited and misleading. When the body is in pain, the mind is less acute. When the body “stumbles” with fatigue, one’s emotions are confused and unreliable. There is no meaning in trying to carry on as the person you once were. Yet the person you are now, or at least the person that I am now, recognizes that engagement is still called for.

For this reason, this is also a poem about acceptance, a declaration of being alive until I am dead, of readiness in the face of significant vulnerabilities and weaknesses. In Hebrew, “Hineini” means “Here I am.” It occurs several times in the Bible, in particular the sacrifice of Isaac on Mount Moriah and Moses’ encounter with the burning bush. The first example, although for many theologically problematic, certainly does raise the question of how we confront a trial. I do not regard illness as a divinely imposed test of faith, or character, or anything else, but it is a trial, and how we respond matters (if only to us, and the people who take care of us). Abraham responds “Hineini” three times in this context: once, when God summons him to the test; next, when Isaac calls out to him; and finally, when the angel stays his hand. In other words, Abraham is ready when God calls on him, he is ready when his son needs to be comforted, and he is ready to accept the joy of reprieve. All these kinds of readiness, or presence, were in my mind when I wrote this poem – the acceptance of being “hailed” by illness, in Arthur Frank’s terms; the realization that others whom I love are equally afraid of this path and need my support as much as I need theirs; and the ability to accept the grace of reprieve when it comes, not as another shot at perfection, but something to show up for fully nonetheless.

In the incident of the burning bush, Moses is a fugitive in the desert. He has just killed an Egyptian foreman and is fleeing for his life. When God’s voice speaks to him, he too replies “Hineini.” There are crucial moments of choice and decision in all our lives, whether to flee from our destinies (like Jonah) or embrace them (however reluctantly and doubtingly), like Moses. Like Moses, I might feel I have plenty of problems of my own and am in no shape to listen to what God wants of me. But I believe deeply that to turn away from connection with life and others is the wrong choice, at least for me. When God/life/the divine plan summons you in the here and now, if you are still here, you should accept – now.