A finished sweater body, that is:
Of course, I also have a human body! I tend to be the sort of person who lives “in her head”, which has been especially difficult this week, because I’m home with my daughter all day every day, and the creative/thinker/planner/writer part of my mind, the part I most identify with as “me”, is basically throwing a tantrum from the frustration of feeling trapped by the constant demands for attention from a child who both switches gears so quickly that I can never keep up or settle in, and yet is also utterly incapable of switching gears on any timeline than her own. (Oh, the joys of parenting a child who’s differently wired!) It’s getting rather noisy in this brain of mine, and I’ve not had much of an outlet this week! (It’s taken…a lot of time and stolen moments of typing on my phone to actually write a blog post! I started it on Monday!)
But as much as I tend to live in my head, I also cannot forget that I am a person with a body. My body does not let me forget it. And lately I’ve been missing my old body – the body I had before autoimmune connective tissue disease and before bringing M into the world (recovering from 4th degree tearing is no joke, y’all!). It’s not about appearances – I barely look different these days than I did in college, even after having a baby…I’m the same size/shape, just perhaps a bit “softer” in a few places. It’s about what I could do, and how it felt to do those things. How freely I could move, the kind of reckless abandon I could have, deciding on a whim that I’d run an extra 5 miles or run all 22 flights of stairs up to my dorm room because I felt good and why not? Just moving and playing hard without a care.
When I watch things like the World Cup, I miss my old body so much. When I say I used to be an athlete, I mean it. I won my age group by over half an hour in the first marathon I ran, when I was 19. The older women on the informal team I ran with, back in college, were convinced I’d run in the Olympic Marathon Trials. I never got to find out if I could run a qualifying time: I ran a 10k, and then a half-marathon, in times that suggested that I absolutely could go sub-2:48 (which was the qualifying time back then; I don’t know what it is now), but then my health started to fail and it was a few more years before I found out why. But in any case, that’s where I was: winning my age group in every long race I ran, qualifying for Boston by half an hour (and running it twice, once with my dad!), maybe on a path towards the Trials, that sort of thing. An athlete.
Knitter, athlete, person with a disability.
And now, more than a decade later, I’m still strong and still very capable despite the nerve damage and disc damage I incurred in those intervening years. Most people don’t notice that I have a slight limp (my left leg just doesn’t respond quite as quickly as my right). I *never* don’t notice it; it doesn’t usually register as pain, but there’s a difference in sensation, always, and I’m compensating for it a lot (which I first noticed when doing walking meditation). But what I really struggle with now is the certain knowledge that it would be very easy to badly damage my body, and the fear that results from that knowledge. It’s the memory of how bad, how literally disabling the pain can be, too. When I imagine myself running around after a ball like those World Cup players, or running cross country, or doing long jump or hurdles, all these things I used to be able to do, I literally feel an ache in my lower back, the L5-S1 area, and I feel the twinge in my left leg down my sciatic nerve, and the wonky left shoulder blade, and my scar tissue from childbirth, and I think, no, I can’t move that way anymore. I’m probably not wrong about that, but I do wonder what a healthy balance is, and how to tell the difference between taking appropriate caution with an already-damaged and easy-to-injure body and limiting myself due to fear.
Because I do feel limited, and I don’t know which limits are the sort that are possible to push against, and which are the true, hard ones against which fighting is unproductive. I’ve found that I’m much happier when I accept that there are real limits to what my body can do now and don’t keep thrashing against them – I did a lot of damage to myself, both physically and mentally, in the years before I reached that acceptance. “Acceptance” is the mindfulness concept that was hardest for me, but is almost certainly the most useful one to me. But getting there was a hard-won battle. Most people, when they hear about an athlete who has fallen ill or become injured, expect to hear a “redemption” story – there’s this pervasive idea that a “real” athlete will fight towards a comeback at any cost, and it’s the comeback story that’s celebrated. But sometimes there is no “comeback”. There won’t be one in my story, and that’s hard for people to accept…and it was hard for me to accept, too. But the reality is that I have pretty nasty damage in my spine, and my immune system attacks the places where normal wear-and-year happens, instead of healing those places, and that’s a chronic thing. And by fighting that reality, I only made myself sicker and more injured. It was only when I accepted reality for what it was, and decided that the only way to be a happy, healthy, whole person was to stop trying to be a runner, that I was able to stop the cycle of escalating illness.
I’d rather be healthy, even though it means never being a runner again. But it’s always going to be a push and pull, and watching sporting events really pulls me back towards missing what I had. And it breaks my heart a little bit that even in my imagination, I have the bad disc, I have the draggy left leg, I have the wonky shoulder blade, the pelvic floor pain. I can never escape it, even in imagination. And then it becomes a kind of psychological block, when I try to imagine activity that *might* be possible.
I’ve been swimming some this summer, and that’s a great form of non-impact exercise for me, though it seems like I get migraines more than half of the time after a swim, and I’m trying to sort out what’s triggering them – the smell of chlorine? The pressure of goggles? The way I breathe while swimming? I should probably see a neurologist, because that’s starting to become a psychological block, too! The Adaptive Motion Trainer (AMT) machines at the Y are a great way to get non-impact exercise; they allow more freedom of motion than an elliptical machine. And I do a lot of walking, too, though I have to be careful not to overdo it; if I do, I end up kind of dragging my left leg, and in the past, that’s resulted in knee damage.
A decade ago at Rhinebeck, with my trusty cane
So that’s why I just can’t ever forget that I have a body. And of course, the recent spate of mass shootings has me thinking about how vulnerable we all are, how very fragile even the strongest body is when faced with tools designed to tear through us.
I’m thinking about how I have a body that is both that of an athlete and that of a person with invisible disabilities. And how while I would never wish the various traumas, injuries, and losses my body has experienced on any other person, it was the two things that most devastated my body – connective tissue disease and childbirth – that led to the most valuable transformation to my way of thinking: acceptance, and mindfulness practice more generally.
And yet even that is complicated. Because the other narrative we love in relation to disability, the one that’s not about the “comeback”, is to imagine that’s it’s actually a blessing, and this gets deployed in ways that can be shaming to those who talk about struggling, or ways that minimize the very real pain, trauma, and loss involved. I’m grateful for the way my mind was opened to acceptance and mindfulness more generally, but I also think there are ways to get there that don’t involve loss, and I don’t think we should ever expect people to feel grateful for loss, even if they’ve been able to learn and grow as a result of it, and are grateful for that learning and growth.
The triangle detail also highlights the part of my body that ended my running career
I’m thinking about bodies, too, because of the conversations about size-inclusivity in the knitting and sewing design worlds, and because I am the mother of a daughter who is already starting to hear harmful messages about bodies, especially women’s bodies, from the world around her, and even from friends her own age. She’s not even 8 years old! She, like me, seems to be growing into a body that’s lean and lanky and wiry…which is, according to most of the messaging we receive in our culture, the “best” kind of body to have. It’s so valued that even when I was at my very sickest in graduate school, and had dropped to under 100 pounds, I was getting compliments *from the nurses* when I was going in for various tests. That’s just completely messed up.
This kid. What messages is she getting about bodies?
So my daughter hears from me about taking good care of her body, and I’m careful to divorce talk about health (which we do) from value-laden talk about weight (which we don’t do), but I do wonder how much my counter-messaging will mean to her, coming from a body like mine. Will it sound like empty words?
It’s not that I’ve never been told awful things about my body. I mean, the messages I internalized about being flat-chested were truly damaging – I learned that if someone with my shape is sexually harassed, trying to tell someone about it will result in gaslighting…after all, how could I imagine that anyone would be interested in someone flat-chested like me? And shouldn’t I be grateful for the attention, since obviously girls with my shape don’t warrant it? It’s obvious to me now that those are just different flavors of sexual harassment, and that framing “harassment” in terms of “interest” is super problematic, but I really did internalize the idea that I wasn’t worthy even of harassment, and that I didn’t really “count” as a woman. BUT: I’m not ever going to need to worry about a knitting or sewing pattern not coming in my size – if anything, my size is often the default sample size, though I may need to adjust things like bust darts! I’m also not ever going to need to worry about my size rather than my health being the focus at a doctor’s office, or about being “policed” when I’m out enjoying a meal, and so on. It’s not that people don’t say cruel things about bodies like mine – we REALLY need to stop implying that women without a certain size of breasts or hips are not “real women”, for example – but nothing that is said to people with bodies the size and shape of mine holds a candle to what gets said to those in larger bodies, and whatever challenges I face because of the ways my body diverges from what’s expected of a woman’s body do not even compare to what women with larger bodies are faced with.
Goodness gracious, she’s getting tall!
I guess on this front I’m thinking about how I have a body that is simultaneously very privileged in my culture (being thin, white, and heck, I’m even blond) and also seen as unfeminine (because of the lack of curves), and how those things have shaped me. These days, I’m quite happy to have my not-very-curvy body, and it feels right to me; my body and my self-image basically agree, and that’s something I’m grateful for. But I also wonder about how I’ll cope with changes in my body that aren’t related to ability; what if someday the reason I’m missing my old body IS because of appearances? No matter what, my body won’t keep looking basically the same as it did in college; changes will surely come someday, if I live long enough, and I just hope I can face them with grace. I’m also thinking about what role my body, and the social position that bodies like mine occupy, might play in how my voice is heard, and who hears it. I especially think about this in relation to my daughter.
Anyway, these are all thoughts that have been banging around in my brain this summer! (And also, I finished a sweater body, yay!)
(And actually, by the time I actually hit “Publish”, who knows how much MORE sweater I’ll have knit?!)