By Rev. Anna Blaedel
My mom recently stumbled across a photograph that neither of us have any memory of. I am eleven, or twelve, or thirteen–somewhere in that age and stage of particular bodily awkwardness–and I am sitting in my dad’s lap. My dad and I are on my grandmother’s couch; my mom and I assume my grandmother took this photo. My dad is cradling me, his baby, me who is too big to be cradled, and yet still cradled. The photographer is watching him, her baby, holding me. My eyes are closed, and so are his. We seem to be asleep. We are at ease, at rest. My arms are draped against his belly, and knee. His hands are resting against my shoulder, my leg. It is a scene of safety. Of comfort. Of tender intimacy. Bodies being bodies, held together.
I have this photo sitting next to another one, also gifted by my mom. In this photo I am an infant, just barely sitting up on my own. I am dressed in overalls, outside in the grass. My fingers are reaching, touching the grass. My face is open in wonder, my mouth wide with delight. If you look carefully, you can see a thin line of drool hanging from my chin. I am outside, in the sunshine. My joy is tactile, and palpable.
I have been thinking a lot about bodies.
The bodies of those I love, and miss.
Bodies together, for better and worse.
Bodies in desperate need of food, oxygen, shelter, safety, care.
Bodies being policed, criminalized, surveilled.
Bodies ageing, aching, declining.
Bodies growing, learning, leaning in.
Bodies under occupation.
Bodies practicing freedom.
Bodies in need of tender touch.
Bodies in need of protective space.
Our bodies are whole worlds of intimacy and wonder, pleasure and pain, trauma and aliveness.
I recognize myself in the infant photo. I still feel this wonder-full joy when my bare skin is warmed in the sun, and my hands are touching something alive, and tactilely pleasing. When I see, and am seen by, someone I love dearly. When I am, as Mary Oliver writes, flung out and fallen down in the grass, idle and blessed.
But I would not have thought the photo with my dad was possible. Not because of him–I have the extraordinary gift of a father who has always loved me well–but because of me. I would not have thought it was possible, during that period of my life, to feel such contentment, connection, and ease in my flesh. I am so grateful for this glimpse of what was, offered back to me now, enlivening what is.
The one photo reminds me of what I know, deeply. The other invites me to know, otherwise.
A beloved recently reminded me that multiple things can be true at once. We can honor the ways we survive, and even thrive, while remembering that it never had to be this way.
In many ways, I spent the first half of my life hating and fearing my body, and the second half care-fully cultivating right relationship with my body. I’m still looking for language to honor these truths, language more generous and generative than the stagnant stigma of diagnoses, disorders, dysphoric, dysmorphic.
Any of us whose bodies have been under surveillance have our own version of this story. Bodies that are considered too dark, too queer, too big, too soft, too loud, too unruly, too needy.
I have worked very hard to find my way. Learning to listen to my body. Learning to honor my bodily needs, and savor my bodily desires, and tend these needs and desires in the always entangled relations with the needs and desires of the bodies around me, and the body of the Earth that holds us all.
We want to feel held, and we want to feel free.
We want to feel seen, and we want to feel safe.
For the last twenty months or so, I have felt lost in my body. A complex constellation of health issues leaves me unsure what is trustworthy, what is happening, what I need, what I can do, what I need to accept. I feel unsure how to listen, and honor, and savor, and tend. My immune system has a hard time discerning friend from foe, that which means me harm and that which is merely cohabiting. There is so much I still have to learn, and unlearn, about right relationship. There is so much we still have to learn, and unlearn, about right relationship.
I told a beloved that lately I’ve been feeling at war with my body, and how I hate that feeling, and how lost I feel in finding my way into right relationship. They told me about someone they know who said something about “collaborating with your body” and it made them cry, because they feel so far from that, and that made me cry, too, because far and lost can be such hard places to be, and also together offers its own collaborative, connective relief.
Bayo Akomolafe invites us to ask: “How do we get lost well?”
How can we be well, while we are lost?
How can we be well, by being lost?
How can we be lost, well?
I do not know. But I am am listening, in all the ways I know how.
And I know there is sacred wisdom in orienting to life, to aliveness, to the life forms around us, to what creative collaboration looks like and feels like and opens, even in the midst and mess of all that threatens our vulnerable and vital aliveness.
Last year, about this time, my niece would take me via Facetime out to her garden, and we would greet the plants together. “Good morning, baby kale! Good morning, snap peas! Good morning, basil!” Right relationship. Listening. Honoring. Savoring. Tending.
This year, I hear her voice echo in mine as I make my morning rounds, seeking out aliveness, orienting myself to the life that is, here and now.
Good morning, collards. Good morning, broccolini springing forth. Good morning, butterfly and bumblebee. Good morning cilantro, and sage, and thyme. Good morning, iris blooming from the bulbs gifted by friends. Good morning, sunflower seedlings, nibbled by bunnies. Good morning, peony buds, covered in big, black ants. Good morning, baby tomato plant, uprooted overnight by deer. Good morning, tender lettuce and chard. Good morning chives, miraculously resurrecting after the long winter.
Today, my prayer–for me, and you, and us–is that aliveness finds us, greets us. That there be moments of wide open joy, and gently held rest. That we find and feel and attune to collaboration and care, wherever we are, whoever we are, however we are, no matter how lost.
May it be so.
Rev. Anna Blaedel is theologian-in-residence at enfleshed. They bring an attentiveness to the intersections of academic, activist, and ecclesial engagement. Anna nourishes students through campus ministry for the University of Iowa Wesley Center and is enrolled in a PhD program in Theological and Philosophical Studies at Drew University’s Graduate Division.