The body is, well, Walt Whitman says it’s electric. He’s says a heck of a lot more than that, of course, not being prone to concision or thrift. He’s fairly rapturous.
Bodies aren’t something I think about particularly often. I take them for granted. My own. The bodies of those I love. Well, maybe not the boys, because there’s something about flesh of flesh that makes me want to eat them up. Especially baby flesh. As John is fond of saying, “I could eat you with a spoon.”
In “I Sing the Body Electric,” Whitman ecstatically registers the wonders of the body:
The voice, articulation, language, whispering, shouting aloud,
Food, drink, pulse, digestion, sweat, sleep, walking, swimming,
Poise on the hips, leaping, reclining, embracing, arm-curving and tightening,
The continual changes of the flex of the mouth, and around the eyes,
The skin, the sunburnt shade, freckles, hair,
The curious sympathy one feels when feeling with the hand the naked meat of the body,
The circling rivers the breath, and breathing it in and out,
The beauty of the waist, and thence of the hips, and thence downward to ward the knees,
The thin red jellies within you or within me, the bones and the marrow in the bones…
Ah, the thin red jellies. The bones and the marrow in the bones. No one writes like that and pulls it off. No one except Whitman. Yet even for all his cataloguing, I didn’t pick up on the gratitude until the last few lines. Looking back and reading again, I see that gratitude is the underlying force here. Gratitude is the possible. It fuels wonder.
The exquisite realization of health;
O I say these are not the parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul,
O I say now these are the soul!
Health is a transient state. You don’t realize you’ve got it until it’s gone. Between this January head cold, a weird eye and nose infection that still lingers with its strange blisters, hordes of yeast taking over my body, my family’s surrender to the flu, and the discovery that a small piece of my intestine is popping through a hole in my abdominal wall (thanks for that one Gabriel Keats), I wonder at the complexity of it all.
Health is not a simple thing. It is ephemeral and fleeting. The smallest of injuries or organisms throw the whole caboodle in disarray. And it can take months, even years, to right itself. I take my body for granted. I expect health and become angry when it fails me. Not unlike my response to any sort of failure, come to think of it.
But Whitman says the body is the soul. Abba Evagrius describes in graphic detail what happens when the body and soul become separated, drawing a correlation to the soul deprived of prayer:
As our body becomes dead and full of stench when the soul leaves it, so a soul in which prayer is not active is dead and stenches. That to be deprived of prayer should be counted worse than death is clearly shown us by Prophet Daniel, who was ready to die rather than be deprived of prayer at any hour. One should remember God more often than one breathes.
My friend at MichelleLouise wrote a post about gratitude (or lack thereof) that’s stuck with me all this week. In it she quotes Protopresbyter Gregory Petrov’s Akathist of Thanksgiving, sounding much like Whitman (I can almost hear him respond, “Alleluia!”):
How filled with sweetness are those whose thoughts dwell on Thee; how life-giving Thy holy Word. To speak with Thee is more soothing than anointing with oil; sweeter than the honeycomb. To pray to Thee lifts the spirit, refreshes the soul. Where Thou art not, there is only emptiness; hearts are smitten with sadness; nature, and life itself, become sorrowful; where Thou art, the soul is filled with abundance, and its song resounds like a torrent of life: Alleluia!
Can you hear that torrent of life? I can. It’s in Whitman’s poem and Fr. Petrov’s Akathist. It’s in the crazy exuberance of my sons, not unlike our dogs let loose in the snow. In my husband’s kind brown eyes. And I want it. I am weary of my own sadness and emptiness. Remembering God more often than I breathe might still be a ways off, but maybe if I just take a moment to breathe that breath will be the pause I need to turn away from my boiling temper and righteous self-pity. So I’ll take another. And another, which may remind me to ask for help. Lord have mercy.
And mercy’s what opens the door.