Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Foreign Bodies

Our bodies are so foreign to us. We implicitly assume we are in control, yet behind the curtain of our skin, we have no idea what’s going on backstage. Blood circulates, the heart beats, the pancreas excretes, all without our conscious input. There is a wonderful morning prayer, one of the few really focused on the body, which speaks to me when I marvel at these inner workings:

Praised are You, Adonai our God, Cosmic Maker who with wisdom fashioned the human body, creating openings, arteries, glands and organs, marvelous in structure, intricate in design. Should but one of them, by being blocked or opened, fail to function, it would be impossible to exist. Praised are You, Adonai, healer of all flesh who sustains our bodies in wondrous ways.

This prayer is often said over going to the bathroom—that the openings should be open and the closings closed—which of course elicits a chuckle but is no doubt apt! Micah wanted once to use this as a study text with families of young children to talk about the subject of potty training, which is all about gaining that awareness of the closings and the openings.

But I think this prayer gets massively short shrift, as does attention to the body in general in Judaism in many ways. I appropriated it when I was preparing for childbirth, after I was shocked to discover that there are no traditional prayers or blessings for the act of childbirth itself. “There’s a blessing for sitting on the can and no blessing for giving birth?!” I asked mentor and friend, Rabbi Eddie Feinstein, and his first reply was “Yeah, the rabbis were scared to death of female generative power and they stayed as far away from it as they could!” On further reflection, though, he had this to offer: many Hebrew blessings remind us to see everyday appearances and actions through the lens of the holy: a blessing on seeing a rainbow, or a tree in bloom, blessings to set the Sabbath apart from the other days of the week. But childbirth is so cataclysmic, so flush with creation and the fear of mortality, so extreme, that it need no blessing to have one recognize the uniqueness of the experience.

Indeed, in that birth room, my body had never felt more foreign, surging forward with this capacity I never knew I had. At one point I was asked not to push, and I said (or rather screamed, I’m quite sure): “I’m not controlling this; it’s pushing through me!” Forces had taken over and I was only the vessel; I had surrendered to the fact that I was only a vehicle through which creation was happening. When Micah caught Nathan, he lifted him to my chest and immediately burst into the Shechehianyu. Yes, it was a cataclysmic experience, but we needed to bless it, nonetheless.

Later in life I discovered other physical capacities I didn’t know I had. I began a fitness program with a personal trainer. Though I was active, I had never been one to work out regularly, and I had considered myself a person of the mind, never an athlete—going back to at least elementary school, when I couldn’t run as fast as the other kids, or join much in team sports. I’d rather have been reading. But at 37, after a second child, my body was in need of a revamp. Starting to work with a trainer who was truly adept at zeroing in on my strengths and weaknesses and would constantly keep things fresh as we pushed the challenges ever further was a revelation. Within months, my body was completely different. But much more significant than that, I realized that I was able to do things that I had never imagined possible. After putting myself in the non-athletic box for so many years, I discovered that I was strong, really strong, and flexible, really flexible, and that I could make huge strides in my cardio ability over time. I started running—running! The thing I had always hated most. I learned to box, and impressed the hell out of my kids. I found I could deadlift 165 lbs. In short, the psychological transformation went much deeper than merely the physical one. We have immense reserves and abilities that we don’t even know we have, until we tap them and start to see how deep they go.

The irony, of course, is that 2011 was the year that I was more fit than I had ever been in my life—and the year I was diagnosed with breast cancer. And beyond that first palpable lump, everything else about this disease is invisible. You feel fine, just the way you felt yesterday, last month, ready for a run or a day out with your kids. And again you realize how little we can know about the inner workings of our own bodies, how foreign they remain. Without any symptoms, I must rely on scans, images, blood tests to report on the progress of this insidious colonization—if it’s gone or not, there or not. You start to realize just how strange a disease cancer is when you try to explain it to a four year old: “Well, you can’t see it, and you can’t feel it, and you can’t catch it from anyone; it doesn’t come from germs or give you a runny nose….” But at the same time as this odd sense of the surreal, I have this feeling of strength, this sense that just as before I gave birth and before I pushed myself to get in shape, until I was confronted with disease, I don’t know what I am capable of. And in that, I don’t just mean reserves of the body, but reserves of the soul. When health is simply assumed and unquestioned, there are capacities of the soul one hasn’t even begun to plumb.

That is why when I read the blessing for the body in the morning service, I also focus a long time on the prayer for the gift of the soul: Elohai neshama shenatata bi, t’horah hi. The soul which you God have placed in me is pure. This line in Hebrew is about the length of one intake and exhalation of breath, and I use it often to calm me, to remind me that I am not this disease, there are parts of me it simply cannot touch. The body may remain mysterious, but the soul is knowable, its depths plumbed with focus and intention, and thank goodness, without the need for an MRI.


  1. From shacharit and Exodus 15:3:
    יהוה איש מלחמה יהוה שמו׃

    I always think of God (or the God in us) kicking cancer's butt... Shabbat Shalom and happy birthday - Katherine Hollander

  2. Beautifully written in so many ways, for so many reasons. xo -Erika