My body, a suitcase

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The body’s memory and affect. That’s the title of a talk, or at least the topic I must pursue for a paper I’m about to give at the next post grad seminar but I cannot get inspired beyond the basic, though if I try hard, I shall find something I’m sure.

When do I first remember an awareness of my body? Was it through the experience of pain? In my bed in Camberwell in the room I shared with two of my sisters. I could not sit up, much less walk. My body felt hot and cold simultaneously. For days I curled up in bed crawling out only occasionally to use the potty. I could not bear to go as far as the bathroom. In those days we had an outside toilet. The first time I could travel that far my head felt light. Is this what it’s like to be ill, I remember thinking, as though it had only just occurred to me.

For a long time I disregarded my body. It was merely a suitcase to me, the thing that I carried my insides in. My insides, my mind and my soul. My soul so close to my bottom worried me, how easily it could be stained by poo. It was hard to keep my soul and mind separate. I preferred my mind to my soul. It was higher in my body, perched atop, inside my head, behind my eyes. I could see out from my mind onto the world. I could hear from there, too, and taste and smell. All the good things happened at that level, only in the middle somewhere adjacent to my hands could I feel.

I felt things with my hands and occasionally marveled at the feel of my fingers on my skin. How would it feel if someone else were to touch me? Would I know it? The difference between two parts of me touching one another and one part of me being touched by another person or thing preoccupied me for hours.

My fingernails were a constant torment. I could not keep them clean. ‘Wash your hands before you do your needlework,’ Mother Mary John said. ‘This is a disgrace.’

How could it be, I wondered then that the dirt from my fingers should so easily spread to the pattern on my needlework? Sky blue cornflowers and red poppies with bright yellow and black stamens. We held the fabric firm with a circular frame the nuns had lent us. I kept my needlework in a paper bag. I did not enjoy the thought of sewing, only the process once I got started.

The nuns taught us to keep the thread at an optimal length, too short and you would be needing another thread too soon and your work on the back would be full of knots and finishings off. Too long and the thread would get tangled and knot up to the point it could no longer pass through the fine weave of the fabric.

My fingers pricked blood on the sharp point of the needle, faded brown spots appeared between the cornflowers.
‘You will need to ask your mother to wash this once it’s done,’ Mother Mary John said. ‘You can’t present it like this.’

Shame burned red around my ears. I write now as though I felt none of it. This was the way things were, but my insides blazed with shame whenever Mother Mary John looked my way. She dressed entirely in black, apart from the white band across her forehead. She smelled of mothballs and musk. She wore an apron, also black, over her long black dress and never seemed to attract a fleck of dirt.

It was then I decided that nuns did not have bodies. They were machines underneath. They did not eat, and because they did not eat, they never used a toilet. They gave off no signs of being human apart from their faces where their eyes, ears, noses and mouths suggested they could see smell and hear, and speak. The fact of their legs and arms suggested they could walk and carry things, but their thoughts were circumscribed to quotes from the bible and injunctions about what to do and what not to do. They did not sleep. They only taught and prayed. These inhuman creatures were my first teachers for the first fifteen years of my life. They terrified me. And taught me about the sanctity of the body as if preserved in aspic.

My father, on the other hand, taught me a different sense of my body.

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5 Comments on My body, a suitcase

  1. Dave King
    October 13, 2009 at 10:53 am (8 years ago)

    A fabulous piece of writing. I came to you from Jim's blog, and don't have time to mooch through your blog now, but shall come back to do so.

    Reply
  2. Dave King
    October 13, 2009 at 10:54 am (8 years ago)

    Ouch! I went to sign up as a follower and saw that I already had! What it is to be old – but at least it shows I'm consistent. I hope!

    Reply
  3. Elisabeth
    October 13, 2009 at 11:57 am (8 years ago)

    Thanks for signing on, Jim. I appreciate your comments. I, too, came to you via Jim.

    I started blogging in 2006, but have only started taking it more seriously this year, for all sorts of complicated reasons.
    I'm glad you enjoyed my writing. I worry that my postings are too long and autobiographical and with the occasional nudge in the direction of the academic, which I suspect many people are suspicious of.
    I love the democracy of the blog world, the freedom to experiment, even as I find myself quaking in my shoes every time I put in a post, for fear of offending someone, or worse still for fear of being totally ignored. To me there's nothing worse,.
    Jim has been wonderfully kind and helpful to me in this regard and I'm very grateful to him. He seems such a wise and unpretentious soul.

    Reply
  4. Jim Murdoch
    October 14, 2009 at 12:22 pm (8 years ago)

    I think your basic metaphor is very powerful. Again though you're straying into using your own life / body as a basis for discussion. Since this has made people uncomfortable in the past you might want to think about how far down that road you want to go. There are times I've changed the pronoun in a poem to distance myself from the subject matter; I wanted to present an everyman.

    I have never been very comfortable with my body. My wife says I'm handsome. I don't see it. But even when I was young I didn't see it. I'll admit to the fact my face has character but that's your lot. There is a scripture I remember from my childhood which describes the human frame as a leaky vessel (Google has let me down, I can't find chapter and verse) and I've always been acutely aware of the liquids I secrete, excrete, ejaculate, bleed or just plain cry without getting onto metaphorical 'leaking', thoughts pouring out of my mouth or onto scraps of paper.

    My body has always caused me pain. I developed asthma at an early ago and had a miserable childhood because of it but over the years it let me down in so many ways. I resent its demands on me, it wants food or sleep when it's not convenient, and if I insist on pushing it (which I have done and continue to do) it lets me know in no uncertain terms that it objects. I disagree with Descartes: I hurt therefore I am makes so much more sense to me.

    Glad you and Dave have made contact. I have a lot of time for our Dave.

    Reply
  5. Marshall-Stacks
    October 24, 2009 at 12:14 pm (8 years ago)

    'the body's memory and affect'

    my shins remember all those hockey balls of 40+ years ago – there are still lumps.
    Guitarists have calloused pickin' fingers, surfers have callouses on the top of their feet (from all the kneeling and paddling, our hair remembers what we ingest – it's well-proved that drugs taken, will show in hair analysis, RSI is a bodys memory of poor ergonomics – I suppose violinists and cellists need physio as much as dancers do – and ballerinas mis-shapen feet remember every strained step.

    the bodys memory of snuggly womb warmth is why we like slipping into a soft bed under a doona.

    Reply

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