Gratitude: A Thought Project
When I look at this photo, I can feel it.
I feel the warm sun on my skin. I feel my puppy, who often looks and acts like a small bear cub, pressed up against me. His fur fluffs between my fingers; his soft belly rises and falls with each breath as he playfully squirms and makes muffled grunts and growls in my ear. I feel my thighs, touching where they did not before. I feel my waist, expanding farther in my waistband than it did the previous summer.
I have heard many women express gratitude for their aging bodies because their changes represent their accomplishments. Stretch marks from the children they have borne. Extra rolls of skin and fat brought on by bearing and caring for their little ones. Wrinkles from all they have felt and expressed. Freckles from laughter in the sun. Sore joints from years of diligent work.
It is this same recognition of what shapes our external selves that brought on such distaste for my own changes.
Mine was a body that had recently been shaped by despair. Muscles weakened by the days I could not find a reason to get out of bed. Extra pounds gained from the weeks that I only had strength for one activity per day. If I remembered to eat, it was whatever could be obtained the quickest. My face, which I had become certain would show the cheerful squint of crow’s feet in the coming seasons of my life, was now fleshed out without a laugh line in sight. For long draughts my insides did not stir enough for happiness to reach my face.
A new set of people entered my life, and for reasons I may never understand their actions suggested they would have prefered to have never met me. They painted some horrid unfamiliar image and labeled it with my name. I stood bewildered. It seemed the harder I tried to connect with them, the tighter they clung to this image and the harsher they scolded me for it. I was met too often with cold glances. Repetitive rejection. Whispers of gossip that followed me in the streets and confronted me in places I did not expect from people I hardly knew. But heaviest of all was that daunting knowledge that each sin of those who had targeted me would be placed on my own head. I was the subject of blame for their every turmoil. Each hurt feeling or elaborated offense. Even when I paid no notice of them, and mustered the strength to go about cheerfully with my life, there was always that impending text or that next conversation, where our lives would again be interrupted so my husband could be informed of the depravity of the wife he had chosen. Things as simple as shopping, grabbing coffee with a friend, attending or not attending a party, were marked as bitterness I did not posses, vengeance I had no desire for or pettiness I did not wish to serve but was thrown on me nonetheless. There was nowhere I could go to be free.
On several occasions I found myself consoled to the point of tears when any random acquaintance would do something as simple as taking an extra moment to ask me about my day or invite me to an event. I remember hastily brushing away the joy. Since the cold bite of judgement is what had harmed me in the first place, I was afraid to be vulnerable enough to let anyone see how deeply their warmth affected me. My soul had been bullied for too long. It had slowly been beaten into one aching bruise.
I had never been warned that loving someone could provoke such persistent punishment. Maybe someday I will ask my children that, when they have chosen someone to pledge their devotion.
“Do you love them enough to stand by them even when they make decisions that are unpopular?”
“Do you love them enough to be blamed for choices that were not your own?”
“Do you love them enough to be hated?”
I hope they will be like their mother, in that, when their time is right, they will say yes and mean it.
And I hope, for their sake, that they will not be like their mother, in that the hatred cast on them will not cause them to wither.
Because for me, the hatred was too heavy. Whoever I had known myself to be before seemed to have disappeared. I could not find her. I was some tired husk of myself.
When I would mention my physical changes: clothes fitting differently, simple exercises no longer being achievable, etc. my family would insist I did not look that different at all. And in a sense they were right. A little extra fat here. A little less muscle there. That was all that could be identified externally. But to me, those small changes were unmistakable because they were the result of belittlement, discouragement and a newfound hopelessness.
Our bodies are always, in some way, a representation of our stories and our experiences, and as summer dawned and the heat coaxed my winter clothes back into the closet, I could not hide from my own weary body anymore. Denying the hatred of self that tempted me at every turn, I chose to explore all my body could experience and find gratitude in each touch.
Slowly, I gained courage.
I am grateful for this body. Its transformation, which to me was once a sign of my weakness, is now an indicator of my persistence.
It is a body that still feels the cold rush of water across its surface with each dive into the cold waters of my home state.
It is a body that rows canoes and balances on paddle boards and wrestles with the little bear cub in my arms when he has too much energy to play on his own.
It is the body that hugs my friends and hikes through forests. That walks with head held high down mainstreet even when I have been told all too many times that I ought to be ashamed.
It is the body that makes my husband feel at home. The body that holds in it the hope of every future touch and sensation this life will bring.
It is a body that is weaker than it was one year ago, but houses a soul that is so much stronger.