If anything is sacred, the human body is sacred. Walt Whitman
And your very flesh shall be a great poem. Walt Whitman
The challenge is not be perfect. It is to be whole. Jane Fonda
I want God to play in my bloodstream the way sunlight amuses itself on the water. Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love
My father created a playpen, a glorious gigantic playpen that wrapped around the white pines and spruce trees and had a floor of pine needles and tree roots and was as big as the world to us, the two younger siblings. My little brother was a baby the summer my parents built the cottage at Fish House Cove and I was three-and-a-half and it made sense to find a way to keep us from toddling down to the beach and into the sea that swept its shore. But, we never felt penned in in our pen of pine needles and dirt. Quite the opposite. The beach rose up to meet us in our handmade sandbox. And the ocean — we could fly over its horizon like the grandest of flying ships on our sturdy swing that hung from one of the trees. And I knew that the sparkle on that blue summer sea and the silver shimmer of light on the needles of the pine and the rich smell of earth beneath our feet was sacred, that God lived in the trees and in the sea and in the firmly-packed rooted soil. I knew it then, as a little girl, even before I had the words for it, and I knew, too, that I also was alive with God. How could I not be filled with something so wonderful when I could feel it, the thrum of it, as I clutched hold of the thick rope and pushed off in a mighty thrust and pumped my little girl legs in and out and breathed in the smell of the sea and swung and swung and swung? Yes, I knew it, at age three, knew it before I knew I knew it, that my body shimmered with that sea-sparkle too, that my body, like the sea and the trees and the earth and the sky, was also a sacred temple for the divine.
And that little girl, the one who swung out over the horizon and climbed up to the crook in the sprawling pine and dug holes in the earth all the way to China, has stayed with me over the years, has reminded me that this body, my body, is humming, drumming, thrumming with sea-sparkling glory glory hallelujah God-giving life. And it is when I embrace her, this part of me, this tangled-haired pre-schooler with the knobby knees and the bountiful spirit, that I most remember that indeed this is a divine temple I’m inhabiting. I feel it, the holiness of body, when i’m writing and the words are flowing and the energy behind the words is pushing them forward through this body home of mine and out onto the page. I feel it when I stretch, a long full-bodied stretch in yoga, and then pause and allow the flood of energy to soak in deeper. I feel it when I push off in great skating strides and ski on freshly-groomed trails through crisp cold winter woods. I feel it when I float on my back in the ocean and the salt holds me up and the sky is wide and blue and the summer-warm day is stretched out before me. I feel it when I hike up a dusty trail out west and the world smells of sage and sun, and those magnificent mountains beckon me toward them. I feel it when I snuggle close with a child and smell the goodness and a torrent of love pours through me. I feel it often, and when I do, when I relax into it and allow the floodgates to open and the divine to enter, I see it, the way I saw it when I was a little girl, that the whole world, this world of matter, of bone and flesh and earth and sky, this whole world is lit up with the sacred and i am a part of its whirling dance. It is a good feeling to remember that I am a part of it all.
I can’t say I’m always there, in the good feeling. Sometimes, I’m uptight or worried and the floodgate of divine energy doesn’t stand a chance of flowing through a barrier like that. Sometimes, I’m on overdrive and forget my body is a temple at all. And sometimes, I turn in the opposite direction, become compulsive about keeping this body temple of mine neat and tidy and perfect. And what temple can thrive when it is expected to be neat and tidy and perfect? And what does that even mean? I skinned my knees in our gigantic playpen by the sea. And the blackberry bushes that slithered their way through the playpen fence scratched my legs and pine pitch stuck to my hands and my face was often dirty and I didn’t care. The little girl in me still doesn’t care. The little girl in me welcomes the wild and the unwieldily, the scratches and the bruises. The little girl in me is not interested in perfection. She reminds me that we are all whole and holy, that our bodies are perfectly imperfectly perfect vessels just as they are. She reminds me, too, of a poem I read many years ago, a poem by a poet from the Northwest, David Wagonner, a poem about another American poet, Walt Whitman. She reminds me that I loved this poem, “Walt Whitman Bathing”, this snapshot view of Whitman, not the young Walt Whitman exalting the world around him and within him in his collection, Leaves of Grass, but instead a Walt Whitman whose body has suffered a stroke and is old and withered and moves more slowly as he finds his way to the river to bathe.
And it’s not the poignancy of an old man, in an old man’s body, shuffling down to the river on stroke-inflicted legs that touched me most as I read this poem all those years ago — my little girl reminds me of that now. It was the way that he stripped down to nakedness, dipped his aging body into the river, felt the life force of water flowing against him and the God energy flowing through him. It was the way that he loved the river and the sunlight and his body with the same attention and vigor that he did in his youth. It was the way that he pulled himself out of the stream and dried himself off with a holy reverence, the way that he danced in the sunlight on those shuffling legs — that is what I loved in Wagoner’s poem. Walt Whitman embraced a body that was new in the moment, a body that he was getting to know again, one that could dance on shuffling feet. I thank the little girl in me for the reminder of this poem that I love. And I thank her for her constant presence, thank her for the way she loves this body home that is a temple, that is new in every moment, and for the way she lets loose in a dance whenever I allow it.