Early this morning, the whine of power tools and scrape of nails against the contractors’ crowbars chafe against my brain, interrupting my cherished solitary coffee ritual.
We are putting a whole new roof on our old 1916 era house. It’s a costly, uninspiring project, one that we’ve avoided for way too long. Last fall when we were just back home from Europe, we’d noticed water stains on the ceiling and there was a leak at Christmas. We placed a huge metal mixing bowl on the kitchen couch and listened ruefully to the delicate plink plink plink of brown water during a bad storm.
And now it’s been two months of having our privacy invaded and strangers picking over every bone in the skeleton of the wooden structure. Three separate work crews have been ringing the door bell and asking me questions about pipes deep in the bowels of the thick plaster walls, pipes that I didn’t even know existed, among other things.
The roofers at work above my head remind me of bees hovering around their queen, crawling all over the top of the crenelated honeycomb that is our home. Biting off decrepit bits, patching in new layers and realigning the new pitch.
I finally decided to tape up paper over the windows downstairs for privacy and yet I still feel exposed. After my shower, with only a bath towel wrapped tightly around me, I skit from room to room, checking that the shades are drawn. Obviously, the roof is privy to everything.
A roof is essential. And building a new one is a big commitment. If not for the family who lives in it, then to the next family who will buy it. Because having a reliable roof is a tacit act of goodwill, a shake of the hand that says the home has integrity.
Like the foundation and the wall joists and all the rest, it is the protective boundary around our inner family life. Where we feel safe to be ourselves, where we strive to be authentic, the place that really matters most.
For me with my family it’s where I’ve wanted to be seen at my best, at my most loving, most forgiving and accepting. Maybe even a place where I’ve wanted to believe we could transcend time.
In a way our bodies are like our old houses. Crafted of bone and muscle, nerve and brain tissue, our bodies are scaffolds that house the systems that make up our entire beings.
Like homes, our bodies act as containers for every single experience, every emotion, every trauma and joy and fear and sadness.
But these days I see my body as less rigid than a roof, it’s more malleable. Shaped both from the outside elements and from within, it needs to breathe and expand.
The fascia of sinew that knits us together, around and between all of our organs and systems are surprisingly strong but have to be able to stretch and flex. And over time, like fascia, we take on the shape and nuance of all that we experience.
At 53, I nurse a chronically stiff shoulder that involuntarily lifts like an injured bird’s wing, it’s a subtle pattern of holding that makes me scrunch up one shoulder into the base of my neck.
My massage therapist told me that there might be a connection between that tension knot and some kind of trapped energy in my neck. So I run and walk and do yoga, and even try special exercises to unbend the knot and open up that tight space.
But what she finally suggested was that maybe I should try to release the energy in my head (brain!) to attempt to free up my thoracic region, the area around my thorax where my voice box is situated.
I get it, but it feels a little bit scary to open up that particular space right now.
The other day I was killing time at the mall and made the mistake of going in to a Talbot’s store. This was a problem because Talbot’s is where my mom bought all of her clothes and where she and I would often shop together.
When I walked in I had an immediate disorienting feeling like she was there in the store, somehow poking out from the racks of pink and green paisley cotton knits. Like an involuntary response I sensed her next to me, nudging me to look at something.
And then I stood in the checkout line and there was a petite older woman right in front of me, so close I could have reached out to hold her. She was clutching her daughter’s arm protectively. And I saw my mother’s little body in this stranger, in her small but strong back, it was shaped just like Mom’s. Just then I wanted her to be my mom.
Of course I started to cry. No one saw me, but it hurt so much. It hurt because there was no container for my pain. I didn’t think I could text my daughter, I felt too raw. My husband was out-of-town.
I just looked around the store and through my tears I saw the past and the future so clearly. I had this deep knowing that it was always going to be this way. That my container would fill up at random moments and I wouldn’t be able to hold it.
I cried, I left the store. And I clung to that pain all day. I’m still feeling the ragged edges of it.
And last night I woke up and I lay in bed thinking: maybe this pain, if I let it run through my whole body, maybe it will actually take me to the other side. Maybe it might, by some strange route, take me closer, not further, to Mom.
Maybe it wasn’t like physical pain and agony that might ravage and crest and keep senselessly raging.
Maybe it was more like labor contractions. And if I could just ride through each one, I would get to something really good, really worth it, at the end.
Maybe the pain was actually love, love overflowing the container.
And then I thought of Talbot’s and I realized that I didn’t want those container moments to ever go away.
We live in a world distrustful of true emotion and in awe of reason and control. And for the most part this serves us well in the practical realities of everyday life.But our emotions inform our reason. Our bodies are the messengers to the brain.
I know this because when my heart is loaded with hurt and anger it can’t open. It gets stuck in the self protective cage that I’ve built around it. My brain isn’t as reliable, it often gets stuck replaying an out-of-date story that’s unable to adjust to the heart’s storyline.
And a lifetime of pain can often be back-logged in the body, and the mind will pretty much always convince it to stay there. Because it’s safe and settled there, like huddling beneath the protection of a roof even when the shingles might be rotting or falling off.
And the familiar yet shadowy places where we store the hurt is the perfect climate for doubt and shame to grow. And maybe to speak our hurt, to acknowledge our shame is a way to be seen, a pathway towards seeing our way out when we need to.
And kind of like my decaying old Southern house, this body of mine needs protection, yes. But it also needs a window loosened and propped open to the summer air. It needs to breathe.
My bones need the sunshine in the dusting up of yellow pollen on the wooden table, the streak of golden light across the pine boards under my bare feet. For the scent of jasmine from the front porch, stretching me towards these longer days of summer.
I feel each of these things deeply, these blowsy whispers that share a story of reveal and conceal, bloom and rot. The story of my body and yours.
Our moments are like the soft, creamy magnolias that I put in the vase that only last for a day before they are rusty-brown with mildew. At first cut their scent is so intoxicating, but eventually becomes funeral-like, overblown and cloying.
But this is the season of letting our pale prickly legs out to be exposed to the sunshine. And it is also a time of sorting out and cleaning and pitching things onto the bonfire pit.
Even though the old stuff is never completely gone and just moves on to someplace else, it will be reshaped, remodeled into a new story for another day.
But for today, as the old ache in my shoulder starts its trek up my neck like the sherpa climbing the mountain with a pack, it feels like the same old death march hauling the same old sadness and hurt.
And isn’t it?
But instead of scrunching up, I stop myself from tightening the shoulder and I try to open my chest and breathe deeply, in and out. I try to just let the words and thoughtful feelings take that ride, slowly and carefully up each vertebrae. I try to relax my jaw and throat and release the necklace of shame circling my collarbone.
And I ask myself if I am brave enough to let go of my old story of pain and blame. I ask my body if I can scrape open my rusty throat, loosen the constricted area and allow for some extra space. An opening to let things in, to share, to remember my mother, to write.
Some entirely new story but also one that’s been there all along just waiting to be cobbled together. Waiting for me to scuff up the courage to breathe it in, to really feel the edges.
To risk the hurt and pain beneath this solid roof of mine, within this wise old middle-aged body, so I can aspire to use every inch of the space I’ve been given.
My body the container, my breath the messenger. Of love and pain, one inhale at a time, it’s what each of us have, for here, for now.
All images: Ivan Meštrović Gallery, Split, Croatia 2013