Bodily Tyranny

It made sense to me, laying there in the dark at two in the morning, after I remembered that moment in the kitchen, a few hours before, when he’d casually mentioned that he’d mixed his regular coffee into my leftover decaf.  I’d been just finishing up a reheated mug of it while cooking our dinner.  “Oh well,” I thought, “it’s just half-caff, shouldn’t affect me too badly.”

After prayers I went to bed because I should, not because of any tiredness gathering in my eyes.  I picked one of the five books on my nightstand, The Boys in the Boat, and started reading.  Since it’s a rowing book, and I rowed for six years, I thought it was the tense racing narratives that had me so alert.  My heart pounded as I read of the final sprints in the Olympic qualifying races; I could feel that pain and my lungs tightened in empathy, my legs stretching taut under the sheets.

Hours were passing, but I kept reading.  I was waiting for my body to signal me to sleep; any pinching around the eyes, any blurring of letters, any yawning.  None came.  And then I remembered what he’d told me as I deglazed the pan the sausages had been browning in. Half caff.

Then one toddler woke up, then the baby, who decided that he was also going to feel inexplicably chipper in the wee hours.  There were some hours of rest, maybe two of them, before the baby awoke at six.  All the tiredness the half caff had repressed had all piled up and settled on me like a ton of bricks.

Henri 153

This picture was taken after laboring throughout the night and day and finally holding my dear Henrik.  I remember trying to smile but finding that I had only semi-smile-twitches left in my facial muscles.  My eyes felt like they were being pulled shut by invisible cords.  I was so full of joy and wonder and exhaustion.

I am still there.  At four in the morning I stroked my baby’s curly hair, even as my body screamed for rest.  I slogged my way into the boys’ room to comfort one who had cried out from a bad dream.  Parenthood has a way of subjugating the tyranny of the body’s wants and sometimes its needs; suspending them indefinitely, but it covers that insult to bodily comfort with sweetness and baby breath and the way a child sighs with joy when they are safe within our arms.

It is eleven thirty, and I’ve had my cup of decaf coffee (though I was greatly tempted to suppress my tiredness with the regular stuff), and have accomplished nothing except feeding my boys and monitoring their playful destruction of the house.  Oh, and writing this, of course.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Lent.  It’s a far way off yet, but last year I participated in it in an introductory way, my priest encouraged me to fast Wednesdays and Fridays, since I would be doing so without my family.  Orthodox Christians fast from meat, dairy, eggs, olive oil, and wine for the 40+ days of Lent, and I was amazed at how hard this diet was for me just two days a week!  No cream for my coffee nor butter for my toast.  No eggs.  And that was just breakfast!

My body wanted what it wanted, and it wasn’t used to being told “no”.  My body craved fat and protein; I missed cheese.  But like getting up in the middle of the night to comfort a child, it was time to tell the body no, and attend to the growth of things that don’t thrive in times of satiation and comfort; self control, humility, discipline, and meekness.  And the amazing joy and bright celebration of the feast at the end, Pascha, a wild frolic of meat and cheese and eggs and laughter; was only so sweet because of the bitterness that went before.

It’s like in rowing, when you’re halfway through a regatta and all you want to do, really, is die.  Just die and make the pain searing through your muscles stop.  But you keep slicing those oars into the heavy water, keep pounding the burning muscles in your legs, back, stomach, shoulders, and arms, in lung-crushing repetition.  You do it for the sweetness, at the end when the crowd is roaring and the air horn heralds your finish and you can flop over your oar handles and dry heave, so glad to have stopped, just stopped that torturous pain.  And when your legs and arms work again, to stroke back to the docks, to a pat on the back from your coach and medal around your neck and a hug from your double.

The sweetness, the prize, the thing that makes the “no” worth it; it calls us out of the plush arms of daily comfort and ease.  It calls us to be more than the collection of demands of our bodies and spirits.  But there has to be a prize, there has to be a yes at the end of no; whether it is a comforted baby, a medal, a feast, or a deep-seated sense that something wrong has been set right, and let us press forward to attain it.

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