During this time of year I am especially aware of what it means to be embodied. As I meditate on the mystery and horror of a God who became flesh—with all the humiliation and pain it involved—I am ultimately brought back to its glory. Eventually, despite the flesh’s embarrassing weakness and, worse than that, its debilitating plainness, this time of year brings me close to the reality of the veiled beauty and utter mystery of the union between body and soul.
My ninety year old grandmother, who is frail and bedridden, asks me to cut her fingernails almost every time I go over to visit. She has been asking me to do this for her for close to eight years now, and I have to admit that my willingness has gone through many stages. It’s not always easy or pleasant to cut her nails. For many years, I almost dreaded the task. But recently, I have developed a new willingness, and even eagerness to do this for her. Her mind is often very distant, and as her conversation skills have diminished, it’s become harder to connect with her on an intellectual or emotional level. But there is something that remains in the simple act of physical touch. Something that I can’t identify or exploit, but remains constant nonetheless.
As I crouched next to her today, breathing with her, that constant came unbidden. Holding her papery hands in mine I felt the brush of her trembles, and my own body felt young and strong beside hers. The aroma of the room and the slow clip of the nails framed us. I was closer to her in that moment—her brittle nail clippings falling into my skirt—than I’ve been for a long time. We said nothing, and we needed nothing said. The reality of the body is that quite often, it is capable of bearing that communication even better than the words I might form, especially with a grandmother whom I love but don’t know how to talk to anymore.
So much of my world is intangible—speaking with my parents and siblings over the phone or by text, watching friends’ photos slide by, entering the virtual world of a movie. I forget how my physical self hungers for nearness until I am reunited with those I love most, and then I want only to be in their presence. Just to look at them and watch their lips move fills the lost part of me that I often set aside. I know there is no real magic encircling our physical bodies, but it feels like magic sometimes to listen to my mother’s heartbeat or touch the shiny softness of my cousins’ hair. To sit beside my brothers or beg a friend for a back massage.
I think often about the distance I place between myself and those I long to be near. I treat the distance like it is inconsequential, and content myself with the fact that I have the capacity to stay in touch over long distances. But it’s not the same. It’s the difference between the way it feels to watch a good movie and to move in a room full of actors who are listening. One is the best kind of voyeurism; the other is life itself.
I have not lived very long, but I’ve lived long enough now to know that God will take me wherever he wants, and my work is to find those close by, as well as far off, who will make up this winding adventure. The balance on my hands is not just one of work and pleasure or joy and grief, it is also one of body and soul, intellect and instinct. The longer I live and the more I long for the physical presence of those I am no longer near, the more I take comfort in the promise not just of soul but of body as well.
Because how could we be if not for the frail and embarrassing reality of this union? Only the divine could come up with something so simple and paradoxical. Connected by something as inconsequential as nail clippings—what grace is found in that.
More than once, over the past five months, I’ve stepped into my shower at 5:45am and said to myself, “Calm down. Take a breath. Be thankful.”
It was sometime in November—supposedly the hardest month of a new teacher’s year—that I began praying for strength just for the next moment. Not for the next day, or the next week, or to get me through until Christmas break—no. I found myself needing to make it bite-sized, in order to be able to swallow it. Strength just for the next moment.
And now I am here, on Christmas break, having survived the first semester, and I realize that I have been learning not just to focus on the next moment during difficult tasks, but also to focus on the next moment of joy. That, I have found, is even harder than the former.
I started realizing the necessity of this early in the semester. Overwhelmed by my students and all the tasks I had to complete, I found myself spending weekends with the anxiety of the coming week looming over me. It was difficult to enjoy my time off because I was worrying about when I would be back in school, anxious that I wasn’t prepared, even though I’d done my work. By October I knew it had to stop. I had to find a way to compartmentalize, or I would let anxiety overtake me.
So I started asking myself a simple question. How are you right now? I asked myself on a Saturday morning, sipping coffee. The answer was obvious: Pretty good. Warm, relaxed, content. Over the next months I continued asking myself that question, forcing myself to take the days moment by moment, focusing on either what I needed to do right then and there, or being thankful that nothing was required of me.
And then the question crept into more stressful moments. How are you right now? I’d ask myself as I got into the car to drive to school. The answer still came back the same: Pretty good. What was required of me in that moment was simply to drive to school, nothing else. How are you now? I’d ask myself on my lunch break at school—one of my most anxious times. Pretty good. Taking a much needed breath. And then, even, How are you now? as I stood before a classroom full of students. Pretty good. Keeping the students’ attention or not, having to discipline or praise them, the answer always came back the same. There was strength enough for every moment.
As I have an extended chance to catch my breath, during these two weeks, I am taking a deep dive into thankfulness as I remember what last Christmas was like. I had just graduated from my masters program, and I had absolutely no job prospects. Leaving to go back to NYC after Christmas took a whole different kind of courage, and I will always keep those cold winter months with me—months of waiting, and scraping by, and being poor and thankful. My thankfulness was at an inverse to the money in my pocket; the more God provided when it didn’t seem possible, the more I felt paper-thin in his abounding grace.
That prayer was answered, but the distinctive thing about God is that he doesn’t stop teaching, ever. He took me out of the frying pan of unemployment and cast me into the fire of this high pressure job. He bent me double in learning to trust his provision, and in the same year he has slowed my heart to the steady pace of moment-by-moment. And through it all, he is fixing my eyes on the promise of just enough strength for the next task.
It’s a lesson worth learning. Even when this job is over, and I move into something that is (hopefully) a little less intense, this way of living is life-giving. I don’t need strength for next year, or next week, or even the next hour. I am not there yet. I need it only for the next moment. I pray that as I enter this new year I will continue to move slow—my emotions and prayers washing through me—as I continue to learn how to calm down, take a breath, and be thankful.
This December marks the fifth anniversary of Carved to Adorn. In celebration of our blog, we've compiled a list of our favorite and most liked blog posts!
To Post of Not to Post: The Great Facebook Lie
On Confession, Predestination, and Living Inside the Question Mark
God With Us
Fear of the Label: Being a Christian and An Artist
Let's Talk About Sex
Cynicism: The Way to a Girl's Heart
Dear Middle Schoolers
The Unnaturalness of Goodbye
Mother's to Daughters: "I am Beautiful"
The Dangerous, Threatening Search for True Beauty in the World of Australian Ballroom Dancing
When I Fell in Love
Thoughts on Cinderella: What is Strength?
The Grief of Singleness, the Grief of Marriage
Returning: Prayer in the Face of Suffering
Let's Talk About Sex: Part 2
Heaven and My Female Body
The Five Year Question
More Thoughts on Calling
Pandora's Curiosity, Eve's Willfulness, and Spiritual Misunderstanding
A Long Obedience in the Same Direction
Eugene H. Peterson
The Devil in the White City
Peter A. Pitzele