This past weekend, I saw something exquisitely expressed, over and over, as though the universe was patiently explaining it to me in as many ways as it could. Here, it said to me, notice this. You don’t get it yet? Ok, notice this.
By the time I lay, exhausted and filled to the brim on Sunday evening, I had finally seen it. It was bodies, magnificent in every way, thrust at me all weekend, telling me the story of all the forms reverence can take.
Friday, my younger daughter and her best friend spent much of the day in the process of building a three-layer chocolate cake for that friend’s birthday party. We had the job because one of the party guests for that evening had a severe nut allergy, an allergy so severe that no bakery nearby could be trusted to make a cake safe enough for her. Because I have a reputation for allergy-safe baking, the birthday girl’s mom trusted me to make the cake.
The two girls measured, mixed, and sprinkled. I called them away from their games at the crucial moments — to take the cakes from the oven, to mix the frosting, to settle the layers onto the plate and the piles of fluffy buttercream. Beaters and spatulas were licked by eager nine-year-old tongues.
In the end, a beautiful cake was ready for the birthday girl and her friend, a child who might otherwise have had to choose no cake or no party. Along the way, two other children learned to make a layer cake.
On Saturday night, my husband and I threw a dinner party. The guests were composed largely of couples roughly two decades older than us, members of a committee I chair at our synagogue, lovely people with kind hearts. As the evening’s conversation went from slightly shy to slightly-fueled-by-alcohol, the topic of dying one’s hair came up.
“I went grey in my thirties,” one gentleman at the table admitted, his brilliant white hair brushed carefully across his head. “I’ve never really minded.”
“Well, I’ve been coloring mine forever,” said a woman across the table. “I don’t even know what my natural hair would do, now.”
Another woman — the only one at the party besides me under 50 years old — admitted that she’d dyed her hair years ago, but then decided to stop. Her hair was slowly growing out of its coloring, and she liked it. “A friend laughed at me a couple of years ago and told me that I wasn’t Amish; I should color it again. I just ignored her.”
The conversation gradually moved to plastic surgery, which no one at the party seemed to have tried. There was the usual joking about people who could no longer smile or frown, and then I said, “Well, I wasn’t raised with the belief that growing older was beautiful, so I don’t know if I’ll be able to see it in myself — but I do know that I need to fake that acceptance for my daughters. Then they can grow up and believe it.”
“Oh, but growing older IS beautiful,” a glowing woman in her sixties told us from the far end of the table. “It’s such a release, to know that. You’ll see,” she said to me with a knowing smile.
I looked at my friends, the ones whose present — kids grown, careers arcing toward retirement, wisdom apparent on their faces — was in my future, and I hoped I would remember to say all of this in my own time.
Sunday morning, we woke early and shook the evening’s party from our eyes, pulled on our running shoes, and headed to a large field to join five thousand other people in the annual Ricky Byrdsong Memorial Race Against Hate. The first Race Against Hate was held sixteen years ago as a way to make sense of and provide solace after the murder of a Northwestern University basketball coach by a white supremacist. In the wake of the horror in Charleston last week, it felt especially important to many people to do something, but I had planned to do the race long before, as I had for the past three years.
As the race began, I stuck close to my older daughter and her nine-year old partner. The crowd was thick and moving at disparate speeds, chaotic as the first bit of any race always is. Ronni grasped the hand of her partner and said, over the noise of the crowd, “I am going to hold your hand anytime we pass anyone. Don’t let go!”
Her fierce protective nature made me proud and freed me to run my own race. I snapped a quick picture of the two of them, determined and connected, and made my way into the fray. Signs were taped to backs I passed:
IMMIGRANT LIVES MATTER.
BLACK LIVES MATTER.
I counted my steps and my breath meditatively, headphones on, not listening to people’s voices but to my own reactions to the use of bodies to advertise these sentiments, to carry these messages through 3.11 miles, surrounded by their community, racing against hate.
And then there were the families I passed — mothers and fathers walking with their children, hand-in-hand like Norman Rockwell paintings, off to the side, letting the runners move past. I breathed and stepped, stepped, stepped, my own children launched for the moment or held for the moment by others, giving me the space to see these parents attending to their own.
“We’re doing it!,” I heard one mother say to a girl who couldn’t have been more than six, reaching up to tap the sign that read MILE 1.
“Look at you go!,” a father called to his daughter, perhaps ten years old, as the girl flew ahead as fast as she could. When I caught up to that girl a block later, she was panting and walking as her father caught up.
At mile 2.5, I found the eight-year-old son of a friend of mine, stoically walking down the middle of the road like he owned it. I tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Hey, dude. You wanna run with me?”
Wordlessly, he joined me and began the sprint/walk/sprint/walk of the last child I’d watched. I waved goodbye after I saw that he seemed to prefer his solitude.
In the last quarter-mile, I saw a boy stumble and start walking. “No,” said his father, taking his upper arm and slowing to a jog. “I promise you’ll feel better if you jog to the end. I promise.”
I passed them too. All the humanity, all the raising up of bodies and the glory of finding one’s path against-hate — I felt it swell around me, warm and powerful and thick.
On Sunday afternoon, our local street fair included a performance stage on which my older daughter’s bellydance studio would be performing. Though I had not expected that my daughter would fall in love with bellydance, watching her brief performance in their annual “bellydance flashmob” is always a chance for me to fall in love with her all over again. It’s that bright smile, the way her eyes follow the lovely ways her hands move, the joy she puts into the movement that make the unorthodox choice all the more perfect.
And I was taken with her. But I left feeling even more fervently uplifted by the way her teacher moved.
In a solo dance, costumed and made up and altered from her everyday aesthetic of yoga pants and a tank top, she was transformed. Her eyes danced. Her arms, made of water and blowing sand, captured the late afternoon light behind her, and though she was undoubtedly bellydancing, I could not take my eyes off of her face.
She was uplifted by the way her body was moving. And so were all of us.
As I have worried, fussed, agonized, and endlessly struggled with how to care for, fix, and manage both my own body and the body of my medically complicated younger daughter, I have seldom honestly and openly received the messages from the universe about how other people treat bodies with love. All of the ways I’ve asked how to lavish attention on bodies in positive ways seem to end with a comical look in the mirror and a book of affirmations. However, there is this, too: feed with love. Relax into change. Carry and stretch. Move with ecstasy.
This is what I saw in the weekend of bodies: however many ways there are to break, there are ways we are unbroken. Message received.