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Saturday
Nov261994

The Embodiment of Us

[World, November 26, 1994]

"Hey, you got stuff all over your car!" the boy called out.

He staffs the gatehouse at the retirement home where my son waits tables. The stuff I had all over my car was large white daisies with sun-yellow centers, carefully painted on by hand. Yes, it draws attention.

It’s my daughter’s car, I explain, but she hasn’t learned to drive a stick-shift yet. While she tools around in my massive station wagon, I’m in her lumpy old sedan. When this car rolled off the assembly line ten years ago, Megan was in the first grade. It kept rolling for 114,000 miles until it crossed her path, and as soon as she caught it she scattered daisies all over its powdery dull-brown hide.

Driving a daisy car has its disadvantages. You have to remember to stop singing along with the radio before you get to the stoplight, because people are already staring at your car and wondering what kind of kook is behind that wheel. Animated imaginary conversations, one of the best pleasures of driving alone, must also be kept in check.

A daisy car doesn’t look entirely professional, either. When I went to interview a cultural leader at her home, I had to drive through a pricey suburb laden with gracious old homes of stone and clapboard. The further I drove into the neighborhood, the lower I sank in my seat. I ended up parking the silly chariot around the corner on a sidestreet.

Some people spend their lives feeling like they’re in a daisy car. They arrive at adulthood with bodies that don’t fit right, that embarrass or disappoint them. They wish they could park around the corner on a sidestreet and step out free, radiant in a form that better expressed the real person within. This body can’t be right; it’s not who I really am.

Sometimes these worries get verbalized; young females verbalize them almost endlessly. Half the conversations in a girls’ dorm involve fretting about a nose that’s too big or a bust that’s too small. Unsuspecting husbands assume the role of roomate/confessor with their wedding vows, ever afterward confronting The Dreaded Question, "Does this make me look fat?" (My distracted husband once blurted the following: "No, you’re not as fat as that makes you look. I mean…that doesn’t make you look as fat as you are. Oh, just tell me the right answer!")

Women fret about thickening figures, men about thinning hair. One of my college professors would part his just above one ear and pull a sheaf across the top of his pate. During the course of our seminars it would sometimes escape and float back over the top, there to see-saw gently up and down like a feathery brown wing.

My guess is that this man thought of his baldness as an absurd magnet for attention, like a daisy on a car (though it was nothing compared to that wing). Absurd and untrue: I’m hip and daring, not some old bald guy. Others hate their height or hair or hips, convinced that the image these project is an insult and a lie. We look at our disliked features from a distance, alienated and somewhat ashamed.

Yet we are not, in reality, so alienated. We aren’t merely dissatisfied passengers riding around in our bodies; we are our bodies. They embody us. In another bit of God’s hidden wisdom (mixed with humor, perhaps) we have been appointed these specific bodies to live with, to wrestle with all our earthly lives. Wherever we go, they are there too, announcing our presence before any words we speak.

We may focus on specific parts that displease us, imagining that we stand out among all the cars on the highway as the one with buckteeth. But in God’s plan the whole comes together, everything from the size of our fingernails to the texture of our voices. Our bodies are a good gift, and the parts that most vex our vanity are specially-appointed classrooms for humility. "The fact that we have bodies is the oldest joke there is," says C.S. Lewis.

The wearing away of our bodies is another gift, one that fits us for eternity. When St. Terese of Liseux, weakening with tuberculosis, first saw her handkerchief spattered red, she rejoiced; she read there the Holy Spirit’s promise that she was on her way home.

Most of us don’t go so dramatically, but gradually, day by day as age creeps on. Each strand of hair lost can teach a man to acknowledge his own foolishness; but each falling strand also whispers the impermanence of our bodies. God who ordered the bloom of our bodies in youth has also ordered their decline, the chronology in which each part will fail. Each loss is a rope cast off from a great ship as it is freed from the moorings; we are designed, after all, not for the harbor but for seas beyond the reach of mortal eye. And where we’re going, we won’t need hair.

But in God’s economy nothing is lost. Somehow these bodies will be ours again, but transformed in an unimaginable way; St. Paul says the old body is to the new as a seed is to a plant. Whatever we wear then will be so amazing and glorious that our earthly bodies, even in their finest prime, will be in comparison seedlike, hard and brown and (apparently) lifeless.

When this old car came into my daughter’s hands, it was winding up a long, glamorless life as errand car for an auto-body shop. In her hands it was reborn, resurrected, as a teenager’s first car, sprinkled with daisies. The God who makes seeds sprout into roses will do something comparatively wild with our own bodies. The car that was old and brown and lifeless has become something no one ever imagined it could be.

I stop singing just in time as I see the stoplight ahead go amber. Across the intersection three cars are lined up facing me, and I can see the drivers’ faces registering what-in-the-world-is-that. To cover, I flip down the visor and glance up as the mirror catches my eye. A bouquet of gray is blooming over my forehead, a little broader every day.

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