A Moment for Reflection

  • Issue 120 / November - December 2017



    On Bodies

    Justin Pahl

    1.

    Having a body is a strange thing – stranger, still, when you think about how rarely we consider our bodies and what goes on inside of them. When was the last time you stopped while taking the stairs two at a time and thought, How remarkable? When did you last give thanks for ease with which you sunk into a chair, or slung a bag over your shoulder? Like with many things, we tend to appreciate our bodies only when they break – forgetting, of course, that life itself is one long, gradual breaking.

    On a cold, crisp, sun-kissed day last January, I went with two friends into the mountains outside my home, in Juneau, Alaska. The past week had brought rain in the city valley but snow up in the mountains – perfect conditions for skiing. Many of Juneau’s residents live for such weather: they suffer through long, mild winters when no snow falls just for these brief, glorious periods when the weather cooperates and the slopes are draped in soft, untouched powder.

    Having grown up on the flatlands of the Midwest, skiing was still a curiosity to me. I’d only been a half dozen times – most recently on the gentle, eroded hills of the Poconos, in Central Pennsylvania. My knees still wobble when I pick up too much speed; my life still flashes before my eyes. But the speed is exhilarating. I love the way my eyes water in the cold, and the wind rushes over my ears.

    I was excited to finally ski in Alaska, too. And throughout the morning, my excitement was justified. I picked my way down the mountain, falling occasionally, but generally avoiding disaster. By noon, I was ready to join my friends for some more difficult runs.

    It was on one of these runs that my body broke – not seriously, mind you, but enough to recalibrate how I look at myself in the mirror; how casually I treat things like climbing the stairs or putting my shoes on.

    We were going down a steep slope, part black diamond and part blue square. I negotiated the toughest part of the hill when I felt a slight twinge in my left knee. Wanting to avoid injury, I decided to put most of the pressure on my right leg. Unfortunately, the slope ahead called for turning hard on my left edge. I hesitated, picked up too much speed, and with trees looming ahead, panicked: the edge of my right ski dug into the snow and my body hurtled forward once, twice, three times.

    Skis are designed to break away when you fall – designed to protect the body. Mine, for some reason, did not break away, and as I tumbled forward, I felt my knee twist and then snap. When I finally came to a rest, covered in snow, I reacted the way knee injuries are portrayed in the movies: by grabbing my right knee and writhing in agony. I knew, immediately, that I’d torn something.

    A few days later – after a kindly older gentleman had hitched me to a sled and gracefully skied me down to the lodge; after a visit to my doctor; after two agonizing days of being unable to take off my own shoes – my certainty was confirmed: I’d partially torn my right MCL.

    In the grand scheme of things, this was a minor injury. It would heal completely with rest and minor rehabilitation. Within two months, I’d be able to ride a bike again; I could run within three. By next winter, I’d be able to ski again. In fact, people in Juneau shrugged their shoulders when they learned about my injury. Most of them greeted me with stories about the first time they’d blown out their knees. Tearing a knee ligament while skiing, it seemed, was a Juneau rite of passage.

    Still: the injury changed how I looked at the world, how I felt about my body. I’ve always been a runner, but I’ve often hated the act of running. Now, barely able to walk, I yearned to spring a few hundred yards. I’d often grown impatient about the five flights of stairs leading up to my and my wife’s apartment, but after the injury, I found myself dreaming about climbing the stairs just for fun. Even simple, silly things seemed like gifts: for two weeks, all I wanted was to be well enough to put my own shoes on.

    Slowly, of course, my knee did heal, just as the doctor promised. The pain lessened. Soon, I could put my own shoes on; shortly after that, I could start taking stairs one at a time. Two months later, I did indeed get back on a bike – and two weeks after that, I found I could take stairs two at a time again.

    But I find myself stopping, from time to time, in the midst of seemingly trivial activities. While bolting up the stairs, I’ll catch myself thinking, How cool is this? While jumping effortlessly out of bed in the morning, I’ll break into a big smile. I’m reminded of a lesson that I too often forget – that from suffering and pain, there is often grace to be gained.


    2.

    We exist on a body, though I suspect we rarely think of the Earth as one. But if you look closely enough, you’ll be reminded of the similarities between us and our planet. A river delta from above looks a lot like the veins branching off on the insides of our wrists; the bones of the hand resemble the foothills of a mountain range.

    It goes without saying that we take this large body for granted, maybe more than we take our own for granted. Not only are we in the process of destroying it, but those of us who are horrified by this have been mostly petrified by a sense of hopelessness: what can one person do against the overwhelming tide of climate change, the oil companies, a stupid, cruel ruler, a populace largely more concerned with carnal desires than the health of the planet, and against my own wants for pleasure and ease?

    Some people, of course, haven’t yet given into despair. Leonardo DiCaprio has the privilege and the resources to make a documentary (though he also owns a half dozen homes and jets around the world); Michael Mann, the brilliant Penn State professor, wades into the hostile maw of Congress and stands firm for reason and moderation. But many of us, I think, have accepted that catastrophic climate change is inevitable.

    Not my nephew, though. He’s six years old and a kindergartener in Appleton, Wisconsin. The other day, he decided that he wanted to help out mother earth. So with his father – my brother – he got two trash bags and a flashlight, and he went out and picked up trash until the bags were full. A small gesture, no doubt, but one that he was proud to have done. And it made me think about how many of us could do the same thing with our evenings, but instead choose to moan about the state of the world on Twitter, or update our Instagram photos, or binge the newest Netflix show. Climate change is inevitable, so we may as well enjoy what time we have left, right?

    But maybe we’re just not seeing the Earth – our collective body – with clear eyes. Maybe we’ve gotten too used to this body; we’ve gotten too comfortable to protect it. I don’t want to make too big of a deal out of what my nephew did. Kids picking up trash won’t get rid of the oil companies, won’t make rulers more compassionate, and won’t help people understand basic science. But he still looks at our planet with clear eyes. He still sees it as a wondrous thing – as a body and a gift. And he still believes that this tired, wearied body we call home is worth fighting for.

    It’s a lesson that the wearied among us – our own bodies continuing their gradual slide into entropy – would do well to remember.

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