|An excerpt from One Hundred Birds Taught Me to Fly, by Ashley Mae Hoiland. Available here.|
One humid summer afternoon, Remy got to missing his dad, who was in Japan doing fieldwork. After searching around the house, I found him in the backyard sitting on a rock and crying tears that were so sincere and alone that I immediately cried right along with him—out of both empathy and also a sense of joy that he, after a mere five years on this earth, was able to feel so deeply for someone else.
Because I was crying, I was short on words, but I carried him inside to an overstuffed chair and let his little heaving body fill in every space on my stomach and chest. We stayed there for a long time without speaking while he calmed—he seemed to want to melt right into me until any hurt he felt was gone.
I had already been thinking a lot about bodies and the spirit, but that moment brought new clarity to my abstract ideas and tentative conclusions. My body is home to my children. I lie between my children each night while they fall asleep, and they reach out in the dark and stroke my face or reach for my hand. It’s like the reaffirmation of both their place in the world and their place in a larger plan, as they run their tiny hands across the familiar and tangible landscape of my body. My body for them is a manifestation of home, and home is what the spirit has always felt like for me.
There have been times in my life, more than I’d like to admit, that I’ve spent copious amounts of thought and energy trying to rearrange the home of my body. Roughly pushing furniture around with dissatisfaction, barging in with the latest trend, sitting at the window wishing my home was anything other than what it was. I think, like many, I’ve been harsh to my body, spoken unkindly to and about it.
In high school and college, I quickly learned that what my body looked like was actually important; my social survival felt like it depended on it in a culture where dating and marriage felt directly equated with self-worth. My body didn’t always live up to my expectations though, or often to those of others, and I found myself fighting a banal war hoping for my body to be something other than what it was—read: skinnier.
Watching Thea move through the world with almost comical confidence has shifted my paradigm. Since she has been around, I slowly, one step and one day at a time, began reclaiming confidence in my body. I feel fierce in protecting her confidence, and I’ve learned in order to do that I have to protect my own. I’ve learned that in order to be an efficacious woman with any sort of spiritual power, I first have to love my body.
I want to love the place that is home to my spirit and home to my children. As I held my crying son, his head pressed up against the place where my heart beats, his legs wrapped around a belly I at one time despised for not being flatter, I felt a communion consecrated by the peace I’ve found with my body. I stopped worrying about remaking it into the perfect arrangement.
It is not just the maternal characteristics that make my body an important and vital spiritual vessel, though. The bodies of my friends who don’t have children have been places of respite for my children and me, again and again. It is also not just the feminine that makes a body home. I still remember the feel of Carl’s hand in mine when I was in labor—his touch kept me grounded to the earth, his body my peaceful home for that time. I watch my children run into the arms of my friends or nestle into their laps to read a book. They find serenity in the safe place of another’s body.
As a kid and teenager, the phrase “the body is a temple” did not resonate with me because the real temples I knew felt so stark and ordered and white. When I stop and listen to my body, it is wild like a meadow or a secret mountain lake. It is not stark—it is not slight. It is full with the curves of my grandmothers and great-grandmothers. It is full with life and thousands of experiences worth remembering. For so long, it didn’t quite fit the model I assumed it needed to in order to be beautiful or valuable. The idea of trying to make it a temple felt abstract, and it felt so far from where I was.
But now, a temple to me just means home. Temple means a place of rest from the world. Temple means fullness and complexity, a hope for better things along with acceptance, even if things do not get better than they are now. That day with my crying son, for the first time in maybe ever—initially for my children and then for me—I recognized this body of mine as a temple.