On the body as a sacred space
By Carol Fischbach
LATELY, WHEN THERE IS nothing else to hold my random attention deficits, I wonder how many gnats I’ve inadvertently eaten. How many flying insects have entered the space between my lips because they were out of my line of vision, hovering below my chin. One day, when I was brushing my teeth, a fly bounced off the mirror and headed to my mouth, but I clamped my jaw shut just in time to deny him, then cursed his presence in my bathroom.
I hate flies.
In Catholic grade school my friend Barbara told me that one summer at a family barbecue, her mother was eating watermelon when a fly buzzed into her mouth and before she knew it, she swallowed him whole. Ever since then, I’ve been vigilant about flies. They are dirty and evil and poop on your food. I’m terrified that one of those despicable creatures might find a portal through which to enter the sacred space of my body. Years later, when Barbara told me that her mother had developed breast cancer, I knew it was because of that fly.
GETTING TO A PLACE where I considered my body a sacred space was difficult after being raised Catholic and having an angry, depressed mother. Mostly, I just knew that I didn’t want to swallow a fly.
At home I learned that doors were closed when body parts might be exposed, and women’s bodies stayed hidden under floral cotton housedresses. My mom and dad avoided each other. Never touched. I can imagine my mother swaddling me in shame while she slapped my toddler hands away from my private parts. When I was eleven, she called me a whore before I knew what that was.
I grew up in the 1950s, when parochial schools subtly implemented their curriculum of Catholic shame. No one talked about sex. Except on the playground. In whispers. There was a ban on patent leather shoes. Nuns swathed themselves in black robes and us in hideous uniforms.
“I was in sixth grade the day Sister Mary Du Jour warned us that she was going to give us a word that might alarm us, but we had to be strong.”
Somehow, I knew that touching myself was off limits unless I was swatting a fly, scratching a mosquito bite, or rubbing a sore shoulder. A body was something to keep covered by outfits you wore to school or church or work; otherwise, until you needed it to procreate, it was to stay hidden in a bottom drawer.
The Church says that masturbation is a mortal sin. Same as using the word fuck.
I was in the sixth grade the day Sister Mary Du Jour warned us that she was going to give us a word that might alarm us, but we had to be strong. “I am going to write a word on the board that you must never say out loud,” she said. “It is a mortal sin to say this word and you will go directly to Hell if you ever use it.”
When the Church said mortal sin, what they really meant was infinite, eternal damnation. Fire. Burning, blistered skin. Forever. No way around it. The nun’s black robes swung in an arc when she turned her back to us and faced the blackboard. White chalk on slate gray, in perfect Catholic cursive, Sister wrote the word fuck.
I swore to myself that I would never use that word. Not ever. Even if I didn’t know what the fuck it meant. I was intent on doing everything in my power to go to heaven. It didn’t take much, because Catholics were always first in line at the gate. That’s what the nuns told us. I’d look at my two Lutheran classmates and pity them. Just to make sure I had all my bases covered, I repeated a mantra in my head, one that Sister Mary Theresa taught us in fifth grade.
Jesus Mary Joseph loves me.
Jesus Mary Joseph loves me.
The nuns told us that you had to bow your head every time you said “Jesus.” So I did. It seemed a small price to pay to keep my busy mind off my stomach aches, my loneliness, and my hypervigilance toward everyone around me so I could keep them happy. My repetitive silent chant of salvation.
I wonder if anyone thought I was having seizures or early-onset Parkinson’s disease. I religiously bobbed my head every few seconds until the day my mother asked, “Why do you keep nodding your head?”
Exposed, I lied, “I don’t know.”
And I stopped. I couldn’t say the words without the bobbing. After confession, ten rosaries, and an hour of kneeling in the pew, I was absolved of lying to my mother.
I had to be a good girl.
I vowed I would never say fuck. I would never touch my body in my private places. God was always watching and if they saw me commit a sin, Jesus, Mary, Joseph would no longer love me. Any of them.
Unlike the word fuck, the nuns never mentioned masturbation, much less that it was a mortal sin. In high school I heard about its side effects: hairy palms, blindness, cancer, insanity. The Catholic Church Resource Center website says, “If a person is masturbating and knows fully that it is wrong, and does it willingly without doing anything to resist, then he or she is guilty of grave sin.”
My fingers, which had once religiously clutched a rosary, were very willing to instinctively follow the smooth skin of my belly down to my vulva, tease my clitoris, drive into my vagina. My hand was an innocent accomplice with an innate natural inclination to sin. Touching myself felt good and I didn’t want to stop. But masturbation, like the word fuck, was a mortal sin. How could something that felt so good condemn a soul to an eternity of hell? Eventually, I had to stop believing in heaven and hell for my own redemption. I left behind the accoutrements of Catholicism. The final break was when, instead of having mass, two Sundays in a row Father Lynch insisted we watch a movie on tithing. Apparently, with just ten percent of your gross paycheck you could buy your way out of the mortal sin of missing your Sunday obligation.
AT EIGHTEEN YEARS OLD, I left Jesus behind in the collection basket, along with the hypocrisy of so many Christians. There are some things that can’t be made right no matter how often you go to confession or how many hours you spend on your knees saying the rosary. If I was going to be a rebel, I wasn’t going to do it in the name of Christ. After years of chasing shame with drinking and drugs, I got sober and began to seek spirituality in nature and synchronicities in the universe and sacredness in souls that are hidden inside bodies that are different from my own.
I still try to avoid the most avid Christians, but occasionally, I run into one.
“I probably shouldn’t eat spicy chicken tortilla soup. I just had chemotherapy today,” a woman next to me said at the New Seasons soup bar. She ladled soup into a paper cup to have a taste.
I had noticed her when we both made a bee-line to the soups and nearly collided. I liked her jacket. I’ve always been into clothes because I am my favorite thing to embellish, particularly as I journey into cronehood with sagging breasts, wrinkled belly, and lopsided labia.
This slightly plump woman was wearing a tan, wool jacket with geometric designs spattered in light brown against gray, with a pink ribbon fastened to the left lapel. A bluish, pinkish, purplish nondescript-patterned hat covered her bald head and did not match her coat. It “blended.” I noticed this because my belly generally feels more at ease when my world is orderly and matches precisely. But, then again, I adore rebels who like to “blend” and think of them as artists. “Oh, my gosh,” I said, not wanting to startle her with What the fuck? Chemo! “Why do you need chemo?” the nurse in me blurted.
Words poured from her mouth, her tongue too busy to notice she hadn’t yet tasted the soup still held in her hand. “I have breast cancer. A particularly bad one. Triple X,” she said. No pauses, tears, or complexities. Just words without inflection.
“Wow,” I responded. I touched her arm. Told her I was a nurse. My curiosity and concern were quaking, ready to burst. I wanted to know all about her. Her life. Her disease. I wanted to know how it felt to be a receptacle for cancerous growths that invaded the sacred space of a body without its knowledge or consent. A killer disease that stayed hidden under stylish coats.
I wondered if she’d ever eaten a fly.
She told me her name was Debbie. She told me about Triple X breast cancer. About her husband. About her sisters, who had each battled breast cancer. They’d had less lethal forms of the disease; ductal carcinoma and lobular carcinoma. She told me how they both survived but that she might not; the odds were against her. I wondered if she and her sisters laughed together. Prayed together. Or if the nurturing power of their woman-ness could heal her.
“I found Jesus when I was young, and I know He is with me through this,” she told me. “With Jesus, the support of my sisters, and my wonderful husband, I’m hoping to make it through.”
She didn’t once bob her head.
I wanted to tell her that I would send healing Reiki energy her way, that there were probably lessons hidden in her disease and I hoped she would find them, but because she was so strongly Christian, I decided to use Jesus-speak.
“I will send prayers and blessings your way.”
“Thank you,” she said. She tasted the soup without comment, threw the cup into a waste basket, then abruptly turned and walked away.
I left the soup bar without tasting anything. I hoped Jesus would heal her.
Afterwards, I picked out one of several scarves hanging on hooks near the vitamin aisle. It was an infinity scarf that had pinks and turquoises in it—colors I normally don’t wear. I put it in my cart and thought about wearing it with a pink turtleneck. I wondered if I had one hidden in one of my bottom drawers.
Carol Fischbach is a writer who believes passionately in coming of age, no matter how long it takes. With a BA in Communications, she began nursing school at age sixty-two and graduated with her BSN at age sixty-five. She took a one year break before beginning her MFA in creative nonfiction at EOU. Her works have been published in Nailed Magazine, Oregon East, and Tide Pools Literary Arts Magazine.