The Body Electric

Dancing with my sister – Thanksgiving, 1976. Age 25.

For the second time in a few months, modern technology has allowed me to look back in time, to really see what was, instead of just remembering. These fuzzy still photos are actually snapshots of old movies that I was able to have digitized from old Super 8 and VHS tapes. Seeing me and my family in motion, listening to our voices, is quite different from simply looking at a picture. The energy of who we were then is still palpable to me. While sifting through the images, my thoughts turned to Walt Whitman’s poem, “I Sing the Body Electric,” first published in 1855. I read his famous collection “Leaves of Grass” ages ago but this one stuck in my head. The first stanza goes like this:

“I sing the body electric, The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them, They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them, And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the soul.”

I danced so much with my sister and my mom that I was never quite as comfortable with anyone else.

I don’t know if Whitman knew anything about the actual science underlying his idea of “the body electric.” EKGs that measure the strength and timing of electrical signals which pass through the heart were still decades from being invented. But it’s common knowledge that electricity is everywhere, conducted into our bodies through air, water and earth. There’s that feeing of static electricity, a sudden, fleeting unexpected shock. I still remember describing my first lobsided kiss from Michael, a moment that initiated an electric sensation in my body. I still feel electric currents as they mysteriously shift through my body. When I’m working in my garden, hands covered in dirt, teasing roots apart before I snuggle them into what I hope will be the best place for them to thrive, I experience tingly feelings that fall into some category between throbs and endorphins. I feel connected to an undercurrent. Like when you touch a wire or a machine and there’s a subtle hum under your fingers. Outside when I’m digging or weeding, listening to music as I work, I frequently feel like the combined energy of Michael and me that we poured into our yard, is filtering its way right back into me, through my feet and my hands. So peculiar but also comforting and perfect. We learned in school that the law of conservation of energy is that it can’t be created or destroyed, but rather converted into another form. I don’t pretend to understand how all that works but I know what I feel. The mysteries of life.

Sitting with my niece, my uncle and my cousin at our family dinner.

That Thanksgiving in 1976 was the first one I spent as a married woman, but I sent Michael off to spend the holiday with his parents while I stayed with my family. We’d been together for over four and a half years but our wedding was took place that May. I was really annoyed with the lack of intimacy and traditions in his family of origin so I staked out my independence by insisting on enjoying what was always a favorite holiday in my comfort zone, with my people. Eventually we wound up hosting our Thanksgiving dinners with my family and our friends for the rest of our lives together.

Back in those days, I always felt uncomfortable around his parents who thought I was too fat. When I look at these photos it’s hard to believe the dissonance between what I felt and what was real. I never experienced the dreadful negative effects of dysmorphia like anorexia or bulimia back then but I certainly struggled. I writhed internally and rarely talked about my negative feelings to anyone. But I remember and can still feel myself in that psychological stress. All these years later and I still vibrate with that version of me.

Talking with my young nieces.
Listening to dad

I can clearly remember my dad giving me advice on how to become an economically sensible person during that November afternoon. I listened to him as earnestly as I could, all the while thinking that I wished we’d had these conversations years earlier. I’m afraid that my cavalier spending habits were pretty socked in by that time in my life. Talk about feeling the electrical currents humming below the surface. My issues as a twenty-five year old became my lifelong companions. Over time, I’ve just gotten better at managing myself and forgiving myself for my imperfections. The connecting threads of all that mental energy still exist, both in “the then”and “the now.”

Dad and me.

My grandmother had already been a widow for seven years in 1976. Of course we didn’t know at the time that she only had five Thanksgivings left in her life. In 1981, Thanksgiving was held at my house, which was the first and only time she came to see me in my home. My daughter had been born in August and I was eager to step up to the fully adult role of host for the favorite family gathering. Because I lived in a community much smaller than Chicago, when visiting my hometown, grandma thought she might be going back in time. She asked me if people still got around in horses and buggies where I lived. I was mightily amused. I also vividly remember her telling me that she never slept. When I tiptoed into our parlor on Thanksgiving morning, there she was on our sleeper couch, head thrown back, snoring peacefully. I feel that moment in my body as I write.

My sister with her boyfriend – they married in 1980.

The 1976 Thanksgiving took place at my brother’s house. But everyone also visited at my parents’ apartment during those days. My male cousin and my uncle, both integral parts of my childhood, are long since dead, as are my brother, my parents and my grandmother. My sister, my female cousin and I are now in mid to later life, still connected to each other as well as everyone long gone. The pink housedress my grandmother is wearing in the photo is one of the few physical items I have from her. In perfect condition, it hangs on a hook in my bedroom where I can always see it. Aside from an old table cloth, the only other parts left of her are the sounds of her voice, the smell of her cooking and the hallway in her apartment building, and the feel of her kisses on my neck, a combination of a caress and her inhaling the scent of me. Still vibrant in my mind and body.

My cousin
My closest uncle, my mom’s youngest brother.
My cousin and my eldest niece
My brother and my grandmother.
My mom, clowning around with grandma.

And then, fast forward to a different time, the camera out of my brother’s hands, instead in Michael’s. We are in 1989, a chaotic year for us in which he was elected alderman in our city while wrestling with a herniated disk which eventually required surgery. And both my parents, who’d moved to our town three years earlier, now diagnosed with their individual cancers within five weeks of each other. During those years between 1976 and 1989, we’d had gotten ready to start our family and now had our kids, seven and two years plus, the kids we were really prepared to parent. These photos capture their personalities, our daughter already showing her attitude and our son his concentration, his tongue always sticking out while he was focusing on whatever was before him. I feel the electric hum here too, the presence of love and acute awareness, captured and preserved.

Our son, ready for his adventure.
Out comes that tongue.
The energy of our daughter.

And suddenly we were moving toward the end of my father’s life. Through these photos I can feel Michael’s deliberate attempt to freeze these moments for the future. The look on my mom’s face, the face of the survivor. My kids at my parents’ place, knowing they were in a solemn time but not really sure of what was happening. My dad, resigned, sad and trying to stay connected to his grandchildren, knowing that time was getting away from him. He was never a really demonstrative person, the quiet person in the family. He was present but also wanting to flee into his bitter premature fate. I can sense all that, all those feelings, deep in my bones.

Mom, a few months after her breast cancer.
Our daughter and son
Dad with our daughter.
Dad and our son.
The family at our house about a month and a half before dad’s death.
Our daughter
Our son wearing my dad’s sunglasses.

In this last photo, I can feel Michael’s love for me, making sure he caught this exchange between me and my dad, as I tried my best to keep dad in the moment, both for him and for me. These are powerful images that are somehow still kinetic, conveying so much charged emotion. I use the word charge deliberately to continue the emphasis on “the body electric,” perhaps even more aptly, the electric energy field that surrounds everyone, whether we know it or not.

In many Native American cultures there is an emphasis on the interconnected relationship between nature, the earth, and all creatures, living and nonliving, to the great soul of the universe. I can’t say with certainty that I know anything of that magnitude to be true or not. But like the filaments in a lightbulb which enable its incandescence, I feel the pull of forces which tether me to sensations beyond accurate description but which nonetheless are powerful and visceral. I’m quite comforted by them. I don’t expect to ever fully understand how things work but for me, the awareness of my body electric is a good thing in a world so challenging and often dark. I hope some of my ties through time, distance and even death, keep helping me stay illuminated in the worst of times. I am still energetically flowing along.

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