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“How I have loved my physical life,” says old Pastor Ames in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. It is the kind of observation only an elderly person is likely to make. A young man thinks he will always be as strong and nimble as he is at that moment, and therefore he cannot fully reflect on how he loves his physical life.

I am 79 years old and can still say, using that present-perfect tense, “How I have loved my physical life.” Virtually all of it. (I have had just enough pain to make me relish the fact that I’m usually pain free.)

The great love of my youth was basketball. In high school I could never get my basketball shorts and shoes on quick enough before practices or games. Couldn’t wait to get out there. It was all fun — the wind sprints, the shooting drills, the scrimmages. And the driveway ball (or in the case of my cousin on the farm, corncrib ball), was sometimes better than the formal games with teams from other towns. Just a bunch of guys in shirts and skins on a slab of cement, leaping and sweating and laughing and shooting.

I played basketball until I was 58 years old. I had vowed as a youth to play till I died, but two bad knees forced me off the court. I was never able to dunk, but well into my forties I had wonderfully exhilarating dreams of dunking the ball — though, I suppose the dreams were part of my non-physical life.

Of course my physical life has involved much more than sports. One’s mind goes immediately to sex, but I won’t go there in this essay, except to say that sex, like the other physical things I am listing, is usually a combination of the physical and the psychological-emotional-spiritual.

Consider, instead, what a marvelous thing it is to do physical work when you are young. I remember the first time I stacked hay bales all day on the hayrack, the baler spitting them out faster than I could stack them, the sun beating down on me and the temperature in the 90’s. I felt so good about myself that day, I think I would (almost) have done it for no pay. Another day I lugged cowhides that had been stacked in salt in a rendering plant cellar all winter to a freight car about 20 yards away.

No physical activity throughout all of my 79 years has given me more joy than singing — the choirs and male choruses and quartets I sang in, and also the daily singing I do as I walk and sit and drive. I can’t begin to explain why I do it (it’s not like I decide to sing) or what it does to me, except to say that it does something good to me, nourishes me, restores my soul. And it is a physical thing, singing. It happens with breath and muscles (“Use your di-uh-frag-hum” my choir director used to say) and nasal passages and vocal cords.

It is true that my physical life has included physical pain — most of which I have not loved, though there is such a thing as good pain, just as, according to John Lewis, there’s “Good Trouble.” Think of good physical pain you may have experienced: the sting of a baseball in your mitt as you catch the line drive that ends the game; the cut on your finger as you remove the hook from a six-pound Northern Pike; the ache in your hand as you complete the final essay of your final exam.

But even bad pain may have some merit. The worst physical pain of my life probably occurred when I jumped out of a small boat as we were beaching it and landed with my bare foot on a broken pop bottle. I would not classify it as good pain, but it did remind me of how close we constantly live to the possibility of physical harm. Still, I go on blithely living my physical life, unconcerned and unaware.

Let me conclude with one last part of my physical life that I have loved. Food! I will not describe in any detail the home-grown tomatoes fresh from my garden or smoked ribs or cherry pie or the wonderful cheeses we have access to these days, or all the great recipes. Praise God for all those tasty physical foods that fuel not only our physical lives but also the mental, psychological, spiritual.

I could go on about my physical life, but instead, this brief confession: I have never liked the word “spiritual” very much.

In his long poem Paterson, William Carlos Williams says, “No ideas but in things.” Kind of what God must have thought when he created the earth. I have published a collection of poems called The God of Material Things; all of the poems in it are about physical stuff or use physical stuff to talk about the creation. I believe we need the physical to comprehend the spiritual — as Christ knew, I suppose, when he gave us water for baptism and the bread and wine of Holy Communion.

Almost every Sunday I confess that “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” But the mystery is what kind of body that will be. My friend Charlie, who was an engineering professor by profession and a philosopher by natural inclination, believed that on the New Earth, life would go on much like it does now but with much joy and no sorrow and frustration. He imagined heavenly carpenters and plumbers, teachers and computer programmers, farmers and merchants, poets and painters, all joyfully working in the Kingdom of God to the glory of his name.

I like that picture, but I don’t know if he gets it right or not. It will be interesting to discover what that next life will be like, but as I say, I am 79 and not particularly eager to find out right now.

David Schelhaas

David Schelhaas taught English at Dordt College. He is the author of a book on word histories called Angling in the English Stream, a memoir called The Tuning of the Heart, and three collections of poetry including his most recent collection Tongues that Dance. He lives in Sioux Center, Iowa.


  • Mark S. Hiskes says:

    What a gift this piece is, showing us how wonderful these old bodies we inhabit are. Thanks to you I will pay less attention today to stiffness and ache and more to the wonder and the beauty of life in the flesh. As with all your writing, you’ve inspired me not to miss it.

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    Oh, the joys of the flesh that you have pointed out so well! The blessings of taste, smell, sight, sound, touch, and everything that this physical body affords, even if not all for some. Thanks for reminding us to savor all for as long as we have breath.

  • Jack Ridl says:

    Thank you. Thank you from the whole of my physical heart.

    PS. I’m also not fond of the word “spiritual.”
    Ineffable sure.

  • Pam Adams says:

    Dave, Thanks for this essay and for including my great love, Charlie. I am sure he is measuring and cutting wood and making new wooden tables and chests and bookcases. I also imagine Charlie talking with great philosophers and engineers and theologians in heaven. That is the only way I can get my mind around his early death.

  • Glenda Buteyn says:

    I too am thankful for your physical presence in my life- my dear English teacher in high school. I am so glad that you are still enjoying life.

  • Daniel Bos says:

    I have been reading about brain science lately. It seems that the delight of experiencing the presence of God in some real way can be noticed, maybe even measured, in the synapses of our material brain. But then God also made neurons.
    Thank you for your reflections!

  • Sherwin Koopmans says:

    With some exceptions, we may be near clones–the physical labor as a Wisconsin farm boy, the basketball, for me still shooting buckets at age 80, and the singing, in choirs for much of my adult life.
    Really enjoying your writing!

  • John A Rozeboom says:

    Dear Dave, I liked your line about friend Charlie, “He imagined heavenly carpenters and plumbers, teachers and computer programmers, farmers and merchants, poets and painters, all joyfully working in the Kingdom of God.” Your list left out my onetime profession, preacher. Good. I believe my spouse, an excellent pianist and piano teacher, will have fulltime employment in New Earth/New Heaven where praise will take precedence, but I, the preacher will be mostly out of work. As a hedge against heavenly unemployment, I sing a lot and still (I’m the same age as you) play my trombone in worship and for my own amazement.
    Thanks for such a fine, wonderfully edifying piece, Dave. Old Friend John

  • Henry Baron says:

    Thank you, Dave! Though the physical at 88 “ain’t what it used to be,” not at 19 or 79, I appreciated being reminded of the many blessings of the physical that you recall and relish so joyfully.
    And what joys may await us when the old body becomes new again in the hereafter….

  • You always make such a delight out of life. Always good to remember the joys continuously available, making life a lot more fun.
    Thank you, old friend!

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