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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.