Academic journal article The Southern Review

Holy Body

Academic journal article The Southern Review

Holy Body

Article excerpt

THE INSTRUCTIONS, framed on the sink, are more thorough and explicit than you expect. Use the tissues to empty your nose and the toilet to empty your bladder, they say. Use the shower to lather and rinse every limb and strand: ears, elbows, genitals, toes.

There are also supplies. Q-tips and cotton rounds. Toothpaste, a toothbrush, floss--a comb. There is nail polish remover to delacquer fingers and toes and cleanser to clear away makeup and a pumice stone to slough off dead skin from your heels. There is a dish for the items you're asked to remove: eyeglasses, wedding bands, dental plates, hearing aids.

There should be no physical barriers between the body and the living waters. You should be as naked as on the day of your birth.

There are also meditations. Seven of them.

Seven: the number of steps you will soon descend into the water. The figure represents wholeness and the creative process, according to the text framed on the sink: God--and this is a house of God--took six days to create the world, but made his work complete with the Sabbath, a day of rest. You are dubious of God but believe in completion and the creative process. You are, for example, writing a book you hope to finish.

Both physical and spiritual directives have the same aim: to cleanse and prime and hone your focus. The suite in which you stand has also been occupied by the dying and the barely survived. By the grieving. By the newly married and freshly divorced. By the abused and the barren. By those midtransformation and the transformed. By the reverent. By a woman who went blind in midlife--a fate you cannot fathom--and a paraplegic whose wife is expecting twins.

In the mikveh, every body is a sacred vessel.

You may hear echoes of these folks as you undress, see shadows behind the folds of the shower curtain, flashes in the mirror. You may wonder about the words they held in their mouths when they stood where you are. Try, though, to concentrate on your own words, on your own mouth. Heed the meditations.

1. HINENI. HERE I AM.

You are here because of Carrie.

You met Carrie nearly three decades ago, at age ten, at a Jewish sleepaway camp in the Berkshires. You would share a cabin for seven consecutive summers, fourteen months in all. But that first day, you knew no one save your older sister in a distant bunk. You and Carrie were in the camp's youngest unit: Bonim, Hebrew for "builders." For the first few days, you wondered what you would be asked to build.

It is hard to remember the order of things. Did you gravitate to each other because you looked alike, or did a friendship sprout from counselors pointing out a resemblance? Maybe looks had nothing to do with it. Maybe you made each other laugh. Or had a mutually satisfying stationery trade: your denim-print envelopes for her hot-pink ones. You do remember how, the following June, you told Carrie the story of your friend from home who'd been killed by a car in the intervening year. She remembers, too--how you showed her pictures, black-and-whites from a small album you kept under your pillow. That friend had been an identical twin. Did you want a twin, too? You and Carrie didn't look identical but you did have the same uncrimpably straight brown hair and dark eyes and pale skin and full cheeks. You were the same height. And your names--Carrie, Courtney--with their hard consonantal starts and openmouthed middles and merry ends, resembled each other when spoken quickly, which was the only way one spoke at camp.

One Friday night, you wore matching flowy, floral dresses and styled your hair the same way so you could screw with people in the dining hall. Nobody fell for your shtick, not really, but you liked thinking that they had. In fact, when you showed your husband a camp photo of the two of you from 1990, he thought, for a second, that preteen her was preteen you.

You and Carrie saw each other a handful of times after you outgrew camp. …

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