Bathing.

Balanced on one leg, I run water into a plastic tub in the bath. I splash some gentle liquid soap into the tub, and then sit on a chair next to the bath to spray some of the same soap through my hair before I comb it and tie it back up in a plait.

I turn the tap off, test the warmth of the water in the plastic tub, and carefully take my clothes off, easing my heavy moon boot through the leg hole of my underwear, and laying the clothes over the bath, within arm’s reach.

It has been nearly two weeks since I was hit by a car while riding home on my bicycle.

The accident dislocated and broke my ankle badly enough that when I was first admitted to hospital, high on pain medication from the ambulance ride, all the medical staff winced at it, and I have since been reminded of its severity many times by doctors and radiographers and nurses and surgeons. My ankle is now full of metal plates and screws.

I sit on the chair next to the bath and use a wash cloth to wipe the warm soapy water over my skin. I am not yet strong enough to lower myself in and out of the bath without help, and we’re still figuring out how best to put the chair in the shower so that I can reach my crutches and get my moon boot on and off without putting any weight on the broken ankle.

Tenderness has been the quiet surprise for me in the wake of this accident.

It hasn’t surprised me so much from others. My man and my parents and my friends have all responded to this with great tenderness and care, and I am forever grateful for this.

What has surprised me, though, is my own tenderness towards myself.

It started as I sat on the road in the immediate aftermath of the accident, shocked, frightened, and in pain. People rushed around me to arrange ambulances and police and blankets because I was in shock. I just gently cradled my leg so my foot could remain off the ground, and reminded myself to breathe slowly.

When I’ve woken in the night since, crying and feeling the fear of that time on the road catch up with me, it’s been tenderness that I’ve offered that part of myself. And this, I think, is the growing of a certain kind of strength. Just as it took a considerable amount of core physical strength to sit on the road for that long, balancing so that one foot could hang in the air, I’m coming to realise that it takes a mostly unseen gentle strength to offer ourselves kindness and tenderness when we need it — especially when so much in our culture encourages us to push ourselves to achieve one thing or another.

In the bathroom, having washed most of my body, I gently lower myself to sit on a towel on the floor next to the bath. One by one, I open the velcro fastenings on the front of the boot, and lift my leg out of it to sit it on the floor. Very gently, I remove the surgical sock, careful not to twist or pressure the ankle, and lay the leg back on the floor. It is bruised and swollen; yellow, pink and bluey grey. Some of the skin is grazed, and there are long straight surgical wounds. The muscles have lost all their tone, having remained unused for so many days now.

The skin on this leg is itself tender, and can only be touched very lightly. Today, I find myself thinking gently towards the leg too, where before there was considerably more frustration towards this part of my body. Seeing the wounds so clearly, and tending to them, has all but dissolved this particular frustration. This tenderness feels like accepting this withered and sore lower limb as part of me again. I had not realised until this moment that I’d even separated it out in the first place.

There will be a part of me that misses this bathing when my ankle is healed. Slowing down so much has also been incredibly frustrating and sometimes upsetting, but this long, slow lesson in tenderness towards myself is one I hope I will not forget. There is something deeply beautiful in learning the value in treating ourselves the way we might hope to be treated by others when we’re having difficulty.

Washed and dried, the return of my leg to the sock and boot is just as much a gentle exercise, as is getting redressed and packing up the washing paraphernalia. I am more aware of the small spaces my body moves through to achieve these small things, and of the texture of the materials I am covering myself with. I am more aware of what it takes to shift my relationship with those spaces and materials by moving through, with or around them.

This bathing is an exercise in gentle noticing.

There is no rushing.

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Conversations about bodies I wish I’d had with my grandmother

Feet in sandI am sitting on the sand, hair in a sopping wet lump of a braid down my back, face tingling from the cold water and the thin veneer of salt that has lingered on my skin all week. The sand is warm. It is gritty between my toes. The sun too is warm on the bare skin of my upper back; I can feel it drying the swimming costume that covers my lower back. I am on holidays. I am, unsurprisingly, feeling rather content. 

Gazing towards the waves, I spot an old woman walking very carefully out of the shallows, on the arm of a middle-aged woman I assume is her daughter. The uneven surfaces and the small waves are difficult for the old woman. Perhaps she will not be able to come to the beach for much longer. 

I remember a conversation I had with my paternal grandmother years ago—I’m not sure how many, but long before she died—where she told me how much it saddened her when she realised she could no longer walk safely on the sand. When she had to give up on going to the beach. I think too of the many hours I spent on a beach as a child with her, the story—well known in our family—about the time as a young woman that my grandmother ran into the surf with her glasses on, such was her joy at being on the beach, only realising she’d done so when she came out of the water later, noticed she couldn’t see and realised she’d been able to when she went in. I think too of her feet. Of the olive skin and scrunched toes. Of her troubles with bunions. My grandmother’s feet in the sand. 

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece about feet and knees for the blog of the yoga business I teach corporate yoga through. About how to look after them so they work well for longer. Remembering my grandmother’s feet, it doesn’t surprise me that she found that she lacked stability on the beach. But it saddens me. And the full meaning of that conversation with her all those years ago—although I must have guessed at the strength of her sadness at the time or perhaps I’d have forgotten the conversation—sits with me suddenly here on the beach. And I miss her. Immensely. 

I miss her because I am watching another old woman who may one day soon say something similar to her own granddaughter. And the old woman probably knows this now. I hope so much that the knowledge doesn’t mean she is frustrated or sad, I hope it means she is enjoying this time on the beach now. 

This is the difficulty of bodies. They break down, they slow down, they fall apart. They waste away. And when they do it’s painful, it’s confronting, and sometimes it’s heartbreaking. My own body has fallen apart in its own way at times. The most significant so far was in a big and lasting way, when I was just a teenager. I used to feel hardly done by about this—angry, resentful, ashamed even—but now I feel grateful. Yes. Grateful. Because this happens to everyone, in some way, eventually, and that it happened for me in my teens was shock enough at an age when I was old enough to be pushed into finding out more about this thing I get around in. Actually, this thing that is me, just as much as my mind is. 

On the beach, my own feet are covered in sand, stuck out in front of me here, off the towel. I am suddenly hugely grateful for them. I have my own issues with stability (baby-sized, perhaps, compared to so many elderly and not-so-elderly folk), and my earlier run-in with bodily dysfunction has left its mark, but even so, this body is incredible. The processes that happen under this skin, the things that keep me breathing and eating and moving around, really are amazing. 

I just wish I’d been able to talk about these things with my grandmother, that I’d known how to respond when she talked about the challenges of ageing. I wish this was a conversation more people knew how to engage in meaningfully and compassionately—about the challenges of having/being a body. Because not talking about these things means we feel isolated when things go wrong. I see it again and again in my yoga teaching work. Or perhaps I’m just projecting my own response to a lack of these kind of conversations. 

More than anything, in this moment in the sunshine on the beach, I miss my grandmother intensely and wish she could be sitting here with me on the sand now, water dripping from her hair and dribbling down her spine. Watching the waves come in.
~
The post on knees and feet I wrote can be read here.