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Good Letters

St. Catherine of Siena by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, public domain

Last spring I turned forty. It’s no longer culturally acceptable to view this marker of mid-life as a marker of mid-life, I know. As I approached my birthday, people told me that again and again. Forty is nothing, really, they said. It’s certainly not old. And besides that, bodies are healthier now than ever before. More resilient. Better preserved. And when they falter, a person has options.

Options? I thought.

“How long do you think I’m going to live?” I actually said.

The reassurances weren’t helpful. No matter what cream I apply or hormone I ingest—no matter how many runs I manage or carbs I restrict—I am aging. My body, I know, is about to slide away from my grasp, less predictable and controllable every day. And I want to fight that change.

My body and I have always been at odds with one another. I know that even the sentence I’ve just offered here and the way it positions my self as something other than my body—something distinct from my body—is problematic.

“How can you stand to think of yourself divided in that way?” a friend recently asked me when we discussed this.

I can’t. I cannot stand it. For as long as I’ve been conscious of my own thought processes, this division has felt unsustainable. Still, this way of thinking is woven into the fabric of me. And now I cannot sew up the gap, cannot close the tear.

“For the flesh desires what is contrary to the spirit, and the spirit what is contrary to the flesh,” Saint Paul says to the Galatians.

As a child, I absorbed that verse as a mandate against desire—which, it was conveyed to me (maybe directly in Sunday School, but I think more powerfully and insidiously through the warped version of Christianity expressed generally by American culture), is rooted in the body. If spirit and body are opposed, they are opposed in order to keep the body in check. The body isn’t trustworthy. The body is fickle and selfish and weak. The body wants excess, pleasure. It wants destruction or reproduction or admiration. It will betray the spirit to satisfy its own needs. Later in the Galatians verse, Paul goes on to say, “The two are opposed so that you are not free to do whatever you want.” And in Romans, he writes, “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh; for I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.”

I didn’t repeat any of this to my friend, who was not raised in the church and would tally this as yet another mark against religion. I’m tired of that conversation. I’m weary of agreeing that, yes, in some ways the church has really fucked me up. But I’m equally weary of being let off the hook. I’m forty. At this point in my life any body-shaming issues I still have are entirely my own.

Holy Anorexia

A brief biographical history:

At thirteen, I starved myself. It wasn’t a choice so much as a fall. The less I ate, the less I was able to eat, until soon I was existing on a single apple each day, one piece of bread, a bowl of plain oatmeal. Or barely existing. I was breath and bones.

My memories from that period are spotty, some of them fogged with time and others with what I assume is self-protection. I don’t remember the worst points the way my parents and sister do. I don’t remember anything about the day my family left me at the hospital, and most of the five-weeks I spent as a patient there are also gone.

What I do recall are odd bits, the corners rubbed round and the shine dimmed, like pieces of sea glass I might collect from someone else’s beach: a vase of pink peonies delivered to me by a well-meaning parishioner from the congregation where my father was the pastor; the sweetened mineral taste of the viscous nutritional supplements I was made to drink; a glossy image of a naked man half-hidden in palm trees—a page out of an erotic magazine one of the other girls in treatment had tucked away in her suitcase. These images are disconnected from each other. They are disconnected from any timeline. As a writer—as a person—I have no way to assemble them meaningfully into a narrative, to find pattern. That whole stretch of my life is disorder, which—of course—is how I felt about my body then, too. It was unruly, beyond my very formidable will, out of my control. It was not one with the me I knew to be me. (What I did not want to do, I did, and what I wanted to do, I did not do.)

Hunger (and, eventually, the inability to feel hunger) lifted me out of that disordered body. It made me transcendent, above the rudeness of the body’s cravings and waste. Sometimes it let me float above the spiraling, animal panic of the mind, too, and let me drift—a little hallucinatory—in the liminal zone between consciousness and unconsciousness.

Years after my own recovery, I learned about the Medieval women mystics and their anxorexia mirabilis—holy anorexia. This anorexia is a denial of the body rather than a psychological temple in its honor (as contemporary pop culture would have us understand anorexia). The holy anorexic is looking not to better align herself with a cultural standard of physical beauty, but to strip herself of the body’s encumbrance of the spirit. By denying and punishing the flesh, the spirit is un-caged. Of course, these women were also likely using their bodies as weapons against the sexual expectations of their cultures. They avoided marriages by joining religious orders, and they avoided motherhood by starving themselves into amenorrhea. “Make me ugly,” one Saint purportedly prayed.

Still, their reasons—their pathologies—don’t matter to me. I know from the inside that anorexia is both a feat of the flesh and a mystery of the spirit. It is less about the body—far less about the body—than women’s magazines and YA television would have us think. And at the same time it is far more entangled in the intangible and terrifying spiritual darkness than medicine is comfortable discussing. (According to my mother’s memory, the first doctor she took me to when my own anorexia became apparent said, simply, “Can’t you just feed her some Ben & Jerry’s?”) In my experience of it, anorexia is a fixation on the corporeal as a way to reach the immaterial and intangible. The body is, after all, the only vehicle we humans are given for getting where we want to go. And at thirteen I wanted to get to the same place I desire finding at forty: a place of unity, of wholeness, of control.

In my experience of it, anorexia is a fixation on the corporeal as a way to reach the immaterial and intangible.

Recently, I read Darcy Steinke’s memoir Flash Count Diary: A Vindication of Natural Life. I say I read it, but what happened was closer to watching words explode like fireworks inside my own head. Here is a woman who understands, I kept thinking as I dog-eared pages and dragged my neon-blue pen in wavering lines beneath her sentences. In a chapter beautifully titled “Demigirl in Kemmering,” Steinke writes: “For decades I’ve tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to get out of the way so the force of the universe could use me as a conduit.” Earlier in the book, she writes: “But what of my feelings—embodied for the first time in a flash—that I am divided, split into soul and body, that there is me, lonely and frantic, who wants out of my corporeal form?”

Yes! I internally exclaimed again and again as I read. It’s this! It’s this I’ve been trying all my life to articulate—that I am two in one, and what exhaustion that division creates! The spirit so often intrudes with its zealotry for imposing meaning just as the body’s senses begin to really perceive the transcendent. While, from its position, the body is always barking and shitting and hurting and wanting just as the spirit begins to settle, to find peace. How, I want to know, do I unify these two so that I can finally just be?

Steinke explores the way in which aging itself begins to free her from the various confines of the body—the physical demands of her biology and desire, the cultural limitations of being female in a patriarchal society, the wrenching internalized shame nurtured by her particular family and faith of origin. With the markers of age, the knots of those old bonds are loosed, one by one, and she finds a new clarity of purpose and vision, a new sense of herself as larger, wilder, ascendant. She writes, “Sometimes I think how silly, how human, it was to feel I needed an antidote for menopause: it’s like trying to cure a rainstorm, a tulip tendril, or nightfall. As a younger woman, I was led by my biology; now I’ll let the spirit tug me along.”

I read that string of images over and over again. Rainstorm, tulip tendril, nightfall. Rainstorm, tulip tendril, nightfall. Rainstorm, tulip tendril, nightfall. I recited it the way I might a poem or a litany or a prayer, hoping to press it into myself so that later—when I’m mid-panic again—the words might rise to the surface of my spirit the way a welt rises on the skin.

A Momentary Integration of Flesh and Spirit

As I approached my fortieth birthday last spring, I made plans to really celebrate the day—my hope being that I could fake joy until I genuinely felt it. But the week of my birthday, I came down with influenza. The virus hit me suddenly—a wallop that took me from clarity and function one moment to fevered weakness the next. I took sick days off of work (something I never do), and for a full week I dragged myself out of bed only to huddle miserably under the warm stream of my shower or to re-fill my mug of tea. My body felt every hour of its forty years, and I resented its weakness, its inability to combat the virus more quickly, its aches and fatigue and frailty. The timing of the virus felt personal—a reminder of my mortality just in time for my birthday. I cancelled my celebration plans and toasted forty with a bowl of chicken noodle soup and a glass of Gatorade. I was dying. Maybe not right away, but sooner than I was comfortable thinking about.

The night of my birthday, after my family had all fallen asleep, I skulked around the dark house, restless but also weary. I’m often the last one awake in my household, and I typically enjoy it—the silence and the sense of existing outside the boundaries of my own domestic life, as if I am a stranger looking in. The house sinks, submerges as if below a sea. The rooms that are so familiar to me in the light become strange, disassociated from their daytime selves—pools of navy blue interrupted by shallows of gray where the furniture stands. The windows become watery and reflective squares of black.

I stood before the long glass rectangle of the window that overlooks my backyard. I could see nothing of the yard itself—not the patio still cluttered with last summer’s empty flowerpots, not the slope of grass that stops at the fence, not even the maple tree (my favorite tree) with its pointillist chartreuse leaf buds.  What I could see: the moon—a blurry crescent—and myself. I thought of a line from another book I have loved—Susan Minot’s lyrical novel about death and life, Evening: “She knew a change was taking place in her, she felt linked to the world. The change took place inside and no one saw it and that it happened only she knew.”

I looked at the ghost of myself mirrored in the glass, and at that sliver-moon hovering above my left ear like one bright half of an open parentheses—my body the unfinished clause. I am here, in the middle, I thought.

It was nearly a revelation—a crack I could fit myself into—but it was disrupted when my neighbors’ sensor-triggered patio light flashed on, and the moon and I dissolved.

I carried myself back to bed—a regular middle-aged mother again, suffering from nothing more than an already waning flu.

In her book, one of the transformative experiences Steinke recounts is a trip she makes to the San Juan Islands of Washington State—islands just ninety miles from my house—to see the Southern Resident orcas (killer whales) who live in the waters of the Salish Sea. Orca whales, she writes, “go through menopause and then have a long post-reproductive life” during which they become the leaders of their matriarchal family groups, called “pods.” Steinke feels an affinity with these elder orcas, and a curiosity so intense that it drives her to cross the country to see the whales in person.

On the kayak tour she books, she finally encounters J2, a whale widely and affectionately known by the people of western Washington State as “Granny.” Steinke describes the lift of her kayak as several whales swim beneath the boats and then surface only feet away. “I see a brown eye looking directly at me, the shining, numinous expanse of the body,” she writes. Later, processing this, she draws a thread between the whale and the divine, writing, “God, the whale, swallowed me.”

As her reader, I believe I understand this experience—a momentary integration of the flesh and the spirit, the self and other, this world and the divine. There aren’t words for moments like these, really. No sufficient words, anyhow. But I have lived these moments, too, though in my experience they are typically small and fleeting, far less grand than Steinke’s eye-lock with the whale. I remember, for instance, the way the water of the Mediterranean Sea became part of my body and my body part of the Sea the one and only time I floated, face to the sun, on the surface of its water. Or I recall that tingling ache at the center of my tongue when, as a little girl, I put a piece of soft white candy wrapped in rice paper into my mouth. Or I think of what sometimes happens when I’m on my morning run and, for an instant—just an instant—the wind and I become one.

But no description I can write can capture it—that suck of breath from lung, that seize of the pulse, that constriction of time and space and body and spirit as one. Unity and obliteration, both. Thrill and terror, both.

In her story “The Moons of Jupiter,” Alice Munro writes, “Awe—what was that supposed to be? A fit of the shivers when you looked out the window? Once you know what it was, you wouldn’t be courting it.”

My birthday is several months in the past now, and I’m less uncomfortable with being in the middle of my life. Or rather, I’m working on being less uncomfortable with being in the middle of my life. My husband, whose pragmatism is a trait I deeply admire, reminds me often that in a few years I’m going to look back on this phase I’m in and laugh at how little I understood about aging, at how prematurely I began to fret about it. “You’re only forty. That’s still young,” he says, and I know (I know) he’s right. I over-think everything. I’m prone to high drama. Every blue sky is bluer in my gaze, every long night darker. I have little confidence that I’ll change these feral traits in myself as I continue to age, and even less certainty that there is any real possibility of resolving the division between my flesh and my spirit.

Maybe, I think now, though—like Steinke blinking into the eye of the whale—the only way is to swim into those brief and uncontrollable moments of awe, into the unanswerable questions, into the irresolvable fractures.

I think of those peonies on my hospital bedside table, pale pink and shedding petals in a heap of beautiful, beautiful waste. In my body I collected them, and I’ve held them all this time.

“The kingdom of God is within you,” Jesus says to the Pharisees in the Gospel of Luke.

“Now let us see,” writes St. Teresa of Avila, “what becomes of the silkworm.”

Read an interview with Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum here.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum

Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum is a fiction writer, editor, and educator living in the Pacific Northwest. Find out more about her work at

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