When I look at my body I see what is wrong with it, what is not perfect about it. I focus on what I do not have and what I can not do. Only after a lifetime do I start to think about what I have, what I can do and how I am perfect. I see that we are all perfect in our own way. We are what we are, and we do ourselves harm if we seek a perfection that is unobtainable.
Last week, in looking at the story of my life, I looked at my soul and the beginning of my life. I concluded, “Much as I would love to tell the whole story, I can only hint at it. Within my physical story will be glimpses of the larger picture, hints of whom I am behind all the thunder and lightning of day to day life.” Here I start to look at my physical story.
I will get the imperfection over with here, so I can move on: I have a club foot, ‘talipes equinovarus’. This where the foot has been deformed, bending inwards at the ankle. It requires surgery to make it more normal. It seems that it is a common defect, affecting Emperor Claudius and Tutankhamun, amongst many others throughout history.
The foot grows twisted and bent under and many of the bones fuse together. There is little movement and the foot loses its natural shape. I was born with it. It happened either before or during birth. I was a breech birth—bum first—suggesting I got mixed up in my mother’s womb! The end result is that I have a shorter leg and foot.
I had major operations when I was 5 and 10. The intention was to re-arrange the bones and try to give me some movement. They were successful to a limited extent, though the result was to obsess me for my whole life.
My two stays in hospital, for surgery, rather coloured my view of my physical capabilities. The surgery was serious enough to warrant me needing to learn to walk again at age 5; it is something I will never forget. I have a powerful memory of being in the lounge of our house after coming out of hospital. I sense the family surrounding me, willing me on. Whether I walked well or not I do not remember, but I do remember that it locked incapability into my mind.
I became conscious of people watching me and what I was doing. I hated being on show; I wanted to crawl away.
Experts disagree on whether this condition is genetic, or whether conditions in the womb cause it. I always understood that the condition was genetic, that is what the literature on the subject says. My mother, however, convinced herself that the condition was her fault. I felt she loved me all the more to make up for it. I was never impressed with this and always felt a need to apologise for what I had, for what I was.
Because I was a breech birth, my mother convinced herself that she twisted my foot during the birth. My later research has suggested that this was, indeed, what happened. Only now do I understand what my mother lived with. I recognise that I feel responsible for what she went through. That is what children do, they take on responsibility for what happens to their parents. Usually they do this because they do not understand what is going on—I didn’t.
Conversely, this brought me closer to my father. He spent a lot of time finding boots that fitted me and enabled me to walk. He spent time building up the soles with extra pieces of leather to counteract my tendency to lean over to one side. I think it brought him closer to me, but I am not sure.
Why it happened to me I have never understood. I have become accustomed to it. I avoid asking why, perhaps I am afraid to go down this road. For me it sufficed to know that I had it. The operations left me with a more normal looking foot, but one that was misshapen and an inch shorter than the other. My right leg is also about an inch shorter. This gives me practical problems in buying shoes and practicing yoga. It also gave me a great excuse at school for avoiding games when I didn’t feel like taking part. I took great advantage of that.
My foot does not define me but it is a permanent and fixed part of me. This idea floats around at the back of my attempts to understand who I am. I know we are not separate beings although we have separate bodies. How much is the uniqueness of my body about me or the Universe, what is it teaching me?
When I was 10, soon after the second operation, I returned to my primary school. I was walking with the help of crutches. On my first day back, the headmaster made an announcement to the whole school, during the end-of-day assembly. He said that I should wait behind after the assembly ended. I assumed that I had done something wrong and that I was about to receive some punishment, that was obvious to me. I assumed that I was always responsible, that I would always be to blame, even when I did not know what happened.
Everyone left. I felt conspicuous as they pointed at me and giggled. I waited, feeling frightened and wondering where the headmaster was. After what seemed a long time he popped his head round the door with his coat on. He looked surprised and asked me what I was still doing there. I said that I was waiting as he had asked me. He looked at me in some disbelief and said that he only meant for me to stay until after the others had left. He did not want me to get knocked over in the rush. I felt stupid and could only focus on that, rather the kindness of the headmaster. The experience of that moment has never left me.
It never occurred to me that he was caring for me, showing me respect and understanding my situation. I did not want to be different, I wanted to be like everyone else, to disappear into the background. I did not want to stand out.
At the other end of my life I spend what time I can walking, running and practicing yoga. I am determined to do what I can to bend the recalcitrant ankle into some kind of movement. No matter how hard I try, it never changes. I have never accepted defeat and feel it is my duty to keep trying—all the time. To keep trying to become normal, to get rid of what makes me different. Is that what I do in other areas of my life—that thought is scary.
I have come to accept my body’s limitations. I now work to counteract the lack of physical balance with artificial and other means. I carry a wooden board that designed to even up the difference in length between the two legs. I use it in public without feeling the need to explain it or why I use it. I use a walking stick, even though it is not strictly necessary. It helps relieve the pressure and it explains my limp to people.
I have a body of power and strength. A body that can do almost anything, the only interfering factor being my mind.
My mother loved my thick dark hair and she thought I was so handsome. I have realised over the years how right she was. I have always looked good, and still do so much later in life. It has taken me many years to accept this, but when I look back at old photos, I can see what was there.
My looks come from my mother who was a beautiful lady. She had thick, dark hair and fine features.
Now I am grateful for what I was born with, even my imperfection. It brought me closer to my mother, who always blamed herself for it. It has never prevented me from doing what I wanted to do. I spent many years striving to do what I wanted in spite of my imperfection. It was not going to put me down, I was going to achieve what I wanted.
But before I started to achieve I started running away—that is for next week.
—Photo Credit: Flickr/Elvert Barnes