There it was, standing before me, still and lifeless yet pulsing and glowing with the life energy that it once embodied. Brain, spinal cord, brachial branches spreading out across the shoulder girdle, reaching down the arms into hands. The nerves of the torso reaching and spreading across the chest, the back and abdomen.
And then Sciatic Nerve, branching off the spinal cord where it would have passed the sacrum. It was thick and strong and vital-looking, a twin on each side branching into rivulets and streams down both legs and into the feet where it touched and met with the ground.
“Hello,” I said, and the tears pulsed down my cheeks.
“Hello,” Sciatic Nerve pulsed back. Old, intimate friends meeting face to face for the first time.
We’d encountered each other many times a day for the past 20 years. Me prodding and coaxing. Sciatic Nerve sometimes yielding, allowing itself to be soothed and relieved. Sometimes not. Always there for me, waiting in its bed of muscle, blood, and bone beneath the skin’s surface.
You see, I’m a massage therapist. Working with the unseeable pains of the body is what I do. Sometimes the pain is emotional. Sometimes it’s physical. Either way, Sciatic Nerve is the source of much of it.
We have a regular conversation, Sciatic Nerve and I. Silently, in my head, and led by my hands, forearms, and fingers. We talk, cajole, and coax. An ongoing conversation. A friendship. Life-long companions.
My daughters, Marleigh and Delaney, and I had flown to Amsterdam for this experience. To experience the Body World’s Happiness Project exhibit. A six story museum in the heart of Amsterdam, my favorite city, exhibiting, well, real dead bodies. I know, it sounds weird. Crazy. Maybe gross. But these bodies, pristinely preserved and dissected into various organ systems and posed in motion and action are a work of genius and an absolute beauty to behold. To see the body from the inside out was, for me, magic.
An absolute joy.
When I see a person, I see the form of the their muscle and tissues through their clothing and through their skin. It’s not something I talk about because, not surprisingly, it tends to make people self-conscious. I also wonder at the function of their heart, their lungs, (and my own as well) as I see their chests and stomachs rise and fall with their breaths.
I am amazed each day by the wonders of our bodies: the growth of hair and nails, the blossoming of a bruise through its rainbow of colors, the healing and re-sealing of damaged skin, the coordinated movement of torso and limbs to stand, walk, run, dance; our ability to reach and grasp, to touch and feel the roughness of sandpaper, the coolness of water, the gentle warmth of a lover; I wonder at the formation of words on our tongues, our incomprehensible ability to create, comprehend and interpret language, conversation, the written word, art…
I am awed by our form and by what lies beneath our surfaces- the raw, pulsing dynamism that coordinates our existence, our movements, our thoughts, our emotions, our survival, our growth. Scientists can break this down into atoms and formulas.
But to me it’s magic and art. Beauty and wonder. Balance and harmony. When the balance is off there’s dysfunction, pain, illness, disease.
These are things I think about each day. These are the things I imagine, beneath the surface as my hands coax muscles and emotions into a healthier, relaxed place. These are the things I finally saw before my eyes in the Happiness Exhibit.
We were here as a family, celebrating our last summer together before Marleigh’s senior year of high school. It was Marleigh and Delaney’s first trip to Europe in the friendliest of towns- Amsterdam, with its shining canals, its curving cobbled streets and gingerbread architecture. Each day we wandered these lovely streets in search of an exotic lunch, the perfect pastry, Anne Frank, street musicians, a good tattoo shop, a great photo. Perpetually smiling, laughing, and loving each others’ company.
Our family of three. The pride and love I feel when I look at these two amazing young women (my daughters!) overwhelms me. And here we all were together, sharing this experience. They were as excited as I was.
I’d have loved to send a snapshot of us into the distant past. To myself when I first embarked on the trek into single-parenting. I was so scared, terrified even, alone in foreign terrain. Solely responsible for these two brilliant little girls. Could I do them justice? Could I care for them well? The snapshot would have assured me, “Yes, you can do this. Your family will flourish.”
I’ve been pulled to Amsterdam all my life, but it was this exhibit that really yanked us across the ocean and back to this wonderful town for our summer holiday.
So here I was, standing in front of the first exhibit of the Happiness Project in Amsterdam, weeping and conversing with Sciatic Nerve. I felt like Harry Potter chatting with the snake at the zoo then looking around and realizing no one else could hear the snake’s words. It was like that.
“Hello,” I said, “It’s so good to finally see you!”
“Hello,” Sciatic replied.
“Hello, hello, hello,” it echoed and pulsed.
I was filled with its vibrancy, its vitality and its life. I was awed and in love. I stood there weeping with joy simply to be in its visual presence.
I caught up with Marleigh and Delaney a little later.
“Girls,” I said, still wiping at my tears “this is going to take me a really long time. You can head back to the apartment whenever you want. I’m gong to be here a long time I think.”
“We know Mom!” they said. “We love it too. Take your time. We’ll wait for you.”
My two beauties.
They understood. They got it. I hoped for a minute that I was this patient and understanding with them when they were little. Worried that I hadn’t been. Then brushed that away and hugged them. Held them for a minute.
We took our time wandering through the six stories of the exhibit wondering at the beauty and glory and gore of our bodies, in sickness and in health. We each went at our own pace and met-up from time to time to smile, to marvel at something, to share a thought, to nod. We lingered at the gift shop, bought another book on anatomy, and took some pictures.
But before leaving the exhibit, we stole back up the stairs to revisit Sciatic Nerve and say goodbye. And then, of course, we each took our own two home with us.
I’d been back home for a couple of months and shared the story of meeting Sciatic Nerve with many friends. One friend pointed out that in a city of so many Old Masters I was gaga over an anatomy exhibit. And it’s true. Meeting Sciatic Nerve was, for me, greater even than experiencing Van Gogh’s Sunflowers.
Then one Friday night, sitting on my couch watching a documentary on the guru Yoganandya I realized a little more deeply what my experience had been about. Yoganandya said something about our brain and spinal cord being where and how God or the Divine enter our body. And I thought, “Yes. This I know.”
Looking at Sciatic Nerve and the nervous system in Amsterdam, looking at all the exhibits of the body in fact, was for me like looking at the face of God.
How strange it feels to write that. But how simple and true and real. To me the Divine lives in our flesh and bones and echoes in and out of us through our energy. I feel it strongly. Revel in it. Wonder at it. And on that joyful afternoon in Amsterdam, I saw it for the first time. Face to Face.