Harmony calls out a greeting from behind the geraniums. She folds a bookmark into a paperback and steps off the patio. Noodle leaps all over her. She chuckles and pets her then asks about my knee.
“Still hurts but I guess that’s normal.” My recovery is slower than I’d like, in part because of an overzealous gym visit 3 days after surgery. I’ve since re-discovered ice and moderation. I bend it a little and show her. “The boss has let me work half days from home, and walking at the pool has helped.”
“Oh, you go to the pool? With your son?” Noodle is now snuffling in around the mulched shrubbery so I pull her in closer. After retiring, Harmony and her husband moved here from the Midwest and within two months, they had new floors, bathrooms, and bird feeders. With a tidy patio set on top of a red striped outdoor rug, their condo is one of the most welcoming in the complex. The kiddos in the neighborhood have already knocked loose two of their solar lights playing soccer on the sidewalks, and I don’t want the dog to add to the damage.
“Sometimes we go together.” I wave vaguely in the direction of our small community pool where the kids are squealing. “Mostly I’ve been making myself go to the rec center, though. I can swim laps there, and there’s usually a free lane during the day.” As I say this, a family ambles by. The toddler carries an inflatable swim ring as big as her, and the mom lugs a bag of towels. “It’s nice to have a place to get together here in the summer, though. Have you been yet?”
“Oh!” She laughs, steps back, sort of half sits down on her patio chair. “I guess I have a swimsuit packed away somewhere that hides most of the awful parts.”
My stupefied gaze.
Did she really just say that?
I stumble over my astonishment and laugh along with her. “Oh, geez, come out! Everyone is welcome.” She says she has another friend in the complex – a friend her age, she makes a point of mentioning – and they haven’t done it yet, but they’ve talked about going swimming.
So they can. . . what? Band together? Protect each other from the forces of evil?
“You know how you get a beach body, right? You take your body –” I gesture towards her and then to me, “ – and go to the beach.” We smile at each other. “Just come be with your neighbors,” I say. “The pool is for everyone.”
But she’s not giving an inch. “Well, I never had a body like yours, even when I had the body I felt good in.” She laughs again. It’s a strained laugh this time.
Are we still doing this? In 2016 at 60-something years old, she’s still doing this? Will I be in 20 years? Who is going to tell us we can’t be at the pool?
This is what I need to say to her.
To all of us, tucked inside our soft and hungry bodies.
We want you.
As you are.
We want you in our community, just like we want the kids in their swim diapers, the lady in the wheelchair who zips around walking her giant black dog, the folks who grill out at the picnic area. This pool is the closest thing we have to a common house. Three months a year, this is our town square.
We can’t let scars and bellies and imagined impossible ideals keep us from being neighbors.
Things are not so great in this country of ours right now. We have some tough battles to fight. But we’ve already fought some and we shouldn’t have to keep revisiting that scarred ground. For nearly 100 years, women have had the right to vote. We can work. Serve in the military. We can pursue scientific research, write and paint and dance and sing. We can sleep with any consenting adult, marry whomever we please or not marry at all. We can write laws. Change laws. Have babies without men. Ride motorcycles across the country. Play professional sports. Design rocket ships. Run companies. Run for president.
And yes, wear whatever the hell we want to the pool.
So put on a swimsuit. Or a caftan. Or a clown suit or a business suit. Or a veil or fishnets or scuba gear or culottes or Go-Go boots.
Come to the pool.
Or sit here on your sun-dappled flowery patio and read all summer if that’s what you’d prefer. Of course. That’s totally cool too. Because being a 60-something retired gal in the suburbs of an American metropolis means you can follow your bliss.
But please let go of being wistful or lonely when you can hear the chatter and cannonballs from that pretty patio, when you see your fellow residents flip-flopping past with their sun hats and iced tea.
We want you.
We need you.
As you are.
Let’s put to bed the notion that we live in a world populated by sylphs and Veelas, and that you are some mutant monstrosity. You are a human in this neighborhood and you live in your body. It is strong, it is weak. It is the same body that installed the stone sculpture and refills the birdseet. The same body that greets my dog, my son, me. The body that has grandkids up the road who love you. The body that filled years of a career leading art programs at a children’s hospital in Wisconsin.
You belong here.
We all do.
As we are.
We have to start showing up. Pasty hips and jiggly arms, acne, wrinkles, spider veins, all of it. We all have to show up in the bodies that carry us over the earth. Because what’s the alternative? What purpose or good do we serve by staying home?
I can’t promise you that everyone will think kind thoughts. The cellulite will be visible, and some of us – present company included – have indulged petty comparisons. I can promise you, however, that neither the stretch marks nor the judgments will matter one lick to any outcome or relationship that matters. Here in the everyday world of our neighborhood, the distribution of wealth, luck, friendship, leadership, respect, and opportunities for love has no correlation to flab. The only thing the size of our backsides influences is the size of the underpants we wear. This is a pretty flimsy standard upon which to base any decision of consequence.
I understand you want to lose weight. I do too. I fight this damned fight every day. This body you say you envy? It’s packed on nearly 15 pounds in less than a year. Stress, depression, thyroid problems. Scoliosis, chronic pain, disordered eating. Acne, bunions, insomnia. And now? A bum knee.
This body here houses all these things. These are features of my physical form much like the roar of freeway traffic outside my balcony, the windowless shared walls, the claustrophobic 8-foot ceilings. Sometimes focusing on the flaws becomes an addiction all its own, and those dark patches press in like glaucoma narrowing the vision. But then I remember that this is my home, and it is the place where this full, loving life of mine is being written. Then I notice the art. Then I thrill to the blessings.
I live with these things also here in the home of my body because this body is like a physical address. It holds the scars and all the rest of it, too. The emotive poetry, the sketching, the puttering in the kitchen with garlic and oil and greens. This body is hiking, friendship, sex, tinkering, and books. It carries the late-night cuddles with my kiddo, the volunteer work, the advising sessions with students, the adventures, the confusion, the kaleidoscopic memories that comprise the narrative I believe is me. The whole twisting, unfinished, colorful, at times plodding, and always character-rich story of me lives here in the home of this body. All of me.
Inside your body, you.
I want to know you. You have so much to contribute to this place, so much you already have.
When you show up, good things happen. The connections between all of us here grow stronger. You have already helped us grow from neighborhood towards community.
When you show up.
You have to show up.
You are my neighbor. I am yours. I want to know the you who is unfolding within your skin. That skin that holds glorious, kind you.
Your neighbors want to know you.
As you are.
Image: Leon Oks, “New Friends III”