I heard once that astronauts would explode in space without spacesuits.
I’ve thought about astronauts often in the past weeks, as I’ve been in my own sort of isolation: secluded in a frozen winter wonderland working on my book. It’s the longest I’ve ever been alone in my life: two weeks of solitary eating and sleeping and rising. I’ve wondered about the rhythms of astronauts: floating about weightlessly, finding new rhythms in days that don’t pare with the 24 hour cycles that earth brings, alone even though the world is in view and voices just a radio-call away. And I’ve thought about them in spacesuits, just one padded layer away from being exploded by our bodies’ vulnerability to vacuums.
Of course, I had to check. It turns out it’s not entirely true that bodies would explode. We would die, for sure, but not explode doing so. The temperature and pressure differentials act in all sorts of bizarre ways, and one thing that would certainly happen is that you would swell… possibly to twice your size. But apparently our skin is stretchy enough to prevent actual bursting. Some comfort, I guess.
I expected being this time of retreat to be different to anything I’d experienced. I knew the silence, the change of pace, the meals, and making my way around in subzero temperatures would all be a huge adjustment. I knew there would be restlessness and antsiness as I detoxed from my dervish of a calendar. But what I didn’t expect—what blindsided me—was how disembodied I would feel adjusting to days and weeks without any human touch. Without the regular routines of children holding my hand on the way to school and tucking themselves into bed next to me, without a dog rubbing against my leg to remind me to go for a walk, without my husband reaching for my arm as I fall asleep at night, or any of the usual handshakes and hugs and holding of other peoples’ babies, I lost my bearings. Without anybody else touching the edges of me, I wasn’t quite sure where those edges were anymore.
“So is touch is your love language?” my friend asked. I hadn’t thought so. I thought I was someone who needed quality time and words of affirmation more than anything else. But then again, I was the kid who was given several copies of “The Little Book of Hugs” as a child, because people knew I believed in hugs. I always have believed in the good that touch can do in affirming, welcoming, and grounding us. Her question made me think. I want quality time and words of affirmation. I know that. But perhaps I didn’t know how much I *needed* touch.
Part of my journey in adulthood has been exploring what it is to live as an embodied person. We’re hardwired to pay attention to our thoughts and we hear so much about being in touch with our feelings.. .but the process of learning to listen to what our bodies are saying has been more recent, and deeply profound. Pregnancy and childbirth—more than anything—taught me this. I wrote about it after our last child was born: “My experience of growing to trust the goodness of my created body through the lens of labor and delivery certainly made me aware of the divinely physical in a way I hadn’t been before.” (read the rest here).
But out here, with just my laptop and a wifi connection and the vast white wilderness beyond my window, I experience the opposite of the embodied goodness of childbirth. I am a brain in a vat. I am a soul in the wind. I drift around the house somewhat amorphously, only really aware of the edges of my physical self in the moments when I pull out my yoga mat and listen to the youtube instructor tell me to pay attention to my breath, to connect, to stand on “all four corners of my feet.” Ah, there they are. The edges of my feet. Hello, feet. I’d forgotten you were there.
A week into my retreat, Psalm 139 comes to mind one morning, fragments of verses swilling around my mind.
“Even if I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, you are there.”
Even in Minnesota, I think.
“My frame was not hidden from you.”
“You know when I sit down and when I rise up.”
I begin to tear up. I am not alone. I am not invisible.
“You hem me in, behind and before.”
Now the tears are falling, and I reach for my phone and pull up Psalm 139 on the Dwell bible app, so that Rosie’s soft voice can read the Psalm to me.
I am ready for the verse about hemming. I am struck already at the closeness of the visual: how hems tuck, make contact, give comfort. I am ready to drink this image in deeply. But I had forgotten the next phrase, and Rosie’s voice breaks over me like a thunderclap:
“You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.”
LAY YOUR HAND UPON ME. Touched. The edges of me hemmed in from every side, His hand upon me like the weighted blanket that lets my son sleep secure.
The next verse has never been a truer prayer in all my life:
“Such knowledge is too wonderful for me. It is high; I cannot attain it.”
If I am in space —adrift and in danger of almost-exploding, of my edges stretching beyond recognition in the vacuum—the Lord is my spacesuit. (The Lord is my spacesuit, I shall not want?) I am surrounded. His hand is on my head, and he is the rock beneath the four corners of my feet.
When I next am with people, I will hug them with joy. I will celebrate the goodness of skin and of touch. I will remember afresh to ask those who live alone if they’d like a hug, because maybe it’s been a while and they need one. But until then, I will not drift off into space. I will not explode. I will plant my feet on my yoga mat and taste my food and notice the pool water slip over my skin. I will remember my edges, even in a vacuum.
Even if I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the outermost parts of space, even there you are with me. Your right hand will guide me. I, in my body, am not alone.