By Sophfronia Scott
There’s a scene in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America when Prior Walter, his body ravaged by AIDS, experiences the vision or hallucination of an angel crashing through his ceiling and descending upon him. His whole being seizes up not in pain, but in a kind of ecstatic spasm. The stage direction in the script reads, “He is washed over by an intense sexual feeling.” He later tells a friend he has erections when he perceives the divine visions. When I first saw the scene I remember thinking, yes, that makes sense. That’s exactly how it should be. A person so close to the veil would feel the energy tethering him between the earth and his being, and between his being and the divine. And why wouldn’t that energy temporarily obliterate his pain and crack him open like a sorcerer’s stone through the most sublime release the human body can experience? The angel utters these words: “The body is the garden of the soul.”
I like these scenes. I like the shock and exuberance, and the joy of pure physical sensation even in the midst of grave illness. I like the angel’s words describing our corporeal beings as the blooming expression of our very essence. I like that Tony Kushner found a way to depict an understanding I’ve been exploring for a long time concerning this energy, which allows me to confidently be in my body and to respect it and its sexuality. My sense of this energy has led me to this belief: What we do in the privacy of our bedrooms is, in addition to serving procreational and recreational purposes, preparation for something more. It’s the practice of an expansion in preparation to be touched from the other side, for a connection to be made complete. Like Michelangelo’s Adam reaching out to touch the hand of God, every cell of my being desires my Creator’s touch. Sometimes I feel this want to the point where as I walk through the world a breeze can feel like a caress, and a deep breath becomes a life-affirming embrace from within.
I think I’ve felt this deeper sense, even before I had words for it. Lately I’m beginning to understand this has been, and is, a process. Learning about my body, finding the faith within its very cells, has seemed like a prerequisite to settling into a fine-tuning of antennae, a perfection of a signal so I can recognize the communion when it occurs.
I say “fine-tuning” because if I stray one way or the other, the connection will be lost. Too far in one direction would bring me to a disengaged, puritanical iciness. Too far the other way is the road to lust and its distractions. But somewhere in between these extremes is room for playfulness and a basic enjoyment of the body, this amazing gift and receptor of the world’s beauty. So many of us have lost the sense of our natural selves. Or perhaps it wasn’t properly fostered when we were children. I remember my mother, or anyone older than me for that matter, would discourage any encounter with “down there.” To hear adults tell it, I wasn’t supposed to talk about “down there” or, heaven forbid, even touch “down there.”
“Get your hands out of your panties, that’s nasty.”
None of this scolding, though, could discourage my fascination with the smell on my fingers when I pulled them away, or why the scent was strange and familiar all at once. Any further exploration had to be secret, hidden, like I wasn’t supposed to know. Because “nasty,” as I understood it, described what wasn’t supposed to be touched, what wasn’t supposed to be done. Oddly enough, this body I wasn’t supposed to touch could be praised in other ways. My schoolmates could safely observe I was a fast runner and my coaches that I was strong. My father would say my eyes were so good I could see like an eagle. I was even encouraged to explore these aspects—I could run track, play basketball, throw shot put. Yet the other, the vital aspects of my body, were supposed to be a tremendous secret. A nasty girl, from what I could piece together from what little my parents were willing to say, was someone acting in a realm where she had no business being. Touching yourself a certain way would turn you into such a person. To this day I don’t like the word “nasty.”
I would be remiss, though, if I didn’t acknowledge my parents had good reason for their warnings—centuries of good reason in fact. I didn’t know this then, but being a Black girl automatically put me at a higher risk of sexual abuse. For so long a Black woman’s body was simply not her own. Many would argue it’s still the case. Today whenever I read an account by a woman of color about rape or incest, often suffered at a young age, I think about how the behavior of my parents that seemed harsh was really protective. They used tactics learned through generations to keep me safe as long as possible. When I was 13 or so my father had a chain link fence, 5-feet high, built to enclose our house and yard. I used to think it was to keep my four sisters and I in. Now I know it was more a deterrent, to keep danger out. It took me years to understand this fear, and to be grateful for a job well done. No one has messed with my tuning. I am whole and able to feel.
Still, when I hear the word “nasty” in a sexual reference now my heart goes to a place of compassion—first to the person being described, then to the person using the word. Both are struggling, whether they realize it or not, to understand a mystery, a mystery, if left unsolved, leaves them doomed to walk through the world divided because they have left a vital part of themselves in shadow.
I waded through the same confusion. For all its good intentions, the modern day sex education class with its technical definitions of puberty, orgasm, vagina, and such only took me so far. It hid more than it revealed. It didn’t explain, for example, the frustrated behavior of a character like Sue Ellen Ewing on the television show “Dallas,” someone who took to drinking because something was dammed up inside her, something that had to do with her husband J.R.’s neglect of her. Even as a pre-teen I could see that.
The first time I masturbated to orgasm (how I managed the privacy to do this, I can’t remember—my sisters and I slept in two sets of bunk beds in a tiny, tiny bedroom) I didn’t understand what I’d done. I thought I’d broken something, especially because I couldn’t touch myself again immediately afterwards. The spot between the folds of skin was too tender. I turned over onto my side, a little out of breath, and in my mind I heard the thought that still haunts me in moments of enjoyment: I’m going to get into trouble. It felt dangerous, like I’d been playing on the edge of a precipice and had fallen over it into a vast abyss. Still, I wanted to walk up to that edge again and again. I’m not sure how long it took before I realized it was okay—I was supposed to jump. The leap was the goal, the reason, the purpose. And—dare I say it?—perhaps the heart of the mystical experience. Just look at Bernini’s sculpture depicting the Ecstasy of St. Teresa in a state of spiritual rapture and tell me how it could be otherwise. Describing that ecstatic moment, St. Teresa wrote, “The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one’s soul then content with anything but God.”
Then, more recently, I was stunned to find the exact phrase, “I love you” in the Bible. It’s in Isaiah 43 “you are precious in my sight and I love you,” and I was thrilled to read the words. You could have surrounded me with a thousand Biblical scholars explaining the translation from the original Aramaic and how the prophet is referencing the city of Jerusalem and how the love is metaphorical and I wouldn’t listen. Every singing, twitching fiber of my being tells me this love is for me.
Now everything is about what can bring me closer to that love and that feeling.
I put aside the word “nasty” and walk to this place of inner being, remembering I know how to feel good and what feels good and trust that I am in a realm where not only am I allowed to be, I’m supposed to be. The body is the garden of the soul. Why shouldn’t I know it as well as I know where I planted the iris bulbs last autumn in my own yard? I am whole and open. It is a gift to be in this body, to explore the fullness of it, all its possibilities and all of its limitations. To know what it is and what it isn’t. It is this knowledge, I am certain, that allows one to shine as a child of God.
Recently I had a massage and while the masseuse worked on me I felt how far we’ve come away from this certainty. I thought about how people touch each other in general and how it is a paltry, stingy kind of touching, even in lovemaking, compared to that of a massage. Why aren’t we all taught to touch each other like this, at the very least for lovemaking purposes? There’s something affirming about the massage touch and it’s not just about the pressure. Somehow a massage makes me feel like I really exist. You can talk about our spines and backs, (rotate your spine, arch your back, like in yoga classes) all you want, but until someone runs her hand along your vertebrae, only then can you know for certain “There it is.” As she worked her fingers down my back, the knobby chain of bones supporting my frame seemed suddenly real and I wanted to stand up straighter for the knowledge. I felt like clay and with every limb, every muscle, she molded me into being. Only then did I know for certain that the fleshy handful of calf muscle was my leg, and the limbs she pulled over my head like golden ropes were my arms. I kept thinking, I am here and here and here. I am here.
Since the age of ten I’ve been obsessed with the Franco Zefirelli film “Jesus of Nazareth,” and with the character of Mary Magdalene in particular. She seems to deeply understand the gravity of the physical presence of God in her midst. She touches Him in the humblest of ways, but with the most profound love, by kissing His feet. No one else has touched Christ like this. The elders around Jesus rail at her for defiling Him. But He responds by taking her face in his hands. A relief washes over her like her whole body is sighing. He calls her “Daughter.” Even now I weep thinking about it.
Here is my confession. Yes, I go to church and I kneel at the rail and I take in the bread that is Christ’s body and the wine that is His blood and I know it all means Communion. But what I really seek, incessantly, perhaps fervently, is a kiss on my forehead and the sensation of His hands on my face and the sound of His voice calling me by my name. Sometimes I think I do feel and hear Him. I have to believe that, even as I prepare to leave this body someday. I have to believe because I know my body will, like Prior Walter’s, still vibrate in its reaching out, still craving a soothing completion until it finally shakes itself into dust in its last leap toward the divine. I have to believe an embrace awaits me when I reach the other side.
Sophfronia Scott lives in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, with her husband and son and where she continues to fight a losing battle against the weeds in her flower beds. She holds a BA in English from Harvard and an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She's author of the novel All I Need to Get By; her work has appeared in numerous journals including The Timberline Review, Ruminate Magazine, Barnstorm, Saranac Review, Numéro Cinq, NewYorkTimes.com and O, The Oprah Magazine. Sophfronia teaches at Regis University’s Mile High MFA as well as the Fairfield County Writers’ Studio. Her forthcoming novel, The Light Lives Here, will be published by William Morrow/HarperCollins in 2017. She blogs at www.Sophfronia.com.
More of this year's essay series:
Sonya Vatomsky, Mothertonguetied: The Fantasy of Belonging
Ka Bradley, Naming and Its Discontents
Jayy Dodd, The Impossible Outside (or, A Zumbi's Autopsy)
Liz Howard, Naming and Its Discontents
Victorio Reyes, Discovering Existence: A Cross-Textual Essay
To see all essays, go here.
To see current news for the press including our next book, go here.