All go to one place: all are from the dust, and all return to dust.
The ground was muddy the day we lowered my great-grandmother in her coffin. It was North Carolina December mud; gritty but interspersed with green grass, the brightness of which defied
the winter day. I toed the grass, my black boots smeared with gray, and listened to my cousins’ and grandparents’ chatter. Their smiles joined the wind that whipped the pavilion plastic above us. To my left stood my mother, one hand in her pocket, one around my waist. I leaned into her embrace and we watched the rectangular hole across from us as if it were a little niece or nephew, a latecomer to the circle of watchers. My mother’s eyes were dry as the dirt fell into the hole and covered the coffin, filling the void.
Mammaw was 101 years old the morning she didn’t wake up. Her skin was white leather, dry from the heat of the South but pale from a life lived indoors. She’d spent her days in a little
white bungalow in Greensboro, North Carolina, and though she later moved, she was buried in her hometown. I remember her crinkled hands folded in her lap like a handkerchief. She would
sit in her wheelchair and watch us, drawling, “What’re y’all doin’ for dinner?” and “I cain’t hardly feel my legs.” Her body filled the chair in rolls, sagging as if pulled to the ground by
gravity. My grandparents lifted her in a medical hoist to carry her from car to house and house to bed. With her head turning from side to side and her weight resting heavily in the canvas hoist, I
wondered why her body seemed detached from the rest of her. She bent forward and croaked when she spoke, as if trying to escape her earthen vessel.
“Eat healthy so you won’t end up like Mammaw.” An admonition my sisters and I heard during our childhood. Mammaw had lived off of Grands canned biscuits and Jimmy Dean sausages, which ultimately rendered her obese, immobile, and severely unhealthy. I’d bend down to hug her and couldn’t shake the feeling that her voice, her sweet-yet-cantankerous spirit, was separate from the body that feebly hugged me back. Trapped in it, maybe. I tried to heed my mother’s advice as a kid, but developed a sweet tooth and fixated on eating sugary snacks whenever I could find them. I’d consume everything with a mixture of pleasure and guilt, imagining that what I ate was collecting in my body like pebbles in a jar, and one day I’d feel trapped in it.
My mother was raised in Florida. She has the same sun-kissed auburn hair and freckled skin as her mother. She often traveled between Florida and North Carolina to visit her grandmother, Mammaw. Although she moved to Pennsylvania when she married, her roots are in the South, and her childhood stories smell like Florida rainstorms and key lime pie.At the funeral, she recounted memories of visiting Mammaw and I could almost see my
great-grandmother in her smile. In the funeral home, I lingered to look at the photo of Mammaw. She had the same teeth as my mother and my grandmother—large and white. When they laugh,
their smiles seem to take over their face. Sometimes I stare at my teeth in the mirror to see if they’re the same shape, and to see whether I can manufacture the same smile.
My mother’s smile still takes over her face, but her body is losing the sunshine glow of its youth. She complains that the bitter cold of our Pennsylvania mountains settles into her bones and won’t leave. Whether it’s from enduring two dozen Appalachian winters, or genetics, or simple aging, her body is beginning to wear down as her grandmother’s did. She tugs on her coat and her hiking boots to walk the trails in our woods every day, hoping the sun and the leaves and the dirt will breathe new life into her.
America’s earth is layered with bodies. We live as spread out as possible, in private houses with private yards and plots of land to give us breathing space from our neighbors, but when we die we are laid next to them in neat rows. Packed closely together so our bodies may talk to each other in their slumber.
Other lands cannot afford the ground to envelop their dead. In China, there are over a billion people to crowd the skyline apartments and flood the highways like blood cells in an artery. They cremate all those who die because there is no space for graveyards. In chambers of over 800 degrees Celsius, or 1400 Fahrenheit, their bones turn to ash, and the ash is tucked away
in quiet urns.
China used to dig holes in cemeteries, in rural fields and empty spots of land. First, they dressed the body in white and carried out candlelight vigils to say goodbye. After burial, family members of the deceased brought fake money to the grave site. Called “Joss paper,” the money is made of either bamboo paper or rice paper, and it represents Chinese currency but is sold solely for funeral ceremonies. At the grave site, the money was burned as an offering to the dead.
When the population rose and crematoriums became a necessity, they still held vigils to mourn the body beforehand, but began performing the money ceremony by the roadside instead.
Every April 4th, for the Qingming Festival or “Tombsweeping Festival,” Chinese families honor their ancestors by commemorating the dead. On this holiday, those who have lost a loved one
wait until night when there are fewer people around, choose an intersection on a sidewalk or in a park or alley, and draw a circle on the ground where the paths intersect. They then write the
name of the deceased inside the circle and burn the funeral money.
“Why do they do the ceremony at an intersection?” I ask Matt, my friend from Beijing.
He answers, “I think they believe if they burn the money at a crossroad, it will be easier for the dead to find. It will reach the loved one.” He uses “they” instead of “we” because he has never participated in the ceremony himself—only observed from a distance, when his
grandmother’s name was written in a circle.
“But how does the money reach them? Is it in the afterlife, or in their next life on earth?”
“I don’t know.”
I wonder if remnants from this life will follow me when my body falters and only the spirit remains. Will I be laid in a wooden box? If I am turned to ash, I could dissipate until there is no physical form tied to the sense of “me.” No flesh or bones, only thoughts and memories as I return more quickly to dust.
Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own?
“In China, we believe your body is a gift from your parents,” Matt explains. “That’s why so few Chinese people have tattoos.” He traces the world map inked on my right bicep. The edges of the
map are jagged to indicate geographical texture, like a frayed black rope. His fingertips find Pennsylvania, and then move to Beijing, near my shoulder. “They believe that tattooing your body is dishonoring your parents.”
I think back to my first tattoo—an “ichthys,” or fish symbol made of two arcs, on my wrist. And the one after that, “Gift of God” in Hebrew on my ribcage. The translation of my last name. I have to twist to see the Hebrew letters in the mirror. When my parents saw the ink on my skin, they didn’t look dishonored or disappointed. My mother was intrigued more than anything.
She admired the linework and asked, “Why?” There must be a reason, a deeper meaning.
I shrugged, “Why not?” I wanted the tattoos as reminders.
My mother was given the name Faith, a reminder of her parents’ hope that she will always have faith in what she cannot see. She instilled in me and my sisters a desire for this same faith every day of our childhood. When I was twelve, my mom and dad started a church together.
It was a tiny white building with a steeple and a bell that we rang every Sunday. We later moved to a different building, but this didn’t matter—the church is the Body of Christ, my mom would say. It’s the people unified by their faith—not four walls and a roof. Every Sunday, we pile free baked goods on a table for the villagers, and my mom stands in front of those who enter our doors and delivers a sermon. Nourishing both the physical body and the spiritual body. I watch
the congregation and try to see it as a single organism, a whole, a literal breathing body.
After my conversation with Matt, I reflect on my mom’s original question. Why? What does it mean to be a gift of God? Can I be both a gift from a set of parents who brought me into this material world, and a gift from a spiritual being who knew me before I was conceived? I run my hands over my ribs in the mirror, over goosebumped flesh and every black Hebrew letter. My
body used to seem like a disjointed puzzle of pieces that didn’t fit quite right together. A foreign object staring back at me; not something that housed my consciousness, or anything else. I would squint at myself and imagine my body splitting apart into pieces, each piece then shrinking until I disappeared.
Now, I tell myself that it’s just another body. The ink I injected under my skin both marks it as my own and reminds me that I am not my own.
I visited China when I was twenty so I could experience life on the other side of the world. As I befriended some of the girls I met, I was struck by the way they talked about their bodies.
“Look, look at how different our waists are!” Alice, whom I’d met minutes ago, pulled me in front of a full-length mirror. She lifted my shirt with one hand and hers with the other, pointing out the differences between our abdomens and our hip bones. I flinched at the touch of
her hand and the sudden focus on my body in the mirror, but she only wanted to compare and contrast. “See—see! You see the shape—” she poked at her hips and I couldn’t help but laugh.
She laughed too but finally sighed and stepped away, groaning and flopping onto the hotel bed. “I wish I had a better shape.”
I shook my head, “No, you’re beautiful!” Hoping that was the reply she wanted to hear. I needed it to be true. If she really needed to have a “better shape”—or if she, skinny Alice with
silky hair and a bounce in her step, “needed to lose weight” as the Chinese girls I met constantly said of themselves—then what did that say about me and my body?
I wondered if this was an everyday interaction for women in Alice’s culture. At home, comparing body types was a conversation for good friends, not strangers or acquaintances. Even
with good friends, the conversation was a ballet, a tiptoeing around a sensitive topic; in China, the girls I met broke into the topic with no thoughts to hide. I didn’t know how to talk about my body or theirs but I wanted to fit into their world.
One friend told me that Chinese girls used to wrap themselves in plastic wrap in an effort to lose weight. They believed if they blocked their pores with plastic, they would sweat more, and as a result, become skinnier. The story reminded me of my high school days, when I tried
donating blood as often as possible because I’d read that you lose over 600 calories with every pint of blood. I’d pass out from the dizziness and wake up on a cold floor, thinking it was worth
Alice made me ponder the way we talk about our bodies. It seemed that we each have a constant inner monologue running, a conversation with ourselves about ourselves: Why does my stomach look this way? my arms? my thighs? Why don’t I look like that instead? Why does their body look like that?
We both felt this fixation on mortal bodies, whether our own or others’. The only difference was that in Alice’s culture, her inner monologue had a home when voiced in conversation. Her thoughts wouldn’t infuse the room with awkwardness if spoken out loud. My thoughts, my obsessions with appearance, had been trapped inside my head since puberty. It took me a while to admit I was struggling with an eating disorder and body dysmorphia. Although I have since recovered and have grown to have a healthier view of myself, I am still fascinated by this inner monologue. This idea of bodies being something to love, something to hate; something to feed; something that gives hugs and encouragement to others; something to which we attach our identity. A temple for a divine Being to dwell in, even. Something that returns to dust when we die.
After my interaction with Alice, I wondered if the answer was that I should be more open to discussing our bodies, or if she should be more reserved—or if we should both approach the conversation differently. Maybe that would make our bodies a gift in our minds, and not a foreign object. Maybe that was the answer.
I wasn’t sure there was an answer.
✥ ✥ ✥
I am seven years old. I run barefoot in my grandparents’ backyard under the shade of an orange tree. Mammaw watches from the porch. In the middle of the yard, a little fountain bubbles into a round pond speckled with koi fish. I crouch by the side of the pond, peering past my reflection to the stones on the bottom.
A lizard skitters over my feet and I pick it up, careful not to squeeze its abdomen too hard. I carry it to the porch and present it to Mammaw, a wriggling trophy. She always says “you so purdy” when she sees me or my sisters, but now she laughs at the sight of my gift. I am careful not to pull on the lizard’s tail, knowing it could fall off in my hand as a defense mechanism. Once, I saw a tailless green anole scurrying into the underbrush. I later read that it will take an anole up to two months to grow a new tail. I wonder what it is like to be pulled into two, to lose a part of myself. To regrow that part from nothing.
Years later, Mammaw will not be able to tell my mother and my grandmother apart. A century of living on this earth will make her senile and bring her a feebleness of mind to match her weakening body. But she will reminisce of the day I brought her “all them sal’manders.” I will stand up at her funeral to describe this unpredictability of her mind, the lapses into darkness and sudden sparks of brilliance—and this beautiful memory from a time I can barely remember. When I bathed in the sun and scampered through the grass all afternoon. My mind was clear, my body was slight, and I could slip in and out of the azalea bushes faster than the flash of the water fountain bubbling into the pond.
✥ ✥ ✥
That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
✥ ✥ ✥
The human body is as unpredictable as Mammaw’s memories were in her old age. It falls prey to diseases that baffle doctors and scientists.
Late last year, the virus known as COVID-19 began manifesting case by case. When the death toll rose in China this year, the country began banning all funeral ceremonies for the victims. Crematoriums have started burning the bodies without decorum, without candlelight vigil or bedside ceremony, and sometimes without the family’s consent. Out of fear that the respiratory illness could be spread from the dead, they are turning the bodies into dust with feverish intensity. In Hubei province and many others, families cannot retrieve the urns with their loved ones’ ashes until quarantine restrictions lift.
When the virus spread to the States a couple of months ago, it quickly shut down the normalities of social life. Bars, theaters, and shops have closed down, and schools have transitioned online. I spent last winter planning a second trip to China—this time a study abroad trip to Shanghai for this spring semester. I studied Mandarin Chinese every day and imagined the moment my plane would touch down in China; the dinners I’d have, the reunions with old friends. As the coronavirus cases skyrocketed and spread outward from Hubei Province, I cancelled my trip, choosing to remain in Pennsylvania for the semester instead.
Here, families have been forced to sequester themselves in attempts to slow the spread. My parents began working from home and my two younger sisters quit their jobs so they could stay in the house. The five of us try to mark the passing of days by a semblance of routine: we cook jalapeño scrambled eggs together in the morning, watch documentaries in the living room, and gather for dinner every night. I am the uncertain variable in this equation, though, as I am the only one still working outside the house. I have kept the same minimum-wage job that I initially pursued so I could pay for tuition, working at a sandwich shop several nights a week. After each shift, I return home to the twinkling of strung lights that warm up our dark porch.
This house has always been a refuge for me, as my family members are the ones who see me when I am most vulnerable. They see me with no makeup, tired eyes, ill-fitting and mismatched clothes. The version of me I don’t allow anyone else to see. I am supposed to say that this is the “real” me, but as the days wear on, I am feeling less and less real. The version of me whom I saw in the mirror after getting ready for school every morning, the version of me who existed pre-quarantine, whom I presented to the world and who now exists in some hazy idea of the past—she is the “real” me. She is a figure standing above me on an unreachable riverbank, and I am a rippling and murky reflection looking up from below.
My parents and sisters are the ones keeping me grounded to reality. They were there for me during the insecurities of puberty and high school, and we are here for each other now in quarantine more than ever. One of the main ways we stay close is through physical affection.
Years ago, my mother encouraged us to take the “Five Love Languages” quiz. This is a quiz based on the work of author Gary Chapman, who believes human beings have five different ways of communicating love to other humans—five different possible “love languages”: Words of Affirmation, Acts of Service, Receiving Gifts, Quality Time, and Physical Touch.
My primary love language is physical touch. I always go to my dad for a hug when I need to feel more human. He squeezes me in his hugs until I can’t breathe, and we both end up laughing. My sisters and I have an odd way of bonding—we crack each other’s backs. One sister will kneel above me as I lay on my stomach; she runs her fingers down the sides of my spine, telling me to take a deep breath. I breathe out slowly and she gently presses down until my joints
crack like popcorn. We giggle and then I do the same for her. After I’ve had a long day, I ask my mom to massage the tension out of my shoulders while we talk, and her voice blends with hands
that relax my aching muscles.
Now, I am hyper-aware of every customer who walks into my store, every gust of cool air that flows in from the world behind them, every dime and dollar bill that passes from their hands to mine. My mind fixates on the moments when I return from work and pass through the doorway into our house. When my fingers wrap around the doorknob, push open the door, flip
on a light switch—when I reach the kitchen and my mom wraps her arms around me in a hug—every moment is like a piercing whistle shrieking from the corner of my mind. I check the
numbers every day: six cases in my hometown. Fifteen. Twenty-four. I have read about the men and women who went to bed healthy and woke up with shivering fevers, aching bones, and the
sensation that they were choking, like there was a thick cloud of dust that poured into their lungs and suffocated them. I imagine that my body is a house to this suffocating dust, like a temple
pregnant with spores of black mold, and I am afraid to touch my family.
When I was a kid, we vacationed at my grandparents’ house and I spent each day gulping down freshly-squeezed orange juice and then swimming in the ocean. There’s a vague resemblance to
my life in quarantine, as now I swallow Vitamin-C pills every morning and stand under hot water in the shower after work. The water feels good, running down my head and over my body, cleansing me. The heat pulls me together like glue and when I step out of the shower, my body is a palette of watercolors beneath the condensation on the mirror.
I think back to the beginning of this year, when I was full of expectations, and remember a phrase Matt taught me: “chu jiu ying xin.” It is commonly said during Chinese New Year, and the literal translation is loosely “be done with the old and welcome the new.” Along with the pandemic and other unforeseen struggles that came with this year, there has been an abundance of time to reflect. I find it difficult to embrace the new and the unexpected, but I remind myself that “new” is part of a process of restoration. Like the rust slowly flaking off a tool as it is worked with grease, or a knee joint massaged into new flexibility. Behold, I am making all things new.
I gaze back at these legs, ribs, collarbones, this stomach and these arms in the mirror—searching for the connection between each piece of my body. I am resting, drinking extra water,
strengthening myself with vitamins and leafy greens—because one day soon these feet will carry me again as I sprint in the sand towards salty waves. This body will again take in the heat of a
bonfire surrounded by friends; it will hover over a hotpot simmering with spicy soup in Shanghai, and I won’t think about the pebbles collecting in a jar, the puzzle pieces splitting apart.
I will be filled with the warmth of the sun and run barefoot on the dirt until the day I join it, and move on to someplace new.
Sarah Bogdan is a recent college graduate with a bachelor’s degree in professional writing and art. She is currently pursuing an MA in teaching English at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. The essay “All are Vessels" is a lyric experiment in the category of creative nonfiction.