This Little Body of Mine: A Song to Live By


Survivors tend to find ways to trick themselves into feeling better, from “Look Good Feel Better” to prayer. Singing in the shower (or bathtub) has helped me. What strategies have you designed?

I want to teach you a song I sing to myself sometimes, often in the bathtub but sometimes in other parts of the house. It is an adaptation of a famous song, so you will easily pick up the tune as soon as you read the first words.

“This little body of mine! I’m gonna let it shine.”

That is how my song begins — not because my body is literally little, which it is not, but because it is a small fish in a big pond. In the big picture of the universe, my body is a brush stroke. Why should its frailty bog me down? I am still part of the picture.

The bath is a good place to sing a song that feels empowering because it is here, in this watery sanctuary, that I let myself sob (and I mean sob) after my mastectomy. I did not choose the tub as the best place in the house to cry then. It just happened. Maybe sometimes when we feel comforted, as by warm water and soap that smells like innocence, we can let our hair down (even if we do not have any hair) and cry our hearts out.

“I’m gonna let it shine! I’m gonna let it shine.”

“This Little Light of Mine” is credited both to the African-American spiritual tradition and to Avis Burgeson Christiansen and Harry Dixon Loes, who wrote it down. Since being popularized, it has served many audiences, including the Civil Rights Movement. I am thankful that John Lomax collected it from the folk tradition in 1939, which means we can listen to a glorious rendition.

“Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.”

Without substituting “body” for “light,” the song is still quite empowering. In fact, the first time I sang it in the tub, I began with “light” and ended up spontaneously shifting, as if inspired by some folksy muse that gave me permission to tweak the song in the privacy of my own home, to “body.” “Body” with two syllables still sort of works with the traditional meter (at least for me because my “light” includes a southern drawl, which draws out the vowel “i” as it glides through my throat).

This little body of mine is perfect in its imperfection, and its imperfection has nothing to do with the asymmetry of my breasts and arm or the chronic pain and fatigue and worry I have carried since my diagnosis or even the age spots and wrinkles that cancer survivors are so happy to see emerge on a body that gets to grow older. The imperfection resides simply in being a mortal body. It is a mortal body, but I am going to make it shine anyway.

Not literally, of course. When I use “shine” metaphorically, I mean that my body is going to excel. It is going to be my star student. It is going to make As on the test of life. It is going to be as bright as a copper penny or the sun after a storm. My body is light. (At least I feel that way when I sing the song.)

I love metaphors. Chemo, for example, was a slow burn to make my forest grow back lusher. Sometimes I think of my body as a crusty old sea creature with barnacles and missing limbs, going about its business in the sea. Recently, visiting a hurricane-ravaged island healing from its ordeal, I wondered if a body affected by cancer is like that island.

And, if my body is like that island, does that mean that it is OK if my shoreline is shifting and boardwalks are askew? I think so. When I walked on the beach, examining both the devastation of the storm and the birds that keep coming anyway, the saw palmetto that keeps growing, the sun still shone (even when the rain came and I could not see it).

“This little body of mine! I’m gonna let it shine. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.”

As with any folk song, if you decide to sing this one in the shower or the tub or outside in your front yard for all the neighbors to hear, adapt it. You will be intrigued to see where the tune takes you. I know I am.

“Everywhere I go.”

Listen to John Lomax’s 1939 recording of Doris McMurray singing “This Little Light of Mine”:

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