My middle school gym teacher was a beautiful refrigerator of a woman, all broad shoulders and sheets of muscle and the ability to chill the air with her presence.
She was an immovable object, impervious to the high-pitched keening of eleven year-olds, and she preached a gospel of athleticism the way pastors demand money: do this, and it will save you. Already indoctrinated in the cult of ballet, I received her messaging without resistance. Moving your body is good and necessary, forever and ever, amen.
She presented to us many reasons for her devotion to movement. Heart health, bone density, prevention of muscle atrophy, lung capacity, all of which conjured images of my own little blood-filled body, scaffolded with ribbons of veins and arteries, blood thundering away and chugging back inside my child heart. Her lectures made me aware of meat crawling all over the wet bones of me. But, in all of her urgent insistence that we stay in motion, I do not recall any mention of the lymphatic system. Which is curious, because without motion, your lymphatic system doesn’t work.
And if your lymphatic system doesn’t work, you die.
I’ve been thinking about this as I work from home, my slug body fusing with my mattress as I write pages and pages on my phone. Whereas prior to the pandemic I was mixing up my slovenly writerly lifestyle by working the door at a popular bar on the weekends, now it’s just me, my devices, and a growing obsession with the milky fluid oozing up my limbs. It feels like now, more than ever, I should be considering the state of my lymph, finally correcting my gym teacher’s mistake.
A primer for the lymphatic system goes something like this: your body is a warm, wet sponge that must be continually wrung out, otherwise you will fill with garbage, and your immune system will shit the bed. And while blood gets to scoot around your innards thanks to a fist-sized lump of muscle, the watery goo of you that is lymph can only move around when you do. There is no pump. Here’s how it gets around without that.
When the heart beats, blood surges around the body, pulsing through arteries and arterioles, all the way into capillaries, bringing cells a precious payload of survival essentials. Most of this blood immediately makes the return trip, but some of the liquid, about ten percent, leaks out into the space around the cells, called the interstitial space. Then, a network of one-way tubes drains this fluid from all over the body, lest the goo accumulates and proves fatal. This watery fluid is known as lymph.
To get it back out of the tissues, lymph fluid is drawn away into tiny capillaries. From here, it gets pushed up the body towards the heart by the squeezing action of muscle contractions, like when walking and breathing. That’s right: lymph moves around because you do.
But the lymphatic system isn’t just a plumbing solution, it’s also on waste removal duty. Tiny holes in the thin capillary walls allow the lymph to bring water and nutrients to the cells directly, while also allowing the fluid to pick up trash on the way out. Your body is constantly generating waste, and not just what we think of as shit. Without lymph fluid playing sanitation engineer to your slippery, microscopic components, the detritus of living would quickly accumulate like trash bags during a blizzard or a French sanitation worker strike.
If this cellular waste starts to back up, bodies can experience problems like lymphedema, a painful swelling that can create places for bacteria to thrive. In fact, the disease colloquially referred to as elephantiasis is known clinically as lymphatic filariasis. An impairment of the lymphatic system due to a mosquito-borne parasite, it is a neglected tropical disease infecting an estimated 120 million people in 2000.
And if plumbing and trash removal wasn’t enough, the lymphatic system, which also is involved in distributing fatty acids around the body, has yet another irreplaceable role: defense. The lymphatic system shuttles around antibodies and various specialized mercenary cells, while also scooping up invaders to deliver them unto destruction. Without it, infection runs riot.
As movements of the body squish lymph through the narrow tubes of its personal, one-way circulatory system, the fluid passes through lymph nodes, which function like little Cronenbergian military checkpoints. Inside the lymph nodes, immune cells called macrophages identify and destroy threats by straight up fucking eating them. This means that the lymph fluid gets continually scrubbed as it goes up the body and gets dumped into big veins near the neck. You may have noticed that your lymph nodes swell when you’re sick. Increased demand for special killing cells and higher waste removal needs means more action in the lymph nodes, which can translate into tender lumps in the neck, armpits, and groin, to name a few.
All of this is to say, I’m trying to stay moving. If I may channel my middle school gym teacher for a moment, as COVID-19 continues to rage in the United States, perhaps it is a good time to pay some extra attention to the practice of moving our bodies. A study published this summer in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that the number of steps people take each day has declined during the COVID-19 global pandemic. And last month, a different paper published in BMC Public Health warned that these short term decreases in physical activity could become entrenched, if not countered. So while it’s true that staying home more often can translate to a more sedentary existence, it’s good for me to remember that life as a house cat doesn’t mean that I have to stay still.
Taking a cue from my own spoiled feline, drooling all over the bed while contorting one’s body into some kind of mutable and dramatic art installation is part and parcel to the Indoor Life. Besides, there’s something nice about imaging all the tiny tubes of me, shoving trash and danger up against gravity, my muscles clenching and stretching and twitching and helping. It is a delightful and milky gift, the gentle motion that helps support the hardworking plumbers, trash removers, and military personnel of my lymphatic system. Each time I twist to the side for some toilet paper, or take a deep breath so I can sigh dramatically while reading the news, or lovingly bend down to pet Miss Larry Hotdogs, my body squirts lymph up and up and up, so that it may one day be reunited with my big, soft heart.
Who knew that wringing out the wet sponge of my one and only meat suit could be so romantic?
Illustration by Brad Jonas for Techworker.