Week Two of my graduate-level Writing Workshop tonight.
We were prompted to write a one-page “Portrait of My Body.” We used Philip Lopate’s work of the same title for inspiration. The idea was to extol a particular body part and use it to offer insight into one or all of: character, personality, family, upbringing, environment…whatever it revealed about us. Or, to do the same through a procession of body parts. When she professor set the prompt last week, she passed around blank paper and crayons (!) and instructed us to draw ourselves – full-length – and then annotate the drawing in order to call our own attention to the stories and revelations our bodies could bring to light.
Tonight, we went around the table and read our offerings aloud, and the night seemed given to positive feedback and a focus on what we liked in each person’s piece…to me, a necessary ego boost given how nervous I was about presenting my writing for the first time to my grad school peers. This was a gateway night…probably the first of many…but I feel like I passed a first crucial test and proved that I belonged among them. Some of their pieces were better than mine in this way or that…and all of them were very good. But I felt mine held its own, too.
It’s had little revision, and I was going to hold off before posting it here, but I’ve decided to do it right away, this same night…otherwise, it’ll get mired in endless editing and self-criticism for God-knows-how-long.
This is the piece I shared tonight.
This Body Has Not
My hair has not worn a veil of white tulle. My left hand has not borne a diamond throwing dots of rainbows on the wall. My face has not gazed down at my beloved, kneeling before me, asking me to join him for the rest of our days. My nails have not unknotted ribbons on wedding gifts; my fine fingers have not graced wedding invitations with my loping, leaning script. My palm has not pushed down on a blade to cut a tall, white, layered cake. My feet in elegant heels have paced next to my father’s, and through standing friends lining a path to the altar, and beneath a beautiful gown, but never all at once, and never a white gown. It was not me those friends stood for.
My ears have not heard cries in the night from something small and helpless. My breasts have not swollen hard with milk, leaked at the midnight sound of helplessness. My long nose has not appeared in a smaller face, nor has the strange dimple under my eye, nor the wild curls of my hair. My features are the mix of two others’, but have not joined with someone else’s in those of a third. My uterus sleeps curled within my still-flat belly, dormant, the size it’s been for some twenty years; it’s beginning to wonder what the point of it all is. I do not know which part of the body feels a quickening, only that no part of mine has. My heels have known stirrups, pressed down behind them on the sides of a horse, and rested in them for the doctor’s tiresome routines, but never forced themselves hard into them, knees rocked back to shoulders, as my muscles roll and cramp through my body to expel a creature who must exit now. My belly is looser now than it was when I was younger, but only from excess, from laze, never from foreign occupation. I have always been alone in my body.
The fingers of my right hand have always formed the letters of the same three names.
But I love those three names. Fiercely, defensively, protectively, to make up for hating them as a child, to reclaim them from sneers and jibes and trickery. They are mine.
And these fingers are deft, have looped and twisted yarn from quiet, uniform skeins into drapings of beauty, into afghans adorned with ruffles and bows and with tassels and whorls, and in light soothing bright vivid muted and dull hues…for infants born to friends and neighbors, to grace marital beds, and on the davenport (she calls it) of my grandmother’s new apartment to add a touch of home to a place that is not where, for forty-nine years, she and my grandfather have called “home.”
And these arms have held close a girl reeling from grief at the death of her lover…and did so not merely once, upon the day the tragedy unfolded to us in all its awful illogic…but did so for months, and months, as the poisonous evil thing bloomed almost beautifully, death disguised as a thing that would bond us together…and did so until its true nature finally appeared and it tore us apart. These arms had rocked her even as her anguish rocked her, and then rocked only myself when my face became nothing more to her than a reminder of the worst days of her life.
My face did not cause the worst days of her life.
My thighs have five hundred miles worth of Spain coiled in them. They bore my body and my pack up the slow, interminable climb into the Pyrenees; they told my bursting calves to keep going, my exhausted back to shore up and lift. Blisters flourished on my feet; entire toes became fluid-filled sacs of fire. My right knee accepted the groaning, off-balanced load far more than its share when its fellow on the left gave out, staggering stiffly down from Alto de Perdón, and when it could no longer, the left was forced back into commission, into its work, into its due, coming apart or no. As miles passed underfoot, my shoulders taught me to walk inside the circle of my pack straps, how not to mind the weight of the load, shift it off to my hips and pull the chest strap tighter – these packhorse parts of me were built for power. My body those five weeks became like a mare’s, sleek and muscled and tireless, beautiful, the strongest I’ve been in my life, and the proudest. The front of my shoulder and the toes of my right foot were numb two months after the trip was done.
My curls, shorn in tribute before the pilgrimage began, took over a year to return to glory, to meet my shoulders once again.
Those strong thighs, calves, feet just two years later I called into service again, and found in them fives, tens, halves…not just the 26.2 miles of Memphis, Tennessee that I sought, but eighteen weeks of training as well. They pounded the pavement of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and celebrated the work of my arms and my heart and my mouth, all of which had combined to bring thousands of dollars from my friends and family to the brave children inside.
This body has crossed oceans. This body has seen the Atlantic from the east of it, leapt to the Pacific from cliffs in the west of it, felt snow in July as the flakes fell in Sydney, seen Hong Kong’s boat city from Victoria Peak, trekked the Highlands, the Lowlands, the Badlands…and come to Finisterra – the end of the world – on bootsoles, not bus wheels. This body has been there. And back again.
This heart has demanded more than a life in the ruts of the familiar road; it’s put my house on the market and my things into boxes and my butt in a Subaru, and it made my feet push the pedals that took me two thousand miles to a place I’d never been and it set me down here in this place. This heart hears the spirit guide. This heart is not finished. This heart has work yet to do.
This heart is bolstered.
My heart knows what this body has done. It troubles itself not with what the body has not.