Bodies & Lost Localities
The hand of summer has felled interior wanderings. The whoosh of cars and the buzz of lawnmowers sound thickly through a viscous heat. Shorts-clad humans squint into the sun, ducking from one air-conditioned building to the next, fleeing the center of the season. Opposite sides of the year mirror the same attributes: spring trees bloom into soft pinks and whites at the sun’s gentle coaxing, just as autumn leaves blaze with fiery longings at the sun’s slow abandonment. Like mid-winter struck silent by cold, mid-summer lies fallow, deathly, unforgiving. Same flowerings, different suns.
I am PMS-ing, so it’s the fallow and unforgiving that attunes me. (I believe in liberating the female body from taboos, so I mention my cycle when it is relevant, and maybe it is always relevant). Progesterone rises this week, and my sleep is punctuated with frequent wakings and strange dreams (in a recent dream, a new agey friend condemned the themes of these essays, which she found too depressing). Sometimes, a lust for destruction: burn all falsities to the ground. Build spare, salvific truths from the rubble. My attention scatters, I crave everything and nothing at once, and I begin to feel ill-fitted in my own body, standing outside the flow of this strange woman’s life, watching her hammer away at the flimsy frame of her existence, constructing— well, what? Structures still unseen, homes yet unpeopled.
No, not depressing. I have learned to love the ebb and flow of these feelings; they carve new paths of possibility. No path is accurate, exactly, as each one excludes the wilderness in favor of specificity. But each is true, if limited to the narrows of a momentary biological shift. What I’ve learned from living in a female body: everything is true from a particular perspective. But no perspective is final. Thus, a rational person is not one who holds the correct perspective, but who is spacious enough to hold a multiplicity, while the irrational is one who binds themselves to a single way of looking.
May these words branch into a thousand ways of looking.
Last week, I went to a check-up with my obgyn. The normal yearly exams, except my last was an embarrassing four years ago. She felt my breasts and inserted a speculum into my cervix, those invasive, yet not intimate acts, a reminder that context (with its complex web of social meanings) is a mythology that animates the neutral facts of human contact.
“Copper IUD, huh?”
“Yup,” I said, and proceeded to list the more cumbersome changes in my cycle.
“All normal,” she nodded, as all doctors seem to nod when a woman describes the countless side effects of being female. “Because your IUD is non-hormonal, you feel the full cycle. Nothing between you and the weekly changes.”
As I leave her office, as I walk into the hand of heat that presses into both me and the yellowed grass, I linger over that phrase: you feel the full cycle. I take off my sandals, scrunch my toes into the grass. Nothing between me and the body, nothing between me and the earth.
But there are countless perceived barriers between the earth and I. Barriers like a home, like clothes, like air conditioning. These are not other than the earth, as they all derive their being from the selfsame particles, their structure from the same periodic table. But some structures and technologies forget their origins, are blocky with forgetfulness, impermeable in their rebellion against the elemental, against the natural patterns of growth and decay.
I am also forgetful—lazy with sleep, over-chilled with air conditioning, sleepened by heavy foods. There is grass beneath my feet, and some young, wispy trees outside the hospital, but mostly, I feel suffocated by buildings, ensmogged by arsenic-laced air from the drying/dying Salt Lake.
How do I re-link myself to the living landscape?
When I contracted Covid in early spring, my body slowed, making large the landscape around me. For a day or two, I was drained enough to sink deeply into the many-presenced bones of my surroundings. And I thought: never again will I fritter away my life in unreality, in the bright, fast flickers of a distracted brain, in the moving targets of my happiness or rage.
And my words were underwater creatures, perambulating the deeps. No wasted syllables, no superficial sounds. I spoke from a fullness of belonging to my surroundings: to the slate gray skies that exuded not a lack of color but a concentration of lack. To the bowl of mandarin oranges on the table, one unpeeled with the shock-scent of citrus. To the flesh-colored book of poetry, cracked open on the couch. To the off-white intimation of distant rain.
I am no longer sick, and my wellness is a solidity that sounds like a resistance. Resistance to the tongues of other livings, to the creature in each stone, to the person in each tree, and the beast in each human being. Perception is the watering hole where gathers a multiplicity of sensing creatures— the thousand ways of looking are magnetized into a single point. This point is the center where separate objects and stories are born. But beneath the well-cast characters and the spacetime-sculpted stories, lie other ways of looking.
According to Australian aboriginal mythology, the world is not dreamt into fullness in the deep past, but is rather being dreamed even now as I write, as you read, as you breathe, as I listen for your breathing on the other side. In this moment, beneath so many sedimented layers of clarity, lies the underworld of surreal happenings. Like the quantum strangeness that inexplicably coexists with the world of classical physics, The Dreaming has humans and animals trading bodies, the lizard and the emu speaking, one human swapping faces with another as if personhood were simply a disposable mask, like the eerily unquestioned identity transference in our nightly dreams.
What is the mythological? Context that traces and enfulls the land’s meaning. A human asks: where does the theme reside in this tract of land? Where is the source of an ecosystem’s life? The source of life is the god, often a body of water or the mother tree. The mythologies are the creeks and the roots that meander their ways to the single source, the one center that nourishes everything.
My phone pings with a text: “We’re here.” Sophie and I grab our shoes and head outside to meet her friend. The sky sizzles, but trees offer intricate puddles of cool.
Her friend’s mom and I make small talk, sitting on partially shaded but mostly scalding boulders. How do we plan to celebrate the Fourth of July? she asks politely. Ahh, the fourth. I had forgotten. It’s an awkward time for the holiday to come around, only weeks after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and banned the EPA from regulating carbon emissions. And just before, they had shot down a New York law that required people to provide a reason for carrying concealed weapons, only weeks after another elementary school massacre in Texas.
If you want to know the future of a nation, religion, or community, look at their reigning mythologies. I couldn't help but wonder if the Christian mythology of apocalypse is creating apocalypse, starting with the increasingly reckless Christian Supreme Court justices. Rather than seeing the religious realm as implying beginnings and endings that replay in a sacred cycle, like in more sophisticated (and paradoxically, primitive) mythological thinking, most American Christians interpret the end times as a final event, a closure of history, a violent severence of time.
When I read Justice Clarence Thomas' opinions, I think, "They are willing to destroy everything in order to impose an outdated mythology on our modern world." Destruction, is the key. Rather than adapting to change by creatively reinterpreting structures and traditions for a new day, they are willing to revoke freedoms in order to impose mythologies of gender and sexuality that have already become wrinkled, worn, and outgrown.
Reality is a river that must flow in order to remain healthy. A person who claws their way against the tide, hoping to make camp in the past—through bitterness, revenge, regret, or on a larger scale, fundamentalism— are clinging to a hopeless delusion. While their resistance grows, reality flows on inevitably.
“Not sure yet,” I answered honestly. “Maybe eat some veggie burgers and watermelon.” I’ve never liked fireworks, and I’ll no longer take my family to parades, knowing that at least one would be shot up with an AR-15 (I was right, we found out on the fourth—Chicago this time)
As we watch our kids play, I ponder America’s loss of innocence. “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold,” William Butler Yeats famously wrote. Unbalanced societies breed irrationality. Beliefs are often just a rough translation of feelings, so scattered feelings lead to unbalanced beliefs. Yeats continued, “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.”
As time changes a landscape, shifting its source of life, time also changes societies. Mythologies must be flexible or disposable. And every system is a sort of mythology, a framework that gathers facts, a tool of exclusion and therefore, belonging. Even democracy, even capitalism. Do these words still have life? If not, where is life to be found?
The friend says goodbye a few hours later, and we head back to the cool apartment, where I rush to the bathroom. In the toilet bowl, thick scraps of uterine lining are swimming, a bloody confetti. Soon the blood will run fresh and bright red, a nearly constant flow. “The blood-dimmed tide,” Yeates words still echo.
My sister-in-law texts me, inviting us to join them for a camping trip over the fourth of July weekend. “YES,” I reply, breathing a sigh of relief. America’s stunning natural landscapes: that is something I can be proud of.
That night, I bleed heavily and sleep poorly. More strange dreams, most of which I don’t remember. But ordinary objects jar me when I awake, as if they had been shapeshifting in my sleep. Sometimes, even the waking feels like a dream. My body moves like a slow-tilting planet, brain sapped dry of blood.
In the distance, a blood-muffled sun: hot dusk grinds the day to bone.
We pack our things for camping. I bring along a thick book about climate change and economic reform. On almost every page, I have to stop to read another shocking figure to my husband as he drives on narrow mountain roads. We aren’t stopping, was all I could think. Society is on a suicide mission.
Why won’t we stop? The answer is simple, says the author, Naomi Klein. The government won’t regulate corporations. Unregulated corporations pour money into shaping culture, from bribing politicians to funding conservative think tanks to flooding our brains with advertising. We are not inherently selfish, greedy, and wasteful. In the forties and fifties, corporations began pushing the idea of disposability, but Americans resisted, so long trained in World War II austerity. There were mass protests when disposable paper cups replaced a shared tin cup at train stations. Only a concerted, well-funded advertising effort could change the culture, which it did. In the midst of the current climate crisis, it’s too late for individual behavioral changes to make a meaningful difference. Only swift, sharp regulations can make a dent.
I know my reduction of plastic packaging does very little (does it do anything?) to halt climate catastrophe. Then why do I feel responsible to the earth, as if our very relationship were at stake? Why does she seem to demand something of me? Perhaps my small acts do nothing, but at the very least, they remind me of reality, they re-link me to the landscape, they align me with a mythology that is growing in my body: something about radical responsibility, love as the ever-present link between all livings, ethics as honoring that link.
We find a camp spot in a thicket of pine trees, backdropped by a stunning mountain range. The beauty is so perfect—like a geometrically impossible glass orb— that it moves clean through me, my body no barrier. The world is a wide and simple thing, I another cell in her body.
I wander into a field of wildflowers, following the sound of a crystalline creek. “George,” I intone, shaking my head. “I always say this when we get up here…But if we stayed in these mountains for long enough, all our problems would solve themselves.”
In other words, it’s not you or me but society—our shared body— who is diseased. Born into dysfunction, humans thrive by adapting themselves to the “normal” rate of deterioration. Others, like cancerous cells, rebel against their own larger body, attacking organs and tissues, wreaking havoc on our shared reality. Why are we so entranced with violence, so enamored with destruction? A thousand daily acts of suicide. When I hate another or myself, when I buy another object I don’t need, when each word from my mouth is not a prayer, is not a praise. How can I live a new story?
I celebrate myself and sing myself and what I assume, you shall assume for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I recite the first few stanzas of “Song of Myself” written by that earth-crazed mystic, Walt Whitman. He assumed what the earth assumes, that we are one song of disparate notes. We are one many-atomed body.
The words accompany me as I unslip my sandals and let my toes breathe into the soil. I begin walking through the woods, humming a low, soft chant that rises deep from the gut. Soon, my sounds seem redundant. What language will re-link me to the living landscape? The language of breath, the pressure of my step.
Breathing deeply, my exhalations convey something roughly translated to “peace.” My bare feet press carefully into the earth, a silent blessing. Body a word, breath a verb, I animate the earth as it animates me.
Peace, my feet print into the spongy forest floor. Peace to the stalks of yellow flowers. Peace to the decomposing pine needles. Peace to the winking creek pebbles.
S’mores, sleeping bags, a star-studded night sky, and soon we are home again, unpacking and catching up on sleep.
"What do I do with this wine?" I ask George, as I box up the pantry.
He takes a swig, then passes it back to me. "Finish it."
A few years since I've left a teetotaler religion, but I still find myself interested in drinking alcohol more as a concept than a practice. Whiskey is the distillation of a place, like the potent Irish whiskey offered by my aficionado brother, that tasted like a mouthful of moss-covered oak. And wine is brim with symbolism, from Dionysian revelries to the sacred blood of Jesus.
As a practice, I can only take a sip or two before I lose interest. I tip the bottle back, tasting bright berries on my tongue and the slight sting of alcohol in my throat.
Then, I sit on the couch and watch the sky sink.
The bleeding comes and goes now, and my body is weak. Not from poor sleep, like during the premenstrual week. Just lethargy. Even the joy limps thinly along, conserving itself. Last I tested, my iron levels were normal. But the blood has increased this year, so I make a mental note to research hormone balancing or iron supplements.
It's all I can do not to reach for the TV remote. But I muster my energy to take Sophie outside. She runs in the grass as I weave words between my lips, my right hand following the fluctuations without thought.
“What are you doing?” she asks.
“Poetry,” I say, dropping the hand that was twisting subtle gestures through the air.
“Oh, I thought you were praying for the earth.”
I tilt my head. How strange she has always been, so spiritually precocious.
“I was, I guess. Poetry is like prayers for the earth.”
I recite the words under my breath until I get home and can write them down. Something like:
—words stop open
there are things the body knows
that the mind will never know
birds glance music
through the ears of trees,
eyes catch open their
palms to read
so long I’ve clamored
far from birds,
far from trees,
far from the palms
that read everything
between the shuttered
doors of my chest,
a stone shivers
his shadow casts
across the objects
of this poem
bird a being
begins to speak
in a surplus
But the stone?
after all these
for an absent figure
in the shape
How can a shadow awaken the world’s meanings while remaining silent?
The shadow is the author, who is most skilled when silent, when invisible. But all that is spoken grows through that particular shape of narrative absence. By withdrawing from my work, by letting meanings speak through me, I become a clay bowl, an open door. Whatever is filled is filled by you. You shoulder the real work.
Are the spring blooms or the fall leaves more beautiful? Is the sun’s presence or absence more profound? The absence of one is the presence of the other. As your eyes can see everything but themselves, so your experience requires blindness to the one who experiences.
I open up the flesh-colored book of poetry, a collection by Octavio Paz. If a book can speak, then Paz even breathes. While reading, the smell of rain and twilight exude. Heartbeats race through the pages. Syllables struggle against the limitations of the page. Hands are warmed by the press of naked bodies. A poem proclaims: "the unreality of the seen brings reality to seeing....unreal speech brings reality to silence."
The shape of my longing knits the bodies of these words. How empty is my longing. How much like a shadow, colding the landscapes I weave. But won't my longing become a knitted thing, a quilt, a warmth to those who read?
Perhaps, perhaps. My absence can impart presence to these words. You may cut off a piece of my coldness for warmth.
The weakness has waned, but the joy has not yet fully recovered.
I crave chocolate. Though I was raised fighting pleasures with self-discipline, I’m no longer interested in unquestioned body denial. Desire is never dangerous in itself. It’s simply desire wrongly balanced or rashly interpreted that may lead to destruction. So, I listen to my desires as if they were harmless messengers, and I love the highest version of each.
I don’t raid my daughter’s stash of old Valentine’s Day candy. Waxy milk chocolate made from slave labor has never felt pleasurable to me. Instead, I fill a graham cracker crust with a rich chocolate filling and a hint of cayenne, topped with a chocolate shell. I stab a fork into the finished pie; the chocolate shell cracks open, the mousse springs back. I am deserving of pleasure, my brain chants as I place a bite on my tongue. I lick the fork clean.
The next day, an egg releases from an ovary, and the chocolate pie is unnecessary. I have entered the ovulatory phase (sometimes called the hormonal spring) and everything is pleasurable. My daughter and I go to the pool with friends, we drink tea and play fairies. I beam with joy as she practices reading— four years old, and already reading full sentences. We eat goldfish crackers and popcorn on the couch while I read her Harry Potter, smiling as she asks the meaning of words, amazed at her curiosity and growing vocabulary.
In spite of the natural joy of my rising estrogen, I finish the chocolate pie over the next two days while watching a new TV show. I know time does not allow for such frivolities: I should be packing, should be writing, should be reading this book on climate change so I can return it to the library before we move. But this is the delusion of ovulatory phase: that time is infinite, possibilities endless, selves scattering who knows how many seeds.
Sophie and I go to a library activity, which is really meant for older kids. A scientist is presenting a PowerPoint about insect adaption to specific environments. I learn that you can read a creature’s habitat in their bodies: “Does the shape of this water bug’s legs imply a river or a pond?” the scientist asks. As I help my daughter color bugs, I begin wondering: how do the contours of my body echo lost localities? I could grow another essay from the seed of this thought, but I will not. Devotion to a theme requires practiced focus on a single path of particularity. An authentic life is a kind of brutality, leaving wastelands of desolation behind.
My body is also a brutality. I release up to 400 eggs over the course of my life, yet I’ve granted a chance at personhood to only a few (one grew into my daughter). Then there’s the monthly flushing of the uterine wall, the subsequent re-building: both genesis and apocalypse written on the woman’s body. Let us also include the men; simply to be alive is to be both birther and aborter. Each choices leaves countless others to die: never enough time.
“Okay, but when do you feel normal?” my husband asks.
I blink. “Normal?”
“Yeah, like yourself.”
I glance out the window, to a mound of conspiring gray clouds. A smile lilts upwards my expression, as I reply, "I don't know how to answer that question."
Beneath the words, a wondering: is my "self" simply the sliver where memories and possibilities condense in a drop so small that it nearly slides into non-existence?
When time is severed from space, the self stutters forward and backward, unmoored. Because I am rootless, selves move through me seamlessly. I could have been anyone, I know. And yet I am me, whatever that means.
Without a home, I experienced this truth sharply. My family moved almost every year, so no single landscape keeps me creviced in her peaks and valleys. Where do memories live if they cannot hide in the shadows of a specific home, in the halls of a particular high school, in the spaciousness of a city park? They do not die, exactly. But their sequencing becomes confused. They swing from the rafters of Nowhere, swooping in like gusts of wind or wails of ghosts when a present event calls them forth.
I maneuver around boxes on my way to the sliding glass door. A sharp verdancy greens through the graying skies. The willow trees rustle and sway. When we leave, what will be remembered of this place? I seem to know a locality only after moving, a feeling only after I’ve climbed to the other side.
George leaves to run errands, and I’m left to pick up my daughter from a friend’s house. The rain has erupted. I slip my phone in a purse and begin walking. My friend offered to babysit Sophie for a few hours while I packed and organized. But I was revising this essay instead—wrestling, more like it, frustrated with its stubborn opacity: what lies at the center of these sections, what intelligence threads through the happenings?
One center nourishes everything, I wrote in the second section, describing the role of a god. But there are many landscapes, each possessing its own center. An essay is also a landscape. I trace its meanderings to find the silent source, the unseen theme. To borrow Rilke’s language, where is the dark center where procreation flare[s]?
I take off my shoes, breathing in the damp. Can I nurture my writing from a distance, attached by the umbilical cord of presence? This is one sensation of love, anyway, sensing the taut string of togetherness, even when the beloved is distant.
When I arrive, I thank my friend and then cajole Sophie into putting on her shoes. As we walk home, stopping to pick up "magic rocks" and to watch a snail's slow trail across the wet sidewalk, last night’s dream remembers itself through me. Thick, armored worms had sunk their jaws into my skull and burrowed deep. I spent seemingly long hours extracting them carefully, controlling my anger and disgust as I plucked yet another parasite. I awoke with the distinct impression that small jaws were gnawing on my skull.
I resist the idea that thoughts are all deceptive, distracting or unreal. The human skill of thinking thoughts not activated by an immediate circumstance is miraculous. Because we can abstract ourselves from our surroundings, we can build complex landscapes in our brains. We escape winter by thinking spring; we escape pain by thinking love.
But some thoughts take hold of me and won't let go, shaping my perceptions, hijacking my well-being, especially during the pre-menstrual week. How can I extract these parasites?
I’m not sure, though some ideas have me (can a person have an idea or does an idea take hold of a person?). One is direct to the brink of banality: take hormone balancing herbs. I had time to do some research and found an herbal blend with clinical success, which I ordered and will start taking soon. Every biological state is experienced in a subjective body, but physical states can be changed, together with the subjective, without compromising the solidity of my so-called identity. So, there. Get help.
The other idea is more subtle, much like a wise remembering. It sounds like this:
My body is a house with many doors. All pain stems from this: I have stopped in a single room and begun believing it was my home. As the month unfolds, new feelings whisper that pain is not final, nor full-bodied joy, nor detached peace. New doors open endlessly onto the increasingly diverse, the one self becoming many through time.
As time piles upon me, as memory crowds my waking, all pain grinds itself to sun. All joy flattens to a buoyant hum. All want reminds me of the one. Time unseen, time proliferating: with enough of you, will I or my feelings mean anything?
We are home now, to a home nearly empty of memories. Again, the self feels unmoored, teetering on the brink of invisibility. Where are my paintings to recall me to my source—Joan Miro’s abstract blues and another artist’s field of poppies? Where are my river stones and stacks of books, my husband’s Georgian textiles and figurines, Sophie’s bold drawings and unsupervised art projects? My body is also a landscape, ebbing and flowing towards a single source. What source centers this inner/outer land? What sea captures the many streams of my wakefulness?
Not a place, I suppose, as a fully-human human must not be fully summarized by a single locality. But rather the locality I carry like a shard of light: a joyful inquisitiveness, a repository of lived experience (lived to the bone, consumed to the core), a brightly lapping ocean of presence, stretching deep into a darkly rooted peace. Love, I hope: a presence that can cradle every drop of you, without fear or judgement, without needing to tame or control.
I pack until the rain stops, until a blue spacious falls outside the window, a few renegade rays sunning their way over human and non-human bodies. Atmosphere newly cleared, a scattering of birds find their voices.
Silence quivers, and a darkness pleasures through the folds of these sentences. A center blazes, magnetizing meanings to its core.
What landscape desires to unfold over the folds of your silent, dark-rooted body? What mosses lay claim to your trunk, into what soils do your feet sink, what birds flutter from your branching brain? What story is inching its way across time, struggling to find a narrator through you?