I start with a confession about my body. I have a trick ankle. Say I’m walking in heels, or sensible shoes, it hardly matters which, and everything’s fine, I’m moving forward, until in less than an instant I find myself on the ground, a sharp pain shooting up my right calf.
The first time this happened I was twenty-one, and I fell after stepping into a hole in front of the broken-down storefront office where I worked as a community organizer. This was the day before I was to take a twelve-hour train trip from central Illinois to Minneapolis to visit a lover who insisted he was not threatened by the news that I’d taken a new lover—a woman—and yet kept calling, at all hours, to tell me he could not sleep through the night unless I promised to move north to be near him. So I dragged my throbbing ankle onto Amtrak in an attempt to figure out what I thought—about Minneapolis, about him. But once I arrived, I was in no mood for wooing, distracted by my ankle, purple and swollen to twice its normal size.
Ever since that time, thirty-two years ago, my ankle wavers whenever I stumble on a rough patch of pavement or uneven slope of grass, as if reminding me of that time of life when my direction was so uncertain. Over the years I’ve become an expert at catching myself before I lose my footing, a swift recalibration of my torso in space—the closest I come to acrobatics—that keeps me from hitting the ground. But this doesn’t always work, and I’ve found myself face down in the snow a block from my house, or at a city lake, with my dog, a mile’s hobble from my car, or even once in the middle of one of the sloping intersections of Frenchman Street in New Orleans. When I fell in the South Minneapolis Target parking lot a manager, worried about legal troubles, made me sit on the curb and wait for paramedics who arrived, to my great embarrassment, in the form of a fire truck fully stocked with firemen equipped to meet any emergency except for the fact that my ankle is bad.
I mention my bad ankle here not because this anatomical weakness is of any particular literary importance, but as an illustration of the ways an ankle can be the location of multiple memories, linking places and times as diverse as an Illinois prairie town, the mottled jazz party of Frenchmen Street, and the Target store less than a mile from home. By which I mean, the body in creative nonfiction can be as much subject as character, in the same way place can be as much subject as setting.
Consider the many stories we might tell from the point of view of our bodies, such as tales of particular freckles and moles, or my bent pinkie inherited from my mother’s side, or the bump on my nose where an elementary-school classmate once hit me with her math book, or the island-shaped scar on my left knee from the fall on a boat (that bad ankle again) the day my spouse, Linnea, and I left Venice, a few weeks before I turned fifty.
I have a Gray’s Anatomy app on my iPad; I used to see the full text of the original edition on the bookshelves of medical students and chiropractors of my acquaintance. The digital edition lacks those sheer overlays that place the veins over the skeleton, the organs and muscles over the veins, but still I’m struck by the beauty of the line drawings that approximate the location of tendons and organs and bones, highlighted by the stringy peacock blue of the veins. The images, created by the usually un-credited anatomical artist Henry Vandyke Carter, examine the organs of the body whole and in slices, the way the nature artists compiled botanical volumes to document the physical attributes of the honeysuckle or the wild rose.
Vandyke Carter’s cross-section of the spleen looks like the tree of knowledge, many branched with clusters of crystalline leaves, like a ceiling mosaic of an Italian cathedral. The close-up of the vagina looks like a surrealist portrait, a head with hockey hair and a curvilinear portal where the face, eyes and nose should be. I thought by now I knew all the names for my female parts, so was surprised to learn the open space just beyond the vaginal opening is called the vestibule, which brings to mind all those almost-lovers I never invited all the way in. The slice through the fat globules and ducts of the mammary glands could be renderings of utopian garden cities or a map of some Disneyized development, the cross-section view breaking the urban grid into cul-de-sacs, the slice of the mammary duct appearing as a perfect plaza gazebo just waiting for the brass band and ice-cream social, all of which makes me wonder at possible meanings of the visual metaphors used to study and classify a woman’s body. Is female anatomy understood on even the medical textbook level as open space to be dwelled in, managed, planned, or do some of these drawings look to me like colonial planning maps because of my own lifelong striving to inhabit rather than be inhabited?
Such are the questions I ask as a writer who is part mapmaker, part botanical illustrator, part scientist, part semiotician, and part clerk, and whose job is to excavate, interpret and record in order to see the body anew, linking what it has been and what will be. The way we choose to identify our bodies, or the way others identify us by our bodies, is all terribly contested ground, which is why our corporeal parts, from the neck bone to the hip bone to the ankle bone, are inherently political.
What ALL do we see then, when we look at the body anew? Particularly those parts that have been fetishized and plasticized, deified and desired, such as the female breast. For the literary essayist, a breast is rarely just a breast.
Nor is an ankle just an ankle. During that long-ago trip to Minnesota with my hugely purple sprained ankle, I attended a play. The theater was a newly constructed black box, and the audience stood or sat on a few available folding chairs, one of which I commandeered, to the annoyance of some sitting around me, to prop up my ankle. The lover who took me to this play, the one I was visiting, was the last man I slept with before moving fully into the lesbian world, and the show was the work of a feminist company called At the Foot of the Mountain, famous in some circles in the early 1980s. When I later moved to Minneapolis, I worked at this theater, first as a volunteer and later as a publicist, and there I met my first serious woman lover, and then my second, and made friends with women who are my dear friends still, and with whom I did work that led me to my spouse of so-far twenty-six years, all of us now women who have lived through thirty-plus years of highly politicized and changing lesbian identity.
So take a trick ankle, purple and radiating pain, yes, but also note how it carries history, story, memory in its cul-de-sacs, a body politic that contains three hard-won decades of a self-determined life.
Barrie Jean Borich is the author of Body Geographic, published in the American Lives Series of the University of Nebraska Press (March 2013). Her previous book, My Lesbian Husband, won the American Library Association Stonewall Book Award. She’s a member of the creative writing faculty of the English Department and MA in Writing and Publishing Program of DePaul University and she splits her time between Chicago and Minneapolis. Visit her on the web at barriejeanborich.com.