"I cannot figure out who I am as a body these days," writes Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg in this powerful, tender and humorous memoir about resiliency and love in the face of cancer. Mirriam-Goldberg braves breast cancer, the breast cancer genetic mutation and the loss of a parent by connecting with an eclectic Midwest community, the land and sky, and a body undergoing vast renovation. Along the way, she swims with stingrays in the Gulf of Mexico, searches for cream puffs for a Pennsylvania funeral, leads a group fighting to protect ecologically-essential land in Kansas, and helps students find their voice in Vermont. In searching for a new definition of the erotic through awareness of nature, this memoir illuminates how our bodies are our most local address on the earth.
Caryn gives an overview of the book:
Preface: Singing the Body Electric
I cannot figure out who I am as a body these days. I look in the mirror each morning, each night. I look right into the scars, trying to read them like the dreams I have at night of driving around lost for hours, or not being able to make a call on a pay phone without punching in the wrong numbers. There is always an emergency in those dreams.
Right before the sleep that might take me back to such dreams, I touch my chest – feel the lines and the numbness too, try to measure with my fingers where feeling begins and where the zone of only feeling the pressure of the touch is. Sometimes I use my husband’s hand to show me where the nerve endings are and aren’t anymore. Fortunately, his hands, and the rest of him, don’t seem at all distracted by the absence of these parts of me. On very hot nights, I lie under the swooshing ceiling fan naked, feeling a little like an extraterrestrial woman, shaped differently but generally looking the same as most women from a distance. The bed is large, a soft boat under the circular winds of the changing world.
I get up in the morning and always put my glasses on first, then strap on my fake breasts, which have spent the night hanging out in the nifty pockets of my special bra. There is little difference between the glasses and the boobs to me, just things I wear when I’m awake, each an item to bridge the world between my dreams and waking time, between whoever I am and the rest of the living world. Each is a prop, something that fills out space, contributes to how I see or am seen, my prosthesis something between person and garment.
Each day I walk among the other bodies, lately not so concerned with glancing at women’s breasts, the ones not cut away and replaced by impostors. I find myself immediately thinking, in some kind of reptile brain way, that their breasts must be fake, rebuilt, or real but soon to be taken away. I pause and remind myself that I’m simply projecting my thoughts, from the dark and dry place I usually can’t reach in my mind, onto others. Sometimes I remember to remember that everyone has their own scars and numbness, most of these wounds not even physical.
Yet at the same time, I find myself often extremely confused about what it is to live in a woman’s body without breasts. Of course, I know that breasts are just a body part, not a gender identity, but there’s something about losing this part of me, this part I would hold gently on cold nights as I slept to keep them warm. This part round and lovely, traveling effortlessly with me, quiet mourning doves sleeping soundly on my chest. It’s inconceivable that such a part could be gone, that I would have chosen to give it up, that there’s so little evidence of their existence in my memory.
That’s part of the problem: in my memory, below the surface of words and rational understanding, breasts are part of being erotic. The breasts are a playground of great sensation and lushness. Without them, what does it mean to make love? What does it mean to love my own body?
So I am trying to love my body for what it is right now. Let the love I feel for it – the tenderness for my moving fingers on the keyboard, the appreciation for the strength of my legs to carry me for miles on an early spring day, the wonder at the softness of my skin, the shapes I leave in the blankets. Let this love be enough.
Let this love show me the way to sing the body electric, to write the body erotic.
Let me learn this way of loving what’s imperfect from the land and sky around me, the best mirror to show us that what we do to our environment, we also do to ourselves. As well, the earth where I live is the best teacher when it comes to persevering through the seasons with the kind of grace that celebrates life, however it comes – in the icy wind mid-winter that makes the windows tremble, the explosion of lilac one particularly slow spring, the reddening grasses late fall, the black sheen of the crow mid-day when he shoots across the sky to examine the latest addition to our compost pile. Life just wants to live, so the old saying goes, and this desire makes for tremendous innovation.
There is little script in this culture for such innovation when it comes to women’s breasts. There is only the narrative everywhere I look of women made of curves and sleekness, women in clothing cut to highlight the roundness of breasts. Meanwhile, I feel like a 12-year-old with my bare chest cut so close to the bone. Meanwhile, the rest of my body blossoms so much older than the child I was. Meanwhile, the breasts in between past and present sleep on an invisible shelf.
So I open the door to the back deck, and stand outside in the middle of the night, watching the clouds travel past the waning moon, collapsed on one side because of the sun’s particular slant of light at this moment. I step outside again in the morning, the overgrown grass of early spring pouring over itself around the tilted cottonwood tree. The hills and wind around this home carrying their own losses and scars, and yet lit with a green both pale and fierce, quiet and shining, fully here at this moment and on the verge of changing completely. I return to earth and sky, continually coming home.
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg is the Poet Laureate of Kansas, and the author of fourteen books, including a novel, The Divorce Girl; a non-fiction book, Needle in the Bone: How a Holocaust Survivor and Polish Resistance Fighter Beat the Odds and Found Each Other; four...