Our Bodies are a Sieve
we use to hold on to place.
“We hold place in our bodies,” Joy Harjo, National Poet Laureate, declared in her soft confident voice, as she sat on stage during a poetry month event. My body slumped into the auditorium chair, content to rest in that V-shape and her words.
Have your footsteps ever felt heavy at times, hauling around the weight of the many places inside of you? Mine have. My life has been a carrying of place.
Out on my walks, the feet easily stroll the city streets while my body will be elsewhere. It won’t feel like its elsewhere, something that might be in my head, but it will physically respond as if its elsewhere. It’s a shivering, a shaking, a humming, responding to the vibrations of a place not in front of me. We’ve all had that experience, right? Experiences that have nothing to do with time zones, or jet lag. It’s not an out of body experience, it’s a deeply inside one.
A few mornings ago, a thick fog cuddled up to me and blanketed the Ohio River. When I see those wisps of moisture, my hands get itchy, responding to an innate desire to capture the temporary essence contained within the fleeting white space. Phone in hand, I managed to digitally corral a few ghosts for a short period of time. Was I really all that interested in the Taylor Southgate bridgespan, the high watermark, the Serpentine Wall? I was more moved by the crisp scent of fog mixed in with earthy, almost nutty notes of grounded asphalt warmed from the day before. The scent snuck into my consciousness. My feet stood firm as my body curled alongside the Serpentine Wall and floated upwards with the other ghosts. If someone told me I was in Oregon at that moment, I would have believed it.
The poet, Anis Mojani, writes, “Somewhere in my body are two flowers for the same person.” Somewhere in my body there are many places for the person in me.
As a kindergartener, my son played around outside early mornings waiting for the bus. Whenever a mist hung low, or dew sweat itself out on grass, or the taste of salt touched lips, he’d say, “It’s an Oregon morning.” I can’t walk out of the house, into the fog or wet air, without saying the same thing. It the perfect mantra that encapsulates body as place.
There’s an explosion within us as body meets place, where the ocean crashes into the sand while I push a waddling stroller. Where sand dollars float, half-broken, find their way into my hands. Only later did I throw them back. But my body holds those embers of place.
I’ve spent nearly two years writing a culinary memoir about my Italian American mother’s kitchen (and Dad, too). The stories pour out of me. My fingers tremble every holiday as I recreate some of her best recipes. Tears and joy come whether I succeed or fail in her imaginary stead. In 2005, together with siblings, I journeyed to Italy with my parents. The trip contained too many distractions for the experience to coagulate in blood (my husband might disagree). Yet, I can go no further on this project until the dirt of my mother’s land is embedded in my hands. Until I wipe a crumb of pizzelle, cookies well-known and made by hand in Abruzzo, that tastes like hers. I scour the internet for photos of people with similar last names, reach out to them. The relatives might be gone, but the blood runs through town. I’ll need those stores to carry place home with me.
When we are sick, left broken by life or limb, our bodies might often feel like cages. But they really are a sieve. They’re amazing, these compilations of cells. Like mollusks that draw in and pump out, they filter out what we don’t need and keep the essential stored away.
A secondary version of body + place developed in the midst of the pandemic. Peloton, Zoom, Netflix, all left us immobile. Staying in place, behind our screens, our bodies could not filter enough through and allow us to move on to the next. We do not naturally recognize pixels, nor filter them through. The virtual world, the meta world, is not a place our bodies can hold.
However, during that time period, my dear friend, Mindy, formed a Walking Buddies group. Mindy included me because I would lead us up and down pathways to old city steps. She didn’t know those steps are in my Amalfi, passing through the crumbling stairways. Those steps are in my Malaysia, on a climb up Mt. Kinabalu. Away from my desk and outside, my long-used body tuned into my body from long ago.
Corrymeela is Northern Ireland's oldest peace and reconciliation organization. The old Irish etymology of its name translates to “place of lumpy crossings.” Maybe the squishiness and rolls our bodies thrust outward is really just an effort to contain the places we’ve crossed. As we get older, the musculature is relinquished. The skeleton lets go. But the body isn’t breaking into pieces. It’s breaking into places until finally, those places come together as home.
What places are you holding in your body? I’m curious to know. As always, thanks for reading! If you’re not already subscribed, please consider doing so. This post is also publicly accessible, so feel free to share!
P.S. Since we’re speaking of body and place, I walked into the new gelato shop at Findlay Market, Ugo, at 1733 Elm Street, immediately consumed by place. L'italia era tutt'intorno a me. Italy was all around me. Perfetto!