My Body Has Many Names

February 12, 2017

What piece of me was already squirming through the indescribable infinities of her body on July 17, 1920 in Red Lodge, Montana the day my maternal grandmother, Elizabeth, was born. She died long before I came round-headed and bald into this world, but I cannot shake her presence and the stories I barely know of her.

And what about nine years later, on the 12th of October in Salt Lake City, Utah when my paternal grandmother, Patricia, was born. I knew her well, she died months before I left as a missionary to Uruguay.  Now, a decade later, I have a head boasting the genetics of early on-set white hair and ever outward reaching hips, just like her.  What part of me resided in each of these women and were those parts, even then, already searching for each other?

Could my grandmothers, Elizabeth and Patricia, have ever felt a tugging toward one place or another as the pieces of their grandchildren waited patiently, but firm inside each of them?  But my body does not start merely that century ago, any DNA test can tell you that.

Some small strain of me, some mere molecular matter was passed down like a palm full of rich soil from generation to generation.  Make something of this, plant and tend and sow and harvest.  And so my ancestors carried me for innumerable years without knowing, or maybe they had a sense, there is really no way to ask, what their own bodies would someday yield.  I do not know what ineffable handful of soil has been passed on to me.

I watch my children run through grass, rooted and flowering a hundred times daily, and I am ever so curious about them, what they are growing into.  Even this bit of myself, the children that I can see, hold on to, pull close, is constantly unfolding before me to be both more like me and less like me.

My son woke up and said he had a bad dream. He said he stood on a beach with two friends from school, faces I would never dream about, and they were on the sand, but a wave was coming and closing in the space where they stood and so they held their breath and the water washed over them incessantly until he awoke and sat in my lap and recounted all of these places of his brilliant little mind that I cannot control.

And what if I did not have children, what of the women and men who carried my ancestors, buoyed them, looked into the eyes of other’s children and those children looked intently back?  Were they given some part of that soil to tend and pass on.  I believe so.  There are many people who love my children who do not have children of their own.  I see these people woven into the fibers and dreams of my children.  I see the influence of these people churning in their small children hearts as they learn to navigate the world.  The soil my children will pass on is altered by the ones who teach them to care for it.

And what of the body of the earth, at what point in history do we all converge there?  At what points do we return?

Above Great Basin National Park in the Eastern part of Nevada, one ancient story about the body of the earth has been rolling and pulling deep into the heat of the mantle and up to the surface again for millions of years. Most of it is buried, and the part that is not is usually too plain for any passer by to take note of.

Nearly every summer for the past ten years my husband heads into that desert plateau with his field notebook, a rock hammer, a compass and a lot of freeze-dried meals.  Only he could tell you what it is like to be completely alone for weeks in a place so untouched the bushes are drooping with pinecones full of juicy, bursting pine nuts, but when we he comes home, or when I’ve visited him there, it is clear the body of the earth is not dormant or dead to him. This body of the earth is perhaps proof of all our beginnings, and testament that though our lives are short, something far bigger than us will keep living, and maybe we are all still living there.

The mountains and valleys in the Great Basin stretching and sliding across one another as they are pulled apart, one piece edging closer to the Pacific as the Great Basin is stretched thin, bringing ancient rocks and stories that have long been buried to the surface.

A hundred miles away, the mountains of the Wasatch front I lived most of my life below are eroding, as they have been for millions of years. They were once as tall as the Himalayas, and now, in my lifetime, this body of mine, not even very strong, has climbed to the top of many of their peaks and touched the fossils of seashells at the top, revealing yet another story, another form of this ancient body I can hold a piece of and cannot really even imagine, except in the calm it offers me.

These tectonic plates I live on, that my ancestors sailed across the Atlantic and then trekked across North America to start a life on, drift apart, opening this body of the earth that sometimes gently, sometimes violently, gives way, leaving traces of its history scattered with the fallen pine nuts for the single and lone body of my husband to pick up on some hotter than hell July morning out there on the peaks.  Parts of the story of my own body are buried in the earth, in the stories the earth is holding.  The way material stretches, severs, dives deep and resurfaces.

And so, in these few paragraphs, a long way to travel without sufficient words or capability to for comprehending where I come from, except in hopeful beliefs.

I do not actually know where this baby who is now turning and kicking inside my belly will go and what they are descending from, but I sense my grandmothers there, and my greats, and my friends, and my parents, and on and on and on behind and forward.

In three months my baby will not come from me the way so many of my ancestors came from their mothers, headfirst through the tunnel of the body. This baby will come through a hole cut in the lower part of the skin of my abdomen, through the fat and tissue, a manual separation of the muscles that hold that baby in, beyond the organs, and finally, to that mysterious and safe cavern of the uterus.

My friend said, “There is more than one way to open the body”, and so, like the shifting of the earth’s plates, the unknowability of my past and future, the aloneness of my husband in the desert beneath a sky of stars, the friends who want to have children but don’t and are still vital to all this, my grandmothers born 100 years before, that baby will open its eyes for the first time to the bright light and be pulled into the world.  We will say boy or girl and he or she will already be squirming and pulsing and calling out loudly with all the miracle of a past, present and future combined into one more human being. We will all cry and say welcome, welcome, we’ve been waiting for you.

Ashmae Hoiland

Ashley Mae Hoiland received a BFA in studio arts and an MFA in poetry, both from Brigham Young University. She published her first book, One Hundred Birds Taught Me To Fly, through the Maxwell Institute in November 2016. She served a mission in Uruguay. She now lives in Palo Alto, California with her husband, Carl, and two children, Remy and Thea. She has written and illustrated several children’s books and once headed a project that printed poetry on billboards. More of her writing can be found at www.ashmae.com

1 Comment

  1. ElleK

    March 7, 2017

    Oh! This is so lovely. I love reading the introspections of others shortly before birth. There is something about climbing a rung on the generational ladder that transcends time: every ancestor and every future descendant each moves together, links of the same chain.

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