The Nonfiction of Skin
April 6, 2021
I have calluses on my hands that trace the top of my palms and the tips of my fingers. Each location—top of palm, tip of finger—marks a side of the rein I hold in each hand while riding a horse on Wednesdays. At just once a week of wear, the callouses are not rough or scaly or beaded but slight, flexible, a slope of firm skin.
I started horse-riding lessons because I loved Buck Branaman’s The Faraway Horses; because my husband, Michael, took riding lessons as a toddler and liked the idea of riding with me; because my two year old son says “hersies” as he falls asleep or when we are driving in the car, and one day, I hope to take horse riding lessons with him; and, because I wanted to write an essay about horses. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit that I wanted to write an essay before I signed up, but I did, and I’m admitting it.
I have another confession: I wrote the paragraph about the calluses on my hands before they existed, in the first one or two weeks of riding a few months ago. What I said is becoming true, albeit more slowly than I thought and just barely on my fingertips, but I predicted it from memory: skin had told me that story before. Not from riding horses, but from swinging on the monkey bars, or holding my shoes and hiking barefoot to the waterfall near my home, or muscling the five gallon bucket of water across the backyard to the chicken coup my dad had built. Warm, lovely calluses, familiar gatherings of skin beneath my fingers. We’re all familiar with wear and tear turning into toughness, the finish of friction protecting us against further assault.
Each person’s skin tells two stories. The first is the story of birth, the mark of our umbilical cord etched into the nest of our navel, a story that transforms “navel gazing” from the ultimate solipsism into a study in genealogy. This is the story John Gardner supposedly referred to as “A stranger comes to town.” Each of us came to town at the genesis of our lives, such small and needy strangers. Perhaps this is one of our more private stories; we generally do not hoist up our shirts to show off our belly buttons the way we might pull up our sleeve or pant leg to show off a tattoo or scar at a party. It’s unnecessary, of course. We know that each of us has a belly button, that each of us was born, our umbilical cords cut. But we also decline to show off those little craters in our skin for modesty, reserving such examinations and revealings for close quarters, for familial, intimate connections.
The second story of skin is the story of loneliness. Skin is the border of the body, the physical border of the self. Lovers can feel the contours and textures of each other, but neither can feel what the other person’s skin feels. All of us are granted experience through the limits of our own body; we are not given access to another’s. We live separately, separated. “A man goes on a journey,” and we go a journey alone. The ultimate story of the body is a story of aloneness.
But our lives are not uniform, however fatally archetypal. Somewhere between the coexisting forces of connection and separation, we march out each an impossible existence, unpredictable and idiosyncratic. As we cross and endure so many roads and rivers, the world wears against our skins. A nail pierces a foot sole, the sun kindles our cells, a collar chafes against the back of a neck. Our skin responds with a wound, a burn, a rash—with bruises and blisters, freckles and wrinkles, stretch marks and scars.
This is not, by the way, an essay about horses. Or at least, it’s not the essay I was hoping for, illuminated with wonder and catharsis and a grounded human-horse connection. I don’t feel like I understand them any better than before I started riding. I like my lessons—they make a fun date with Michael, and I look forward to helping my son learn to ride, and the horses are beautiful and strong-willed and forgiving. Maybe in time, understanding will form in my mind like calluses on my hands, but for now, the horses remain oblique to me; difficult to understand, difficult to ride, difficult to trust when I lay food pellets on my palm and let their teeth come near my fingers.
“We assume,” Paul de Man says, “that life produces the autobiography as an act produces its consequences, but can we not suggest […] that whatever the writer does is in fact governed by the technical demands of self-portraiture?” (20) In my lessons, I fall directly into de Man’s proposition. I started riding because I liked a book, and because I fancied the idea of myself as someone who writes about horses. But, the reality of horse riding resists my preconceived notion. The horses I ride are uninvested in my self-portrait. As much as we produce our own autobiographies, outside forces push back, disrupting our intentions.
My favorite part of the lesson, it happens, is the beginning and end, when I stand to the side of the horse, rubbing his nose and neck with my naked and clammy palms, feeling loose hairs fly up against my wrists from the motion and pressure, sweat and oil mingling on my skin.
The monosyllabic skin is an economic word for the largest organ in our bodies. The word is short and quick to travel across the expressions a mouth can make—hiss, cough, groan— sensual and aesthetic, perhaps best pronounced by a breathless lover or between the teeth of a villain.
Such a different word than its medical alias, epidermis—long and capacious, evoking an authoritative and rhythmic finality. “Your epidermis is showing,” my classmates used to say in grade school, and for a moment, I would panic, looking down at myself for signs of impropriety. The joke evokes the private world and the taboo of immodesty. It recasts a phrase that might say “your belly button is showing,” a phrase that clearly lets you know, your belly button should not be showing. The word epidermis has the phonetic hallmarks of bare physiology with its latinate roots, sounds that children like me first encountered in a fifth grade maturation class. It so happens that epidermis sounds remarkably similar to the epididymis, an internal feature of the testicle.
But of course our skin is always showing, and that is the silent punchline. We are all, as Rita Rudner says, naked beneath our clothes.
As I write in a public lobby, a relatively small percentage of my epidermis is showing: my sandaled feet, my face and neck, my hands and wrists. I am as modest as any stern matron might expect of me, in my jeans and buttoned-up long sleeve shirt. Even so, I think, my skin begs an audience—if only of myself.
Such as, for instance, my wrists. When I pause writing to open and close my hands, stiff from typing, I enjoy the cliffs and valleys of my tendons peeking out from under my shirt sleeve, enjoy the little blue veins where my mom used to hold my wrist and rub a drop of her perfume. In “A blessing,” James Wright describes a pony nuzzling his left hand, “And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear / That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.” Wrists are intimate, like the ear of a horse; vulnerable, acquiescing, defenseless when held.
I like wrists—my own, and everyone else’s—for their graceful immodesty, their communicative seduction. Barthes says, “Is not the most erotic portion of a body where the garment gapes? […] the intermittence of skin flashing between two articles of clothing (trousers and sweater), between two edges (the open-necked shirt, the glove and the sleeve)” (9-10). A wrist is a site of reveal and conceal, the place where our skin goes from visible to hidden when wearing a long sleeved shirt or a coat, but it is also a site of reveal and conceal in how we hold them—tendons facing down, the hard armor of our radius and ulna posed upwards. We raise a palm when we wave, and the underside of our wrist admits a shy presence.
That, I think, is what writing is all about—a shy presence intent on connecting with the reader. Barthes uses the word “erotic” as a metaphor for texts that want the reader and engage in a drama with the reader through the promise of reveal and conceal. And so, among other examples, he provides us with the wrist, the unheralded handle to our hands. Wrists are a pivoting point, the base of my hands as I type right now or when I draw with my son. The word “wrist” means the twisting joint, and this act of twisting, of rotation, is the means by which connection is maintained and suspended within a text.
This rotation never ceases. The pleasure of the text, Barthes says, is not a singular, culminating revelation—not “the hope of seeing the sexual organ (schoolboy’s dream) or in knowing the end of the story (novelistic satisfaction)” (10). Rather, it is the pleasure of revealing our own basic form, as in the creation of a nude portrait, “to learn the origin and the end,” an endless quest. In seeking the origin and the end, we embark upon an infinite regression, encountering origin upon origin and end upon end. The denuded form is not a static thing but a shifting state, constantly dying and being born anew.
For months after giving birth, I wore almost no clothes. For the three days after my son’s delivery by C-section, I spent most of my time in the hospital stuck on a bed, trying to pump, my body bare except for the hospital panties I bled into. In that state, I talked with my OB and met my son’s pediatrician, both men, and shook the pediatrician’s hand. At one point, I told my mom that I didn’t care who saw me naked in the hospital and she said, “Of course you care!” so, I started covering up a little more, but only because I understood, vaguely, that some people might not be at ease with my nakedness.
After we went home with our newborn, I stayed in my bedroom, topless, pumping or painfully engorged or trying to help my baby nurse, holding him close with skin to skin contact. When I did start to leave the house, I nursed uncovered. Mostly, I figured no one else minded. Nothing reduces nudity to normalcy like birth and the demands of newbornhood, and I thought everyone must have experienced sudden comfort with my nakedness just as I had. Nakedness seemed so practical and obvious. In any case, while nursing in public, my baby rejected my attempts to cover him, to shield him from onlookers. Sometimes, though, as I pulled my neckline down over one breast and let my son nurse, still less exposed than I would be in a swimsuit, men at church would gape at me, or once, a college student cat-called—as if they had never been so primal in their need for food, so naked as a baby.
In Desirae Matherly’s “In Defense of Navel Gazing,” she says, of navel gazing, “Such attention, composed in stillness, transports us to places where we are indeed altered.” The essay, she argues, is a form well-suited to belly button examinations, to ponderences of self and origin. The essay is intimately self-conscious, both of its author and of its form. David Lazar says, “In a sense, almost all essays are about the essay, because essays are so hopelessly, or better yet, hopefully, reflexive” (1). The essay is acutely aware of its body, and likes pointing to it. When someone shouts, “Your epidermis is showing! Your essay is showing!” the essay looks down for a modest moment before smiling and realizing, of course it is showing.
Genesis says, Adam was formed from the dust, and Eve from Adam’s rib. A few weeks ago I learned, for the first time, that apologists engage in heated debates over whether or not Adam had a belly button. The question had never occurred to me, and I admire the kind of curiosity that stews obsessively over these sorts of riddles. How else would Newton see an apple fall and think, gravity!, naming the force that keeps each of us from ascending into heaven?
I suspect that the hundreds of articles and discussion boards proliferating the internet about “the great debate,” as some apologists term it, are not really concerned with Adam’s abdominal cosmetology. Rather, I think the riddle touches on a fear that Adam was not like us; how can he have been, with no navel? A navel speaks more to who we are than a hand or a leg or a rib or a lung. Who cares if Adam didn’t have all of his ribs? But a navel! Any navel would do, I think; a mark on the back or side, a swirling nodule on the top of his head. Just some tribute of separation, a remnant of the being Adam grew out of.
But this must be wishful thinking on my part. Otherwise, more people would be wondering about a mark in Eve’s side, the place where she grew after a rib was separated from Adam. Searching did Eve have a belly button produces links titled, Did Adam have a belly button, or, Why are Adam and Eve painted with belly buttons?—no interest in Eve’s umbilical status, belly or ribs or elsewhere.
So, no, not any navel will do.
On the day of my son’s birth, my genesis as a mother—my second birthday, the saying goes, not accounting all of my previous births and deaths—I delivered my son by C-section. At four to five inches of skin, my C-section is my largest scar, skin-through-womb deep, now inelastic and numb but for an occasional shade of irritation. I do not understand the laws that order wounds into scars, and my efforts to read articles about healing skin have so far confused more than enlightened me. However, I am always pleased to happen across the phrase, wound cell activities. I think it a poetic phrase, one that conjures an image of busy medics collaborating around a cite of disaster. But perhaps my imposed image isn’t quite right; after all, wound cells are the same as damaged cells. A better image might be civilians packing sandbags after a flood, returning to their water-damaged homes more weary than before. Wound cells recover damage, but they don’t go back to what they were. They remember, sometimes leaving a mark—a scar—that outlasts generations of cells.
“All I want is to prove that this happened” (37) Rafferty says of tragedies where he could find no memorials, no scars. I am no longer pregnant, my abdomen no longer sore, but I can look down and see, however faintly—remember, there. That happened.
A trauma I cannot prove happened: once I was almost trampled by horses, or so I believed. I was little, sitting in my front yard by the corner of my house. I suspect that I was lost in thought, or rather, moored in a state of concentration that left me senseless to the world. Then, three horses from the pasture behind our house, Dolly, Zeb and Gabby, galloped around the corner, hooves striking the ground and beating a path through the grass in front of me.
I have no memory of the horses startling when they saw me, no memory of a sudden spook in their posture. I was likely not really in their way at all. But a seven year old does not know that horses are adept at noticing and avoiding the carefree creatures in their path. Perhaps even a seasoned horseman doesn’t know it, when three horses appear suddenly and wildly as they round a corner in their race to escape. Whatever my brain might have known or not known, my body knew for certain that I should have died, and the fact of my survival shot through my guts and bones in ripple after ripple of pain.
In grade school, even more common than “Your epidermis is showing,” I remember the joke that went “Look! Gullible is written on the ceiling!” This time, instead of looking down for signs of impropriety, I would look up for a moment of shared spectacle, only to realize I had, once again, been caught.
My siblings especially liked to play this joke on me, who always looked up, and who had a reputation for being incurably gullible. Eventually, I started giving long monologues during family meals about how it wasn’t gullible at all to look at the ceiling; looking was a way of finding the truth for one’s self. To this, my siblings snickered, just as they did when I suggested that saying “I’m not being defensive” didn’t necessarily mean that I was being defensive.
In the Garden of Eden, the first human hurt was the shame of gullibility; the second, the shame of skin. After Adam and Eve hid their naked bodies, God asked, surprised at their shame, “Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldst not eat?”
Adam spoke first: “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.” Whom thou gavest to be with me—Remember, Father? Woman you made from my rib, bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh? Woman for whom man should leave his father, and cleave unto her, one flesh? Adam had followed his best friend away from home, the two as innocent as children.
“And the Lord God said unto the woman, What is this that thou hast done? And the woman said, the serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.”
In high school, I believed I was anorexic, mostly because my classmates and teachers told me that I was—but, if I had seen an actual psychologist, I doubt they would have said so. I was happy with my size, and my lack of eating was generally not a conscious choice. Rather, I felt, and continue to feel, a prohibitively low appetite. At times, I can stomach only very mild food, and I often have to remind myself to eat enough.
As a teenager, I rarely listened when people told me I should eat more. Eating activated a kind of gag reflex that exhausted me, and I didn’t want to set aside the hours of emotional and physical energy it eventually took, towards the end of high school, when I worked so hard to feed myself. I’m not sure I would have taken food seriously, if it hadn’t been for two marks on my skin—a four inch line down my bicep, and a little ribbon of red on my wrist. The mark on my bicep came from scratching myself on a branch, barely drawing little beads of blood. The ribbon on my wrist came from burning myself, lightly, with an iron. Both marks stayed for months, refusing to heal.
It was my skin that convinced me I was starving. I had been told before that if I didn’t eat enough I might not be able to conceive, which concerned me, but the thought of motherhood was moored in a remote future, and I felt no urgency. Seeing my body so helpless, though, made real the possibility that I was being irrecoverably damaged. And so, I ate.
A few weeks ago at my dad and stepmom’s for dinner, my brother said, “Lizzie, I hear you’re still gullible. We need to test your gullibleness.”
I said, after asking who had told him I was gullible and receiving no answer, “Wouldn’t that be hard to test when I’m anticipating it? And anyway, I still insist that someone who looks at the ceiling to see if ‘guillibe’ is written on it is smart, not gullible, because they found out for themselves.
“See?” I looked up. “I’ve checked, and ‘gullible’ isn’t on the ceiling.” Perhaps I would have continued my monologue if everyone at the table hadn’t folded into a unanimous fit of laughter. I looked again. There it was on the ceiling, a little piece of paper that read, gullible.
I tried to explain that I was wearing an old glasses prescription that made it hard to see, but I was embarrassed. I could read it okay; I just hadn’t looked very closely. I said, to preserve some dignity, that my blunder would go great in an essay I was writing and pulled out my tablet to take notes. My brother said, “I love you Lizzie!” and a few minutes later, my dad said, “You’ve got some good material now, even if it was at your expense.”
Such is the privilege of writers, I suppose: the universe is constantly supplying gifts. “Everything I see or hear is an essay in bud,” Alexander Smith said, perhaps favoring the universe at rest to the universe in commotion, but demonstrating nonetheless the writerly impulse to turn everything into material. Writers are proverbial cowboys sitting around the campfire, showing off scars and swapping stories. I’ve never sat around a campfire with cowboys, but I imagine that even though a big scar is impressive among strangers, any scar will do among friends. Friends are less interested in competition than communion, funny or somber or trifling in tone, and an essayist writes as a friend.
Sitting around a campfire, though, implies inaction and repose. The horse has stopped bucking, the cows are gathered in. Writing, too, creates an illusion of emotional respite. The pain has passed, the writer is not in imminent crisis. But this is true only of the persona. The literal writer, like everyone, is always in the midst of crises. Resolution and relief last only a moment before the drama of life picks up again, aching and seemingly impossible to bear.
Yesterday, at my riding lesson, I was trotting circles when my horse, irritated by her bit, broke into a gallop. My instructor shouted “Easy, whoa,” and tried to shorten the lead rope, telling me to pull on the reins—which I did for a moment before gripping the saddle pad, reins still in hand, certain I would lose control if I let go. The horse picked up speed, running circles around my instructor, and the saddle started shifting to the side by degrees.
For a moment, I thought about jumping off in case I couldn’t stay on the saddle as it shifted, but then I saw another instructor walking over, and I knew I could hold on a little longer. I couldn’t help but smile from relief and the thrill of flying. A minute later, my horse had stopped. The crisis was over, and I thought, this belongs in an essay.
Fair enough, it belongs in an essay; here it is. But that was yesterday. Today, I am no cowboy. Instead, I lie in bed with an aching back, an intermittent migraine, my thighs as tender as a bruise. My skeleton is decidedly moody and my muscles are complaining all over. It was a bit much for me, the high speed, my untrained body slamming into the saddle repeatedly. Perhaps I’ll feel differently tomorrow, but for now, the writer lying in bed is in pain, and an essay, a scar to show off in the form of words, feels like poor compensation.
Another trauma I cannot prove happened: while I sat on the couch in my apartment living room as a college freshman, a group of boys outside of the building starting shouting and hitting the window above me. I shut the blinds and locked the door and moved away from the couch. The pounding continued, then progressed to the door, doorknob rattling, a stampede of blows.
Shortly after, they left, and a few minutes later I opened the door to make sure no one was outside. A note was left on our doorstep. It was handwritten and short, maybe twenty words, over half of which I didn’t recognize. I searched for each word on the internet, learning terms for anal sex and incest and other slang, before throwing the note away. When my roommate got home, I told her what happened and mentioned the letter.
“Why did you look up the words?” she asked, in the wake of her alarm.
I said something like, “I don’t know. I was just curious.”
Five or so years after that, we went to lunch, where my roommate told me that she had told our bishop, the local church leader, about what happened. His response, she said, was that it would be best if she didn’t mention it anymore; it could get a boy into trouble. She had followed his advice, even though we had no idea who the boys were. She only told me his response years later.
Since then, I’ve tried to remember some of the words in that letter, wanting to weigh the injury of its content. I felt gutted after reading it, horribly aware and ashamed of my body. But I can remember only one phrase, turkey jive, which Google tells me should be jive turkey, a mild slur, as they go—an exaggerator, or a liar. Seeing its definition, I can’t help but wonder if I am exaggerating, can’t help but believe that I must be lying, though I don’t know what about.
In “Fashioning a Text,” Annie Dillard says that storytelling replaces memory. She uses sharing a dream as an example, as when “at the end of the verbal description you’ve lost the dream but gained a verbal description.” I resist her example as a general truth for writing, when so much of our memory is already processed into a mood, a script, an image. I remember, from childhood, the horses behind my house blinking off flies (an aggregate scene), and I retain a mental image after transferring it to words. Whether or not we write, our memories are perpetually deconstructing into symbolized, artistic form. Writing adds a file, a symbolic construction, but it doesn’t necessarily replace the files we had before. We can read our words and compare them with still-intact memory. We can say, no, that isn’t quite right; let me try again.
I do think, however, that Dillard conveys how writing ages unprocessed memory, as with recent memory (including, say, a dream), or memories that refuse to age with time. That is one of the great mercies of writing. Writing changes traumatic memory the way wound cell activities change skin. Both recover an injury, reforming and fading or becoming a scar that may, or may not, keep the shape of an original wound. Writing ages memory.
Before writing about the horses I thought had almost trampled me, I could still feel the zinging around my viscera when it came to mind. After writing, it is just another story I want to remember, a story I engage with from a distance. But if a wound is deep enough, a record stays whether we want it to or not. A scar remains, and the damaged skin, no longer in crisis, loses sensation. A piece of memory fades into coded information, cool to the touch, no longer so raw and bright.
Adam and Eve were naked again, obviously, after leaving the garden. Such is the inescapable deduction of Abel and Cain. I imagine the first time, undressing from the clothes they left the garden in, asking themselves— remember those days? Their first time intimate must have been a traumatic reminder of the innocence they had lost, and the onset of shame. Under so much pressure and pain, I can’t imagine a sweetness more comforting than the acceptance and proximity they found in each other, the awareness that their bodies were, once again, lovely.
Nine months after conception came another nakedness, a kind that Eve had never known before—exposure to the steadfast course of nature, the uncontainable course of labor. A nakedness of bloated skin and engorgement and chafed nipples, of pain and longing and the promise of breakability unique to newborns. I imagine it was hard for Eve to put her clothes back on, eventually, when she remembered again the shame of nakedness. After dressing again, I wonder if she put a hand under the hem of her shirt to trace the alternating terrain of her belly, hollow stretch marks between plump skin, like letters beneath her fingers.
Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1975. Print.
de Man, Paul. “Autobiography as De-facement.” Modern Language Notes. 1979
Dillard, Annie. “To Fashion a Text.” Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
Koch, Kenneth. “One Train May Hide Another.” poets.org. Web.
Lazar, David. “Introduction: An Essay Upon Essays Upon Essays Upon Essays.” Essaying the Essay. Gettysburg: Welcome Table Press, 2014. Print.
Matherly, Desirae. “In Defense of Navel Gazing.” The Essay Review. Web.
Rafferty, Colin. “The Path.” Hallow This Ground. Indiana University Press, 2015. Print.
Smith, Alexander. “On the writing of essays.” Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 27 Oct 2006. 17 Apr 2018 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/smith_a/writing_of_essays/>.
The Holy Bible: King James Version. Web.
Wright, James. “A Blessing.” Poetry Foundation. Web.