How does a backbone begin? I’ve seen white dots on ultrasounds, strings of pearls,
necklaces resting against my cervix, the backbones of babies growing inside me.
In human anatomy, the spinal column begins with the vertebra labeled C1. But I am asking
a different question.
In bed each night I touch my lover’s back, fingers rising and falling along the ridges
of his bones. I imagine the attachments of muscles, the connections of nerves. Phylum Chordata,
I learned in biology class. Caressing this Braille of his backbone, I sense my own spine,
this column within me, extending from my head to my hips. We are vertebrates. Both of us.
Animals Without Backbones. Black textbook. White lettering and illustration of a jellyfish.
Left on the carpet, near my side of our bed, where I undress, not only so I can read its pages
as I fall asleep, but also so each night I can remember what I am not.
I volunteer as a beach naturalist, examining the marine invertebrates exposed by low
tides. Phylum Cnidaria are my favorites: the aggregating anemones that retract tentacles
when touched, the larger red ones shriveling into lumps, and the jellyfish the colors
of liver or egg yolks. Closing my eyes at night, images from the day emerge in the darkness:
anemone, mussels, jellies, bodies tossing in the rushing tides.
As a girl I imagined I must be a tidepool denizen, soft and malleable, like the creatures
I saw at the beach each summer. A man with black glasses had once pressed me into
the floor as if I had no bones. Watching my mother beg men to return, I learned that love required
retraction, the ability to shrink and disappear. I understood the necessity of shell. The weight
of waves. The isolation of tides. I accepted shapes dictated to me. I adapted.
Step on a crack, break your mother’s back, I heard in kindergarten. During my walk home I stared
at the ground and avoided the lines in the concrete. I was too gullible. I believed too easily.
I soon learned that this rhyme was only a child’s game, a fiction. But also now I know the truth
that one person can impact another person’s spine.
The vertebrate brain has developed the complexity of intricate structures and functions.
We humans have memories and fear. We have cognition. We can communicate with jawbones
and teeth, with words and writing. A paper on skeletogenesis states, “The rigid articulated
elements of the vertebrate skeleton permit deliberate postures and movements.”
So far as scientists can tell, anemones and jellies lack all of these.
As a child I boiled the Thanksgiving turkey carcass in order to find the bones. The black
spinal cord remained like a ribbon inside the string of vertebrae. I laid out the yellow skeletal
pieces like a puzzle, storing them in a box in my bedroom closet. I wanted their flexibility
and strength. I wanted to know what would carry my weight and how I would find structure
and form. I wanted to bend without breaking.
I studied other spines also. Spines of books. Like my mother, I read the Bible multiple times.
I believed each word and memorized verses. On my graduation from confirmation,
I selected a black leather Bible in a literal translation. To protest my eighth grade history
teacher’s evolution curriculum, I bought a pin stating, “God has a better idea,” but, too
timid, I did not wear it to school.
Stand up straight, people told me. In my middle school yearbook, pictures show my back
curved in the cafeteria, my body slumped when posing with my homeroom advisor. But I was
hermit crab, hiding inside spirals. I was anemone retracting beyond recognition. Transparent
as jellyfish, certain anyone could see through my boneless body.
Tunicates, translucent marine creatures, dangling from pilings and rocks, have notochords,
like humans, during embryonic development. However, these chordates, with their rubbery
bodies, do not keep their spines as adults. It is possible to lose the beginnings of a backbone.
Grow a backbone. No one said this to me directly. But people used other words. “Student
needs to speak up in class,” more than one teacher wrote on carbon paper forms.
But student did not know what to say.
“Can’t you just enjoy this music?” A family friend asked me once, gesturing to the radio
as I rode in his car, but I shook my head. No, I could not like a folk song about New Orleans.
I could only appreciate classical music and become a symphony violinist and brain surgeon,
as my mother had instructed me.
“I don’t know” became the first words I would mumble when asked a question. I’d lower
my head, round my shoulders, examine carpet. Then a college friend, a senior when
I was a freshman, retorted, exasperated in her voice: “Oh yes, you do know.” I was silent.
But I began to believe her.
At college I fell in love with a graduate student, five years older, who shared knowledge
and answers. Ted also had the identical Bible I owned, but re-bound in new black leather.
Our conversations began after church. We discussed the definition of the word “theory”
and what we understood about God. He asked for backrubs, his muscles twisted from studying,
so I knelt on the floor and placed my hands on either side of his spine.
Ted and I wrote letters. We sent emails. He asked me to marry him with a series of eleven
letters, one for each day we were apart in the summer of ’91. After he returned from the trip,
he asked if he could read me a twelfth letter, this one ending with a question. I said yes,
one of my first decisions that didn’t fit inside the shapes dictated to me. “Eleven letters,” my lover
and I say to each other. The backbone of our relationship.
I now feel this man’s bones in my bed. Bony, people have described my lover, because he is
slender. Yet I am comforted each night as I feel his ankles. His elbows. His vertebrae. I like
the solidity of the shapes, the contoured geography of my lover’s body, this physical contact
with his internal structure, reminders of our chordate commonality.
But some nights I still see the glasses of the man who pressed into me, gigantic and black.
I become cnidarian, quivering. I am anemone. I am jelly. So I close my eyes and pray for waves
to return and rush the memories away with the force of the tide.
Making the beast with two backs. Kids in high school whispered and giggled about
Shakespeare’s description of sex. But isn’t that it? I started to understand only
as an adult, decades later. Sex involves two backs. Two backbones. Two spines,
two independent sets of structures, each supporting a body’s center, each one bearing
weight and desires, yet able to bend.
One of our daughters struggled to remember which creatures were vertebrates.
So I bought her X-rays of animals, hoping the pictures would help her learn. The images
enchanted me. In X-ray, humans resemble fish filets. We look like lizards or dogs.
We also resemble letters. Lines like calligraphy. Alphabets written in bones.
Surgeons can now implant 3D-printed vertebrae to replace damaged ones. Cells can enter
through pores into the printed form, living tissue anchoring the implant to the body.
I think I had hoped religion would transplant new identity into me. Born again–
with a new backbone. Memories would be made new if I memorized enough words.
Yet this spiritual implant did not incorporate into my physical body. Despite prayers
and passages, I continued to quiver, my jawbone shut, my voice silent.
“He punched me at the base of the spine,” my youngest daughter told me one recent
afternoon, describing a lunchroom incident. Why do bullies seek to damage
the backbone? In the school counselor’s office with my daughter, I listened and observed.
I noted my back curved and caved. My daughter slumped too. Dismayed, I concluded she
had inherited from me this invertebrate sense of retraction and shrinking.
“Use ‘I’ words,” the counselor described new strategies for my daughter. “The rigid
articulated elements of the vertebrate skeleton permit deliberate postures
and movements.” Deliberate postures and movements. ‘I’ words. How that tall alphabet letter
resembles a backbone. What she and I both need to build.
Spineless. How I’ve imagined myself. Like jelly, anemone, mollusk missing a shell.
How did it happen? Why didn’t I speak up? Why didn’t I stop the man with glasses? But I have to
remember more and further. The next time I saw him, he asked, “Did you like that kind of loving?”
I said no. At age nine, I had a backbone. This I must remember.
Is the soul held in the sacrum, in this “sacred bone”? Churches tell us to ask Jesus into
our heart, but maybe the spine holds the soul. If I know newness and resurrection,
understand it from my sacrum. If I know grace, I’ve learned it with these parts
of the body that we don’t discuss in church. If I pray, I pray in bed.
Or perhaps this bone is named sacrum because it was burned in sacrifices. I have held
the ashes and bits of bone from my mother and one of my brothers in my hands. Which
one of us will die first? How many more times will we make love? How many more
nights will we have? What will remain in our bodies? What will remain of us on earth?
Backslidden: Some would say my husband and I are backslidden. We don’t discuss
the Bible or pray as often as we once did. But the faith I have now is like living tissue,
dynamic and adapting, anchored inside me. Love too must be a backbone: incorporated
into the body and its motions, flexible and firm, able to grow and change in time.
“Be careful to keep your muscles and spine strong as you age.” My doctor observed
recently that only one inch separated my rib cage from my sacrum. “Curve your hips
forward when you walk,” a dance instructor had advised me once but I didn’t know how.
Mornings now I stretch–Superman, Plank, Table–praying and meditating while holding
this tension. Slowly I am sensing my spine, claiming this column within me, leading my body
forward with this sacred bone.
The coccyx is vestigial, remnant of a tail. I too remain a creature of remnants. But the
nine-year-old said no. I can choose to be Chordata. I am evolving.
My lover’s hand makes slow circles against my bones. C1. C2.
I choose to curve my vertebrae towards him, reaching to touch his skin.
Imagine the words our bodies would make, if seen in X-ray, the way spines can
speak. This language of living letters, written again and again with our skeletons, same
and different each time, sturdy and stretching, spirit and flesh. Skin beneath my fingers,
ridges of bone caressed with my hand.
Writing can resemble radiography, seeking to see beneath surfaces. From childhood, bodies and bones have fascinated me— touching the soft flesh of anemones on ocean shores, assembling the puzzle pieces of the Thanksgiving turkey carcass. Years later, as an adult, training to be a volunteer beach naturalist, I observed marine invertebrates and wondered, What holds a body together? What is the importance of a spine? How do backbones begin? I decided to study the differences between vertebrates and invertebrates, reading publications and examining my own obsession. Searching through memories, I discovered spines, from backrubs to books to idioms. Words too had remained with me in memories: words spoken to me, words I wished I had been able to speak, words I had spoken but forgotten.
As I started to assemble the essay, I realized the structure of the human backbone could provide further organization, insight, and momentum for the lyric segments I had crafted. And as I focused on finishing this piece, after months of work, my daughter told me about the bully’s punches. Writing can also be a beginning, a building, a genesis. Through shaping this essay, through this intense X-ray and imaging and imagining, I began to strengthen my own backbone and identity, piece by piece. Specific thanks to Pallavi Bhattaram and Véronique Lefebvre’s paper “Vertebrate Skeletogenesis,” Ralph Buchbaum’s textbook, Animals Without Backbones, and Susan Middleton’s Spineless: Portraits of Marine Invertebrates, the Backbone of Life. Thanks also to the beach naturalist training programs and communities in Kitsap County and at the Seattle Aquarium.–JJL
Julie Jeanell Leung is a graduate of the Rainier Writing Workshop, the MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in a number of publications, including the Bellingham Review and the Brevity blog, and she has also received the 2014 Living Earth Nonfiction Prize from Blue Lyra Review. A beach naturalist and citizen scientist, Julie lives with her family on Bainbridge Island where she can be found at low tide counting sea stars on the rocky shores.