In the sixth grade, my classmate Sarah Weese used to come over on snow days. By unspoken and unexamined fiat, she and I only hung out when school had been cancelled. On these days, we would play Trivial Pursuit and drink the Swiss Miss with the teensy bobby marshmallows and get giddy together in the strange, middle-of-the-day quiet of my kitchen. Then we’d go back to school and politely say hello to one another, like travelers who’ve bonded throughout an epic flight delay but have little in common at their destination.
Even in the sixth grade, Sarah Weese could cut a flawless slice of cheese. At this I marveled. I’d cut irregular gobs like slabs of rock severed in an avalanche. Or the cheese would crumble beneath my knife as if humiliated by my ineptitude. Sarah Weese, however, slid the knife clean through in a single motion. The cheese was felled like a tree. And although Sarah Weese and I drifted apart, my snow days in high school spent with other friends in coffee shops or at the movies or sulking around the aisles of Kroger’s, buying stale candy, I always remembered this prowess of hers. She could open a bag of microwave popcorn and give flight to a perfect plume of steam. I’d scald myself, drop the bag, scatter its contents, curse.
Later, when I moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, as an adult, I watched women on the street carve mangos into flowers. They’d peel the fruit in one slick rotation, the peel removed almost as if it’d never been there, as if it’d gotten away with a crime. Then they’d rotate the stick that sustained the mango, their hands barely moving, slitting cross-wise into the gleaming yellow muscle until suddenly it became a flower. They did this over and over, dousing the mango flowers in chamoy and handing them to passersby like me, who so quickly devolved into a sticky pulpy mess that my husband was embarrassed to be walking with me.
Mexico constantly reminds me of how useless my body is as a refined tool. I am a great runner; I can outpace and outlast many men. My body can tear up a 5k and strain itself to near-vomiting to win a DVD player. And as a crude instrument for schlepping cheese sandwiches to the tops of mountains, my body works very well. But there is a brute, banal straightforwardness to running or hiking: lurch your body forward, keep it moving, faster, harder. The trembling elation after a backpacking trek or a run is testament to the fundamental clumsiness of these motions, the way they jolt and jar the body, straining muscles and releasing sweat and pushing all systems to the max.
Here, in Oaxaca, people wield their bodies as instruments in the performance of distinct, elegant functions. The señoras, above all: they pound tortillas between their palms with a flat kissing sound and then, just as quickly and with just as much force, press them between metal plates and slide them onto the comal. No motion has more weight than any other, none appears to require strain or self-awareness. I am not romanticizing this, getting all heady with the copal smoke and rhapsodizing about the time when women used to spend twelve hours a day preparing meals. I met a woman in one Oaxacan pueblo who got up at 4 a.m. to begin making a breakfast her husband would eat at 8, and while she seemed cheerful enough, I am wary of projecting a nostalgic wonder onto her.
Rather, I’m compelled by the physical knowledge apparent and contained within these daily tasks, a learning in the muscles that also indicates a certain type of relationship with the world, a sensual understanding of it: the mass of which it’s composed, the materials, their reliability and unique volatility. Historically, we associate cartography, topography, with men: explorers projecting themselves onto the landscape, hacking their way up rivers, graphing their exploits on crumpled paper. The topography of women is more intimate and largely uncharted, unheralded: it is an everyday geography of masa and children’s ropy bodies, nopales sheared of their needles, the rough newness of a towel from which the last drop of moisture has been wrung.
This is a way of reading the world, of both mapping and navigating it. It is a sure and unspoken learning perhaps more seamless and intimate in connection to the natural realm than that of great men. It is a way of being that is essentially human and yet also takes people out of humanness and back into their bodies, their instinctual animal selves.
Perhaps because I have always emulated the traditionally male, striving not for the accomplishment of perfectly baked bread but the soaring exceptionalism of a conquered peak, I suck at most tasks that demand dexterity. Maybe some innate resistance to perceived femininity slips the egg through my fingers, compels me to chomp at the mango like a medieval king working on a lamb leg. I have done nothing to try and improve this utter lack of manual ability. I have gotten along just fine without it for many years, walking down the street with beans on my face, making soups of lopsided vegetables. And for the most part I am no better at any of the quotidian tasks of physical labor–the buttering of bread, the mopping of floors–than I was ten years ago.
The other night, however, I realized that a new physical prowess has emerged stealthy and jaguar-like from my clumsiness and overtaken me, in spite of myself. I did not know it was there until, in the diffuse glow of moonlight, with a poised, tensile delicacy and care, I lay my sleeping baby on the bed.
For an instant I perched above her, utterly still, my body a heat and a presence saying, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay. I had one hand on her small back, the fingers lightly splayed, a touch like a fallen leaf on grass. When she lifted her head a bit in protest I, without thinking, increased my touch by an infinitesimal fraction, directing into it every ion of my energy: please let me drink this beer and check Twitter sleep baby sleep. It worked. She settled, her body relaxed. I inched away as if in mendication, glided soundlessly off the bed, tiptoed to the door, and eased it shut in a slow, practiced, fluid motion.
My god, I thought. Where did this grace come from?
Surely I then flung the cap off my beer in the kitchen and fizz exploded all over the counter, but the fact of it remained: my body had learned the geography of the baby the way that the aproned women on the corners knew mangoes and the abuelas knew tortillas and Sarah Weese knew cheese.
The material weight of her, her movements, the subtleties of her acquiescence or resistance, were a knowledge I had accumulated without ever realizing it. Or rather, I had realized it without respecting it as knowledge. I didn’t begin to do so until I noticed the way other mothers, whose kids were grown, retained the corporeal memory of the myriad physical details of taking care of children. They possessed this in a rote way, without nostalgic or purposeful aim, but from time to time they would recognize it with a sense of wonder and self-respect. My stepmom, for example, changing a diaper on her visit to Oaxaca. Describing it later, she flung her hands around in a series of criss-crossed, mind-boggling xes. “Wham wham wham!” she said, “Done!” It was a spot-on re-enactment of a toddler’s diaper change. It came right back, she explained with the satisfaction of recalling mastery.
Give her a day or two and she could do it while the baby is standing up and pointing out the window of an airplane, as my husband and I did recently. Her hands, my hands, betray the fundaments of our knowledge: more than the history of Bolivia or the details of certain summer nights or passages from our favorite literature, we have retained the motions of soothing a child, of the exact placement of a palm between the tiny wings of shoulder blades, of disappearing all evidence of explosive diarrhea with a few swishes of the wrist. The things we carry: the memories of late-night non-stop rocking, the murmur of a lullaby, the mouth of a sock opened at just the right angle to slip a wriggling foot inside.
Mothers rely intensely on their bodies to interpret and respond to the signals of their yet speechless infants. In doing so, they are forced to get in touch with a physical realm that is animal in its intuition. In the way great trainers can affect a horse’s canter with the slightest shift of their hips, mothers curve their palms to cup fragile heads, taper their rocking to imperceptible levels to coax peace. They must read signs most people do not recognize as signs, or even movements. They learn this language because it allows them to have a fucking break from it all to watch Parenthood and eat Cheez-its with their significant others, please. But also because their bodies take over their nagging minds, their impulses, the selves they thought were so solid and unbendable.
I was incredibly awkward at breastfeeding in the beginning. My baby was great, a natural, and for this I am so thankful. But I needed about fifteen precisely arranged pillows and a support system for my elbow and my husband standing by with a glass of water to tilt to my mouth since I could not possibly devote a finger to anything other than the exact affixation of baby to boob. Now I could breastfeed while vacuuming and reading a novel. I twist my baby around with the fearless know-how of a master swordsman and voila, there she is, latched, while I chat on Skype and fold socks. I can tell from the slightest turn of her lip if she wants to nurse, or to switch sides, or if she is desperate for sleep and can’t get it with the help of my chest. She is a silent physical language I have learned to speak.
The other night, after I’d put the baby to sleep and marveled at her head nuzzled in the crux of my arm, after I’d reveled for a moment in the completeness of our joined bodies, me sustaining her into the cool ease of rest, I emerged from our bedroom and promptly dropped a bag full of eggs. “Fucking shithead piece of crapola!” I shouted. I had somehow managed to smear one down the wall, despite dropping the bag pretty much directly to the ground. The house had a vague eggy smell for days.
I seem to have gained a new corporeal sense only in areas pertaining to the soft, sweet, sticky body of my baby. And as has been the case with many other unanticipated changes of motherhood, I’ve developed a new respect for women’s knowledge, for all of the seemingly tiny, insignificant tasks women have performed throughout thousands of years in relationship with the world around them, in the sustenance of life. We can appreciate these tasks when they are codified as work or expertise and performed by men: chefs, say, or surgeons, or architects. But there is also an architecture and a surgery and an artistry to everyday life, and while I respect that there is not the same training or the same weight in the latter it is another type of learning, unrecognized, largely unvalued, carried in the bodies of women.
But my point is not a political one. The skills developed in the body by taking care of a baby are a gift, a way of being in the world, and a way of connecting with all the women–and some men–who have learned these skills before. They are a chance, as is all of motherhood in certain instants, to dig down below all the self-conscious assertion of everyday life to a more intimate, instinctual, animal level, of poop and vomit, sure, of milk and little necks creased with prune puree, but also of a physical elegance like that of an alligator slipping into a stream.
Sometimes I anticipate a future when this knowledge will be recognized, reactivated: ten years from now when I’ll hold a friend’s baby, or my brother’s baby, and think with pride and maybe nostalgia and maybe relief of those years and their total immersion. It is not unlike the anticipation I used to feel while living and working in foreign countries, dreaming of the day when I’d look back and remember the blue-lit morning beach, the sharp scent of anis in the air. It is infanthood as a country, mapped by a mother’s body.