Ribs are a familiar yet unknown feature of our structure. The same root-word is found in many languages; the image of the rib has been employed in describing the structure of everything from roofs to leaves to boats. We know we have lots of them which is perhaps why one could be spared for creating Eve – though it is also true that many people have an extra pair, ready for transformation. The ribs protect the heart and lungs but the term rib-cage is so unfortunate, so fixed and rigid, when the essence of the rib is liveliness. A snake uses its ribs to help with movement, enhancing the basic rhythms of contraction and release which allows the soft earthworm or simpler leech to move laboriously over the ground. Our limbs have opened out from the middle of the body and left the chest with the rhythm of breathing. A rib is sculpted in movement. Each rib is twisted along its long axis and also has an angle which means that you cannot lay a rib flat on a table. In life its middle portion, at your side, will be lower than both ends, though the front end is also lower than the back. It lives under twisting torsional tension, ready to spring out, to move apart. The higher ribs, lifting and rotating as you breathe in, move more at the front: the longer lower ribs as they are lifted move more out and up at the sides. I want to direct you to your sides, a place we lose underneath our arms and the tension in our shoulders. The human chest is wide rather than deep from front to back, but it’s still the case that you have wide, elastic sides, with a criss-cross of muscles from your head to your pelvis allowing flexible support through this forgotten region. If you find your sides then you can more easily connect front and back and find the space inside. Wislawa Szymborska writes a poem, ‘A large number’ about how crowded the world feels, how insignificant the individual, and yet she still feels alive and large and singular:
Why there’s all this space inside me
I don’t know
The mystery is in the imagination – and the ribs.