Between letters & sounds

Gravity is a force of belonging that every living thing on earth shares. There’s a pull to the center. We feel this when we stand in mountain pose, arranging the physical and energetic sense of ourselves around the body’s plumb line.

It’s a rebar of radiance at the center of each existence.

We feel this in corpse pose as we release the back body into the support of the ground, the front body softening to the sky.

I’ve held on to a postcard, a tinted vintage photograph, showing an American Indian burial, a corpse face up on an elevated platform exposed to the sky. The credit reads: “From the studio of Charlotte M. Pinkerton, Chicago, ILL.” Hanging from the platform is a round, feathered dream catcher and what looks to be a scabbard holding a rifle or sword.

Happy kid in the backyard!

From a young age, I wondered about death and burial customs. I guess I was a weird kid. In my defense, my dad was a professor of material culture (stuff) and his best friend at the university was an archaeologist (dead stuff). They took students, and sometimes my brother and me, on trips to Meso-American sites. My dad also taught film studies and, being four years younger than my brother, I saw campy zombie films at a tender age, in grungy downtown theaters and while waiting out the hours in the back of a summer school classroom full of undergrads.

My mom’s side of the family were “jack” Mormons, meaning they’d flapped the tarp of history to shake off religion.

But the dust of tradition blew back, anyhow, and stuck to them.

I canned produce with my grandmother during hot Nevada summers and was tasked with ironing and setting the table.

Mormons believe that, in heaven, everyone reunites with their loved ones, and everyone is fully grown. That didn’t sit well with my grandmother, who quarreled with her sisters and cousins, left her husband, and felt tremendous guilt over the death of her young son. She was scared right up until the end, and died alone in an assisted living facility, unable to outrun the ghouls of fear, shame and regret.

My other grandmother decided early on that she wanted her ashes scattered at a desert lake she loved, no marker. This appeals to me, too. I’ve heard that Vikings set the deceased on a raft, set fire to it, and pushed it out to sea. It seemed to me – like hair clipped at the salon and swept into a dust bin to be tossed away, or fingernails clipped and deposited in the garbage, or baby teeth that tumble from gums to be set under pillows, removed and replaced with a shiny quarter – that the rest of the corporeal body would just go away, too.

In my childhood neighborhood an abandoned hospital that had once occupied a whole city block became rubble, overrun with weeds. We played there, of course. It was known to the kids as Dirt Hill.

Any kid with imagination wondered about the people who might have died there.

We ourselves buried dead rats there in the somber ritualistic play of childhood before the internet.

The rented brick house on D.C.’s Capitol Hill where I grew up dated back to the 19th century. Digging holes for flower seeds, I unearthed china dolls and bits of metal. During summers at my great aunt’s Utah ranch, we found arrowheads and grinding stones.

Clearly, land continues and, in my mind, those who walk it collapse, dissolve, disintegrate, are picked apart in burial pyres, burned to ash and absorbed by land and water. Or eaten by sharks as in the movie “Jaws,” which I saw as a little kid.

In the first few weeks after moving back to D.C. in 2015, after decades in California, I traveled back to Capitol Hill to a simple park of sidewalk and lawn that had been the weedy Dirt Hill lot. The neighborhood’s changed.

In the more formal city park across the street – where I once sold woven pot holders with my friend Jane (who died in college when struck by a car while riding her bicycle), where I once ran as fast as I could with my good white dog by my side (who also died long since) – there was only one person, a weary-looking man who gathered his belongings when he saw me and moved on.

If years of writing and teaching and meditating have taught me anything, it is that life’s joy is found at the fulcrum of seeming opposites as well as contrasts and conflicts.

We contrive oppositions in order to define. But they are still merely arrangements of a mental board game. The seesaw of past and future, for example, is easier to see, and to feel, after all, memories and hopes dangle at each end, but that still point, the present, is peace.

The old St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in D.C.

On an earlier visit to D.C., before moving back, I accompanied my mom to a service at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church, in the city’s southwest quadrant. The church itself was to be razed to make way for condos. We attended on the last day of a long-running homeless breakfast service, and the second-to-last church service. The rector, Martha, conducted a warm, meaningful service that emphasized the need to listen to others’ stories. Before the current building was erected, the parishioners had met at Hogate’s Restaurant. This time, while a new, smaller building was being constructed adjacent to the condos, the community would meet in the common room of an apartment complex and at a neighboring church.

The parish seemed part of this cycle of flowing in and out of the community, and the people seemed untroubled by the change.

Maybe they are established in the spirit of breath, aligned with the rhythms of their neighborhood and their beliefs, able to express the faith that makes a nest in joy. 

I’ve heard it said that the whole world is doing yoga all the time; the yogis are just naming it. If every movement, every word, is a prayer then we can take it with us.

The second time my mom got cancer and it looked grim, I was baptized in the narthex of St. Augustine’s at her request. The community did not know me, but they knew her. The priest welcomed me and talked me through my beliefs, much as the Episcopal priest who had married Matt and me a few years earlier had done. Both priests (gone now) were good guys with senses of humor and a real acceptance of human foibles.

At this church that had welcomed me, as I read and sang the prayers, the links to Buddhism and yoga struck me.

It’s as if we are all bees being nourished by flowers, some the same and some different, and doing our bee waggle to show others where we found the nectar, then going back to the hive to make something of it. 

After this final church service at St. Augustine’s, the rector conducted a closing of the community garden before it would be wiped smooth by a backhoe.

We never know, when we start something, where it will end up.

The only way I have found to make or do anything with a pure heart is to do my best and then surrender.

Like Mary Oliver suggests, “Maybe just looking and listening is the real work. Maybe the world without us is the real poem.”

Maybe spirit, embodied as breath, is the spaces between letters and sounds.

Maybe spirit lives at the bottom of each exhalation, the moment when the swimmer rises for a breath.

Maybe love is just to surrender to our own and others’ stories. Because even our stories aren’t our own. They are just fingers pointing to the moon.

Breath as a bird over syllables

While picking up a book to borrow from the Bolivar-Harpers Ferry Library, I checked with the librarian to see if she’s receiving book donations. Yes, she is. I’m grateful to re-home some of my books with her in preparation for moving back West. The library has been an extension of my home the year I’ve lived here.

After all, books are like bodies, holding stories, becoming more beautiful with wear until one day, yep, they’re beyond repair.

When we lived in Sacramento, Matt built a Little Free Library box that I maintained with donations. A little temporary home for books. A part of the landscape we read with words and emotions.

What I’ve learned in the last few years is this: Each body is a home place in the neighborhood of an ecological community, human and otherwise.

What on earth could be more important than knowing our own bodies, recognizing our bodies as part of nature? 

As we appreciate more fully the gifts of our own lives, we appreciate more deeply the beauty of all the animal and plant life we live among. The exchange of life force every time we eat, we breathe, we converse, we dance, we make love. What could be more beautiful than to know and celebrate the intricacies of interconnection?

Every heartbeat massages the lungs; every breath massages the heart. Breath and heartbeat are reliable rhythms of life.

Everything is connected. One affects another. Every thought, every breath, every choice and gesture matters. Every action stirs the air. We see this in moving leaves.

When asked what the physical practice of asana means to them, students often respond, “making space.” I spoke with an artist friend about giving away possessions, “making space” for the next idea, the next project. During the dozens of moves I’ve made from place to place, I’ve donated hundreds of items. Another friend remarked on how little I retain now. I think about flying off to college with no more than a suitcase, then coming back on a winter break to empty my childhood home. Criss-crossing the country with only what fit in the car’s boot. Moving in with my to-be husband in fewer than 20 minutes: He cleared half the desk and a book shelf and emptied a dresser drawer.

“I must be unencumbered,” was the refrain of a poem I wrote sitting on the floor of an historic house in Kernville, Calif., during a workshop with Susan Zwinger.

It’s taken many rounds of my life’s minute hand to realize that I give away belongings to deepen a sense of belonging.

I seek to settle, moment-by-moment, into whatever space exists within a poem or a pose, a conversation with a stranger, or physically, hand-in-hand, for example, while walking with a friend. Because everything changes, everything is connected, and if human beings have a purpose it is to pay attention.

Surely, letting go and welcoming in are two sides of the same silver coin of change. During yoga asana this idea, and all ideas, get dropped off in the bins at the Goodwill of Nowhere and Everywhere, while life itself is lived. There are always more ideas to be had at the upscale shops and thrift stores.

Here’s one I found at a consignment shop: How is the very act of living a ceremony? How is this breath, this one carrying you like a bird over the syllables you’re reading, a home practice?

I’m going upstairs, unrolling my mat, establishing a seat, aligning with the present breath, neither thinking nor pondering, solely facing what emerges, what expresses through the body of movement.

Energy is us

One day, many years ago, while an undergraduate at UC-Berkeley I was walking up Dwight Street from the student co-op in the direction of People’s Park. Maybe I was lost in a daydream, maybe I was thinking about assignments due.

All at once, I stepped into the surprise conjecture that everything in the universe is energy that recombines.

I was an English major who had taken a smattering of classes in South Asian Studies, animal behavior and geography. I knew and know little of physics or philosophy. But I had hiked and camped throughout Northern California and, before that, in my extended home territory of the mid-Atlantic and Appalachia. I’d paid attention to birds and trees, their calls and habits, their leaves and bark.

My grandmothers, who loved the Nevada deserts they called home, drilled in me the notion of the fine web of interconnectivity among all living things.

What I recall most vividly 30 years after the Dwight Street walk, is the sense of understanding developing in synch with my physical progression through space. I could see a tree, and see when it dies and decomposes that everything it was becomes something else. From the soil where the tree moldered, new life arises.

Could it be the same for people? I do not subscribe to the idea of past life experiences or reincarnation as sequential. What I could wrap my mind around was at a human life’s end, the energy that made that person diffuses, rehoming in another body at another place in time.

It may sound far out. I guess it is. I admit to sampling in those days the hallucinogenic drugs unrolled like a red carpet for curious natures like mine at the co-op housing where I set my hat.

In those days, and since, I’ve been driven by facts gathered myself or by others from primary sources and by experiences of a more organic and less intrusive nature.

Recently, I was reminded of that Berkeley morning when reading these stanzas from Yanjnvalkya, an Indian poet of the Upanishadic period, translated by yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein in The Yoga Tradition. It starts,

As a tree, or lord of the forest,

just so, truly, is man…:

his hairs are leaves,

his skin the outer bark.

Verily, from his skin flows blood,

as sap from the bark.

Therefore, when the skin is torn,

blood issues from him,

as does sap from a wounded tree.

His flesh is the inner bark,

his tendons the inner layer, which is tough.

Beneath are the bones, as is the wood.

The marrow is comparable to the pith….

Trees, like people, will die and decompose.

Apparently, by the time most of us notice a tree dying, it has been suffering for awhile. (Sometimes this is true of people, too.) A forest researcher in a news story on climate change explained how a tree has “a kind of heart attack” when dry ground leads to air bubbles forming in the tiny tubes that carry water through the tree.

Human beings have so much power, in the form of information and agency. This scientist’s analogy of the trees’ circulatory systems stopping up like the arteries of a heart serves as a reminder to have more heart, more love in the form of tender attention, for the landscape we inhabit and the landscapes of our bodies.

The gravitational field that holds together the human family is stories.

We yoga students, in group classes and solitary home practice, are bound by the historical landscape of tradition, its many participants through space and time. Even when practicing alone, we’re not alone.

Savasana is such a beautiful word that in the yoga studio we rarely offer the translation “corpse pose.” The posture is said to “reset” the nervous system as it moves into a parasympathetic state. The mind remains alert as the body lets go. In a class’s final minutes, I observe students packed tight in the room, drawn from multifarious places, supine like snow angels stopped mid-sweep, and think of this and that, of standing trees and tumbled ones, of the stories each life cradles. Every body as precious as the figures showcased in a hallowed museum.

Many mammals spend their lives belly down to the ground and die on their sides. We humans abandoned all fours to point faces forward and crowns to the sky.

We think the sky is above us but it’s all around us. Moving forward on an ordinary walk, we’re not much different from a river’s fish. 

Then we stretch out to rest, sleep, make love and die, drawing closer to the earth and farther from the ceiling of sky. Corpse pose recalls that we are this and that: corpus,  the hushed physical body, and our collected desires and experiences that walk us along time’s line. Savasana is a semi-final relaxation for the Final one. Maybe this is why corpse pose, like a 7-Up soda, is the pause that refreshes. We rise from savasana slowly and gently to sit up and face our world, and are glad of it. Asana as practice for the rest of life.

A boy I tutored years ago refused to read the last page of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. “I don’t want it to end,” he said. But we don’t know when we end whether it will really all be over. We read stories. We recite poems. We get up from the floor where we’ve practiced. All this is home practice, practice in finding a home in the body, the dignity of being alive.

Breath and belonging

I like being calm.

Some days, when I’m sipping morning coffee, reading the newspaper without railing at the news, or serenely waiting to be connected with a customer service agent while ads stream scratchily through the phone, I can’t believe it’s me who is breathing so evenly. Am I the same person who used to pitch fits? Slam doors? Who punched (yep) her high school boyfriend on the subway platform?

Am I the same person who was curled in sorrow on the sofa? Sprawled drunk in the hammock too early on a weekday afternoon? Stepped away from, stepped down from, stepped over every difficulty and obstacle instead of stepping through?

Sure. I’m that same person who feels deeply, cares mightily and lives with the genes of addiction. In fact, the more years I acquire the more I recognize the seven-year-old girl who is devoted to animals, sunshine, rain, who is skipping, swinging, cooking, laughing and sitting on the stoop with a friend.

Yoga scholar Richard Rosen teaches that the ancient yogis believed we’re each allotted a number of breaths. Pranayama, the yoga practice of breath control, allowed the yogis to extend their breath. I think of it as adding water to the last of the orange juice in the jug so it covers breakfasts until the next shopping run.

Meditation is the heart of yoga.

The postures, Rosen emphasizes, developed as a means to prepare the body for extended periods of sitting. Why sit?

Why live long? To increase the odds of acquiring knowledge, and wisdom, knowledge’s joyful, loving appendix.

When I picture old-time yogis sitting under trees on antelope skins, buying time by slowing their breaths while accruing awareness of bird song, breeze, their own ragged feelings and tangled thoughts, I recall people I have known who died too soon. They include my 8th-grade student, Carrie, who took her own life in a moment when no one was looking; a friend’s baby, Lindsay, who was shaken into silence in a fit of caregiver’s frustration; my husband’s best friend, Mike, whose last breath was underwater near the boats he’d restored. I think of those who made it to the end, last breaths tied off like a knot in run-out thread–my grandmother who held my hand as hers stilled; my husband’s grandmother, who had held her great-granddaughter shortly before she died; and my stiff old dog, Sasha, who accepted the veterinarian’s kindness with a slow blink of brown eyes followed by a quick release from pain.

When I played guitar as a child, the metronome taught me to keep time. I’d mark out a period to practice, establish the space by placing a cane bottom chair beside the music stand and setting one foot on the dented blue stool, pick up the guitar and begin to play. Tick-tock, the notes from the strings aligned themselves around the measured beat. I wasn’t particularly good. I could synch with the rhythm, but my ear is far from pitch-perfect and I have little recall for tunes. So simple scales made sense to me. The even repetition of finger movements and the predictability of the notes rocked me into emotion. Alone in my little pink-walled room at the back of the house, where no one could hear me but robins and sparrows in the trees along the alley, I lost track of time and place, the action of moving and making transporting me to a sense of belonging.

Trace the stream of the word “belonging” back to its spring and you find the Old English gelang, meaning “at hand, together with.”

Yoga is translated as union, with connotations of yoking or joining with, as in linking breath and movement or attention with movement or self with whatever the other is, a past-time, a friend, a sport, a book, a gesture or god.

Home practice is both the effort of stretching a bit, literally and figuratively, by making a shape with the body, an “asana,” filling it with breath, then releasing that breath to let the next one return. The Sanskrit word asana is related to the English “sitting” or “seat.”  The idea is that in a stable, easeful seat, we feel situated in an essential part of our selves, peaceful and aware.

Try it a little home practice right now

Sit where you are. Come forward on the chair seat so the back body is freed of the chair back. Establish sitting bones with the chair bottom. Let the feet rest solidly on the floor or a stool or a pillow. Imagine drawing the breath up through the feet, as if they have gills, up the legs, around the hips and waist, straight up, up, up through the neck and cresting at the crown of the head and then exhale imagining the breath showering down the outside of the body. Breathe steadily, un-forcefully. Align mind and breath. Express nothing more, nothing less than your being, alive.

Why yoga?

Each day I ask myself, “Why yoga?” Do I want to spend hours in practice, teaching and study?

The answer remains “yes.” Because yoga anchors me in a stable physical and emotional home as I wander through a peripatetic life.

From my first class at a YMCA nearly 25 years ago, yoga asana has helped me feel more at ease, more at home, in my six-foot-one body. Meditation reconciles a streak of independence with a foundation of affection for community, a pattern of iconoclasm, restlessness and rebelliousness with a respect for pattern, ritual and service.

As I assimilate puzzle pieces of myself – pieces labeled history, personality, experience, desire – I sample integration.

Yoga, with its postures of moving meditations, its honoring of the breath, sutures various quilt blocks of knowledge into the blanket of values and beliefs that warms me now.

On my bed is a real quilt, stitched by my grandmother and her sisters. She told me the story behind each piece of cloth, the dresses or shirts they came from, who wore them. The colors are pinks and peaches interspersed with light purples, white and black. The quilt reminds me of the net that’s said to hang over the palace of the Hindu god Indra. At each intersection is a multifaceted jewel; each jewel is reflected in all of the other jewels. I am a patchwork of places reflecting a patchwork of places, woven into a whole by breath and movement.

The wet climate of West Virginia, where I now live, and nearby D.C. feel familiar to my cells, having been raised in the city and vacationed in the mountains. When the wind rises, I’m reminded of my time living near the California coast, Sebastopol and Santa Rosa. I love dry places, too: Nevada, my parents’ home state, and temporary abodes near Joshua Tree and at Lake Tahoe.  Daydreaming places me on the Pacific coast, at Point Reyes, where I ate oysters tasting of the sea and ran barefoot on the beach with my dogs.

“You’re from everywhere,” says my husband, Matt. I make a home wherever I go, staking out a rectangle of earth with a rubber mat.

When I was a little girl, my stuffed animals were extended family. Much as it puzzled my older brother, I tended fleece and fuzz friends like regular pets: feeding them, putting them to bed, telling them stories and singing songs. I kept lists of their names, their likes and dislikes, and made a schedule to ensure each got an equal share of my attention.

And in the weird logic of childhood, I also used them as islands. Scattered across the hardwood floor of the den where my dad worked on his university lectures and where the family gathered at evening to read, I’d hop from one toy to another, pretending the floor was water aswim with sharks. It disturbs me now to think I was smooshing my stuffed dog and cat, the koala, polar bear and more when I stepped on their islands of safety. But that’s it. The animals, step-by-step, provided an archipelago of safety.

Each a home base.

“So often you have to run away from home and visit other homes first before you can clearly see your own,” writes Sandra Cisneros in her memoir.

Drugs, drinking, a raw diet, a no-food diet (yes, I tried that, too), and every emotion that came with them, were other homes I tried.

The thing about visiting other places is that the process provides practice in establishing and orienting oneself, aligning with the place’s rhythms, and expressing what arises.

The word “seek” comes from Latin, “to perceive by scent.” I sometimes think, like a canine, I’ve moved from place to place by the scent of intuition. And, like an antsy dog you see through the train window when passing behind houses and weedy lots of an unfamiliar town, I was content to be free, perennially delivering myself from jobs, leases and mortgages, yet not quite happy.  Sure, I was cheerful. I’ve had reason to be. Strangers help me and I have good friends and I like to laugh.

But it took staying put on the yoga mat and the meditation cushion to bring me to a place of joy. They provide practice in steadiness of focus, breathing through odd and sometimes unsettling sensations, tipping over into inversions and rocking in and out of equilibrium in balance poses, building strength and reducing discomfort.

“Safety is joy.” This is the motto spotted on a dump truck during a walking meditation. When I read that motto, I realized that safety does come first like the construction site slogans say.

From safety arises joy.

“There’s no distinction between thinking and feeling,” Dairyu Michael Wenger Roshi said at a day-long Zen retreat in Maryland. A sense of well-being, safety, allows head and heart to align. This is yoga.

Along with well-being, joy encompasses gratitude and peace. Walking through the cemetery by my house, I’ve learned to sidestep the poison ivy growing among other vines. At night, when I see solar candles glowing at headstones, I’m touched by the tenderness of the grave tenders. Having death nearby reminds me to cherish breath and the love that enters and exits with it.

“O God,” cried the mystic Julian of Norwich, “you dwell at the heart of each human being, each person an entire city of complexity and beauty. Show me the grace of my own architecture and that of others.”

Like a tortoise, I carry my home with me, the body housing the heart. I drink the water in a new place, turn my face to the sun, lay on the ground and stand in the rain.

As poet Mary Oliver says, “looking and listening is the real work.”

Yoga holds space and time for the body and its senses. Feeling alive in the moment is joy, another way of saying coming home to the cottage of the self.