Taking Rest on the Blank Page

Anja Savic :: The Letterist

Have you ever gone to a yoga class and spent the whole time in savasana?

Not just lying on your back on your mat, but the bells and whistles, too — the eye pillow (my favorite), the bolster beneath your knees, the heavy blanket? All the while the class inhaling and exhaling and sun saluting all around you as you drift in and out of conscious thought in that delicious liminal space between asleep and awake?

Just writing about it gives rise to a deepening, steadying breath. I notice where my teeth are touching ever so slightly, and open my jaw and mouth wide before closing them again but not quite all the way. I shift to breathing through my nostrils and feel the breath cool against my sinus cavity, then moving down the back of my throat, filling my chest, ribcage, and belly.

All of this is incongruous with the fact that I have not been to a yoga studio in months, just as it has been equally as long since I even rolled out my may here in the living room. But the mere muscle memory of savasana causes my neurons to stand at attention (or maybe rest at attention is more accurate, if oxymoronic).

When I picture these neurons, I see a field of sunflowers — all of those big yellow faces smiling towards the light. It’s as if my entire physical being has been alerted and is responding: “Did she say yoga? Did she say savasana? Aaaaaah, we remember how good that feels, to lengthen and deepen, to root and rise, to fill the body with breath.”

My mind, on the other hand, is skeptical about reconciling this topic with my total and complete inaction. Isn’t it hypocritical to write about yoga — much less in such flowery terms — when one is not even practicing yoga?

What but is yoga practice, really? Does it require a mat? Does it require physical movement? Isn’t breath physical movement? Isn’t yoga the union of physical consciousness and breath?

I do want to return to the physical practice of yoga, to an asana practice that I know will welcome me back, without asking, “Where the hell have you been?” But I also want to imagine something else: The possibility that writing practice may in fact be a form of yoga, too. A unification of breath and being, a place to arrive, an way to explore inner and outer landscapes, and to deliberately slow down and create space between thoughts and between breaths.

Right now, I am sitting on a chair in my living room, hosting and facilitating a small weekly writing group. We began by writing 11 things as a kind of warm-up, as if to send a flare to our brains that it was time to enter into writing territory. After that, I set a timer for a longer interval, and as soon as I hit “start,” my mind went to savasana and the desire to opt out of a more active practice.

I remember how much I’ve appreciated, over the 23 years since my very first yoga class, those teachers who would not only not judge or scowl at such a choice, but who might even come by a time or two during our 90 minutes together with a gentle touch to the top of my head or bottoms of my blanket-clad feet.

And I realize that not only do I wish to cultivate this kind of permission for myself, but also this kind of spaciousness for those who come into my writing spaces. I want you to know that it’s not only ok, but deeply worthy, to listen to your body. To take rest if you need it — even if everyone else seems to be churning out essays and poems and blog posts and rough drafts and raw material. You are not everyone. This is your practice. This is your time. It’s not a competition or a race.

We have so few places to go where judgment doesn’t follow us with its eyes around the room, like a parent or teacher who has only to raise her eyebrow just so, without saying a word, to make her displeasure known.

Truth be told, I almost didn’t write today. I am tired from the weekend and a lot of driving yesterday, a little fuzzy, and low on energy and ideas. I almost rolled out my grey yoga may — the one with a layer of pollen on it from being rolled up just under a window all summer.

The other writers in the room would no doubt have been puzzled, though I doubt they would have objected. But I decided to come here instead, to lay myself down on the blank, unlined page, to let my pen draw me into a slower pace, to allow my mind time to wander, and to give myself over to this practice of showing up exactly as I am, in this moment.

How much of our lives do we spend in overdrive, overriding how we really feel and denying what we most deeply long for and need?

Real rest comes from stripping away the effort of pretense.

Here I am, we can finally say. I am tired. I am cooked. I am love. I am pain. I am grief. I am rage. I am confusion. I am the storm and I am its eye. I am I.

And then, maybe, in the fullest expression of the pose, for an instant of blissful union with something both greater than and deep within us, we experience a place where even the “I” can slip away.

How I’ll Use These Hands

For the past several days, I’ve been picking at the same small scabs on my right hand and wrist, adding to the pre-existing scars there.

Here’s what I see: Over the knuckle of my pointer finger, a small scar from I don’t know what, and a small burn on top of that from the oven last week. The burn blistered and peeled off.  Some veins visible in the middle of the top of my hand, with a beauty mark just to the right of one of these.

Below that, another small scar from a bike accident, and to the right of those, the two areas I keep picking at, where Chalupa bit me with her tiny little piranha shark baby dog teeth.

Why, why am I picking at the scabs? Is it for the same reason people cut themselves — to feel something? Is it evidence of anxiety or not being mindful?

My son, who is 12, likes to pinch and lift the skin on the top of my hands, to see how long it stands up. It’s a test of time, of age, of elasticity, maybe of hydration. I also experience it as a test of “you are my mama and you are really here and I can touch your hands and feel comforted.” I know I’m making this last part up, but it’s intuitively what I feel when he does that.

The other night, when we were watching the fixer-upper show where the couple in Waco, Texas buys “the worst house on the best block” and renovates it to the buyer’s delight, he was stroking the inside of my upper left arm. “Your skin is so soft,” he said. And I told him how I remember saying the same thing to my mom, incredulous at how soft the skin of her arms was. I always think Mani’s skin is that soft, too.

All of this has me thinking about pain and comfort, numbing out and reaching out, where we pick at the scabs and what it takes to let them heal in a world that makes it impossible not to have a broken heart 100% of the time.

I look down at my left hand — scars on my thumb from a sibling fight as kids and a knife that slipped while opening some godawful plastic packaging. That one needed stitches.

These are small injuries in the grand scheme of things, nothing traumatic.

One could argue that being alive is rather traumatizing. But the truth is, this depends greatly on one’s conditions, which depend greatly on a great many factors.

As I write this, my chest is tight. The kitchen is busy with activity — Mani’s doing dishes, Aviva just made herself a breakfast burrito, and Chalupa is looking contemplative though more likely she’s wondering when it’s ever going to be time for lunch.

I’m saddened by how quick we are to take things personally, to take every possible opportunity to re-injure ourselves where healing has begun. And also aware as ever of my own aging, softening skin, my own heart, and my own responsibility to take care of myself, my wife and children, and my fellow humans, especially those who are most vulnerable to the horrors of white nationalism in the guise of legal action.

Everything that’s happening is straight out of Hitler’s playbook, though you could swap out plenty of other fascist leaders’ names and the moves would be the same. Last night, I dreamed about a fire. Countless people made to wear KKK  outfits behind barbed wire were being burned alive.

I woke with that image and cannot shake it. My hands, moving calmly over the keys, don’t reveal the fact that my very bones are shaking with genetic memory of the road to genocide. So yes, I am beside myself. No wonder I’m picking my scabs.

I pause for a moment. It serves no purpose for me to sit here, a mess of raw nerves and bleeding cuts. Nor can I simply compartmentalize and go on with my day, though I will do just that to some degree. Life goes on, but there is also no business as usual. To be awake in this world is to be responsible — for taking exquisite care of our own wounds, and for doing everything possible to not only call out but to put an end to atrocities and human rights offenses occurring under our watch.

I look down at my hands and realize they are shaking a bit. It’s just after 11:00 and I haven’t eaten breakfast yet. I’ll use them to prepare something nourishing for myself, in the name of the kind of care that must begin close to home and ripple ever outward. And I’ll try to remember to leave the scabs alone.

Keeping My Foot on the Gas

Saturday morning, before the kids and I left for an overnight trip to visit family on Long Island, I drove over to Trader Joe’s to go for a short run and pick up a few groceries. When I pulled into the parking lot around 7:45am, there was not a single other car there. I wondered where the employees park. I kept my jacket on — it was in the mid 30s — zipped my keys and phone into a side pocket and jogged over to the bike path. The air felt good in my lungs as I steadied my breath during those first five or so minutes of running.

On one side of the bike path, the sun rising over the small hills surrounding this valley. On the other side, the mall. Crows, sparrows, cardinals, and starlings all waking up; squirrels and chipmunks scurrying amidst the still-bare bushes; the branches of trees reminding me of bedhead.

At one point, I heard an almost preternatural sound. As I ran, I trained my left ear on this sound, even as I wasn’t sure what it was. Then it got closer and louder and I paused, only to see what must have been not dozens but hundreds of starlings up in the trees above some frozen wetland. The noise was otherworldly. I couldn’t come up with a way to describe it and considered recording it for a minute on Instagram stories, but decided to keep running. Perhaps I’d do this on the return trip.

All of five minutes later, after I had turned around — silence. Where did they all go? A murder of crows convened in the high branches near the barren cornfields to the south, unfazed by my presence below. But the starlings? Gone.

I thought of impermanence and how much I love the mornings, especially this time of year when life feels like it’s waking back up. I thought about how much I like having my feet on the ground.

Back at Trader Joe’s, I counted 30 cars in the lot. With an endorphin high and a canvas bag, I walked through the store, humming along with “Come on Eileen” on the speakers. The day seemed possible. I sipped a tiny sample size of coffee with milk and paid for my groceries, then headed home to shower and get ready for our road trip.

* * *

The drive to Port Washington took nearly five hours instead of the three it would have been without construction on the Hutch. Pearl and I did some Mad Libs, then he took a rest while Aviva and I sang along with a shuffle from Hamilton, In the Heights, Dear Evan Hanson, Chicago, and Rent. We stopped once to pee, and arrived at my cousin’s house around 4:00pm, surprising my cousin’s youngest, who had his 7th birthday last week. We had a sweet visit with them, went out to breakfast yesterday morning with my uncle, who is 80 and as lovely as ever, and then put V on the Long Island Railroad to meet up with a camp friend in the city.

I grabbed an iced latte for the road and Pearl got out his little binder of travel activities (he’d printed out several “I, Spy” types of games from Pinterest). It was another clear and sunny morning. I started the GPS on my phone, and we were off.

As we approached the Throg’s Neck Bridge, I noticed the obvious: Water. On either side of the bridge.

Duh, right?

* * *

“Isn’t it pretty?” I chirped. The East River glimmered below us in the midday light as we headed towards the Bronx. The ramp onto the bridge and 295 East curved to the right, and suddenly what had looked pretty from a slight distance was towering over us. The bridge stands 142′ high (compared to the Golden Gate at 220′). It is less than a mile long. I had driven over it not 24 hours earlier without incident.  In fact, I didn’t even recall crossing it!

Now, though. Whoa. No, thanks. I’m good.

It started in my chest with a burst of heat. The sensation reminded me of an algae bloom in the water, its reach spreading slowly but surely into my limbs and extremities. Before I knew it, my legs felt like they’d been replaced with sandbags and my breathing tightened. I saw what was happening and glanced over at Pearl. We were listening to a This American Life podcast about language, and through the car speakers I heard kids in a Barcelona classroom learning Catalan.

The suspension towers loomed over us while the bridge seemed to stretch out forever. It dawned on me that I had no choice but to keep driving. I had a child in the passenger seat! And even if I’d been alone, there was no alternative but to cross the damn bridge.

“OK, Jena. You have to do this,” I said to myself in my head. Keep breathing, keep breathing. You cannot freeze up or panic, because you have to drive this car over this bridge. I started humming quietly to myself as a way of maintaining the flow of in breath and out breath, amazed at the severity of my response and its sudden onset, to boot.

* * *

When I was 17, I was in a pretty serious car accident in Southern California. I wrote about it a few years ago. It took quite a long time after that to release my fear of driving on the freeway, merging with high-speed traffic, and making sure I knew exactly where I was going. But at this point, I am a pretty calm and confident driver, so this wave of panic really surprised me.

All I can tell you is that it was not fun. Not fun at all.

I made it across, obviously. My whole body tense, willing myself to breathe steadily, not too deeply and not shallowly either. You can do this, you can do this. The tune to a Jewish song I love — The Whole World Is a Very Narrow Bridge — a song that has inspired other writing for me in the past, not to mention carried me through many a narrow passage — spontaneously entered my mind.

Later, back home safe and sound and on solid ground, I mentioned this episode on Facebook. The comments astounded me. We are never the only ones, though we are the only ones ultimately who can carry ourselves through difficult passages. We learn tools and tricks, or just lie down in the backseat and sometimes let someone else do the driving, as one friend mentioned. We can either go through life suffering and not letting anyone know about it, or we can choose to share the scary parts and learn that many, many others have crossed that bridge themselves. In this case, literally.

My friend Tia wrote, “Wondering what emotional bridge might be causing the fear.”

I pondered this, appreciating her tender inquiry.

Pearl’s piano teacher said this had happened to her, and just as suddenly, the fear had passed.

Others chimed in that their son-brother-father-grandmother had feared crossing bridges. Someone posted a photo of an alarming-looking vertical bridge in Japan, the sight of which made me shudder.

* * *

It’s interesting; I am realizing I’ve been writing a lot about fear lately. I think it may be in part because I do not want to feel it. I don’t want to live in fear of the world, of life, of other people, of our government, of change, of my kids’ many transitions as they grow up, of providing for my family, of shootings, of climate change, of antisemitism, of homophobia and transphobia, of being. I do not want to feel it, but feel it I must, lest it creep in while I’m sleeping, slowly overtaking my waking hours, bridge or no bridge.

There is something here for me to learn. Because that song is so very true: The whole world is a very narrow bridge. Having this experience yesterday really gave me more empathy for the courage it takes to go out into the world, to travel, be it near or far, to go to new places, to put oneself in new situations.

Was it brave of me to drive across that bridge? No. I was already on it when the feeling overcame me, and I had to keep driving. I was not in any actual danger, though panicking would surely have created some.

How often is life like this? We have to keep going. We have to get a grip, quite literally, on the steering wheel, keep our eyes on the road ahead, and breathe. We have to stay aware of the traffic on either side of us. Just writing this, I can feel my throat constricting a little.

If I were driving right now — I picture the bridge stretching out before me — I would have to push myself a little to keep my foot on the gas.

Which I do. Because I must.

Promise Me You’ll Never Abandon Yourself Again

That J-shaped line over your right eyebrow. The thick brows you’ve only waxed once, just to try it. Those deep grooves in your forehead that remind you of the ways toddlers sometimes draw waves, or maybe clouds on an otherwise clear day. The shape your mouth makes when you almost smile. Eyes exactly the same in photos as they did when you were a baby, a kindergartener, a teenager, a new mama yourself.  The moles that you need to have checked. The vertical lines between your eyes, evidence of so much furrowing.

Remember how you always loved the skin on your mom’s forearms? How soft it was, you couldn’t believe it. Like satin.

How your nearly 12-year-old son likes to squeeze the skin on the top of your hand, to see how long it stays pinched. Is he testing your elasticity, subconsciously gauging how much time he might still have you near?

And your teenage daughter’s claiming of her own beauty, not letting the world define it for her.

The belly soft, skin puckery, a roll of fat you didn’t used to have and don’t much mind, though truth be told you are still learning. It is evidence, you decide, of your existence, your choices of sustenance over starvation and oxygen over nicotine.

Today, a high of 43 degrees, and you set out for a two-mile run, your first in close to six months. Will your lower back allow it? We’ll see. You go slowly — no phone, no iPod, no headphones, no tracking devices. Just you and your feet, like the first time you ran two miles more than a quarter century ago.

Now your friends who are in their 40s, 50s, and 60s don’t seem old. Old is maybe 80s, you decide. So at 44, you’re a spring chicken. But not exactly. You’re in the middle, if you’re lucky. You’re no longer a young woman, no longer chasing after small people, no longer chasing after a better life. No, you are a grown woman now. And for as grown as you felt after birthing each of your kids, you know now that this is different. Something has shifted. You’ve changed.

Your weight is 15 pounds more than it was  for most of the last two decades. You no longer wear the smallest size on the rack or eat the smallest portion on the menu. You also no longer inhale a dozen clove cigarettes a day or find yourself winded from making the bed. You know the value of health from the deepest interiors of life, having witnessed your wife’s close encounter with death and subsequent recovery.

You will never again take this body for granted. Not for a day.

Does this mean you take the best possible care of it you could? No. You eat sugar, which know is probably the actual devil. You have never owned a juicer and fall way short on the cooking front, both for yourself and your children. You don’t go to a gym or have a regular workout routine. But you have also softened on those fronts, and perhaps it’s for the best — you don’t obsess, over any of it.

When you were 17, dinner in your very first dorm cafeteria was a tortilla with a piece of nonfat cheese melted on it in a microwave. You called this a quesadilla, and I am so sad to think that this was your idea of eating. Later, you’d borrow your father’s car to go down to the frozen yogurt shop, where you would sample as many flavors as they would allow before ordering. Some nights, you felt embarrassed when you walked in. Embarrassed by yourself. Seen and yet knowing you were inside of your own ritual, which would likely end later that night with purging in the girls’ bathroom when you thought no one else was there.

You have healed so much. You have discovered the joys of libido, something you always just assumed you didn’t have much of. You have discovered the freedom of not worrying about gaining weight, because you have gained weight and life is more content and purposeful than ever.

Not fighting your body has opened up space to fight for the things that really matter — truth, connection, justice, courage.

You still often don’t feel beautiful.  You look in the mirror and whoa, you have aged so much. It’s a bit of a shock some days. Then you remember how young you still are, and smile. May you live to hold your great-great-grandchildren.

Loving yourself here is a practice. Just remember how you feel after that two-mile run and a hot shower midday — a little stronger, a little more glowing, a little more ready for whatever’s next.

You’re raising kids now. Kids with bodies and inner lives and thoughts and experiences you don’t know about. Kids with relationships to their bodies so very different than yours has ever been.

And you know what you want to teach and model for them: Self-love. That’s it. Unconditional, non-negotiable self-love. Not at the expense of anyone else — true love never demands that. And not at the expense of humility — that, too, is not what love is.

No, self-love that’s constant and spacious and gives them room to change, to grow, to relate to themselves as miraculous and capable.

Look at yourself with tenderness and amazement. You’re here. You made it to this moment. You are beautiful, exactly as you are. Promise me you’ll never abandon yourself again.

* * *
Join me and poet/herbalist Adrie Rose for two weeks of writing prompts and gentle self-care suggestions. The Body Now meets online March 19-30 and is limited to 20 participants. Register today to hold your spot. All bodies welcome.

Holiness Is in How We Teach Our Children

Photo: Josh Appel, Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau, Oświęcim, Poland. “This is Siggy Weiser. He is a Holocaust survivor. 75 years later he is in looking as Jewish kids praying at the death camp Auschwitz, Mr. Wesier’s previous living area where he was threatened with death daily.”

My daughter’s shaving her head.

Well, actually, her cousin’s friend is doing the honors, in a college dorm room.

My daughter told me she has written something about the why of this. She forgot to send it to me, but says she will tomorrow.

I am looking forward to reading it.

My daughter is 15 going on a shaved head.

It’s just hair. This is what I tell myself. This is where I land. I listen to her voice, her dreams and ideas and fears and hardest places. I look at her eyes. Not her hair.

She studied the Holocaust last fall with her grandfather, my dad.

She has seen the shaved heads.

I have a tattoo. Two tattoos, actually. I might get more.

When Jews, Catholics, the Roma, gay and communist and disabled humans, reached Auschwitz, they were divided into two groups: Those who went straight to the gas chambers, and those who were stripped, shaved, tattooed, and sent to the barracks to work. Really, to die, just more slowly.

Some survived. They swore, never again. They whispered it. Secrets burned on skin, never to be talked about. Never a shaved head. Never a tattoo. The unspeakable.

What is it to take things things back, to reclaim, to honor the dead, to choose life, to take back ownership of the body?

What is it to express the spirit on skin?

How is our hair a symbol of autonomy and agency and choice — just as what we wear, how we speak, and how we love are all ways of declaring existence, selfhood, peoplehood, sovereignty, and worth?

My daughter is shaving off all of her hair.

Not because she is sick.

Not because she is unstable.

Not because she is rebellious.

Not because she is dishonoring memory.

I do not know her reasons yet, but I believe her when she tells me she has her reasons.

And what will I say, when I see her?

I will say: You are beautiful.

I will say: I love you.

I will say: Your being is a song to those who died.

I will say: Your songs soothe the ones who survived.

I will say: I can see your soul, your neshama, even more brightly.

I will say: This world needs you in it.

These are harrowing times for growing up. I call on my ancestors to light the way, to remind me that hair is just hair and that hair, too, can be holy.

That holiness is in how we teach our children and how we learn from our children.

That this dance across time is how we keep being here, despite the odds.