Sujata purred yoga instructions my mind could not fathom, but my body was fluent in the poetry she spoke.
Standing Forward Bend. “Lean your head back into a pillow of grace and then plunge into the river of life.”
I leaned backward, arms outstretched, gaze fixed on the heavens. Just when gravity should have defeated me, an invisible force cradled my head. It nudged me upright, until I arced forward into a swan dive, then pierced the surface of the floor without a ripple, the wind whooshing past my ears.
Half Moon. “Expand into a full expression of the pose.”
I balanced on my right foot and the fingertips of my right hand. My left leg, horizontal to the floor, broke through the second-story wall and hovered over the parking lot. My left arm soared through the ceiling. A passing cloud brushed my fingertip.
Warrior II. “Shoot a beam of radiant energy through your arms.”
I focused, aimed, and fired. The flash burst a carton of milk in the dairy case of the store across the street.
For two hours a week my gray hair and cellulite vanished. I was Flo Jo, muscles rock solid. My locks were ponytailed during class and my fingernails trimmed short. Still, I thought of Flo Jo’s wild hair streaming in her wake and her too-long-to-type-with fingernails flashing blue as she sped past all those hapless 100-meter competitors.
It mystified me that I awoke to the same thought on every yoga morning: I don’t want to go. Still half asleep, I scanned my body for symptoms that would justify my skipping class. I cursed Sujata for remaining too fit to retire, even though she was seventy. When a snowstorm blocked the roads one morning, I rejoiced, but my husband Ben walked into the bedroom with his car keys. “You love yoga. I’ll take you.”
My conflict ended the night I slipped on an icy sidewalk and broke my wrist. In the emergency room, the orthopedist wound gauze around my arm from knuckles to bicep. He framed the limb in splints, which imprisoned it at a right angle. The whole thing rested across my belly in a sling, my fingers dangling from the end like squid tentacles.
I adapted without complaint. Learned to type, cook, and dress with one hand. There’d be no yoga for a few weeks, but it couldn’t be helped. I gloated over my positive attitude.
I tuned the radio to the morning news, wrapped my splinted arm in a plastic bag, and headed for the shower. An unsettled feeling stopped me mid-stride between the bedroom and bathroom: the mental tickle that occurs just before recalling the name of a movie or the last place I set my glasses. A tidbit of information skulked in the shadows of awareness. I held still; any quick movement might cause the fragile impression to slip away. It flashed across my consciousness in a single sentence.
“I sabotaged yoga.”
The statement crashed into my chest with a force that could not be ignored.
The newscaster droned in the background. The furnace kicked on. A sound track to memories from the night I fell on the ice. The searing pain that slashed through my arm when the frozen ground slammed into it and how I tried to seem okay as friends drove me home. And then the shock on Ben’s face when he peeled off my coat, the tension in his voice. “Get in the car. We’re going to the emergency room. Now.”
I stared down at my arm, encased in plastic, and succumbed to alternating waves of sadness, horror, and disbelief. How could I do that to me? Yoga was fun.
1fun n 1: what provides amusement or enjoyment: specif: playful often boisterous action or speech <full of ~>
“What are you doing in here?” Sooner or later, an adult would discover me alone in my room, the only kid left in the house. “Go outside and play.”
When my brothers and sister were off with their friends, I played alone in the house. When my cousins visited, I hid. They were older, street wise. They knew the latest songs and dances. Anytime Aunt Gerry came down from Cedar Rapids with her boys, or Uncle Al and Aunt Ann brought their kids over from Eighteenth Street, or Uncle Frank and Aunt Margaret dropped by with Little Frank, I stayed inside. I curled up with the latest issue of My Weekly Reader or crouched on the landing, trying to be invisible, eavesdropping on the adults. They told stories on each other as they slapped cards and drank gin in the kitchen. When the cussing got fast and shrill, I shrank into the woodwork.
Mama and Dad ignored me, but eventually my silent presence annoyed one of the aunts or uncles. “What are you doing in here? Go outside and play.”
Outside. In the summer, boys hurled buckeyes at me, and the Iowa heat raised an itchy rash between my fingers. In the winter, those boys threw snowballs laced with rocks, and icy wind burned my toes. All year round, a pack of German shepherds prowled the neighborhood. One of them attacked me on my way home from school, just as I turned up our driveway. He clamped his fangs onto my shirttail. Growled. Shook his slobbery snout until a passing car grabbed his attention. After he trotted off, I was left trembling in the drive, discarded prey, unable to shake off the smell of dog.
Play. Kids from around the block organized baseball games in the field behind our house or hide-and-seek in the street. I lurked on the outskirts, too slow to be a valuable teammate, too naïve to understand the joking. My attempts to play ended with me in tears, done in by a skinned knee or bruised feelings.
“What’s wrong with her?”
“Who cares? Crybaby.”
I hung my head, shambled home, where Aunt Gerry repeated the question. “Jesus Christ. What the hell’s wrong with her? Out there only five minutes.”
Inside battered my psyche just as much as outside. Sometimes we played Monopoly, each match lasting days at a stretch — for everyone but me. Faster hands than mine grabbed the best tokens; I ended up with the thimble. The banker doled out the money and by my third roll, I picked “Go Directly To Jail. Do Not Pass Go. Do Not Collect $200.” My brother sold me a get-out-of-jail-free card for forty dollars. Regular stops on Boardwalk, bedecked with hotels, bankrupted me. I was the first one out of the game. A thimble stands no chance against cannons, racecars, and battleships.
Uncle Al rescued me sometimes, took me for rides in his speedboat, up the Des Moines River. He was playing hide and seek with Dad, who snuck away from home at five a.m. to go fishing. As Uncle Al carved the river into arcs, the boat bumped over its own wake. I leaned forward across the windshield, closing in on joy with every bounce. I hated finding Dad. His yellow cabin cruiser peeked out of a cove and rocked in the swells as the speedboat flew past, then doubled back, Dad’s fist stabbing the air. “Goddammit, Al, you scared off the fish.”
In junior high, I gained a little confidence. Talent shows sprang up everywhere: school, Brownies, even the roller rink. When our church announced a writing contest, it sounded fun. I was great at words. I’d become an avid letter writer, if only to my grandmother. She praised my wit and penmanship, but best of all, she wrote back. The sight of her script on an envelope transported me right into the living room of her house in Ottumwa. During visits, I sprawled on the carpet, while she played “Claire de Lune” on her grand piano. After dinner she stretched out on a day bed, which was pushed up against a wall in the dining room. She worked a crossword puzzle, and the news played softly in the background, every few minutes interrupted by John Deere commercials. One Sunday evening, we parked ourselves shoulder to shoulder on the edge of the bed to gawk at the Beatles on Ed Sullivan.
Writing for a contest couldn’t be much different from penning a letter. Composing my entry, I was as game as a master puzzler, selected exactly the right words, scooted them around to fit just so into sentences, then paragraphs, and finally an essay — a label that bestowed my undertaking with a sense of mystery. What riddles would I solve along the way, before clipping the finished pages inside a brand new colored folder?
On awards night, we contestants gathered on the platform in the church sanctuary. After we read our papers to the audience, a judge announced the winners. Third place to Rosie Jackson, the pastor’s daughter, second to Beverly Norman. “And first prize goes to … Dawn Downey. Congratulations, Dawn.” I stepped forward, eyes wide, my hand covering the grin that stretched across my face. My parents beamed from the third row. Waves of applause rolled over me, making my skin tingle.
At the side of the platform, the judges conferred. One of them approached the microphone. “Ladies and gentleman, we’ve made a mistake. First place goes to Rosie and third place to Dawn.”
It knocked the breath out of me. My cheeks burned. I wanted to squeeze my eyes shut, but willed them to stay open, to hold back the moisture that was pooling in the corners. I bit my bottom lip, held in the shame in order to hold myself erect.
The winner took her place; I slipped into her shadow.
The years blurred into a montage of never-knowing-how. How to play spades with my college suitemates. How to dance without men mistaking my undulations for invitations. How to cook for the sheer delight of it.
Thirty years old and sick of my always-say-no self, I made plans to attend a concert with a group of co-workers. I spent the day shopping for a dress, and for dinner grabbed the remnants of a pineapple-Canadian bacon pizza my roommate had left on the kitchen counter.
After we settled into our seats, my companions passed around a pint of whiskey. We drank it straight, from paper cups. Midway through the performance, I rushed to the bathroom and slammed the stall door behind me. I kneeled on the concrete just in time to heave the pizza and alcohol into the toilet. The stall spun. I collapsed onto the seat and crumpled over, head between my knees. When I opened my eyes, I was being hauled like a corpse through the lobby. One of the men had hooked his hands under my armpits, while another hoisted me by the legs. A minute later, or maybe an hour, maybe a week, I was lying on my bed, the walls swaying around me.
fun adj 1: providing entertainment, amusement, or enjoyment <a ~ person to be with> (Merriam-Webster)
I sabotaged yoga. I slumped in the chair, hoping to find answers by staring at my arm. My shoulder ached from the weight of the splint. I staggered across the room, switched off the radio, and then climbed into the shower to sort things out.
What’s wrong with me? My friends were fun. Nancy joined her sister’s fiftieth birthday celebration, white-water rafting down the Colorado River. Stef and Doug took off for weekend bicycle rides, pulling a pop-up tent behind one of their bikes. Kate played in her backyard, pampering a collection of exotic plants under the watchful eyes of her garden gnomes and faeries.
And Ben. We were driving across Missouri, on our way home from a retreat. My attention floated above the soybean fields until his voice brought me back. “Look at that. A crop of commercial sunflowers.”
A blur of scraggly brown discs sped past.
I rotated in my seat to keep them in view. “Huh. Never thought of them as crops.”
“Want to see them up close?”
I’d assumed the moment would pass. He’d remember the emails and phone calls he needed to return. Instead, he whipped a U-turn at the next exit and winked at me. “There’s always time to play.”
The orthopedist removed my cast two weeks earlier than scheduled. Amazed at my speedy recovery, he asked, “ Do you exercise?”
“Yoga,” I said.
He nodded. “People who practice yoga heal faster.”
3fun adj: providing amusement, entertainment or enjoyment (Merriam-Webster)
“Find the joy in your practice.” Sujata’s first instruction on my first day back.
I’d risen from bed that morning without the usual search for symptoms, but I’d misplaced the joy. My wrist was too weak to support Downward Facing Dog, and halfway through class I needed a pillow of grace to prop up my sore arm.
“Face the window for standing poses.”
The warrior queen perked up. She squared her stance. Feet planted, she armed herself with a beam of radiant energy. A tank of unleaded at the corner gas station in her sights, a glorious explosion imminent.
Sujata glided around us, examining our postures, touching a spine here, a shoulder there. As she floated past, her fingertips lingered feather-soft on my wounded wrist, encouraged my arm to straighten. I tracked her circuitous route around the room by the shifting location of her voice. The soprano lilt stopped. The silence was interminable.
The warrior queen grew restless.
I glanced toward the front of the studio and was embarrassed to discover Sujata watching me.
“It’s wonderful,” she said, “to look out and see Dawn smiling.”