Two Mondays into the past: I’m at therapy. Anxiety is make my breath short, muscles tense and twitchy, brain distracted, eyes staring intensely at the carpet, wall, door, couch cushions. I say “I feel sick, I’m so anxious.” My therapist asks if I want to try a full body meditation. Sure, why not. I lie down on the floor, arms at my sides, feet and legs straight, head looking up. This is called the corpse position. Appropriate because a corpse would be much calmer. The therapist puts on some quiet music and begins to guide me through the meditation. It’s all about focusing on each part of the body and giving it permission to relax and feel heavey and sink into the ground. But before this I must imagine a peaceful place where I can feel safe and calm. I’d been learning Taichi from a guy on Youtube who was practicing on a beach in Florida, so my brain automatically places me on a warm tropical beach with the Youtube guy (or some guy in loose white clothes) practicing Taichi in the distance.
Now forward to last Monday. Therapy again. We talk a bit. The anxiety is still there, but not as bad. I focus better. My muscles are tight but not shaking. For the last 15 minutes of the session we decide to do the meditation again. I lie down into the corpse pose. Music starts and I’m on the beach again. My therapist takes me through all the relaxations then tells me to keep breathing, three seconds in three seconds out. I feel like my body has made a comfortable nest in the sand and I start to pay attention to my imagined surroundings. I don’t try to put anything there, but allow the environment to build itself. The sand is warm. I stroke it with my fingers, grab a handfull and let it slide out between my fingers. The surf isn’t very loud. It comes and goes like a salted cat. I can hear palm fronds brushing together like heavy cardstock paper. I notice a strange absence of bird sounds or any bird forms. I breathe in. I breathe out. My body becomes heavier, but inside the meditation I have stood up with my bare feet in the sand. A little breath of air fiddles with my hair. Not too far down the beach to my left, the Taichi guy is there again, in his white clothes, his arms sweeping to the side, the hands turning to face each other as if holding a ball, or containing a gentle energy. I watch him move almost in step with the surf, one leg bending at the knee, lifting, stepping out, then lifting and stepping back in, his upper body and arms pivoting to one side then pushing out in the opposite direction. I breathe in. I watch. I breathe out. I notice his stature and build are remarkably similar to mine. I start walking closer. His hair is neatly parted, his nose sharply defined with a distinct indent at the top where it meets the brow. I breathe in. I think I’m still walking. I breathe out. Now we are facing each other. His smile is familiar. The eyebrows are like wild bunch grass. His eyes look of me from deep inside their sockets. I breathe in and out almost at once. My throat tenses, then loosens enough for another in and exhale.
He’s me. He’s the me who lived in China and taught English and learned to speak Chinese and practiced Taichi with retired men and women who were once of some kind of government importance. And he’s smiling at me, the way a deceased friend would smile in a dream, glad to see you again, and without a hint of sadness at the imagined reality of our meeting. I’m not breathing anymore. Inside the meditation, breathing isn’t needed. We don’t speak. I’m glad to see myself. We are both glad to see ourselves. We are hugging. I can feel the sharp electric-shaved hairs on his cheek and jaw. His arms are stronger but still gentle. Then he’s gone and I’m left on the beach without him – except I can feel his timid confidence like a new warmth in the air. His compassion and curiosity remains. His joy…. his joy surprises me. Every good thing in him remains and surrounds me, moves around me with the same careful steps and turns as I had seen myself practicing earlier.
Now it’s Thursday. In some ways I feel as if I never left that meditative place. It’s as if I don’t have to lie down and imagine anymore, but simply sit and be silent, and I am there again, on the beach with the warm sand forming around my feet, the surf coming and going. He’s still gone. He doesn’t come back. But all the good he knew, all the joy and wonder is there like a spirit I can step into and inhabit.
I am there right now in fact. As I write this, I am kneeling in the sand showing my nine year-old daughter where to place her feet, how to make a proper step and the various ways to move the hands and arms in order to play with that goodness I was given.
“Remember” I tell her as we pause in the opening position, “remember to focus on the space between your hands and not the hands themselves.” I break pose to gesture between her feet and hands, Even the empty space where the arms lift away from her body. “Teach your body how to move without you.”
“How do I do that?”
“I don’t know yet. But we’ll learn together.”
“But don’t understand. What’s the point?”
“I’m not sure I understand either. But I believe it’s important. It’s something wonderful. I think something really important exists in the space between things.”
“Like between my hands when we practice?”
“Especially between your hands. Maybe that’s like your sacred space. You can use it however you choose.”
“So I should teach my hands to hold it for me, and then I could just think about the space?”
“Exactly. I mean, I think so. It’s important. It’s something we need.”
“But you don’t know what it is?”
“No, not really.”
“But it’s important?”
“Yes. I believe it is. I believe it’s the most important piece of our lives.”
“Once there was an old man from China,
and every day he would sit outside
and smoke his pipe and admire the beautiful landscape.
The green trees and musical monkies,
the deep blue sky, thin clouds and birds of a thousand kinds.
But mostly he loved to chew on his pipe
and stare at Jingting mountain.
He loved the mountain,
with its single white peak and nearly symmetrical slopes.
He would watch the mountain for hours each day,
holding his pipe in one hand and writing poems with the other.
Days and days wenty by.
Then years and years.
More than two decades past until one afternoon,
as legend has it, a good friend came to visit.
He had brought the old man a large bag of rice
and a pot of still hot dumplings.
” Old friend,” he called out, ” I’ve brought you food
fresh from the village market.”
But the old man didn’t answer.
His friend from the village looked in the bedroom
and study, the simple kitchen, the guest room.
He went outside where the old man would sit
with his pipe and poetry and stare at the mountain.
But he wasn’t there.
He had vanished
and the birds had all left with the clouds
and the monkies were quiet
and the trees had lost their color.
All that was left was the mountain
with its single white capped peak
and nearly symmetrical slopes.
The old man’s friend smiled and took a deep cleansing breath,
set the rice and dumplings on the ground
where the old man would sit
then bowed to all four directions
and returned to his family in the village
never to see his goodfriend again.”
“That’s a terrible story. Now I’ll never get to sleep.”
“Oh no, this is the perfect story for sleep.”
“But the poor mandied! It’s a terrible story.”
“Why do you think the old man had died?”
“Well, he was old and then he was gone.”
“Yes he was old, but he wasn’t gone.”
“But his friend looked everywhere.”
“That’s true, but not everything is gone that can no longer be seen.”
“So if he isn’t gone, then what happened to him?”
“When water is perfectly clear and perfectly calm, it becomes invisible. You can look and look but you will not find it. It’s the same waywith your heart and mind.”
” Oh no, not another one of your metaphors. I never understand them.”
“That’s okay my little Bell. Don’t worry so much. Just picture that mountain and you will sleep just fine.”
Ellee Bell has slumped down with her head in my lap. Asleep. Her shoulders and back and legs are buried under blankets. I can’t remember what brought us into the closet anymore or how long we’ve stayed. I only know that it’s time to go back out and try living again. I’m not sure how to coax her out so I start by letting just a little pencil of light in, just enough to gently illuminate the side of her face. From the one closed eye visible from my lap, can see the tear tracks spreading down around her cheek bone and through the soft valley between the nose and upper lip. Matted curls of hair stick to the skin around her ear and jaw. I pry the hairs away and loop them behind her ear. Then I begin to pet through her hair and slide the back of my hand like a feather across her cheek. Her breath is calm, her mouth drooping open like a loose slip knot. My love for this life has surprized me. Her existence and fierce need is nothing I would ever have thought to wish for.
After a few thoughtful moments, and without really thinking, I begin to sing John Denver’s song “Sunshine on My shoulder.” Half way into the song I feel my little Bell squirm a little, sniffle, rub her eyes open any make a small yawn.
” What are you singing,” she asks, her voice dry from sleep.
“It’s the song my mom sang to me when I was a baby.”
“You remember being a baby?” She rolls onto her back with her head still in my lap.
” No,” I say, cleaning the hair from the other side of her face. “My mom told me about it. But it feels like my memory now. I can see her at the kitchen window holding me over her shoulder and singing and rocking.”
“You see it really, or just pretend?”
“I suppose I pretend. But memories are a kind of pretending. Some you experience yourself, and some are given to you as stories. But they are all pretending.”
“Does that mean they aren’t real anymore? When something is a memory, I mean.”
“No. No. Our imaginations give our lives meaning, and without meaning nothing exists.”
“Is that something I’m supposed to understand when I’m older?”
I kiss the tip of her nose and start singing again from the beginning. For a while after I finish, neither of us know what to say. Finally, just as I’m about to say something, little Bell says “I think grandma must have loved you a lot.”
“Yes. She was very happy when I was born.”
“Well, I grew up I guess. Eventually I gave up things grandma thought I would always keep and love. I changed. I changed even more than I expected to change.”
“But you’re done changing now, right?”
“No. Everything always changes.”
“I don’t want you change.”
“I know. It’s hard when people change. You have to get to know them all over again. It takes patience and a lot of time.”
“Is that why grandma calls you a different name? Because she’s still getting to know you?”
“I think so. Maybe. But I know she loves me. And she adores you, my little Ellee Bell,” and with that I pull down on her ear lobe and make a faint dong sound. She giggles, then looks up, suddenly serious.
“But if she’s still getting to know you, she can’t love you like before, can she?”
” Only grandma can answer that.”
She turns onto her side again and looks away. “I don’t believe her.”
“She calls you my dad. How can she love you like before if she thinks your a dad?”
“It is confusing. Does it upset you?”
She sits up quickly and glares at me. “Doesn’t it upset you?”
“Yeah. I suppose it does.”
“I don’t even know who she’s talking about.”
I can’t help smiling. ” She’s talking to you. She can hardly stop talking to you. You’re so adorable, I think she forgets I’m even there.”
She rolls her eyes at me (for the first time from what I can remember) and falls back against the pillows in total aggravation and bafflement. “Don’t even … Mom, you’ve seen the pictures she likes to show me.” Her face struts out like a hen getting ready to peck at a fox. “Always that dorky boy.”
“Yes I know, I’ve seen them.”
” Well (it’s amazing how much indignation one word can carry) Well, then what’s she showing me that goofy boy for?”
“Because that’s you.”
Her eyes and nose flare. Her teeth grind. I’m about to try explaining further, but her expression suddenly softens and becomes distant, as if she’s traveling back and forth in time. I stay quiet and wait. I’ve learned to trust her intelligence and instincts.
When I see that her mind has returned to the present, I count to three, and when she still hasn’t spoken, I take my hand and turn her face to mine. “Do you understand now?”
She nods. Slowly and only half convincing. “I mean I get it. But I don’t get it. Is that stupid?”
“Not at all. I feel exactly the same.”
“What do we do now?”
“I don’t know. I was thinking about going for a Strawberry smoothie at Perk’s.”
“Can I have coffee this time?”
“I’ll let you taste mine. How’s that sound?”
“I guess. Okay.” She doesn’t move.
I begin to wonder if this was all too much for her to take in…. Of course it’s too much.
“Do you want to stay in the closet a little longer.”
Her body tips into my arm and her head comes to rest against my shoulder. She doesn’t respond or move for several minutes. Eventually she sits up straight, reaches to open the closet door, pauses, and says in the most serious tone, “I’m gonna need to hear more stories about that planet you say we’re from.”
“That won’t be a problem. But we got to get our butts out of this closet first.”
In the closet’s quiet dark my daughter asks
“will we ever look like the other girls look?”
and I start to but can’t think how answer
I pull her tighter against me
and we lean deaper into the pillows together
wiping our eyes and noses against our sleeves.