Today is the solstice. Our family has spent an entire season in quarantine. Today we begin summer. Are we emerging from the chrysalis or haphazardly poking small holes in our confinement through which some sun and air seep?
On this day, I’m remembering backbends - missing them really - as my body no longer moves easily into rainbow form post mastectomy and radiation therapy - the skin no longer supple, full wheel no longer available. But I can remember how backbends felt in my body - the opening, the aligning, the gathering of energy and strength, the deep breath in, the pause, the exhale out to push up into straight arms, the wide breaths that sustained the pose. And the coming out. Wise teachers remind students to conserve energy - to exit poses with grace, without putting holes in the floor, without coming out of alignment and putting unnecessary stress on the joints. Wise students listen and come out before they fall. Backbends are disorienting and the chest opening that is their nature can be agitating. They light a big fire in the body.
My yoga practice is something that I tend - like my plants, like my sourdough starter, like my children. The word tend is a shortening of the verb attend meaning, “to take care of, to pay attention to”. I pay attention and tend to the fire. In yoga, the breath is both the bellows and the damper. The breath is also the thread that connects each movement and without it, the poses are simply shapes. The breath is the constant and, as any teacher of yoga knows – one must pick up the breath of the class and hold it for thirty, sixty, ninety minutes. I once asked a teacher of mine how she shifted her practice in response to injury or surgery and she said she showed up and breathed, syncing her breath with the other bodies in the room, tending her own fire while joining it to others.
Backbends require opening, of the shoulders, of the quadriceps, of the thoracic spine. My children can drop back into them on a moment’s notice – they are young and flexible and the pose does not need to be built up carefully. For me, a backbend is built by the poses that precede it. The deep arch of the backbend, the peak of the very topography it mimics, must be followed by a long and careful walk downhill through the poses that counter the bend.
These last few months have felt like a long-held backbend. There was no warming up the body and little inkling that one day those with offices and schools would grab their monitors and a packet of worksheets and enter into a seemingly new dimension. The world became smaller. For a time, I felt that I had it, that I was strong enough to sustain the pose. That 2019 - a year of treatment, loss, friendship and milestones, had left me well prepared to dive into the quarantine and find its particular joys: to write, make objects, cook, garden, send letters, deliver food, make phone calls, and keep my business, my children, my marriage, myself, afloat through it all.
But by the symbolic start of summer, over 100,000 would be dead from Coronavirus, millions had lost their jobs and would begin to lose their houses and apartments, some people would wear masks and some wouldn’t and this would have nothing to do with science and everything to do with political affiliation, that pigs would be shot by their farmers because they had grown too fat to be factory processed, that summer would still call people to rivers, beaches and parks and, George Floyd would die with a knee to his neck, that someone would capture it on video and that any shade of grey Americans thought they were occupying on the topic of racism, would be erased with the words, “I can’t breathe”.
Breath. You have it. You are alive. Full stop.
Breath has never felt so much like a privilege. While one has it, breath has many colors and shapes. There are the first screaming breaths of newborns, there is breath that builds energy, there is breath sucked over a curled tongue that cools the body, there is three-dimensional breath that can help postural alignment by filling compressed spaces with air, there is the breath of even inhales and exhales that calms the mind, there is the athletic breath of free divers and sprinters and of childbirth, there is the easy breath of sleeping children, there is the sustaining, artificial breath of ventilators, there is the rattling breath of the dying.
My son took his first breaths on Memorial Day in 2014 six years before George Floyd’s last. He came fast in the grey light of early dawn and, by sunrise, he was with his family. We ate blueberry pancakes. My sisters drove up and met their new nephew. That first night, he screamed in my arms, a ten-pound boy, with red, oxygenating skin and a strawberry splotch above his eye from his trip through my birth canal. I had a son.
That first night (and many others after), I thought, as I did with my daughter six years earlier, “here begins my journey of keeping you alive.” I did not think, “some people will hate you because of the color of your skin.”
Which is to say, my children are white while I am brown. My daughter is browner than her younger brother. I imagine she will be asked, “where are you from” many more times in her life than my son who is a light shade of gold. This will be an effort to assign her a place and a label. James Baldwin said in a 1986 about his decision to leave the United States for France, “Before I left this country, I had been afflicted with so many labels that I had become invisible to myself. I had to go away someplace and get rid of all these labels and find out not what I was but who.”
At the beginning of this writing, I thought I was caught in the deep backbend of quarantine, with shaking arms, not knowing how to emerge from it, not knowing if my arms still remembered how to bend. But really, I am in the preparatory stages, reclined on my back, knees bent, feet planted firmly on the floor.
This is the moment of gathering energy and it requires discomfort. We have to push up into the bend and trust that we will one day emerge. We have to find the breath to sustain us in our discomfort and then widen it as we fight. We can’t return to the work of March with June eyes. We must tear up the calendar altogether. And, while engaged in this dismantling, use our breath to sing a mantra of names.