Agnes Martin, Ashtanga yoga, Beethoven, children, David Bowie, death, fear, health, illness, Keats, love, meditation on change, memory, New Mexico, sickness, spiritual practice, thyroid disease, travel
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,-
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river-sallows, bourne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
–Keats, To Autumn
Yesterday my family and I drove from Denver to an isolated little house just north of Madrid, New Mexico. As I write these words my youngest child, heavy with a winter virus, is asleep under a large window overlooking the roughened pink and red landscape of the desert. In the distance are drifting snow clouds – it has been indecisively snowing all day – and the peaks of the Sangre de Cristos. My older children went with my husband on a train ride.
It has been a loud, messy, alternately grumpy and joyous day and a half. My husband can’t deal with chaos. My brilliant seven year old can’t deal with control. My sensitive middle child can’t deal with sharing me with her sister, and her sister can actually deal with anything as long as I am holding her. This is a picture almost any middle class family can recognize.
Early this morning I went to practice with a small group of Santa Fe Ashtangis. They practice in an exquisite studio once owned by Tias Little, who is a former teacher of mine. The room was warm and silent, and I could smell the rich wood of the studio floors as I moved through the Intermediate Series.
The Intermediate Series of Ashtanga Yoga is supposed to be energizing, uplifting, and this is why I chose to practice it this morning. Lately I have been fatigued, not well… my body is somehow missing something, but I cannot identify what it is. Prana. An essence. A somatic joy that I used to access effortlessly through ballet or asana or a long meditation.
For many many weeks I have not been well: I spent some time in the hospital a while back, and I am almost always nauseated, fatigued, distracted. There is…. an absence. I am thin, but I need to be thin, so when my appetite disappears and my weight dips to 105 pounds I don’t really examine why; I’m just happy to be disappearing. As any being who has been through sexual or physical trauma will tell you, having one’s body disappear into itself, either through obesity or skeletal thinness (they are the same), is a relief and a tonic. The touch of one’s bones through fabric: this is safe ground.
And so, when my endocrinologist found vascular small tumors on my thyroid a few weeks ago, I didn’t think much about it. I am tired, something is not right. But I’m young, I practice… it will self-resolve, of course.
A surprise, it was then, to receive a phone call after my sweet, silent (fatigued) practice this morning: my labs aren’t right. My thyroid really isn’t right. I might have Graves disease. I might have Hashimotos disease. I might have thyroid cancer. Best case scenario, I have benign tumors that are causing my thyroid to misbehave, and a simple surgery will fix that. And of course, being the arrogant human I am, and someone who still thinks of herself as a twenty two year old, I assume the latter case is the true case. Easy fix.
Of course for now I’ve no idea. I do know I am not well. But I must be well. I have three children. So I must be well.
After speaking to the doctor I went to a cafe and wrote for awhile. Then I read: Walt Whitman, Madame Bovary. Then I went to an out of the way vintage store and bought a gift for my mother and found a strange, beautiful glass plate that had curves like water in a cove. I bought a coat for my first born to keep him warm, and sea salt chocolate for the baby.
Nothing distracted, nothing centered me. Sick. Sick. Sick. Finally I climbed into my car. I turned on the second movement of Beethoven’s Fifth piano concerto, the one that sounds like rain, the one that sounds like tender regret, the one that sounds like age and birth and majesty, the one that sounds utterly unique to this world (except of course the Seventh Symphony). The second movement is almost too much to hear; usually I just can’t.
But today I could. The music, it held me like nothing else, no one else, ever would or ever could: a net, a cradle, a womb, a nest, a home. The slow high notes carried me, carried me to the essence of its own creation, to the mountains and low clouds on the horizon, to the opening of grief and fear and the glimpses of death and whatever might or might not come after.
Behind that fear, what yogis call abhinivesha, which is the essential resistance to death, or ultimate transformation, or perhaps standing next to the fear, was joy. I can hear that music. I have heard it, I know its power. I remember the fine moments of my troubled life: my odd talent with horses, and the way I can intuitively sit a temperamental or bitchy mare. The first time I rose on pointe (ecstasy). The first time I read John Dunne, a poet whom I have at moments loved so much he’s felt more like lover than writer… The first time I saw the long avenues of Paris, traveling alone at the age of 17.
And then finding the perfection of Antibes, and the bliss of solitary train travel. The necessary activity of staring at a body of water, motionless, for hours at a time. Taking acid with my brilliant girlfriend and dancing wildly in a loud spring thunderstorm. Knowing the pleasure of her company still, all these years later. Listening to Prince with my husband and hearing his perfect analysis of Guitar Genius. And then: seeing the sunset in Tangier, watching my father smoke pot given to him by a gentle Moroccan shepherd outside of Chefchaouen. Attending my sister’s High Anglican funeral and knowing even in my girl-young-woman-youth that it was all complete and total bullshit, and that her hymn really should have been In My Life from Rubber Soul instead of some 19th century organ music that would have made her grimace. Bathing my son. Bathing my first daughter. Bathing my second daughter. Now, bathing all three, and watching their glorious wet skin and the way they move together like baby seals. Being a mother, hating it. Being a mother, knowing the perfection of Divine Love. And, of course, just being aware of the existence of David Bowie.
All of that, the second movement of that concerto brought to me. Death is near and unpredictable, as Pema Chodron reminds us; and the clearer we become about this companion the richer our own lives feel, both in memory and, hopefully, our moment by moment existence.
So there is no cure perhaps for what ails me. But I know, sometimes, how to apply a soothing balm: beauty, melody, song, genius. But it is love, really. Just love.