At approximately the 37th minute of every Corepower Hot Power Fusion yoga class, I find myself in what is called ‘toppling tree’ pose. This is as ominous as it sounds. I simultaneously get to be the storm and the thing broken. While standing on one leg, fingertips on the mat, with the opposite leg raised as high and straight as my body allows (not very far, yet), I hate pretty much everything especially gravity. It’s a true awkward pose since, well, standing like this is, to put it bluntly, really fucking hard. The instructor will implore us to “raise your leg one inch higher” with each exhale. We’re here, in ‘single leg standing splits’, for about 5 breaths. Relief comes from stepping back into ‘low lunge’ looking like a sprinter ready for the race or, more likely, the door. And then I realize I have to be a tree with my other leg. And so, here once again, comes the storm. For the first time since I was a (somewhat) limber child, I can touch my toes. In 11 months I’ve lost 40 pounds doing solely hot yoga. Oh, little heart, how you’ve exploded. My list of maladies in no particular order include asthma, chronic sinusitis, two torn meniscus, testicular cancer, lymph node dissection surgery (33 nodes extracted from above my groin to just below my heart), 5 years of barium-induced abdominal CT scans, dysthymia, and (thanks, mom, and dad!) anger. A year or so after my cancer diagnosis, I noticed a lump on the interior of my thumb just below the knuckle. A circuitous route indeed and not likely metastasis, but I was at the time editing a book on the history of medicine where chapter 1 included the fact that the 2nd century Greek physician Galen used oncos (Greek for swelling) in describing tumors. When the surgeon said, “non-cancerous tumor” I was relieved but certainly not amused. This particular scar needs only two dots to turn into a smiley face. So, take that Galen. I’m rewriting the script of my body. I’m revising its chronic illness story. And I’m using a rubber mat, a strap, and some foam blocks to do it. Yoga has made me face myself in ways a bike or machines or free weights have never been able to. In a nod to my old basketball playing self, each time I step on the mat, I invoke Allen “The Truth” Iverson, and whisper, “Yes, Allen, I’m talking about practice.”
New York City can be an oddly charming landscape. I fell in love with a girl on her last day in the city after months working in some capacity (production, casting?) on the Robin Williams movie “Death to Smoochie”. We met on the ferry to Liberty Island. I felt like being a tourist that morning. I was sad, I recall. We scooched next to each other and struck up a conversation. IRL, as the kids call it these days. She was a petite brunette with short curly hair. Smart and funny and cute as hell. We roamed the island and studied the history. We climbed inside the statue and peered through the tiny windows. It was cold and wet and lovely. Eventually, we agreed to continue the adventure and we made our way to the Brooklyn Bridge where, after so much internal debate, I dug deep and called upon my internal Walt Whitman, and kissed her in the enveloping dusk. For a nightcap, we met some of her friends for dinner. It turned out one of her friends was a writer on the short-lived NBC show “Ed”, which if I remember correctly, was about a lawyer who misplaced a comma in a brief and was fired and forced to move home, where, I think, he opened up a bowling alley out of desperation to save his floundering soul, oh, yeah, and to win the heart of a girl (obviously). When one of our dinner companions almost went through the roof when he was told that there was a TV writer among us, he asked, rather earnestly, “How do you come up with all that stuff?” “Ed” turned to me with a flipped hand, as if to say, go for it, dude. “Well,” I said, ‘you sit in a room and have imaginary conversations with yourself, and when you get stuck you think about your own life and situations you’ve been in and use that. And, most importantly, when that dries up, you lie.” The night ended with me walking my friend to the subway. She nestled in my arms while I memorized the scent of her hair and skin and breath. And like most people you love and end up losing in New York City, your last glimpse of them is walking down into the mysterious labyrinth of the subway system. Five months later, a couple days after 9/11, I got an email from her asking if I was ok. I was sleeping in Hoboken when the towers were hit, I wrote. But the smoke…the smoke I could see from my kitchen window. And I saw the second tower fall from across the East River. Hope you are well.
The poet John Ashbery died this year. I graduated from The New School in New York City with an MFA in poetry in the late 90’s, and it was clear to me that his influence on the program at large could be weighed less in pounds and more so in metric tons. The New York School of poetry (think modernism, irony, surrealism) was alive and well in The Village before 9/11. My fellow young poets and I would gather at The Cedar Tavern famous at mid-century for being the drinking and creative playground for poets like Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Rexroth, Ashbery, and Abstract Expressionist painters like Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollack. New York City is easy to over-romanticize, and if you add a friendly cohort of smart, funny, and talented poets drinking late into the night after discussing our work, well, it would be safe to say we fell in love with each other in ways small and large. Oscillating between the abstract and an off-the-cuff and irreverent lexicon, Ashbery made me check my expectations of what poetry is and how language can communicate emotion, and in doing so, he made me confront myself and my creative work in ways I never expected to. What if I removed the images? What if I removed the things? What would I be left with, if anything? If I shifted my observation internally what would I find? And, what if I applied these questions to my life? Two years after selling nearly everything and moving to California, and almost one year back now in Chicago after 20 years away, I’ve recovered from chronic illness, cancer, losing a long-standing good job, a marriage dissolving, losing a home, losing love on repeat due to a glitch in the system, losing the creative drive, and finding it again.
“But now to have absorbed the lesson, to have recovered from the shock of not/ being able to remember it, to be again setting out from the beginning—is this/ not something good to you?” from John Ashbery’s “Three Poems”
Any poet will tell you that his life is overrun with random lines jotted down in notebooks. And that these moments of observation and intent and emotion, when not wholly developed into something approaching a finished piece of work, kind of linger in creative purgatory. You flip the pages and ask, what am I going to do with that? Here’s one such piece I wrote in California after spending part of the day at Venice Beach taking a break from driving for Lyft: “The ocean sprayed the shore rocks like fireworks/ cascading to a blossom. 4th of July. Los Angeles. The 101 lit/ and cracked back to black under the driving moon. The passenger/ awash in rainbow reaching her hand through the roof, to the stars, pointing the way.” Thank you, Mr. Ashbery. But this is one image I’m going to keep.
My mother’s couch is approximately 6 feet long X 4 feet deep, with a 45-degree slant yoga teachers would take one glance and back slowly, carefully away, and immediately plot to burn. Beige with two wide and tall pillows, both clearly deliberately sabotaging their role in the matter of providing comfort, and with armrests upwards of where one’s ears are placed on a normal human, and which do not, I repeat, do not, rest easily anyone’s arms upon their thick and wide surface structure, it is this contraption I have slept for the past year. With a view across the balcony to the neighborhood Walgreens pharmacy drive-in bathed under a rich spotlight of fluorescence, tilted electrical poles and their subsequent looping wires, and within heart-stopping shot of the squealing BNSF trains heading into and out from Chicago, I have called this one bedroom home, mind you, with a 70-year-old woman whom I affectionately call Ro-Ro as a sort of false flag operation against my pride. After 20 years away, 19 spent between Baltimore, DC and New York, and one year in Los Angeles driving for Lyft, I came home. My older brother picked me up at Midway and we went to Vito and Nick’s for pizza, where he primed me up for a ‘business idea’. A pitcher of Old Style between us, two full and frosted mugs fisted, the Blackhawks game on the scattered TV’s, I braced myself. When he asked if I would bribe a Cook County Commissioner to get him a job, I felt the full twisted embrace of Chicago envelop my soul. With a third of my beer left in just under the 17 seconds it took the Hawks to shock the Bruins for their second Cup, I reached for the pitcher and poured. “Sure”, I said. “Let me see what I can do.”