Published in the Cal Literary Arts Magazine (CLAM) in Spring 2013.
I am new to yoga.
“Hands to knees, shins, or the ground,” the instructor calls out, asking us to stretch down as far as we are comfortable into a forward fold. Each time I go to class, my fingertips get closer to my own two feet, the backs of my legs straining and my back bending more flexibly. I furtively glance at the others in the crowded room, each on their own mat, in their own zone. Most are touching their toes easily, but still reaching. (Always reaching.) I look down at my own bare feet planted firmly on my purple textured mat, and they seem miles away, unattainable. I yearn to be flexible enough, limber enough to simply let gravity pull my palms downward to the tips of their opposite limbs. Returning to a more youthful body. We were all born able to touch our toes.
What do I control if not my own body? Touching my toes is an act of closing the loop and allowing energy to pass from one end of my body to the other. Returning to my own nature. Stretching. Yearning. Finding the force deep within me that pulls my body downward, doubling over, reaching for the earth. Every time I flow in vinyasa I get closer. I imagine that the day I bend over and plant my palms firmly into my feet will be one of joy and completeness.
I am a sophomore at the University of California, Berkeley. This year, I have experienced a powerful urge to return to my kindergarten self. A yearning to see magenta color spots in midair after staring at the sun for too long (even though my mom told me not to). A yearning to feel intense, overwhelming, all-consuming empathy for the natural world – to the point that my brother thinks there’s something wrong with me. I want to be gripped with the desire to throw jellyfish lying dead on the beach back into the Atlantic tide. I want to climb pines in Woodacres Park and just sit there with sap-sticky hands. To talk to the animals around me, not as a symbolic gesture, but as casual conversation.
To touch my toes again.
I would like to know where that girl came from. What energy and spirit fed and nourished her. Where my attitudes and desires and passions were born. I want to relearn my story of self.
I vividly remember a particular summer day in Bethany Beach, Delaware: my brother and I had gone on our bikes to pick up supplies from a craft store. On our way home, I watched as Aaron threw a rock at a cat sitting near the road. The typical “boys will be boys” situation. Stunned, however, I pedaled faster and faster, needing to get away, appalled by what just took place. I got away from Aaron and found a place in a parking lot to sit, melt, cry. Cry. Some member of my family found me there, tried to soothe yet remained distant and without empathy – not comprehending the hot, angry and passionate feeling that gripped me when I saw the rock hit that innocent cat. Never mind the fact that the cat was most likely unfazed by the affair. I think I cried some more in bed that night.
The other day, when I looked into the eyes of my equine friend, Foxy, I saw the foal that she once was – awkward legs, endless curiosity, innocence and unknowing. I watched her as she frolicked, spooked, nudged me, rolled, followed me around. I saw that youthful spirit inside her so alive and physically present in that moment, within her fourteen-year-old present. Lately I’ve realized that we are all constantly enveloping that infant body, layers of time and age constantly building around it. A spiral, forever drawing its energy from that center point, expanding from the spiritual middle.
My parents had probably never heard of a child dreaming up an imaginary world, with its own code of ethics, its own language, its own people. An imaginary friend is normal, but an imaginary world? That was something new. “Stromodon” was my world. It was a land where the law stated that everyone must wear only yellow, green, or blue – my idea of earth colors. Everyone in Stromodon maintained a steadfast allegiance to Mother Earth, and there was even a prayer uttered daily to remind oneself of that devotion. For possibly an entire year of my life, I said that prayer every day. The people of Stromodon spoke Stromkcab, my mistaken attempt to say “Backwards” backwards. The unique language was necessary, because the people of Stromodon were bound together by a way of life distinct from ours in America. I often spoke in Stromkcab to my [imaginary] bird, Shining Star, who spoke back and helped me develop my vision as leader of such an idyllic land.
Hands to knees, shins, or the ground.
She is in me, layered deep, the center of my spiral, but sometimes she seems distant. Last week I came to the shocking realization that I had temporarily forgotten about her. I can’t believe I could forget such a thing. She is the driving force of every step I take as an environmentalist, as a sustainability activist, as a student of forestry and natural resources, as a person. At school, I have become increasingly involved with something people call “the movement.” Working toward goals like 100% clean energy, zero-waste, fair-trade, “green,” “sustainable.” It feels good to have others around me. It feels good to feel included, to feel part of something big and powerful. I remember how excited I was when I attended Power Shift, a gigantic youth environmental conference in Washington DC. I thought, “There are others like me! Others who care and are working on solutions!” I knew right then that joining this giant, people-powered effort would be deeply fulfilling for me. But in the process of embracing this movement, I had started to lose, or at least push aside, something within me – the fierce and passionate love of nature that brought me here in the first place.
I see that spiral layering of time and age in everyone now. I look at someone’s face, their eyes in particular, and I strip off layers until I find the age of innocence; the daring, non-jaded, curious, creative, and inherently original self. This makes people watching far more fascinating. Looking around, I see a world of children. Lately, I’ve been working on this while watching presidential candidates on television. I am dying to know just who these people really are – their opinions, often appearing outlandish to me, developed somewhere. They each arose from some root, core, child body. I want to see past the layers and know them, but the television makes my observation game a little difficult.
Forward fold. Reach for your toes.
I struggle to strip off my own layers. I keep searching for a moment, a phrase, a sight that will show me my center. Why I feel the way I do. How I can see color spots in the air again. What magic spell will keep my burning passion and love for the earth from ever disappearing. I’ve found it’s like learning to remember my dreams: once I focus hard on recalling bits and pieces about my childhood self, they start to come one by one, and I scramble to jot them down. Just last week a gem presented itself along my journey. I remembered the “rock collecting club” I spearheaded as a first-grader. While others played hop-scotch or jumped rope, I and some friends ventured to the hills near my elementary school, scouring the earth for rocks with colors and textures we had never seen before. We felt like explorers. Sitting in my geology class the other day, holding pieces of granite and obsidian, those visceral memories came flooding back. Moments that transport me back to my core are the most exhilarating moments of my day.
This project of jotting bits and pieces down on paper, of active recollection – I like to think it’s my way of constructing tree rings. I am often jealous of trees. I envy the way they physically wear their past. They proudly display their scars from fires, their thin rings from years of drought. Fog comings and goings. Bacteria conquerings and abandonings. One can look at a stump and literally read the tree’s history. The past is not lost in space, not simply a constructed idea, abstract and untouchable. A tree’s past is physically there, pushing right up against the present. I long to find that in myself. It is certainly a good thing I am starting now – if I had waited much longer, I’m not sure the bits and pieces would be there for me to find. I might have lost the map to Stromodon forever.
These memories continue to hit me at precisely the right times, reminding me that as I embrace this thing called “environmentalism” and as I strive to live more “sustainably” and “green,” I’ve got to keep my feet rooted down in the dreams and passions that support me and allow me to grow. I think it’s important that we all find our own yoga, our own way to stay connected to the most youthful energy within our bodies, minds, and souls – it’s the only way we’ll be able to sustain our work as activists long into the future.
“Hands to knees, shins, or the ground.” Today I am closer, and it feels less like a strain and more like succumbing to gravity. “Forward fold.” It’s a pretty poignant name, now that I think of it. Moving forward while folding at the same time. Pushing out into the world while withdrawing within. Perhaps, when my fingertips complete their journey to my toes, my twenty-year-old self will fully experience the thoughts and ideas of my five-year-old self. I’m dying to hear what she has to say.