1.

Years ago, on an employee retreat for a publishing company I worked for in my twenties, I met a magician who levitated.  A group of us stood before him and watched as his body rose a foot off the ground.  My first instinct was to suspect conspiracy.  Was there a trick camera somewhere?  Did the magician have a protégé perched in the bushes, shining a mirror at another mirror, creating an illusion in some explainable way? It was possible.  But I was so close to this man, talking with him about the sunny day in the most usual of terms, aside from the fact that he was floating.

I return to this memory sometimes because it is unsettling.  I don’t believe that Moses parted the  Red Sea.  I doubt that Jesus really turned water into wine.  (Though I admire the idea.)  If I can dismiss these scenarios as ludicrous, how can I believe that it is possible for a magician to levitate through mind control, that it is possible, in theory, for anyone to do the same?

I know the mind has some power over the body.  Sometimes, a burning heat generates in my abdomen, caused by (I am pretty sure) a combination of meditation, yoga, and a sleepless night.  I know that thoughts can cause the heart to race, the breath to shorten. I once nearly fainted in an optometrist’s chair when the phrase “possible blood clot in the main artery that goes into your eye” was uttered.  I needed a cup of water and a wet towel on my forehead because of words.

Who knows how thought inspires action?  It is murky, and personal.  Sometimes, a thought lingers, dominates, but then recedes.  And sometimes a thought morphs into an emotion that propels the body to move.

On an evening far removed from the day I may or may not have witnessed levitation, I may or may not have levitated myself.  I wasn’t floating above the ground.  No one who witnessed me would have said anything magical was taking place.  And whereas the magician’s levitation, if genuine, probably occurred by way of some cerebral power he could channel, some way he could think his body to rise, the thrust to my body—a peculiar, acute force—seemed unpremeditated.  A certain combination of words spurred my body forward, away, out, as if my legs were being commanded by some invisible remote control.

“Dear Father, Let us pray for the children.”

How eight words can contain such power eludes me.  For the disciple, these words fuse the mortal to the divine.  For the nonbeliever, however, these words don’t soothe the soul.  These words, when uttered in a public sphere, torpedo like a war missile set to destroy your conviction that religion is a private matter, and not to be practiced in a government funded institution.  These words ignite emotions that launch your body away, without your mind’s consent.

On the evening I witnessed prayer in my daughter’s public school, my body rose without forethought.  The moment of silence began and I stood.  Filed through rows of parents and teachers on a mission for the exit door.  It wasn’t until I was outside the school building that my mind was able to process what my body has just done.

Adrenaline is underrated.  We have all heard stories about impossible feats, like the five-year-old who lifts a car to save his sister trapped underneath.  When I was in high school, a classmate of mine crawled one hundred yards away from his car after a crash, despite the fact that his legs had been crushed.  People move on instinct all the time.

I had always assumed that instinct and intuition were the same, until I became a mother. At the start of first grade, my daughter, Colette, was redistricted to a new school, and although my intuition said she would fare better without me hovering, my mother’s instinct—to protect—prevailed.  In retrospect, my attempt at joining the P.T.A. was a peculiar kind of helicopter parent defense mechanism, but at the time I was thinking, I should be preemptive:

“Mom, Haley says you’re bad if you don’t believe in God,” Colette says to me after her first day of school.

“You’re not bad,” I reply.  “Haley is wrong.”

The sacred can sense the secular.  Colette’s new girl status had elicited several invitations for her to attend Bible studies classes and church.  And a better me would have seen these overtures as simply the good intentions of others wanting to spread their love of Christianity to us.  But I was aggravated by the moral litmus test I was forced to take and, with my inevitable declinations, bound to fail.

Of course, I admit I am an alluring target for those who seek to reform.  I radiate have not seen the light.

I only went to church twice as a child and so my cumulative knowledge of Jesus is that he was an immaculately created, bearded carpenter.  I have but one lingering memory of Sunday school: a foggy image of an elderly woman encouraging me to place stickers of important religious people (whose names I did not recognize) onto a worksheet.  Those empty shapes on the page, outlined in black, like the tracings of dead bodies at crime scenes, held more promise for me left as is.

Growing up in the heartland of America (Iowa), feelings of exoticism were rare.  I hung from willow trees, vacationed at the mall.  Seekers of the diverse never stopped by my house on their pilgrimage to San Francisco.  My lack of experience with religion left a void, but the void was what I had faith in.  It was the mystical force.  My family’s eventual agnosticism meant my total circumvention of religion.  Religion’s absence was as habitual for me as other kids’ regular church attendance was for them.

On Sundays, the kids next door would cram into their wooden paneled station wagon as they set off for church, and I would spy on them from my perch on my bike at the top of my driveway.

Susie’s gussied up, but seems unhappy.  Looks like her white Mary Jane’s pinch.

Once they leave, I descend my driveway.  At first, I coast along the sidewalks, blissful.  But then, as I circle the neighborhood, I discover the brilliance of the absence of people.  The driveways are desolate.  Garage doors shut.  I am young and independent with all this breathing room and freedom to think.

If church is everybody’s Sunday routine, faith in God must be really common.  Why am I the only individual in sight?

˜

If what happened the night of the P.T.A. meeting had not, I still think I could have managed a full year’s membership.  If I were in another environment, I dare say I could have even enjoyed it.  Maybe if I were living in Vancouver, or Vermont, I’d be comfortable as parent volunteer.  Maybe somewhere there was a school where I could encourage kids to learn about things like global warming, media literacy, the danger of high fructose corn syrup.  Maybe there existed places, even in America, where questions could be asked in the open, even taboo ones, like what the United States was doing in Iraq.  But here I was in the Bible Belt.  Here I was in a gymnasium of adults with a commonality I not only did not share but also found oppressive.

2.

The P.T.A. meeting is about to begin.  Hundreds of dutiful parents are perched on hard-backed metal chairs, arranged in straight rows facing the gymnasium stage.  Exalted there, select parents and school officials shuffle notes and speak in quick whispers.  I choose a seat on the edge of a row, where I have myself a streamlined exit, should the need arise.  On reflection, my seat choice does reveal a premeditation to resist full compliance.  (Perhaps I was looking for trouble with the P.T.A., despite my efforts to be nonjudgmental about those who join, particularly since I was now one of them.)

It is dusk.  Light is filtering in from high windows, exposing a layer of dirt and hair, the tracks of over six hundred students.  The school is overcrowded, under-resourced and institutional, but I am trying to support it.  I attended public schools throughout my education and was never inclined to stray.  The academic expectations were always within my reach and the social interactions gritty enough to satisfy me.

I had forgotten the painted cement walls, the way they try to conjure school spirit by concealing the décor of a prison.

The P.T.A. president takes to the podium.  I am waiting for the first item on the agenda.  The candy bar fundraiser?  A call for volunteers for the book fair?  But from my position in the back of the gym, I bear witness to a phenomenon.  The individual heads, moments earlier bobbing this way and that, now unite and drop in unspoken knowing unison.  My own head remains upright.  I am the only one left unbowed.

“Dear Father, Let us pray for the children.”

I rise.  Begin a pilgrimage to the exit door, my legs taking the helm.  I am conscious that I am moving, but I also feel detached—floating.  And despite the group’s commitment to praying, my unorthodoxy does not go unnoticed.  There’s Colette’s teacher, mouth agape.  She seems less grandmotherly now, the benevolence of her apple sweater vest compromised by her scowl.  Until now, I have repressed my discomfort about the Bible she keeps on her desk, spine out.  I have buried my memory of her leading the class in a chorus of “The Lord’s Prayer” before lunch.

By the time I reach the door, I have been branded:

Godless.  Liberal.  Non-Christian.  Likes tofu.

So I brand them back:

Southern.  Conservative.  Evangelical.  Like pork rinds.

˜

Looking back, I can see that leaving the P.T.A. meeting was not only a social blunder, but also a financial mistake.  My husband was finishing graduate school, looking for administrative positions in the area, and he had established a nice rapport with Colette’s principal.  His anarchist wife interrupting the P.T.A. members’ conversation with God—while it would certainly set him apart from other assistant principal candidates—might also stamp him as unique in the wrong light.  That night, however, I was preoccupied with the fusion of church and state.  Was praying in the gym even legal? Should I protest further?  Wouldn’t that be truly patriotic?  What if a Jewish or Muslim family moved to town?  Shouldn’t someone begin to pave the road for them?

Although my reasoning was hyperactive now, it had been AWOL when I’d left the meeting.  It was as if my body had sensed, if not an illegality, than a threat to the purity of my ideology.  It was as if my body had been the vessel to transport my stance to safety, to the green zone of my beliefs.

Or maybe my reaction to prayer in a public place was a conditioned response, not so different from the others’ conditioned response to pray when told.  Maybe I risked acceptance involuntarily.  Maybe a body just goes its way.

3.

One thing is for certain: I have been trekking into territories for which I have no compass.  I had tried (for what I also thought was Colette’s sake) to serve as one of her Girl Scout troop leaders, but I had failed here, too.  My inherent need to examine conventions anew had resurfaced, inspiring me to inspire them to question everything, to think outside the Thin Mint box.

Meetings were held in a cottage behind the local Methodist church, where the girls often practiced their volunteer skills, planting bulbs and cleaning up the grounds.  Whenever I entered the church, I was confronted with a world that left me disquieted: the pastor’s expectant salutations, the deferential arrangement of the pews, the unfamiliar figures in the stained glass windows; I could look for meaning in those shards of colors but all I ever concluded was that it was representational art and I didn’t know the stories.

The Girl Scout house was less destabilizing.  Here Colette and I were always greeted with ebullient bouncing girls.  The other leader and I allowed time for their exuberant rendezvous, but soon the tenor would change.  We’d shape them into a circle.  Tell them to join hands.  It was time for the Girl Scout pledge.

“On my honor, I will try
To serve God and my Country
To help people at all times
And to live by the Girl Scout law.”

I liked the part about helping people, but, in light of America’s occupation of Iraq, it was hard to cede more power to country.  Serving the triumvirate of God, America, and now, the Girl Scouts, seemed overzealous.  Teaching young girls to relinquish more power, to serve yet another authority, seemed another impediment to their own thought processes.  What about serving a point of view?

One night, our troop was to assemble a care package for one scout’s father who was in Iraq.  Soldiers were in our midst.  We all lived near the Camp Lejeune Marine base in Jacksonville, North Carolina, where I taught a community college writing course twice a week.  Tonight we were going to put the words “to help people” into action.

After the pledge, we moved into the kitchen where an empty box waited.  The girls placed their offerings into the box, valuables from America the soldier had wanted, like bags of Twizzlers and Doritos.  On top went handmade cards with messages of “God Bless You!” and “God Bless America!”  These were supposed to buoy me, but I was sinking.  Was I to accept that sending candy was enough for our soldiers?  Was this all that we would teach tonight, that dying soldiers in big war + prayers and candy = everything was going to be okay?

To me, the night’s lesson was “How to Numb Ourselves from a Deeper Truth.”  Although I too wanted relief for the soldier, there was this hollow throbbing place to explore: our government’s role in putting the soldier in Iraq in the first place.  I wanted to pose questions to the girls.  Do you think that some people think the war is wrong?  Do you know that our president and vice president have ulterior interests in the Middle East? But then upon the landscape my politicizing would plant a field of social land mines.  In the end, Colette and I quit, citing “time constraints” to the other scouts.  To myself, I cited “irreconcilable differences with the group,” honorably discharging ourselves.

4.

Driving to Jacksonville on the nights I teach, I often share the highway with convoys of military jeeps on their way back to Camp Lejeune.  Sometimes trucks sporting “Semper Fi” stickers or “United States Marine Corps” sidle up to my car and I decelerate to let them pass.  Who am I to butt in front of frontline men?  Who am I to be driving to my superfluous job where my bravest effort of the evening will be to try to sell the beauty of a well-defined thesis statement? I have a fervent antiwar stance, but only when tucked safely inside my car.

In class, I attempt a delicate balance: how to encourage my students, who are also Marines, to consider the illegalities surrounding the war when their ability to endure the mission depends on their conviction that the United States is fighting the good fight.  I want them to question their government’s motives.  They just want to forget.

I try to understand their perspectives, but war is beyond me.  I live in a world of theory.  I assign them readings like The Declaration of Independence and Thomas Paine’s Common Sense while they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.  One student stutters.  One announces her (unplanned) pregnancy.  Another, the wife of a returning soldier, quits class and moves to Pennsylvania (upon my urgent recommendation).  She tells me she is scared of her husband’s behavior since he returned from Iraq, how he has been “roughhousing” with their son, who is nine months old.

One of my students, Jim, has seen more death at nineteen than his young face can express.  I’ve never seen him outside of class, especially in a war zone so, to me, he embodies innocence.  He shows up for class, seems interested in what I say, wants to learn how to write.  From my teacher perspective, he seems so sweet, so malleable. A self-proclaimed born again Christian, Jim often writes about his role model, Jesus.  He says he will return to Iraq to defend Christianity against radical Islam.

I want to teach him that it is not weak to respect those with different beliefs, so I conduct an experiment.  I ask each student to bring something to class that will evoke our senses.  We will write descriptions of each student’s offering in order to see how subjective individual sensory perception is.  One student brings a favorite dessert.  Another brings a perfume.  Jim brings a Christian love song.  As we listen to lyrics linking the love in Jesus to the romantic love between a man and a woman, Jim closes his eyes, mouths every word, as if speaking in tongues.  When the song ends, he cries.

I have no reaction to the song itself and this is what is disconcerting: How can I be so removed from my student’s emotional response?   Why do our approaches feel so inaccessible to each other?

Maybe our beliefs are really just forces of our habits—safety zones that lock in our ignorance—  disguised as devotions or creeds.

After class, I thank Jim.  I confess to him my lack of religion and attempt to draw a parallel: “My lack of faith is as permanent as your faith in God.”  He listens, but seems puzzled, his expression similar to my own whenever I see a group of people entering a church.  I’ll be driving to a bookstore or on my way to yoga class and here are these people filing in to worship.  I get it in theory, but it is still so foreign.

˜

A stranger on an airplane once asked me if she could pray for me when she learned I wasn’t Christian.

“No thank you,” I said, with surprising unapologetic certainty.

“You won’t be saved,” she declared.

Without physical mobility, I reverted to my thoughts.  How can I be unworthy of being saved if I dispute the legitimacy of being saved as an actual happening?  I don’t predict harm on her due to her beliefs.  Why does she get to land me in hell for mine?

˜

If, after this life, I find myself in the awkward position of not being dead and also not being saved, then maybe I will understand why I should suffer for my agnostic sins.  But for now I am willing to take all the risks.  Because what if the mystery is what’s sacred?  What if respecting the unknown is the point?

˜

I am just getting accustomed to telling the truth about my religiosity.  Recently, two women clutching Bibles ascended my walkway and knocked on my door and, in a sudden shift of behavioral pattern, my first instinct was not to hide and sign to my children shhhhh.  My first instinct was to just answer the door.

“Hello,” they say in unison.

I size them up.  Jehovah’s Witnesses. Thoughts ensue, like loss of female rights.

“We know you weren’t expecting us,” they say, offering a pamphlet.

“No,” I interrupt, “and actually, I’m off to a yoga class.”

I don’t know what the word yoga will conjure in the minds of Jehovah’s Witnesses but my intuition tells me that this one word will propel their movement away.

“Oh! Yoga…” they sputter, as if I have just announced I am late for alien croquet.

“Okay,” they continue.  “Have a nice day.”

Inside my house, I am taken aback.  Speaking my truth did not produce a curt reply.  I had expected these women to pass judgment, to suggest a wrath coming my way, but they responded with civility.  Now I am remorseful.  And curious.  Through the shutters in my son’s room, I spy on them.  They are at my next-door-neighbor’s house, and I can verify that she is being her reliable, southern, friendly, good Christian self, but their conversation remains a mystery.  Are they really discussing Jesus?  Are they affirming their common life paradigms? Then I slink away.  It is not for me to know.

˜

I only consider religion at moments of fear, like when a noise convinces me that there is a killer outside or when an airplane I am riding on has a possible mechanical problem.  And even during these moments, I am not so much praying as repeating a regret fueled mantra, please don’t let me die, please don’t let me die. I still doubt that a man in the sky is assessing my right to live.  Really, I am just heightening my appreciation for life, promising not to abandon this awareness once the plane lands or the sun reveals no murderer on my front porch, pre-kill.

˜

In hotels, I open the nightstand drawer to see if the Bible is there but not because I am going to read it.  I just need confirmation that whoever makes Bible decisions for hotel chains is still being given this authority.  It seems antiquated, 1950’s-ish.  With no personal attachment to the Bible, I find its consistency in hotel drawers diminishes its holiness and its allure.  It becomes just another middle class American standard, like the continental breakfast included, the pool, the infinite channels.

5.

In the afternoon, I am a prompt chauffeur, carting my son Miles in his wagon to Colette’s bus stop.  Once there, we peer down the pavement with our eyes prepped for that big yellow and black wheeled monster that carries Colette home in its belly.  Soon, the bus ejects her like a staple from a stapler and she is my responsibility.  She will absorb everything I say until her eyelids submit to the dark.  Today, Miles pounces on her, but she peels him off, insinuating there is something more pressing than brotherly love.

“Mom, if God invented the world, who invented God?”

She asks with a strange hybrid of interest and nonchalance, as if the art of soliciting serious information from me depends on her delivery.   As we glide along together, I struggle with an answer.  I am ill-equipped for such profundity, having spent the last eight hours answering Miles’ questions, which are also frequent and exhausting, but of a much simpler nature, as in, “Mom, what chair needs fixing?”

All day, he has been my two-foot high carpenter, donning his yellow construction hat, a hand-me-down from his older cousin and two sizes too big.  All he needs is a little business.  All I am required to do is flip over a chair, point to the screws and wonder aloud if there are “Any good carpenters around here?”  He’ll dunk into his toolbox.  Emerge with a hammer.  Be good to go.  Colette’s questions are no longer this simplistic.  Her question—who is responsible for the creation of the universe—requires too much circumspection for a Wednesday afternoon.

I am relieved that Colette has not yet been programmed to consider this question off-limits as a topic of friendly conversation, at least with her mother.  I am also relieved that she is seeking my advice.  But I am wary of the origin of such an inquiry.  I know that her friends talk about Jesus and God.  I have not prepared her to respond.

I cast out an offering, a palette of potential ideas ranging from Buddhism to polytheism to reincarnation to the blunt idea that we will become worm food.  That we may want to consider our time here, heaven on Earth.  I encourage her to consider everything, all religions, none.  I remind her that she is young and independent.

“Go ride your bike,” I say.

˜

It was only a matter of time before religion would enter Colette’s cauldron of emerging inquiries.  When she was just five, on Christmas morning, she asked me to “level with” her by confirming her suspicions about Santa.  While children across America pried open toys mummified in plastic, Colette remained unconvinced.

“Mom?  Why is my guitar from Santa wrapped in the same wrapping paper as the presents from Grandma?  This is strange, mom.  There’s a “Made in China” sticker on the back.  Was it made at the North Pole or Target?  Mom, I want the truth!”

I had a developed distaste for Santa, for Christmas, since becoming a mother.  I’d had to weigh my lack of religion with my disdain for consumerism and fold in whatever level of adherence I had to American tradition in order to come up with some justifiable reason for participating in Christmas at all.  Our government said it was fighting Islamo-fascism, and patriotism seemed necessary.  But shopper-as-patriot seemed insane.  As did the concept that giving one’s offspring more stuff represented love.

We could celebrate the winter solstice, but that seemed too barren when juxtaposed with Santa.  But if I just continued on autopilot, shopping and spending to the ubiquitous Christmas music, without ever questioning the source of the products I was buying or considering the less festive atmospheres in which they were being made, or what the people (children?) who were making them were thinking of us Americans as they endured the assembly line construction of toys we wanted cheap, I’d be surrendering to the power of corporatist covetousness.  That didn’t seem healthy for anyone, or in keeping with the supposed meaning of Christmas.  In fact, it felt antithetical.  What transpired was often a blended but watered-down approach to the holiday that preserved some traditions, abandoned others, and totally confused us all.

I can see how Colette went from questioning Santa’s existence to questioning the existence of God.  Both are figures of goodness explained to you by trusted adults and both offer eternal happiness (or at least fun toys to last until January).  Both also judge your behavior. Have you been naughty or nice? Where will you spend your afterlife?

Whether Colette’s inquisitiveness is just in her nature or exacerbated by my constant questioning is hard to know.  What is clear is that she has found a snag in the process of her personal logic.  Truths of the world are emerging, but the truths emerging at school are often inconsistent with the truths emerging at home.

Colette’s home truths are gleaned from her parents’ reactions to the news.  These truths, like the political event preceding her investigation of Santa that Christmas, swirl around her house in the form of open conversations between mom and dad.

“Mom, who did Santa vote for, Kerry or Bush?”

I don’t remember my exact response, but I am sure I drew a direct connection between Santa and Kerry.  I am sure I ascribed antiwar tendencies to the man who rides the sky rewarding only children who are good.  I am sure I projected my political views onto a make believe entity as a way to indoctrinate my child.  I used a loaded image to justify what I believe.  I fudged the evidence.  I buried the truth.  Because I put Bush’s second “election” in  huge dubious quotes and determined it a colossal breakdown of awareness that would extend the war, I was compelled to embark on another breakdown: an explanation of how fear conjures things, like votes, and war, and death.

“I wish you hadn’t been born during a war,” I say to Colette, as I tuck her into her heart-patterned comforter.

“Why, mom?”

“Because you’ve never known a time of peace.”

˜

On the surface, I know it’s not right to tell children horror stories, even if they are true.  But against the backdrop of war, nonfiction seems vital.  If my daughter is going to spend her entire childhood hearing about Iraq, and now Afghanistan, I want her to know some realities—both good and bad—beyond the symbol of Old Glory.

Books like Good Night, Sleep Tight and A Sleepytime Rhyme are shelved.  Instead, I freelance story time, weaving endangered American concepts, like individual rights, into stories about America’s formation.  I create child-friendly chapters on Freedom of Speech and Freedom of and from Religion.  I conjure visual images, like a tree with branches named “Executive,” “Legislative,” and “Judicial.”  I plant seeds, then kiss her goodnight.

One night, we come to the story of September 11th.  I try to use good judgment in the details I disseminate, focusing on the aftermath of the attacks and how the tragedy brought me to her. It’s selective storytelling and we all do it.  We all extract only the details that help us make sense out of the nonsensical.

“You were at preschool,” I begin.  “I was writing at this coffee place across the street.  When I heard the news, I picked you up and drove us home right away.”

What I don’t recount to her is the nightmare I had on the night of September 11th.

That story begins with the Twin Towers ablaze.  I am asleep but semiconscious, aware that although I am only a witness to this disaster, I am still close to the rush of fire and smoke.  The danger is real, as is my now erratic breath.  On some level, I know I am only dreaming, because I have the sensation that, here in my bed, I am whimpering aloud.

The worst part comes next.  I see them.  Human beings are on ledges of burning buildings, frozen between two paths to death.  When they start to fall, one by one, I realize I am watching, for the first time ever, people choosing death.

Or am I?

I wake up, eager for that relief that comes with morning, but it has performed a supreme disappearing act.  What does remain is the enigma of Americans jumping to their deaths, which is as strange and disturbing a reality as in my dream.  I cannot rationalize it.  The act of jumping seems both instinctual and incongruent with the human need to survive.  On one hand, it seems involuntary, human beings responding to stimuli.  Repelling fire is natural, right? But I can’t shake my sense that some of the people paused before they jumped, as if deciding what to do.  That some of them might have been thinking seems plausible as well, especially for Americans, for whom choice is inherent.

Were the Americans who jumped from the Twin Towers making this decision: should I stay and risk the fire or should I jump and risk the fall? Or did we bear witness to something more spiritual?  Were these brave Americans somehow blessed with a power to trust the universe?  Did their spirits rise from their bodies?  Did they take a leap of faith?

6.

What do we say?

My yoga instructor, Michael, is sitting in lotus position, facing me.  He bows to the floor and whispers, “Namaste.” I now know the spiritual meaning of “Namaste”: the God in me recognizes and honors the God in you. But in my early practice of yoga, I thought he was saying, “No mistake.”  I’d sit cross-legged, spine erect, only to have my balance disrupted by my thoughts.  No mistake?  Seems too rigid for yoga. No mistake summons the word rigid.  But Michael is the herald of flexibility. I pursue positive interpretations of “no mistake,” but the only one I can find is no matter how much you screw up this week, you have made no mistake in the eyes of those who are spiritually aware.

I have been breathing through the tightness, but no matter how often I search for balance, search for that third eye that is supposed to exist somewhere on my forehead, my forehead remains crumpled.  My first wrinkle appeared there, from all my years spent worrying over stupid things, and now it reminds me whenever I look in the mirror that I am a typical American woman, bound by generational ethos.

In the downward facing dog position, I close my eyes and center on my breath.  Scan my body for rigidity.  Where does it hurt?  Where is it hard to breathe? My hamstrings signal first so I stretch them until whatever is concealed is unleashed.  In level time and depth, I inhale and exhale, until the force and pattern of steady breathing creates some weird rhythmic canyon into which no new thoughts are permitted.  I hold this position, breathing without an active thought, but with the low drumming hope that clarity resides in the crevices of my muscular system.  Then my thoughts return.

Will I ever achieve actual meditation or am I just wasting my time on another misbegotten happiness pursuit?  If I could only soften the interior parts of my body, if I could only, through the mix of breath and mind control, elongate and relax everything within me, I would be happy and calm and ageless. I breathe like my life depends on it, like I will die if I cannot control my thoughts, then I surrender.  I am too American, the self-made yogi.  I just assume that enlightenment is here for the taking, that I will obtain it.  Just because I covet what it might bring.

Part of me laughs at the irony of the benchmark mastery of yoga.

Part of me recoils at the irrepressible quest.

Enlightenment, when paid by the hour, is fleeting.  Practice ends.  Any sense of peace I have gathered in the last hour will diminish as the evening wears on, but an unexpected image will remain.  I open my eyes to the classroom, to the other eager disciples.  And there in front of me, attached to me, is the fact of my hands in prayer pose.


Winner of the 2010 Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Prize, judged by Melissa Febos