Twenty years ago, give or take a few weeks, on a cold, rainy Saturday, I was living by myself in a guest house a few blocks from the Joslyn Castle in Omaha. It was an old, historic neighborhood – not unlike my neighborhood in Memphis, today, with houses in varying states of renovation and residents in varying states of home life.
I found the guest house in the newspaper, because newspapers were how we did things back then. I had called about it in the spring of 1996 after coming to terms with the end of my temporary vagabond life in Wyoming and facing the reality of a job, and paycheck, in Nebraska. My soon-to-be colleagues urged me to look in the western suburbs of the city, where new things were happening; but I wasn’t a suburbanite then, and I never will be.
The guest house, all 800 feet of it, was the upstairs of garage, a former stable house. In the main house lived Mike and Hersh, who at that point had been together almost 20 years, and their adopted daughter, who was turning 13.
What I would learn months later, one night after a few cocktails in their living room, was this: Although they couldn’t put it quite this way in the rental ad, what Mike and Hersh had been looking for was a straight, young, liberal-leaning, professional woman who had an interest in the arts, a reasonably tame lifestyle, and the kind of personality that might strike a friendship with their daughter at a time in her life when a woman’s presence could be helpful. I was looking for temporary housing that didn’t feel temporary, a place where I would feel at home without having to make any commitments. It was a match made in heaven.
I moved into the guest house in April. By mid-summer I had developed a routine: In the afternoons, after work, I would walk Ella up California Street to Memorial Park, turn her loose to run with the other miscreant, illegally off-leash dogs, and then round her up to walk back home. In the mornings, before work, I would walk her to the Joslyn Castle grounds, much closer and quieter. By August we were well settled in this routine.
Then my father died, and before I could get back into a steady schedule the days grew quickly shorter, darkness settling in before I left work each day. Snow and ice followed. My travel requirements picked up. My relationships became decidedly complicated. I was a stranger in a strange land, pulled in competing directions, my future unclear and uncertain.
I still walked in the mornings, out of dog-owning utility, if nothing else. By winter there was only one other morning dog walker, a well-dressed older man with a wire fox terrier, both of whom acknowledged our daily presence, Ella’s and mine, but otherwise kept to themselves.
On the dark afternoons and early evenings, however, I was at loose ends. I had always been an after-work exerciser, having never been much of a morning person. All of the gyms were farther out west, and I didn’t want to drive just to exercise (that still seems ridiculous to me), so I found myself, one cold, rainy Saturday afternoon, perusing exercise videos at my neighborhood Target (where I bought my favorite-ever pair of Sorels, back when one could buy Sorels at Target), to add to my collection of workouts for abs, buns and thighs (oh, the 1990s…).
What caught my eye was the picture of Jenny from Love Story (which is how I’ll always think of Ali McGraw) looking fabulous in a white unitard against a beautiful blue background. To be fair, my mother introduced me to Lilias, Yoga and You on PBS when I was five or six; and we stayed together, my mother, Lilias and I, through my college years. I was no stranger to prasarita padanttonasana, my favorite to perform (and say) for my parents’ friend Astrid from India (for whom my daughter would be named) when she came to our creaky old house on Agnes Place to play bridge and I got to stay up past my 7 p.m. bedtime.
But to be both honest and clear, what drew me to that particular video that day in Target had not one damn thing to do with Lilias or yoga, but was rather the idea that some magic routine might lead to looking fabulous in a white unitard. I remember this truth every time I start to feel critical toward Lululemon.
Anyway, we went home together, to my cozy guesthouse, Ali McGraw: Yoga, Mind & Body and I, along with a purple sticky mat and some new exercise clothes (because, Target). I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, but whatever it was, I got something entirely different.
If you are familiar with this particular video, then no further explanation is required. If it’s not familiar to you but you have even the tiniest interest and openness to a yoga DVD, then take a look – it’s even on YouTube. You don’t have to do anything; just watch and listen. It’s spectacularly beautiful. If you are completely uninterested and even cynical about the whole idea, I say to you only: I am sad for your loss.
To this day, almost exactly two decades later, Yoga Mind & Body is still my favorite home practice, from which I stray and return. It’s a reliable source of stillness and renewal when the world seems to rock and routines fail and people don’t make sense and weather makes walking impossible. My favorite part, then and now, is the tree pose segment.
In the myth associated with Vrksasana, or tree pose, Queen Sita stands among the ashoka trees in daily defiance of the demon king Ravana, who has kidnapped and tried to seduce her. Each day, taunted by Ravana’s minions, Sita grows only more rooted to her tree, sending her singularly-focused love into its branches and into air and into world around her until her love answers back.
There are a hundred obscure, and a few not so obscure, ways in which 2016 has felt, to me, very much like 1996, with its various disturbances and discomforts. There is solace in knowing I’m not alone in feeling unsettled, but it is unsettling nonetheless. Yesterday, alone in my creaky old house, a cold steady rain preventing my afternoon walk, I pulled out my bright aqua sticky mat and my old, well-worn DVD for a bit of centering.
“Trees sway in the breeze; get more grounded,” I heard Erich Schiffmann’s long-familiar voice say. And I was reminded of what it means to remain loving and defiant and unseduced, while the world tugs and pulls all around.
Food | Week of December 5, 2016
Cannellini Bean Fritters | Herb Salad | Sourdough Bread
Apple Cider Chicken Paillards with Cauliflower Gratin
Braised Pork with Red Wine | Egg Noodles
Cheese Grits | Oven-roasted Broccoli
You speak here of becoming a tree and today Jenn Berney at Goodnight Already talked about the donkey that became a stone. Sigh. 2016. John Oliver said it best (but I won’t repeat it here.) Stupid 2016.
I take solace in the beautiful spirits that grace my life (you and Jenn included) and also in the peace-seeking pilates classes and runs I do now (which are amazing replacements for the Gilad Bodies in Motion VHS tape from twenty years ago that I used to do…)
P.S. I just checked out that yoga video (because I’ve always been a kiss-up student) and I have to say, that leotard is literally the most terrifying, anti-woman thing to ever appear in a yoga video, I hope. Not that Gilad didn’t have his sidekicks in colorful versions of that but still, it’s a lady bits wedgie, dare I say, a vag-dgie? Ha!
Jennifer, when I lived in Santa Barbara I became very good friends with Lillias’s mother, Norah Hamilton Strauss.
Lillias came to visit from time to time. What a tribute that you have used this video for so many years. It is beautiful.
Ali in her perfect white leotard…
Dear Jenny… I always love reading your blog. I have practiced Yoga in the past. I started with an incredible teacher when I was still living in KY but when I moved to TX, I got away from it. I tried to take a class for a little while and the teacher was young and great, but I never felt the full “workout” I had been used to. After that, I suffered from a couple of serious injuries..shattered wrist..that required surgery leaving me with a plate and 8 screws in my wrist. I have 98% mobility back, but my wrist does not bend very well making some of the most important poses nearly impossible 😦 I watched about 8 minutes of the beautiful video you put in your post. I might find some of Erich’s more beginner stuff and try that first. Thanks for the link! I think going back to Yoga..even in a limited capacity might be just what I need. 🙂 ❤
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