By Katharine Kaufman //
After great pain, a formal feeling comes – * ~Emily Dickinson
The shock of the announcement runs through my body. I wake at three or so on alternate nights and stay awake. The other nights the book falls out of my hands and words on the page mix with dream images. When I turn the light off I am narrow with shock and fear. I sing the song my mother sang—when you awake you will find all the pretty little horses. The lullaby goes on to describe the colors and types of the horses. Maybe it was about dreaming horses. All that happens in the song is the girl stops crying and sleeps and in the morning she will have horses. It carried me to sleep as a child and now it brings me underneath the shock. Steve is way over on the right side, completely still, almost falling off the bed. I make sure he is sleep-breathing before I begin to sing.
A year ago when a doctor pushed a thick needle into the protrusion on the left side of my neck, I tried breathing into my belly and that was no help. I remembered a little story of animals that my friend Heather made up. They were living under the gift shop, and one of the animals was a little sick. The giraffe. Maybe the deer had a broken leg. Maybe the animals were cold. I let the doctor do his work and stopped listening about how this lump was so springy to get a needle really into. I imagined hiding under the shop with the animals in a small hole we made.
When I asked Kobun Chino Roshi if he would be there for me when I died he said, not for comfort, but to show you where to go next. I realized that waking up to what actually is happening extends way past comfort. He knew I was looking for a parent I think, to sing me to sleep. And he kindly refused. I click on synonyms of the word comfort, and find luxury, security, consolation, relief, coziness. Meditation offers none of this.
Here, in Kobun’s gaze, I meet a world— water well deep, and sky beat wide. I imitate his proper posture. I look straight in his eyes for at least three seconds before my habitual stare to the ground. I think I see what he sees in me— attachment and ignorance. He speaks so kindly and goes on for a long time. Outside of the Dokusan ** room I am casual and try to make him laugh. This kind of formal, intimate meeting is both exhilarating and I want to bolt.
Right now, becoming awake is not gentle. I am not pushing myself along fast enough in my obligations. This waking shows me, in this dog year, what I have been blotting out. I push the vacuum around and swish a toilet scrubber and hold the dustpan under the broom. I welcome friends and students and neighbors and potential housemates here. I ask what type of tea, cut up pieces of apple and scoop roasted almonds into a small blue and white ceramic bowl for my guests. The housemates-to-be say no, they have found another, better place. I have to recover a little. I’m sure someone would tell me, you could shift perspective Katharine.
On Sunday evening in Yin Yoga Healing Sound class, at Shri Yoga across the street, the small studio is completely packed. Keri explains the Vegas nerve to us, and the parasympathetic nervous system, and Chinese meridians for the heart and ground. Tonight’s practice is for Spring, new beginnings. She explains that the crystal singing bowls are tuned for this purpose. She sings as she pushes the harmonium keys. She sings to Krishna and Govinda and Ganesh. We humans arrange our bodies into simple postures. She whispers for us to come back to the living after our mystical class. She asks, do you need to shift the way you are thinking about things? I have an impulse to get on a plane to South India and see a certain teacher; to escape this hard awakening of particulars; to feel my Yoga heart.
A year ago I took a scratch test and then a blood test to see what I was allergic too. Nothing was wrong I was just wondering about it. I wasn’t allergic to anything, not mango, strawberries or pine pollen, or yeast or gluten. I thought I could improve myself. Myself doesn’t improve. Myself is more vast, mysterious and unknown than any kind of improvement. I say it all the time as I teach. I learn it again: For now, here is good enough.
Friends give me cards with pictures of animals for my birthday, and flowers and a bird bath and poetry book and a candle, oil for my face before bed (but really for anytime) and a promise of a red bud tree for the front yard. We sit and eat cake with no gluten or dairy and coconut ice cream. I pour glasses of white wine and red. A small child called Clara and I blow out the candles together. My mother mails me a birthday check. My brother mails me a check. Kim leaves me a jar of chunks of amber in the empty flowerpot by my front door, from Aruna from India. I am not sure what to do with it so I chew a little bit. Maybe if I swallow enough amber it will help heal my heart. I’m not afraid of eating amber even though it wasn’t on the scratch test.
I walk into new Yoga studios run by brilliant and creative young women who speak of loving oneself and we sigh with our mouths wide open as we do the postures. Postures are sometimes called shapes. We can hold them for a long time and listen to how we might shift our perspective. Not because we are running from something we are allergic to, but because it is real and good and whole.
The formal shapes we hold, our positions—we hold a little longer than we might think necessary, and then, a letting go –
~ o ~
* After great pain, a formal feeling comes – (372)
After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?
The Feet, mechanical, go round –
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –
This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –
Reprinted by permission of the publishers and the Trustees of Amherst College from THE POEMS OF EMILY DICKINSON: READING EDITION, edited by Ralph W. Franklin, ed., Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1998, 1999 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Copyright © 1951, 1955, 1979, 1983 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.
Source: The Poems of Emily Dickinson Edited by R. W. Franklin (Harvard University Press, 1999)
About the Author
Katharine Kaufman teaches meditation, writing workshops, Yoga, and contemplative dance in Boulder County and at Shambhala Mountain Center in Colorado. She taught for many years at The Yoga Workshop and Studio Be in Boulder. Katharine is an adjunct professor at Naropa University. She holds MFAs in Performance/Choreography and Writing/Poetics. She is priest ordained in the Soto Zen lineage of Kobun Chino and Vanja Palmers, Roshis. www.katharinekaufman.com
Featured image by Karen O’Hern