Friday, February 5, 2010

Further Negotiations: Prayer

 Sometime prior to 1998, my best friend Ken, Jay—his lover of many years—and I sat on mats in the yoga studio on Larchmont, which offered free introductory classes once a month. (Larchmont is a street and a shopping district in Los Angeles just south of Melrose Avenue and adjacent to the big houses lining Highland Avenue.) We were listening to an instructor talk about yoga as a fitness and spiritual practice. She demonstrated some showy asanas or poses—inversions like head and hand stands, the gravity defying switch from down to up dog, and the pretzel-like balancing act of bakasana, crane or crow pose. (I eventually was able to hold bakasana, and if you’ve seen the size of my behind…well, getting it airborne and balanced atop the fulcrum of my arms is quite an accomplishment.) 

The instructor introduced a petite woman who spoke about what yoga meant in her life. She was one of those twenty-something sylphs who does not yet look like an adult. She had been raped, and yoga had helped her to live in her body again. She demonstrated a sun salutation, bridge (a backbend), and spoke for a while in a headstand leaning against the wall.  The instructor concluded the talk portion of the freebee with more discussion of how yoga helps to fuse the gap between mind and body, how it allows people to get out of their heads and live in their bodies. At some point prior to a recititation of the discount packages available, the petite twenty-something folded slowly down from the wall and quietly excused herself.

We began the workout portion lying on our backs while the instructor encouraged us to feel ourselves in our bodies. At this time I was a size 24 and had been for about a decade. I was and am fat, pleasantly fat, but fat, not plump or big-boned, fat—the polite Midwesterner, my husband for example, would call me a “big gal.”

Inhabit my body? Why on earth would I want to do that? My reaction is visceral: the sort of reaction one would expect from a woman who had lived most of her life deep inside her head pretending that her body had absolutely nothing to do with who she was or how people treated her despite sometimes shockingly cruel evidence to the contrary. I shook it off, like trying to shake off spiders.

Inhabit my body? Are you out of your fucking mind?

The class concluded. We rolled and put away our mats. We went to lunch at the Greek place up on the corner. I ordered the gyros with tzatziki. I did not think about yoga again.

My husband and I rolled along—planned a wedding, got married, and were married for four years—before we decided to have a child. The pregnancy and child became the focus of my obsessional thinking. I resolved to be the best pregnant woman to have ever conceived. I began walking three miles three times a week at the USC track with my husband and his best friend, Johnny. I signed up for Bradley Method, hospital-sponsored, and doula-led birthing classes. I hired a doula. I read a small library of childbirth and infant care manuals. I bought my first fitness magazine, Fit Pregnancy. Because more than one source recommended it, I paid upfront for ten pre-natal yoga classes on Larchmont. Then I paid for twenty more classes and received an even deeper discount. I attended every class and managed to be the ridiculously gravid woman who proudly announces from her mat that she is forty-one weeks pregnant.

In my zealotry it does not occur to me that a person who has yet to bridge the gap between her mind and her body will not be able to insure a successful birth through what is primarily an intellectual and ego-driven effort. My first child is delivered via caesarean section in the shadow of the Harbor Freeway, downtown at Good Samaritan Hospital.

Ouch. And the c-section recovery was no picnic either.

New obsession: I must model health for my child. I must change my life. I must remake my world and my place in it so that my child will know how to be healthy and loved and at peace in the world. I’m sure I’m not the first or last woman to make those vows while intoxicated with the scent of newborn skull.

I lost almost 100 pounds. (How, you ask? A herculean task, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. For me, that task involved spending several hours a week at the gym, four hours a week in meetings at UCLA’s Risk Factor Obesity Diet Program on Saturday mornings, and several more hours a week walking my first born around Los Angeles in her stroller. I weighed and measured all my food and calculated the calories. I calculated the calories burned—at 600 calories an hour, swimming is the best calorie per hour activity other than cross-country skiing. I calculated calorie intake minus calorie output per week with an eye toward hitting a calorie number below the calories needed to maintain my weight at 100 calories per pound. Under no circumstances make yourself miserable eating for a 120-pound person if you weigh over 200 pounds—that’s just crazy making—and you’ll feel like shit while you lose your mind. And that, my friends, is the only way to lose weight and maintain its loss—you do that and continue to do it for the rest of your life. It’s the “for the rest of your life” part that trips everyone up—and I suspect that’s part of the popularity of the 12 step programs—but I digress. There you have it: the secret formula.)

It took two years. I was finally the same size I wore in high school, not small, not even close to small, but I could pass for big boned, rather than fat because all that exercise tightens up stuff that would be lax otherwise.

I hold bakasana indefinitely. I work on doing a headstand. Butter and oil leave our lives. Cabbage replaces rice. Fruit replaces bread. I feel good.  I practice ujjayi breath during all forms of exercise, save swimming. (According to Wikipedia, “This breath is especially important during transition into and out of asanas [or] postures, as it helps practitioners to stay present, self-aware, and grounded in the practice, which lends it a meditative quality.”) I experience the love of God while prone on my yoga matt listening to an instructor chatter about being present, self-aware, and grounded. My ujjayi breath joins the chorus of ujjayi breath in the sweat-smelling studio.

(Size 14 according to Lane Bryant, but no one else, I was sitting in the dry sauna at the 24 Hour Fitness next door to Amoeba Records in Hollywood. It was Friday night and this woman comes in. This woman is a type. This is the type: she has been beautiful all her life and her expectation that she will be treated exceptionally because of her beauty is deep and inchoate. Now, pushing 50, she has to work harder to be beautiful, maybe for the first time at all, and there is panic welling somewhere deep and next door to her expectations for her life. But, part of being that woman is that those sorts of thoughts aren't acknowledged, maybe ever. So, she sat down across from me, and I could feel her assessing me  my eyes were closed I was doing ujjayi breath  sinus problems. Then she says, excuse me, I don't know what your journey is, but you know I stopped eating bread and it has changed my life... and on she went... she had a date later, she liked to work out to get in a good headspace before going on a date, and on and on, on the premise that I needed to lose weight and needed her help, I was Ugly Betty and she would be the magic life coach who would sort it all out for me. Fuck her. After a few I just like to breathe quietly in here had been ignored, I tried to practice compassion. By the time she left   thank God!   I understood she was just trying to build herself up for a blind date. Still, fuck her.)

More recently, our RCIA class gathered for one of our Tuesday night meetings at a neighboring parish to hear Sr. Mildred speak about prayer.  The chapel of this church is lit to a low glow. There is a statue of Mary draped with several rosaries of varying quality—cheap plastic beads, pressed rose petal beads, semiprecious stone beads. (In my irreverent mind, I am reminded of Mardi Gras beads and imagine Mary happy on Bourbon Street.)  The room is absent the bank of candles I associate with Catholic churches. (All the churches in Europe had banks of candles back in ’91.) There is a lectern, a small folding table, and rows of upholstered metal stacking chairs.

Sr. Mildred tells us that prayer is the means by which our quotidian physical experience is brought closer to the extraordinary plane of the spiritual where God, Mary and the saints exist. She moves her hands in a horizontal stripe, one atop the other running parallel about six inches apart, from her right to her left. The point of prayer, she says, is to bring the two together. This time her hands do not run parallel, but converge on her left at a disappearing point on an imagined horizon. (I am reminded of the painter, Mark Rothko   and Thomas Merton, his friend   and how for a while I was obsessed with the metaphor of landscapes  not in any scholarly way, but as an object of meditation and fodder for my own writing.)

Until I listened to Sr. Mildred, my understanding of Catholic prayer was limited to what it must look like to many Protestants looking in: Catholics recite from prayer cards, Catholics pray the rosary, Catholics participate in call and response prayer during mass, Catholics do not talk with god except in extemporaneous requests for the blessing of church sponsored events. Catholics do not converse silently with God: they offer praise aloud and in groups.

Sr. Mildred reminded me of another nun who spoke at a Women’s Center-sponsored conference at the University of California, Riverside in the mid-eighties. As I remember it, the speaker at the UC Riverside event was the directress of a Los Angeles halfway house for women leaving prostitution. She spoke about the day-to-day operation of the house, interspersed with individual success stories—she could have been any random type of progressive giving a presentation on the socially valuable work of her organization. Then she told how above her desk in her office is a picture of a woman of color from another culture. This picture, she tells the crowd, is her picture of God—where others would hang a crucifix, she hung the portrait of a woman likely wearing kente cloth or the ubiquitous Peruvian hat with braids. The Sister tells us that once speaking with one of the women living in the house, the woman asked about the picture. Hearing the Sister’s explanation, the woman began crying; it was the first time she had conceived of a cosmology in which a woman like herself could have anything to do with God.

The current Catholic definition of prayer, Sr. Mildred tells us, is “conversation with a real and present God.” She asks us to consider the word conversation, which implies both expression and reception—talking and listening. We forget as Catholics, she says, to listen to what God needs to tell us because we are so busy asking for things. She presents the various types of prayer: chant, novenas, the Lord’s Prayer, the rosary, petition, meditation, journaling, prayer cards, etc.  In this discussion I am moved because she confirms as legitimate Catholic spiritual practice those forms of conversation with the divine with which I am most comfortable and practiced: journaling, meditation, silent conversation with God.

So I have begun to try something Sr. Mildred suggested: simply listening. Not meditating on the yoga matt, simply allowing myself to experience and appreciate health as an expression of grace—having gained back every ounce and then some over the last five years, my yoga practice and experience of good health is limited at best—but praying silently with a question mark hanging over my head. Instead of asking for God’s will to manifest in my life and the life of my family during the offering of petitions during mass, I make myself receptive. I dial the number and leave the line open.


  1. So many discrete topics delicately and finely woven into a cohesive and whole cloth; a wonderful journey of self and other discovery.


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