Soaring Down

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My sister Mary’s First Communion photo with my brother Mike and me reminds me of my Catholic heritage. In awe of rituals—and pretty clothes—I entered fully into a religion grounded in contradictions: no joy without sorrow, no fulfillment without sacrifice, no resurrection without death.

While the Church’s teaching was a solemn guide, my everyday life possessed its own set of upside, inside-out experiences. My mother taught me how to carve a bird out of ivory soap, a lasting treasure to be dissolved in water. From age ten to eighteen, I swung a club too many times to count, but kept coming back because of a memory of one great golf shot. And for my friends and me, the delicious nonsense we recited aloud:

I stand before you to stand behind you
To tell you something I know nothing about.
This Thursday, which is Good Friday,
There will be a mothers’ meeting
Fathers only.

My father’s interpretation of paradox was the joke. And what a repertoire he had. Jokes to share on the golf course, the funeral gathering (whoops), and the dinner table. I laugh at the recollections. Why the punch lines didn’t grow old is a contradiction in itself:

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A lion pounds through the jungle. He snarls at the snake, “Why aren’t you King of the Jungle?” The snake slithers away. The lion eyes the elephant. “Why aren’t you King of the Jungle?” The elephant escapes through the underbrush. When the lion pounces close to a meandering mouse, he asks again, “Why aren’t you King of the Jungle?” The mouse looks up, “Who me? I’ve been sick.”

This February has been packed with paradox and joke. The old family photo reminds me that “once a Catholic, always a Catholic,” even for those of us who no longer attend church. The month itself is the longest shortest month of the year, but at least Ash Wednesday (a time of Catholic penitence) does not land on Valentine’s Day (a time of candy and roses) as it did in 2018.

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The rose pot holder and Valentine cookies for visitors reminded me to prune the rose bush. And I did that, pruning so that no wounded branch thrived, no straight growth crisscrossed the bush’s empty bowl. Strange how celebration and clipping mixed and contradicted one another; guilty sugar now and green shoots later. Then, after an unexpected snowfall, I watched the anti-social bird of spring summon a “round of robins.” They pecked for fruit in icy soil.

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Returning once more to Catholic roots: in the early 1960’s, my professor, Sister Theona, read Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “The Windhover” to us young nuns, waiting for us to “get’ what it means to soar down into resurrection.

No wonder of it: sheer plod makes plough
down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold vermillion.

She reminded us, too, of God’s sense of humor, the juxtapositions found in nature. Why else the giraffe and hippopotamus? I’d add the sloth.

Contradictions do not necessarily result in waving placards and screaming “Liar!” across red and blue barriers. Maybe one Lenten resolution (March 6 this year) could be to admit that since I am both puffed-up, silly lion and clueless, wise mouse, better to enjoy absurdities that tickle my funny bone and pull my leg, but also confound me.

Maybe carve a robin in ivory soap, but keep it away from water.

Joint Exercise

shutterstock_500911915-2Saturday morning and it’s time to write. I would prefer reading, but Tchaikovsky chides me: “Inspiration is a guest that does not willingly visit the lazy.” I sit, pen tapping. Angel growls, camel leg in mouth. Prompted into action, I chase her around the house until she settles into her pillow. She’s my constant companion—whether I’m reciting poetry, playing my dulcimer, doing yoga. “Do you think you’re in charge, little girl?”

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An idea: why not write about yoga from her point of view? After all, Shih Tzus have Asian roots. Angel knows how to stretch one back leg and then the other. Carefully she watches me lift and twist. During the relaxation she also lies on her back.

Three hundred words later, the piece is done. Now, what? I have skilled writing companions, but I knew where to turn. My brother Alan and I are separated by three thousand miles—he lives outside Boston and I live outside Portland—but what unites us is our love for books and writing. And dogs.

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Sending my work to another is not my favorite exercise. How humbling to see beloved phrases sliced away. How painful not to justify why I inserted that particular paragraph. Our phone conversation, however, was fun from the start. Did I mention that my brother has a keen sense of humor? Collaboration occurred between two writers: replace the almost right word with the precise one. His challenges to me: stay consistent with the dog’s POV, let the dog be initiator, highlight yoga’s sublime aspect, and don’t lose the humor. Because of Alan, brother, published writer, and editor, the final piece is as follows:

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Downward Dog

I am Shih Tzu, Lion-Dog, whose ancestors enhanced Chinese Palaces. While I placate my human companion by playing tag in the living room, she recognizes that it is of my nature to favor Sacred Quiet and Blessed Repose. No wonder she honors my role as Yoga Guru.

Each night we begin with the Staring Posture. I sit, forepaws together, eyes fixed on her. She sits, legs crossed, eyes fixed on The Invisible Point. 

To direct her in the Twist Posture I lean into the carpet (tail towards the Heavens) and twist my muzzle north and south (advantageous for neck muscles and itchy eyes). She, mimicking me, leans her hand against the wall and twists her head one direction and her torso another.

 For the next Position, we face east. I crouch in the Downward Dog Position, and my companion rises in the Cobra (she’s much improved).

When it is time for The Corpse Position, we lie on our backs, my paws lifted, her arms extended. We breathe in Perfect Rhythm.

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Too soon, my companion settles into her rocking chair, book in hand. After initiating such Celestial Activity, I ought to be content with my three pieces of kibble, pillow, floppy orange tiger, and yellow camel. Instead, a primitive energy seizes me.

No longer am I Lion Dog in sea of silk. No. I am Wolf in mountain lair. My muzzle extends, my paws expand and take hold. Dig, dig! Dirt flies. I prepare my bed, pushing beneath layers, deeper, deeper. ‘Round, ’round I circle before huddling close to my pack. I sigh. I close my eyes. 

Sleep pulls me. I whimper in relief, eager to journey back in time, dreaming far beyond Palace, Quiet, Repose, and into Wilderness, Howl, and Chase.

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My writing life is complex: at once self-satisfied and defeated, dynamic and stymied. Perhaps that is why I sit at this desk each day, sometimes battling the blank page or succumbing to monologues with Angel. Miraculously, editors appear, like my brother Alan, like Molly Best Tinsley who helped me craft my memoir Far from Home. Readers like these believe in the beauty of the word, in the possibilities of a manuscript, in objective criticism, and joint endeavor. The result? Fresh ink muscles through my bone-dry pen.

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