Is the quest to find transcendence that which unites and perhaps equalizes human culture, across lines of age, race, gender and social class? And is that, then, transcendent in itself?
Almost everyone in the Monday morning Hatha class at the downtown London YMCA has grey hair. This includes, Helga, the teacher, who is seventy-six. The odd time a university or high student joins in, they tip-toe out early, tapered ponytails of chestnut, blonde, or faultless black swaying above tight round rumps, in search of something a little more vigorous, maybe a cross-trainer machine. Then there is me. Other women my age must be at work or at home with kids, which I hear is work too.
I go to the London YMCA when I am there, in the city of my birth. If I am between arts-council grants, apartments, and travels abroad, which is often the case, I will extend my stays, sleeping in the familiar little-girl bed in the room next to my mom’s. Sometimes this goes on for weeks. The thin curtains barely filter moon and floodlight from the playground across the ravine. I lay there, holding tightly to Pierre, the Wrinkles dog my dad bought me when I was ten. Blinking into that washy dark, I retrace, over and over, how my life’s missteps and wrong-decisions keep bringing me back to this same undersized mattress-set at the top of my mom’s carpeted stairs. After such nights-upon-nights of more blinking than sleeping I am usually bit late for Monday yoga, even if my mom gives me a lift.
Last time, the lights in Studio B were already off. Gamelan pinged lightly on the stereo. It was crisp outside—a morning for extra layers. Bright sun fell in through the broad ground-floor windows at the back, illuminating the ten or so elderly white female bodies lying in corpse-pose on the floor, eyes closed and arms outstretched: snowy-haired snow angels in two neat rows.
I picked a smelly purple mat from the bin by the door and stepped beside wide, splayed hips and chalky upturned toes. There was an empty place in a square of sun below the window. I leaned against the sill, pulling off a sock. There, on the other side, two teenage boys in backwards ball caps were standing in the hedgerow. The one in a cap with a Canada Post patch lit a crack pipe – a narrow brass elbow that must have been a converted plumbing part. As he leaned into his hit, his friend, in a pristinely, almost ghostly, white Jays hat, pumped his fist in encouragement.
It was nine-thirty-five in the morning.
The technical high school where the boys should probably have been in some kind of class was a few blocks up the street; I had graduated from there decades before. It was a simpler time then, I am convinced of it: pot and acid (not crack and meth) were our escape routes, Doc Martins and tattoos were as-yet both rare and tough, and bullying involved after-school fist-fights not cowardly acts of binary code.
These crack-boys in the YMCA bushes were white, maybe sixteen. The arms of their jean jackets were rolled up to show off forearm tattoos, and the soft hair defining their jaws was patchy. The one in the Jays cap took his turn holding the Bic to the bowl of the pipe. As smoke streamed out his flared nostrils, he passed the pipe back to his friend. Then they closed their eyes, tight, fighting to keep what must have been a gushing, glow of warmth and well-being from leaking out into the damp morning air.
“Now, very slowly, place your feet, one at a time, on the floor.” Helga’s German accent was a slow monotone. When you’re lying on the floor, it rumbles along your spine and bum, like a gentle low-Richter earthquake.
The gamelan chimed on: soft hammer to bright brass. Helga droned. “Compare your left side to your right side. Does one feel longer than the other now? Release, release the built-up tension held deep in your muscles and joints. Think about your breath, only your breath. In through your nose, out through your mouth.”
When Helga says mouth it sounds like “moth.” Were I lying on my back like I should have been, I would have had that same flash I get of the Silence of the Lambs poster where Jodie Foster has a butterfly instead of lips.
“….always out through your moth….”
Outside, moths of smoke slipped from the nostrils of the crack-boys beneath the window. Unseen, unheard, I lingered over their shoulders, sharing their moment of transcendence. Truly, they could not sense me. Morning sun must have blanked out the glass, turning it opaque. .
Before I found the escapism and release of long-distance running, I attended yoga classes regularly. Yoga, I was advised, would provide strategies to relieve my anxiety and acute feelings of sadness—safely, without substances. Sometimes the mantras the teacher recited—things about healing, letting go of unproductive energy—socked me so hard I would gasp. Stretched on the floor in corpse-pose the tears would come, collecting in the wells of my ears. I almost always fell asleep at that point, a lifetime of sleeplessness, years of mental exhaustion sucking me down into a deep dark pit. Upon waking, the teacher’s voice or the ding of a bell pulling me back to the chilly gym floor and the smell of the crumbling rubber mats, I was sure two days, not two minutes, had passed.
I think both sides of that window would dig this Beastie Boys tune: “Namaste” from 1994.
“Now, wind-relieving pose,” Helga intoned. “Hug your left knee into your chest and hold, pressing your lower back into the floor.”
The students obeyed. Helga’s eyes flicked open. Her fingers fluttered, gesturing for me to join the moment of rest and self-improvement she was creating. I kneeled, unrolled my mat, flicking away bits of yellow skin and curls of short gray hair.
There was a spray bottle and towel on the window sill. Outside, the boys were talking rapidly, their words muffled by glass and gamelan, cars on the east-bound road; their burned fingers poked the air, scratched at each other’s tattoos. The one in the Canada Post cap lit a skinny menthol cigarette he must have stolen from his step-mom’s pack. It was then I realized he had blanked out the “s” in “Post.” Canada Pot, his hat said.
The technical high school I assumed I had in common with these kids straddles a distinct boundary between a crummy part of town and a notoriously bad one. London is like that: class and race divided by stretches of wide, multi-laned roads. There’s a methadone clinic across the street from my old high school, the cop shop is on the next block. A few streets over, behind a cluster of social services centres a crack house caved in during an ice storm a few years ago, crushing two pit bulls to death. The picture in the local paper showed a bone-thin woman in a tank top and no shoes, the snow banks behind her black with char. My friend Carla who I went to high school with me said, “yep, that’s G—. Crap, she was a funny kid.
I had sat beside G— in grade-nine math, and then for Save-a-Credit. After someone told me she’d given up a baby for adoption at age twelve, I let her copy from my tests.
“Now,” Helga said, “slowly, one at a time, lift your arms overhead and streeetch.”
Reach for the sky, she told us, reach for your dreams, reach for a place of peace and serenity, even if you can have it only for a minute it is better than never at all.
As I crouched over my mat, squirting disinfectant, the woman nearest me did as Helga instructed. The loose flesh hanging from her upper arms shook and I thought whoever came up with the description “bat-wings” for that udder-arm waddle was both very mean and very smart. She, Bat Wings, caught my eye. She frowned.
“Look,” I whispered, pointing to the window. “Some boys—”
But she just rolled her head from side to side and stretched her arms, wiggling her soft fingers as she, like everyone else in the class, grasped for straws of peace and serenity, going for the well-being that the boys outside the window of Studio B possessed, albeit in the more convenient form of white lumps you pop into a pipe and light.
I replaced the disinfectant spray. The boys were standing now, brushing dirt from the low, baggy asses of their oversized pants. I took my place on the floor, falling into rhythm with Helga and the older, wiser women in the room. But even though I concentrated on breathing through my mouth and keeping my mind on the stretches Helga guided us, slowly, through, I kept thinking about the crack-boys. Would their fleeting transcendence last as long as the next math class? Would mine? And these women, with their wisdom and well-being, would they ever gain the insight to know what’s going on just there outside their windows? Somehow, mindfulness felt like emptiness, like the willful blindness of those who can afford the price of membership.
The next Monday, and the one after that, I looked for the crack boys in the bushes, but they never ever came back.