“…I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
The Summer Day
from The House Light
I am in the dojo at Strozzi Institute for a class called Somatics and Action. It is one of the first classes in my training to become a Somatic Coach. Richard Strozzi-Heckler calls me up to demonstrate a practice with him in front of the class. The practice is called “Hand on Chest.” I walk deliberately toward him and put my hand on his chest. It is a simple exercise. Each person takes turns putting their hand on their partner’s chest, right in the center, hand over heart. Both partners get to practice staying centered while also connected.
As soon as my hand makes contact with Richard’s shirt, I feel my palm start to slide, like a car hitting a patch of black ice. I freeze, my eyes locked on to the outline of my hand and the slight wrinkle I made in his shirt when I shifted it. My brain does some quick acrobatics before it figures out that his shirt wasn’t lying exactly flat on his skin because he has hair on his chest. It has been at least 15 years since I’ve had to deal with anyone’s chest hair. I am being sucked back in time to a moment with my father, remembering my small hand patting his velour shirt. I am pretending my dad’s shirt is a kitten, and I feel his chest hair underneath. It is a couple days later that he starts sexually abusing me, and I have always linked those two events in my head, blaming myself for somehow causing my own abuse.
Caught in this memory, I forget about Richard. The dojo disappears, the practice is gone. I know vaguely that someone’s hand is square in the center of Richard’s chest, but it is not mine. I am no longer here. I am outside my body, inside my thoughts, screaming at myself. “This is why I don’t just go around touching people. This is why I don’t hug my friends. Because I never know what that will set in motion.” I am cursing myself for moving to California, where people hug strangers instead of just shake their hands. I am kicking myself for being here in this dojo, where it feels like all I do is touch and be touched by people the whole day long. I admonish myself for choosing Somatics as a field of study. “What were you thinking?” I scold myself. “Law school would have been a good idea. This somatics thing was not.” I grit my teeth at the thought of spending the rest of the day on some Northern California ranch with a bunch of hippies. That last thought sneers through my head in my mother’s voice. I imagine my whole family collectively snorting and rolling their eyes at all of this. I have hit my limit. “I want to go home.” The phrase repeats in my head over and over. It is almost soothing. “IwanttogohomeIwanttogohomeIwanttogohome.”
I don’t know how long I have been standing like this, stuck outside myself in a mind storm, but now I am being pulled back into the dojo, pulled back toward my body. I think Richard has helped me do this, because I was so far away just moments ago and I don’t remember choosing to come back. Suddenly I can feel myself back in the room, and not quite in, but closer to my body. I have joked about this feeling for years. “I don’t live quite in my body. I’m Body Adjacent–half the rent, and still in the good school district.” In the Somatics world, this joke is met either with hearty laughter or looks of pity. Both reactions resonate with me.
In front of me, Richard has settled himself deep into his bones and wide into the space around both of us. He waits until I look at him. When my eyes meet his, he steadies my gaze with his and gently presses his hand over my hand–oh, that’s my hand on his chest. I can feel it now. “It’s okay.” He says this so quietly that I’m not certain he said it out loud. It is a statement, but it is also an invitation. It is an invitation for me to be okay. I am confused by this.
Being okay has never been offered as an invitation before. I am confounded and just stand there blinking at Richard, hoping that every time I close my eyes a lightbulb will shine and show me what he means. Being okay has never been an invitation, it has always been a mandate. My okayness has been the necessary armor that has protected me and my family for my whole life. It occurs to me now, for the first time, that protecting people from reality is not the gift I thought it was. I blink again. A lightbulb lights up and I am still confused by what I see. Is it possible that this gift, this blind sacrifice I made, this fierce loyalty I had to my family, was for nothing? It certainly did not make us close, nor did it even keep us connected. My sisters, my parents and I have all scattered across the planet, barely speaking, and for years. I am shocked at the magnitude of this failure. I am not quite devastated, but I feel everything breaking apart and shifting all at once.
I breathe in and feel an unfamiliar rush of tenderness for my ribcage expanding, for my own beating heart, for the red splotches of heat expanding across my neck and my face. “This is my body.” My own voice tells me this. And then again, “This is my body!” My heart leaps in my chest. My body feels like a human body. Like MY OWN body. For years my body felt instead like a thing, a wall of skin filled with sand, a battlement placed strategically between my father and my sisters. I’m not sure why I saw what he was and they didn’t. I’m not sure why I thought it was my job to protect my family from breaking apart, and to continue to do so even as I watched us shatter into a thousand tiny shards so small and so far apart that there was nothing left for us to piece back together. Not me, not all the King’s horses, nor all the King’s men.
I realize now that if there is nothing left to protect, I will no longer have to be a thing–a boundary, a wall of barbed wire, a levee, a lookout tower, a heavily guarded checkpoint, a bag of boulders on a narrow path. What if I could lay this burden down, quit this protector job, and just be a human in my human body? What if I could turn my attention toward my own breath? What would happen if I got to express fierce love for the well-being of my own heart, my skin, my bones, my deepest humanity? The way I have neglected myself, my own humanity, hits me like a fist of granite and knocks the breath out of me. I have patched up my weak spots with spackle and duct tape. I have jerry-rigged chains of paper clips and made quick stitches with fishing line too strong for the disintegrating fabric of my well-being. I have run on fumes and ibuprofen for years. I have managed to do some incredible things, but I am falling apart. In the Somatic world, this is called “building competency over a collapse,” or, as my friend, Paula, says, “putting icing on a turd.”
“The wheels are coming off this thing,” I have often joked about my own body, my own physical and spiritual well-being. I finally understand, at 28 years old, that this joke is not funny. I am connected, for the first time in decades, to the biological pull of my own humanity and almost unable to breathe from the grief of having had it taken away, of never having learned how to care for it, for myself. MY body, indivisible from my heart and soul. I feel like Enkidu, in the first heady throes of his humanity, knowing before he knows that he will never belong anywhere again–not with animals, not with humans. Or like Persephone, once the darkness enveloped her, never belonging in either place again–not the world, nor the underworld. But she is, they both are, at the same time, free of the constraints of both, as only outsiders can be. As only humans can be.
Because I am beginning to understand that this is simply what it is to be human. None of us belongs anywhere specific. We don’t belong to one thing or one place. We don’t belong in either darkness or light, because we are both. We are animal and human and spirit all at once. We are all outsiders because we do not belong to place, and place does not belong to us. We belong to ourselves and to each other. We belong with ourselves and with each other.
I wonder if this is what Christians mean when they say “Jesus died for your sins.” As in, there is no difference between us and Jesus, we are all the same, our fates our connected, our well-being is connected. That’s why his death absolves us of our sins–our separateness is the greatest illusion of all. He is us and we are him, when he dies, so do our sins. The Buddhists would say it like this, “We are all connected.” There is no difference between us. We are one. The Rastafarians would say “One Love”. Schoolhouse Rock would say “You are what you eat, from your head down to your feet.” As in, we are not separate from place, we are the place we come from. The place we come from feeds us, and we feed it, or else we destroy one another. We are deeply interconnected–we make our existence and survival either possible or impossible, all of us in the same boat. Was that what the story of Noah’s Ark was trying to say? Who knows…I’m not a Christian, or a Buddhist or a Rastafarian. I AM a little bit of a School House Rock Star. But mostly what I feel in this moment is the intersection of mind, body and spirit together–that in the moments when we are simply present with ourselves, mind, body and spirit intersect without effort and we are whole.
My hands are dripping with sweat and I am dreading the moment when everyone will see the sweaty handprint on Richard’s shirt as I peel my clammy hand away. Sweat is an indisputable fact of my humanity and I am scared of showing my unedited self to people. There is sweat rolling from my knees, down my legs and onto the mat. My legs are shaking, my pant legs are quivering. Suddenly, I realize that everyone already sees this. I am raw and unprotected. I am shaky and sweaty and human.
It surprises me that I feel joy about this. I finally have permission to show that something is happening in my body. There are no reasons to keep secrets here. In this moment, I feel a wave of love for my 8-year-old self walking slowly, painfully, through the halls of my grammar school, my vagina bleeding and torn. l feel fierce affection for my pregnant 12-year-old self slinking around school in baggy sweat-shirts, pretending my body was not at work creating another human being. I remember all the times I pretended my body wasn’t in pain. I remember pretending to be bleeding from a bad period when I was really bleeding after an abortion at 13, after 4 and a half months of pregnancy. I remember pretending to be ashamed when the surgeon, a colleague of my father’s, told me I should be ashamed, before he performed the abortion. He believed my father’s story that I had an older boyfriend. What I really felt was rage–pulsing, murderous rage–which was a brief respite from the shame I usually did feel. I remember all these things and I know that right now, in this moment, in this dojo, my body is not betraying me by sweating and shaking and, at this point, crying. My body is giving me back my integrity and my humanity. There is nothing to pretend about, to lie about or to hide. There is just what is. These rivulets of sweat pouring down the backs of my legs are a gift that will change my life.
My whole body sighs–deep breath in, deep breath out. A laugh rolls unexpectedly out of my throat as I exhale. Richard smiles, still holding my gaze. “I’m sorry I’m sweating on you,” I blurt out. Richard gives my hand another reassuring press with his hand and we spontaneously inhale together. I let my hand drop from his chest down back to my side as I exhale. We are no longer touching, but we are still connected. He has not disconnected from me through any of this. I want to start giggling, which feels like just another version of shaking. He has spent the last few minutes talking, teaching something–I have no idea what. I have reached the limit of my capacity to be present. He sees this and thanks me. I am relieved as I walk back to sit in my spot in the circle. As I sit and half-listen to what’s going on in the class, I notice that I still feel the container around me that he created, when he sank deep into his bones and wide into the space around both of us. I feel it the rest of the day, and even the next morning when I wake up. I know that the ground underneath me has shifted.
After a while, I am able to pull my attention back into the dojo, back with myself, with my classmates and with Richard. I start to understand that he became the shape I needed him to be so that I could reshape myself. So that I could feel the possibility of living deep in my own body, instead of inside the disembodied, symbolic, armored state of “Protector.” He became a container in which I could land, and in landing, it became possible for me to return to myself. I can still feel it now, 15 years later, as I remember that day. He created a container for me to land in, and it has never left me.
A few months later, outside the dojo, Richard is talking to us about the land and he articulates this idea in a way that helps put my experience into context. “Our job as somatic coaches is to become the shape our clients need us to be so that they can reshape themselves into the human beings they want to be.” He points to the stand of trees near the dojo. “This used to be a wind corridor until we planted these eucalyptus trees. It used to be difficult to stand here and have a conversation, the wind was so strong. It was impossible to plant anything here because the wind would destroy it. But we planted these trees, and as they grew, they reshaped the land and our experience on it.” The wind rustles through the branches of the eucalyptus trees and their sharp, fresh smell washes over me. I can feel that the breeze that reaches my face, my hair, my clothes has been gentled by the trees and my body softens to receive it. The presence of the trees allows me to soften rather than armor against the wind.
I realize the shape Richard made that helped me come back to myself, re-inhabit myself, was his invitation for me to be okay. That invitation allowed me to stand there sweaty, scared and shaking and still be connected and okay. It opened up the possibility for me to be seen having big feelings and to stand in them with integrity and authenticity, and without shame. It invited me back into my humanity, and I have lived inside of it since.