I have an elderly neighbor, a little old man in a wheelchair for lack of both legs from the knees down. His eyes are sunken, his skin is ashen, and his voice is barely there. He lives alone. Meals on Wheels brings him the occasional sustenance and his daughter stops by from time to time and yells to him through the door, "ARE YOU OKAY, DAD? DO YOU NEED ANYTHING?" As if he could project his own harried voice enough to answer. I would often see him parked in his chair across from the dumpsters in the parking lot with a plastic bag of trash in his lap, just hoping for someone to come by and deposit the load for him. I had the honor once or twice.
Last night, he died. This, in itself, was no surprise. He was very, very old and seemed content in his approach to the end, but the events that followed were fascinating and unsettling to watch. There was no ceremony, no reverence or care for his life or remains. His body was taken away, his chair thrown in the dumpster along with what seemed to be everything else. A woman and her preteen daughter callously gutted the old man's home and hauled armfuls of stuff -- blankets, appliances, pillows, shelves -- and threw them straight away. It was a hurried process, no time for memories, no setting aside of special mementos to save for those who may have loved the old man. Everything went to the trash. I have never seen another's life so unfeelingly discarded. It was as if they could not finish the work fast enough.
My grandmother is dying. She's been dying for weeks. I have received no fewer than 5 text messages in the last month from family asking me to "pray" because "today's the day." And yet she lives on in a state of surrender, waking every day and simply waiting for the end. Loved ones huddle, tense and expectant around the bed, wishing her well on her journey, thinking every breath will be her last. Well-intentioned bible quotations pepper the family Facebook pages, as she seems to be using her last gasps of strength to check her Facebook feed. My 21st century grandma...
This woman has been an influential force in my life. She has always played the mighty matriarch, with a sharp tongue and a fierce eye for imperfection. Her deceased husband left her a good deal of money which she has never been shy about flaunting. For as long as I can remember, she has driven the latest model, carried the latest phone, and stocked her home with the latest console and video games with which to impress and entertain her many grandchildren.
She travelled extensively, often selecting a relative to accompany her as her companion. One summer at the tender age of 14, in a post-pubescent body with a pre-pubescent mind, I had the pleasure of accompanying her on a cross-country jaunt via the railroads. I remember her presenting me as an object of admiration to random men along the way, "Isn't she thin? Isn't she lovely?" It was awkward. And what could they do but nod and smile, these middle-aged men faced with this fearsome old bird and her underaged debutante?
Nonetheless, I took her behavior as a directive. I ate less and less, and I made myself... ahem... available. I returned from that trip a different person, my naivete dissolved by the ugly alkaline of judgment and lies. My mind, for the next few years, would be completely dominated by preoccupation with my own attractiveness, both in absolute and relative terms, and the conquest of men. My grades and relationships suffered, but in that pain, I found my art.
Profound discomfort in my own body spawned a work of poetry quite vast in which my soul could rest. With my sexual awakening, a valve was opened and the words purged onto the page. I understood that beauty arises from affliction, and I became attached to the pain, the source of my art. I clutched it closely to my bosom. I stared into it, I stroked it, I fed it precious morsels. I worshipped it and prayed that it would stay.
But pain does not stay. It fades away to nothing as the heart refuses anymore to feel. The mind is left with little but the vague impression of an old sensation, the imprint of an expired state of being. When this nothingness became unbearable, I went in search of new extremes, new ways to stretch my capacity for discomfort in the hopes of dislodging some last line of inspiration from which a whole new era of art (beauty) might spring. Homelessness, poverty, harmful habits, and tattoos -- these are just some of the ways I sought to shake the frame. Yoga ended this cycle.
There it is: the yoga connection. In the complexity of life, yoga is the simple solution. It teaches us how to feel, how to experience the richness of existence without becoming a slave to the sensation. Through the practice of yoga -- real yoga -- we learn to keep the channels open so that we may perceive the fullness of both art and ugliness. More importantly, we begin to understand the relationship between the two.