I learned the word ineffable when I read The Prince of Tides — when I waded into a foggy salt marsh at dawn on a shimmering seam of words Pat Conroy stitched to the sea. At the edge of an ocean, in the rippled brine of salt and scars, I learned that language could be geography and that another definition of impossibly beautiful could be impossibly broken.
Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with iridescent lacquer. With no attempt to hide the damage, the cracks are mended with honor and intention; they remain part of the story. I associate kintsugi with my last cigarette. I was huddled beside a hospital dumpster on a frozen Sunday in March, 16 years ago, while my father was dying upstairs in the ICU … the lazy exhale of swirling smoke wrapped itself around bits of broken air.
I think of all the air holds: temperature, dreams, music, droplets. So much in suspension: Wrath. Urgency. Larks. Storms. We look up at all we hear, seeking the source of the invisible. A few weeks ago, a one ton meteor crashed into earth's atmosphere, exploding over my city. The sonic disintegration was thunderous, shocking, disorienting. They say the entire journey through our sky took about 3 seconds. It shook my house and blew open doors. My lungs reverberated as though a tuning fork had struck my thoracic vertebrae, seeking the frequency of bone. Having started out for Syracuse about a million years ago, this meteor escaped the hold of Mars and Jupiter, bouncing off other orbits and gravities until the day it burned up over us, a scattered comet of ancient confetti. One million years is about nine billion hours — a long time to circle for three seconds of home.
An enigma is something hard to explain. Like my private and holy moments of synesthesia, when neural signals cross and converge to offer new meanings. While listening to music, I've seen numbers tumble. The integers of sound raining in columns, measure for measure — 6's fall to the woodwinds before a crescendo of 7's. I have tasted the shape of triangles; they are lemon. One February night two years ago, while sitting with friends in the audience of a symphony, I wondered: might we all agree that adagio was cobalt blue? But perception is solitary. On that night, my brain offered an abacus — flipping beads over long graceful wires with the sums of a timpani. And in the company of color and calculations, I heard Nimrod, from Elgar's Enigma Variations. At the first note, I looked up into the air … because where else does such magic live? And I cried, as if my heart had been tapped in just the right place by a soft rubber mallet and contracted with the deep reflex of tears. I felt the improvisation of fossils as they dissolved into ashes, inventing new circuits, breaking new trails. In the synaptic wake of those four minutes of sound, a copper seam etched itself around those neural pathways, the sum of every map I'll ever know.
In July that summer, a few weeks after Michelle died, dear friends held a gathering in their backyard for a memorial of paper lanterns — to light them on fire and watch them lift and drift and burn into space. I was asked what music I would like played. I sent links to sweeping, elegiac pieces that seemed proportionate to the courage, catastrophe and heartbreak of it all. But my friend has known me long enough and well enough that she could say "those are great pieces, but they’re not quite right … there is more."
There are moments when you are found or found out — when you have a choice to hold back or to tumble like numbers from the sky and risk all of the falling, through all of that air. And so, I drew a deep breath and said "It's Nimrod... play Nimrod.”
"Oh yes," she said. "That’s it."
On the night of the gathering, I followed the lanterns to the edge of the field, witness to their disintegration; I looked for as long as I could, until there were only phantom embers, dust of future meteors, which I begged in silence to reconsider, to change states of matter, to return to whole. But in the tenderness of twilight, flames turned paper into streams of valor, stitched by the tailor of reckoning around each piece of sky.
Recently I watched a program where a craftsman repaired a one-hundred-year-old wooden butter churn by soaking it in water. After hours of submersion, the oak barrel slats swelled to close their own gaps. I had expected there would be tools; I had expected some long course of sanding. I did not expect simple hydration. Had my brief but earnest attempts at yoga taken place under water, I may have made my way more gracefully to my toes. But instead, the brittle timber of my ribs resisted the air sent deep for their expansion — and while my instructor draped her body to the mat with the grace of a fluttering silk prayer flag, the girders of my own scaffolding were harder to fold. But softness is an excavation of the patient. I learned a restorative pose called "legs up the wall" — which is nothing but truth in advertising — and though its original Sanskrit name can be translated to “inversion,” I write it on my daily to-do list as "go upside down." It is the pose my instructor said to do if you can only do one. This singularity got my attention: if you can only do one. It never occurred to me that a pose, yoga or otherwise, could be essential — something to be included in a go-bag, that kit assembled in case of emergency — the things you will need to start over. To my cat and passport, I have added "go upside down" on the list of what I'll grab on my way out the door.
Legs up the wall is outlined in an illustrated article, which is amusing since if I had the flexibility of a line drawing, I would not need to read further. But after Step 1, which is about preparing your mind, it says: "See also: Do Less." After Step 3 where it is described how your bones should drip into the space, it says: "See also, Survival Strategy." My own note in the margin: "See also: ...." It is suggested that holding this pose for 20 minutes offers maximum benefit. Most days I make my way to the floor, shimmy my hips against the wall, and swing my legs up until I am a middle-aged L. It is a humbling set of moves, but I get there. The first few minutes are often the same: my long, jagged shoulder scar tugs against me, my brain makes valid arguments for how it could be better used almost anywhere else, I forget to exhale, my cat happens by to discern if I'm there to play or in need of some emergency assistance. And, even so, with determination and faith circulating through my veins and the sound of my pulse in my ears, I look up and out the picture window; I soften my gaze. I have witnessed all kinds of sky from that position: a thunderhead that bruised and billowed to a storm, a kind of plump, fuzzy rain, more like smudges than water. A lot drifts by. I can see under the eaves of my roof, where the seam of a gutter leaks a single drop of water at a time. Word must be out — birds frequent this tiny canteen and, single file, they make their way around the edges to get a drink. And then there we are: me upside down, looking up at a bird who is also upside down.
If you Google "things that take twenty minutes," you will find this is enough time to thread a needle and mend a ripped seam, write your own obituary, or learn some Japanese. It takes the earth twenty minutes to rotate about 300 miles, which is a lot of sky. But I am at step one where the mantra is do less. Going upside down is time spent looking through a window — a frame of my frayed edges, a viewfinder for everything sewn to the air. Twenty minutes is the length of Nimrod if you play it five times; it is enough time to lean into a memory as you settle your back into the floor; it is 1,200 seconds spent planning get back up — and a long drink of water for such inverted birds.