It’s morning. I lie meditating, gently scanning from foot to head, ears tuned to a lilting voice of a Buddhist nun coming through my earbuds, urging me to follow my breath into my body and out again. I begin in resistance, as usual, the hands curled, the arches of my feet knotted, the ricocheting sound of my mind glancing off the walls of my skull. Breathe. The simplest of tasks. The activity that governs and rules itself all day, every day. The mother of my body, quietly toiling and sustaining me with a hum on her lips and never a plea for notice. The maternal rhythm that catches me when I am scared, gallops alongside me in play and slowly rocks me in sleep. But as I try to channel it, to control it, to not just abide in it but to guide it, the breath rises up to wrestle with me, pushes back and complains as I try to hold her still. She becomes the teenage sister, wrestling with me and chiding me, coaxing me to cry uncle and give her control. She loves me as much as the mother but in the taxing way that pushes me beyond myself, makes me look at my flaws, tosses my own emotions at me like a hat or toy quickly snatched and invites me to catch…catch…
Catch the breath. Breath in, Breath out. Back in the present moment. My body prone, legs and arms outstretched on the warm mat like a lizard stretched out on a rock, basking in the sunshine of my breath. Spine elongating, bones gently oscillating, joint capsules floating like jellyfish in synovial tidepools. My tendons are like ropes tied to a dock, allowing my muscles to drift to and fro on the waves of blood and lymph, the saline ocean of my body. I feel myself regenerating gradually with each measured breath, the cast-off remnant of worry wriggling away from me like a severed tail.
The body’s slow unfurling begins. The right hand relaxes, opens the fingers to receive. The left hand still clenched, like a snake with a mouse in its maw, allowing me to scrabble and squirm with no promise of freedom. I roll the shoulder blades down and back, feel the spine gasp in relief. My scapula scrape against my ribs, tethered to a brittle sternum that yearns to crack open like a dried branch. I think of my dog, how she lies on her back with her front legs bent midair, seemingly at rest and in motion at the same instant. Her little scapula rest on their edge oriented as they are, running north and south alongside her ribcage, unable to spill across the floor as mine, pinned easty-westy across my back. I envy the freedom of her ribs and chest in the moments when I watch as she careens around the yard, her heart and lungs bouncing in the inflated house of her ribcage, forward, backward, side to side. At this instant, on my mat in practice, my own ribcage feels more like an iron maiden, squeezing my heart and lungs like a boa constrictor. Tara’s voice comes from some distant place and gently invites me to open my chest, set free my heart with my breath. Instead, my inhale swoops into my lungs like wind throwing open a doorway. My ribs rise in protest, a small cyclone of air forming deep in the chest and rising into a muffled cough. The metal cage door around my heart rattles against years of internal rust and a childish sad difficulty with forgiveness. My true heart presses against the bars like a dog in the pound, leaping against them in a tug of war with my own will. I exhale, the left hand jerks once, twice and then falls open, soft and receiving. In its wounded palm lies a crooked scar, a spiritual key, glistening in white promise. Deep in my state, I test the key, crafted through fire, in the lock on my heart. The rasp of metal on metal causes my heart to jump to its feet and run to the bars, the flush of blood through my body begins to warm and melt the hinges of my joints. Pelvic bones melting over the rolled towel beneath them, hips gliding gently into the back of their sockets, the spine pooling across the floor as the body gently becomes unhinged, like the jaws of a giant snake.
“Unlike a mammalian jaw that is built for brute force, a snake’s is rigged with tendons, muscles, and ligaments that give the jaw a gymnast’s flexibility…The two lower jaws move independently of one another… The quadrate bone is not rigidly attached to the skull, but articulates with the skull at one end and is therefore freely moving…”The two mandibles are not joined at the front by a rigid symphysis, as ours are, but by an elastic ligament that allows them to spread apart,”…Flaunting proper table manners, a snake takes its time muscling food down its throat, walking its skull over dinner…”1
The image delights my sedated mind and I regress to a moment in time when I worked closely with the menagerie of reptiles at a Florida zoo that doubled as an amusement park. Young and limber myself then, I walked through the park grounds on certain days with a 16-foot reticulated python encircling my body like a corset, its diamond head resting in the palm of my outstretched hand, inviting park guests to come forward to stroke its smooth cool scales, daring them to float their hand beneath his mouth to feel the flick of his forked tongue. I would find a sunny spot beneath a palm tree to stand, talking for long stretches of time about the nature of the snake, the devastation of the rainforest they called home, their habits and diets to anyone curious enough to listen and not desperate to hurry off to the long line at the log ride or to make the noon showing at the primate pavilion. This is how I spent my days as a conservation education specialist, a glorified name for those of us fresh out of college who divided time between cleaning the various animal’s night pens, herding children and livestock around the petting zoo and taking animals out for educational talks. I hungrily learned as much as I could about every animal in our education department collection, passing test after test to be granted permission to work with different animals in educational settings; Trixy the toucan who incessantly bit my arms with her clacking beak until I yielded up one tasty grape after another, a yellow-eyed douroucouli aptly named Luna squinting against the Florida sun until I could make it to our shaded location near the park’s synthetic waterfall outside Nocturnal Mountain. On the best days, my schedule placed me by the elephant exhibit where the cows would lumber up, calves in tow, so the keepers could bath and scrub them with long-handled rough brooms. While the calves fondled the water hose with their trunks, I talked to a gathering crowd about the evils of ivory and handed around precious tail hairs and toenail clippings for the children to feel.
Pulled back to the present, the mixed feelings of my time working in this captive community rise to press against my diaphragm and fill my heart, causing the hinges of my ribs to whine as they work to spring open and release the breath held within.
And yet, the memory of standing transfixed, the Florida sun warm on my shoulders, feeling the muscles of my reptilian companion relax around me and slide from my ribs down to my waist, his head heavy in my hand, his fixed gaze shadowed by a lazy nictitating membrane and the sun playing patterns like oil slicks across his herringbone scales is one I hold without guilt or shame. Forgiveness begins this way.
Unhinged. A term of madness, of reckless abandon. A term that makes a person think of lunacy, of unmasked anger and manic laughter. Unhinged, whispered from behind hands held below raised eyebrows. Unhinged, persons in rooms struggling to hold their clarity of mind like so many helium balloons. I had an uncle, now passed. He lived in a home, his moods passing between peaceful contemplation and rage. An injury suffered as a toddler that left him uncommunicative and untethered. He had mastered time though. He could fix watches and clocks. He knew the time without reference, a savant of hours and minutes. I remember sitting at his feet when he would come home to my nona’s cottage for holidays, his enormous hand resting gently on my head, a smile as beautiful as an infant’s creasing his square jaw. He reminded me of the gentle giant from the Grimm’s fairy tale. I imagined him sitting in a room in a home, his mind busily traveling in time as his body stood watch, as I imagine my lungs sitting in the room of my ribcage while I travel between the inhale and the exhale.
But why, why is it thus? Unhinged to me seems unique and special, like a talent or a gift to unwrap, to loosen the bonds. Unhinged could be, should be flexible, adaptable. To unhinge ourselves is to redesign our thoughts and feelings to a changing world and allow it into a bigger, more generous space. I sit or lay in meditation to unhinge the accumulation of a day’s toils so my chakras spin freely, scattering energy like broadcasting seeds in fertile soil.
Hinged, perhaps, is the term we should find fault with. Hinged closed like a sepulcher. Hinged to the point of minimalism, unmoveable. A hinged mind seems small, an unhinged mind expansive. A hinged body stands taut and rigid, unhinged joints able to dance and frolic. I start my meditation with a hinged heart that feels caged but my unhinged heart now races toward the new day, arms flung open.
Meditation takes an inward gaze, observation takes an outward one, evolution a steady one. The snake, despite all its distinction, has yet to rise up from its home on the ground, it remains bound to earth, even its gaze cannot travel to the clear sky above it despite its perfect form. But other reptiles did take to the sky, sprouted feathers and talons and reached to the clouds above. Birds floating, flapping, riding the thermals in ever-widening lazy circles. My snake body sinks into the floor while my bird heart takes off in flight. Which is hinged and which is unhinged?