by Rachel Zetah Becker
[This essay was written in the beginning weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic when the first Stay at Home measures were put into place. It was originally published in Vessel Zine by Naropa University in May 2020]
I am fasting today. It’s the third Sunday in a row. I’m trying to get closer to my body. An attempt to detox the rush rush rush that always pulls me away. The old anxiety I’ve been somewhat successfully fending off in the last year has floated quietly, but surely to the surface in recent weeks. Like an emptying carcass. Like a magnet. Like this tight cartilage in my chest. Scar tissue. It has its own body.
Week 3. 4? I have been reading the Heart Sutra every day for a religion class. Buddhism is a blessing right now. Emptiness is Form and Form is Emptiness. There is something to that, slowly sinking in. It’s a relief. In an old journal I read, “Body carries you thru life. And then you let go.”
The sun feels so good. Looking for the hat I lost last week in a snowstorm. It’s olive green and likely to blend in with the juniper and sagebrush. Seeing my boot tracks in the dried mud I follow myself backwards in time. There’s a sweetness to it. Where did you go , wandering self? What choices did you make? I’m not sure if this will work but it does! I tuck the hat into my pocket and stop and sit with the cactus, noticing how deliberately it protects itself, with dense swirling needles, arms reaching around tiny maroon buds. The wild onions are back this year. Maybe they have been every year, I’m just noticing it.
This anxious pain in my chest reached a fever pitch the other night. I was sitting in the dirt up on the hill, stoned from an edible, watching the light sink away across the neighborhood. This frantic energy buzzing though every nerve. All these patterns, not doing enough, sexual shame, this fear of being seen, of expressing my needs, fear of other people, fear of my own body, the doubt in my voice. I see the lights of the city below through the crook of a fallen tree and I think about portals. I imagine passing through it. I listen to what I want to believe are less cars than usual moving along the highway. I collect broken branches and arrange them around the dead trunk, remembering how to make an offering.
Most of my life has been holding on so tightly. This past December in a moment of exasperation I asked my brother, why do I hold onto everything so tightly?? “because you’re afraid of letting go.” Why am I afraid to let go?…Do I want to keep things forever? “…well, you can’t keep anything forever. It all goes away eventually.”
On the phone with someone I’m newly in love with. We can’t see each other right now, other than through this screen. We’re talking about the earth’s magnetic field, how a piece of hematite changed the direction of the arrow in my compass. How there is a geographic pole and a magnetic one, which I never knew. We’re talking about volcanoes and looking up a simulation of the wave and wind patterns of the ocean and I am struck by how soothing it is, to look at the earth, as a whole. One breathing being. All of us. I’ve been so wrapped up in my own little world, the dimensions and contents of this room, this house. I forgot about all that borderless space.
Now I am learning about the sun. How its magnetic field interacts with Earth’s magnetic field every eight minutes, creating a magnetic portal, a breach in earth’s shield, through which the sun’s flares and radiation can travel, making contact with the north and south poles. If you were standing there with a strong enough burst it could kill you. Which leads me to research how Yellowstone is a giant underground volcano and could theoretically erupt at any moment, which would be deadly to a large part of the united states. Looking at the projected ash zone is oddly comforting to me. There are so many forces beyond human control.
I also learn that our solar system rotates around the milky way galaxy in a spiraling motion. Like DNA. One full rotation takes about 230 million years, which makes 1 galactic year. Each twist in our solar system’s spiral takes 26,000 years. This reminds me of the yogic philosophy of the Yugas. We are spinning in cycles within cycles. I see the conch shells on my bathroom windowsill and a little piece of grass stuck to my shirt, which is also forming a tiny spiral.
My phone!! I am on it so much. Screen time says averaging 4-5 hours a day. How does that happen? I have been stressing out about all the things I could be doing in this time of quarantine. All the projects I’ve been meaning to do, all the books I should be finishing. Talking to a friend and he says, that sound like a mental trap. We’re in a fucking pandemic. We talk about having to face ourselves. A list of amends to make. Pacing in the kitchen. Our neuroses all coming out of their hiding places. So much space now. Yin. Shadow. Darkness. Can you distract yourself forever?
In another conversation with my love we’re talking about learning to listen to the heart, and making decisions with the body versus the mind. That the mind is a tool, but not the only one. The body communicates differently, often more slowly, subtly, requires more space. Being wholly present. Being present with my body is so hard sometimes. We agree that it’s like learning a new language, which helps me relax. It takes practice and dedication and the willingness to be a fool at times. I am expertly fluent in the ways of the mind, fully versed in the tip of the iceberg. With the body, the wild subconscious, the underground, I am clumsy — curious and earnest and also afraid, ready to run. I want to be able to understand what it is saying, I want to hear its songs.
I have been thinking a lot about time in the last few months, before there was suddenly so much of it. Which is further evidence of the problem — there is always time, it is always happening right now. Only right now. The way I’ve been living, always running from time, hoping it won’t catch me. And now that things have been coming to a grinding, shuddering halt I am feeling that inner motion, the deep waves of inertia still pulling me forward into all the expected doing to be done. The water sloshing and spilling all over.
Back to my heart. I decide to have a day with zero expectations for myself. I sink into my bones for a moment. I steady myself to go deeper into the discomfort, the tightness in the heart cavity, the twinge in my arm. Another journal entry from years ago: “I am afraid of seeing myself in pain.” It’s hooked under my left shoulder blade, and stretches across my chest and throat. Breathing into the eye of the storm, approaching the void. Pain body. It wants to be seen. A shift in the space when I realize this. Why won’t you look at me? So often I am trying to run away, and abandon my body. Another journal entry: “Anxiety is my body’s fear of me leaving it.” And earlier: “Anxiety is a sign that my body is trying to protect me.”
Back to now. Another breath. Another birth, another death. A note, paraphrased: “Impatience is an ally that shows us when we are trying to escape the present moment.”
Today I allow myself to sway and stretch, gently, without a goal. From the Heart Sutra: there is no attainment and no nonattainment. The earth is my body. My body is the earth. Emptiness also is form. Sun-dried bones of a small animal crushed between my fingers. Singing a song to a juniper tree, sending messages through your roots. There are other ways of knowing. There are other webs to connect into. Washing away the lines that divide, redrawing ones that connect. I wonder about the air feeling crisp and clear in Los Angeles and how long that will last. I wonder about the more or less that I can be doing. I wonder about those that do not have the luxury to wonder. I wonder how we will all emerge from this cocoon, from the earth swelling up in a low humming roar, putting us on pause. Feel your body breathing. Be with what is right in front of you. Remember who you are. Take responsibility for your actions, for your power to heal and create and destroy and make a terrifying mess, remember how to be in a body, remember how to trust a seed to emerge from the soil. Remember how to pray, remember how to mourn. Remember where the water comes from. Remember how to live your days as round and changing as the moon.
Rachel Zetah Becker is an artist, designer and proud earthling who is curious about trash, apocalypse, and what makes something sacred. She loves a good dance party and wandering in wild places.