Breathing Room by Lavinia Magliocco
Inhale. Exhale. Pause. Inhale. Exhale. Pause. I am no stranger to death. Inhale. Exhale. Pause. Roman that I am, suicide is always an option.
Inhale. Exhale. Pause. In college I memorized Lady Lazarus and recited it to my poetry class. Inhale. Exhale. Pause. With great success. The words…. Inhale. Exhale. Pause. ……were not strange to me at all, they rolled out of my mouth as if I had written them.
Inhale. Exhale. Pause. Exhaustion. Annoyance. Defiance. Live in me. Feelings….Inhale. Exhale. Pause……don’t belong to anyone. It is we who belong to them, temporarily, for better or worse, however long…. Inhale. Exhale. Pause. …….it takes to feel them. Feelings are….Inhale. Exhale. Pause…. a landscape, and life does weird things with time and space. Some of us get stuck in one place for too long.
Inhale. Exhale. Pause. Candle. Altar. Avatar. Inhale. Exhale. Pause. Breathe. Inhale. Living. Exhale. Dying. Pause. Die. Death. Over. Again. Breathe, in, out, pause.
I like thinking about dying. I liked Melancholia. I think we all wish sometimes we were on a collision course with an asteroid. Then we wouldn’t have to worry about things like bills, periodontal disease, and climate change. What’s cancer in the face of an asteroid? What a relief it would be for death to come with such timed certainty. One could let go and really live. Time is short anyway, but we stagger along, clinging to our fears, getting lost in minutiae. Live already! Is this living, this breath? Inhale. Exhale. Pause.
The big strip tease. When my skin was peeling off my legs in strips, like old wallpaper, I wanted to die many times. But I lacked courage, or a gun. I was married then, and didn’t want to scar my ex by leaving myself blasted and gutted in a bathtub, brains spattered on the wall, or blood drained into cooling bath water. They call it pyoderma gangrenosum – the skin peeling off and suppurating wounds thing – which is a ghastly name, evoking battlefields and dying. That was me – ex-bunhead, Crohn’s disease-ridden, pyoderma gangrenosum-bearing human, decomposing within and without. Skin and intestine are one and the same. I really did wish I could die.
Because it didn’t feel like living, then, that existence I had beyond which I could see nothing. Do you realize how much people live on the future? But what future could I have, I reasoned, when every day was a rush to the toilet, an explosion of diarrhea and guts, blood, skin oozing, hair falling out, bones sticking out, and exhaustion everywhere? Even the house felt exhausted.
Breathe. Inhale. Exhale. Pause. Inhale. Exhale. Pause. Candle. Altar. Avatar.
Crohn’s was called tuberculosis of the intestines, before Dr Crohn’s named it. Those nineteenth century heroines expiring of love and consumption – consumed, consuming. The etymology of consumption comes from the Latin – ‘con’ – altogether, with, and ‘sumere’ – to take up, use up, waste, eat up. I was being used up, consumed, by forces beyond my control. Eaten up, rather than eating. Annie Dillard’s deadly eating game, life is an eating game and usually we are the consumers. In this case, I was the consumed. But what I was being consumed for, or why, these were the questions I could not answer. When we breathe, we are consuming. But aren’t we also being consumed? Breath is fire. Inhale. Exhale. Pause.
Life is consuming. And these days, don’t we consume and waste in a prodigious and inexorable rhythm of destruction? Eating and pooping our way to death, is this what we call life? I know something about pooping. I am the queen of poop. Fast forward to a hospital room about two decades after the pyoderma that didn’t kill me after all, a pompous doctor asked if I thought five bowel movements a day were acceptable? Acceptable? I would say desirable, after pooping twenty, thirty times a day and night? Are you kidding? Five is a celebration of health and fitness. I don’t care if you don’t find it acceptable or me acceptable because I decline your toxic drugs and do it my way, five is a beautiful number. My innards wouldn’t speak to him after that, and he was banned from my bedside. Off with his head, says the queen of poop.
When your innards are liquefying, when your skin is peeling off you, when the merest social interaction exhausts you, when sex is a distant memory and the only sensation below the waist is painful, do you call this life? Twilight zone, is this living, or is this dying? I asked myself this question many times. And, just as there are many kinds of living, are there not many kinds of dying? Even though I have come back to life, come back to stay, for awhile, at least, come back to this deadly eating game, I wonder.
Inhale. Exhale. Pause. In. Out. Pause.
Hunger. A sign of life. Lose hunger, and you lose desire, and desire is what draws us forward, desire for something, someone. Desire for a taste, an experience, a possession. Possessed by desire, is that not a sign of life? Of living? Passion. Back to the age of Romanticism. Consumption, the romantic’s disease. All I wanted was to live an extraordinary life. An aversion to the ordinary is a kind of disease, a hubris of grasping. Hungry ghost. As if this world were not enough as it is.
Fast forward again. Or am I going backwards? Where did It begin? When? Now the hunger is not for food that suppurating intestines lose as soon as it arrives, but for something else. Some certainty. Some reason for everything. Call it spiritual hunger. I was going to satsang. Listening to my teacher made me remember something from long ago: a sudden dropping of the veil, a recollection of who I am beyond this flesh. After hanging around awhile, I signed up for her Tantra Foundations course to receive instruction for a basic practice. The strangest thing happened. The last day of this four day course, I was possessed by demons. Every fear, every hunger, every anger I ever had shook me that night like a mad prisoner rattling his cage. I couldn’t sleep. In desperation, I begin to chant Lam – the seed sound I’d learned for the first chakra. Lam. Lam. Lam. Inhale. Exhale. Pause.
I looked upon my father dying. When the time came, he let go. He let go, just like that. The man who couldn’t let an insult pass, let himself go with an exhalation. Inhale. Exhale. Gone.
We come into the world covered in blood, mucus body liquids, having solidified for nine months in a chamber inside another being. With the first breath, our breaths are numbered. Inhale. Exhale. What came before, the life that led to this letting go, was that easy? My father, orphaned. War. Occupation. Making his way in a foreign country. What’s easy? Breathe. In. Out. Pause. His hand in my hand. My hand on his head. My father, the corpse. Here. Gone. One little Indian left on the bed, breathing. Inhale. Exhale. Pause. Eternity.
One year of meditation and I began to lose all taste for life, for what passes for living in this culture: Eating. Fucking. Shopping. Movies. Nothing. Nothing appealed and I felt awful. Nothing satisfied me. She warned me this would happen. So of course, at first, I congratulated myself. But then, I felt loss. I felt bored. I began to panic. This wasn’t what I wanted. What did I want? To self-realize? What did that mean? Inhale. Exhale. Pause. Panic. In. Out. Pause. Panic.
So I got into a relationship, fast. In. Pause. Pause. Pause. In.Out.In.Out.In.Out. My ambivalence a metronome. The pause was lost. I swung helplessly from one tick to another. In.Out.In.Out. This is living, right? Fucking in out in out. Is this living? This anxiety that comes out as passion, is this it? In.Out. Faster. More. Better. More. Deeper. Somehow it just keeps moving, it keeps moving just beyond reach. It being love. It being success. It being being good. It being anything but what’s here. This wanting. In.Out.In.Out. This is not it.
Crashing against the shoals of what I thought I wanted, I was dying another kind of death. The death of illusions is painful. Abandoning hope that there’s any kind of salvation or escape from what Is, the inescapable-ness of reality – feels crushing. As long as there’s clinging to a shred of hope that it might be other than That – there’s suffering. Inhale. Inhale. Inhale. To hold on and not let go is to explode. Whatever I think I am – let go. Let go. Let go. Candle. Altar. Avatar.
I used to think there was an explanation for everything. This was my father in me, the scientist and epistemologist. Now I’m not sure. How can I be, when it’s clear that even what I call me is an aggregate of so many odds and ends that will eventually dissolve and die? And even worse, these pieces are often made of resistance. At every moment, some part of me is resisting being, is resisting what Is, as if that were even possible. One reads about saying “yes” to everything – like the mystic film-maker and disciple of Anandamayi Ma, Arnaud Desjardins chanting “yes” on a stretcher on his way to hospital while having a heart attack. This is not so easy to do. Ego will co-opt this and say yes to coconut cream pie, apple turnover, and rugelech – it’s all yes, right?
But this Yes is the courage to say yes to uncertainty, to say yes to non-existence, to say yes to pain while in the midst of it. And this is not so easy. This defies explanations. This defies interpretations. This defies any attempt to arrange facts and organize events to create meaning, to create an illusion of control – which is what looking for causation is. Tick Tock. The clock. The Breath. The song is Now. Now. Now. Inescapably Now.
Inhale. Exhale. Pause. Resistance is futile. But I try anyway. A life of resistance – a resistance training of sorts. It makes you stronger. Until you die, of course. One day I met my QiGong teacher, he looked me over – I could feel his dark eyes sussing me out – one warrior to another. One of the first things he said to me, privately was, “I am a divided man.” Because of course, he could see my own divided-ness. For him, it was between the world and the monastery, he was one of the few westerners who learned to fight with Taoist monks in the Sun Monastery in Beijing. He was healed by a teacher called Master Lao, like Lao Tzu, Lao meaning Old Man. I did not have a Lao to heal me. I was buffeted around among middle aged doctors with pills and prescriptions of brand new poisons to try to tame my desire, my fire, my ravaging illness. They never sussed me out.
So I learned QiGong from this beautiful divided warrior. At first I didn’t know what I was doing. I turned everything into a balletic exercise. I did that for three years. Faithfully.
Then, right before he left to go back to China, he drew the sword. He slew me, this beautiful dark-eyed warrior. The warrior and the dancer. On some level, we understood: death is good. Death is clean. Death makes space for a new path, a fresh start. We sat in a bare room on a wood floor. He told me – inhale, exhale, pause – all the ways I’d missed the mark. Another strip tease, he peeled the layers of my arrogance back. I came, a ripe fruit, and left exposed pulp. I wanted to curl up in a ball and wail. I wanted to cry for all the ways my mind betrayed my body. I wanted his love, his approval. He cut me down without glory.
Sometimes I imagine this room without me. A time when I will be gone and someone else will live here. Exhale. Pause. Birth and death come with body fluids. It’s messy. ‘Oh that this too too solid flesh should thaw melt and resolve into a dew.’ Inhale. Exhale. Pause. If only death really were the end. But after the exhale, after the pause, one must begin again. Inhale. You can’t stop it. You can’t just exit after the exhalation. You have to come back and start breathing. Even after letting go.
But what comes back? What comes back Is. What comes back is awareness. What comes back is consciousness. And under that, energy energy energy constantly in flux. In. Out. In. Out. Coming. Going. Coming. Inhale. Exhale. Pause. How many times I die in this life matters not a whit. What matters is what that death feeds. This deadly eating game is only deadly if nothing grows back.
Maybe on some knife point of annihilation, the ecstasy of birth inescapably awaits. Breathe. Avatar, altar, candle. Pause. Inhale. Pause. Exhale. Pause. Inhale. Pause. Exhale. Pause.
There are moments when I know that gone is just a breath away. Know not in my head, but with heart knowing, being knowing. The ordinariness of it takes one’s breath away. Gone is right here in every moment. Gone. Gone. Gone. Kafka wrote: “The meaning of life is that it stops.” Inhale. Exhale. Gone.
Lavinia Magliocco scribbled her first poems on the back of a piece of cardboard around age 4. Then ballet captured her. After attending North Carolina School of the Arts and School of American Ballet in NYC she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and those dreams were temporarily derailed. She got an English Lit degree at University of Cincinnati and wrote for the Cincinnati Enquirerer, Antenna Magazine, Clifton Magazine, and unobtrusively while employed as a travel agent. After prolonged illness and a surgery, she returned to the barre again at twenty-seven, and with the help of Pilates, proceeded to defy expectations by returning to dance on the stage and eventually landing a job at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet in NYC, where she danced for six years. After moving to Portland in 1998 she established her Pilates studio, Equipoise- enlightened exercise LLC and continued to teach dance for Oregon Ballet Theater, Portland Festival Ballet, and other venues. She’s completing her book, As the Tutu Turns, and working on a performance art piece. She is stoked to have met Jen at Lidia Yuknavitch and Suzy Vitello’s The Writer’s Voice workshop.
Jennifer Pastiloff, the founder of The Manifest-Station, is a writer living on an airplane. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Jezebel, Salon, among others. She’s the founder of The Manifest-Station. Jen’s leading a long weekend retreat to Ojai, Calif over Labor Day in Ojai, Calif. She and bestselling author Emily Rapp will be leading another writing retreat to Vermont in October. Check out her site jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Next up: Los Angeles, Seattle, London, Atlanta, South Dakota, Dallas.