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It's Nelly's World

Please, I Want to Understand, Please

alec vanderboom

The students are all on their yoga mats. The teacher is still downstairs, checking in latecomers. She greets each with a great smile and a delighted exclamation that you've come, as if she'd heard that you'd fallen overboard in the middle of the Pacific, and that you're now here is so wonderful! Hello! You managed to swim ashore! That's just great!

This welcome is enough to keep you coming back every week, but there is more. The truth of it is that this is your big treat, the only thing that you give to yourself (the rest is to your child, your dog, your work, and your myriad possessions; but come to think of it, giving to them is giving to yourself, so why does it sometimes feel as though it's not?). You know that afterwards you will drive home in the dark, to a dark house, get out of the car, and, newly limber, pour yourself a glass of wine. Then you will make yourself the kind of dinner you can't the rest of the week when you cook for someone else too, replete with black olives and salad (or swiss chard, the most recent bogeyman of the nine-year-old boy).

The teacher comes up and dims the lights; you feel yourself start to relax. You have come to almost be able to exemplify her instruction: realize "there is noplace you need to be but here." You start to anticipate the wince-sigh-wince of a good spinal twist. And, at the end, before that lovely dinner, the gift of shivasana--the only time you really like the idea of being a corpse.

The teacher turns on a CD. It is some sort of faux native American flute, though sometimes it's pseudo-Indian chanting by Californians who've seen the light, or e-z listening guitar, wallpaper music that flows through the back of your head because it isn't smart enough to take up any of the front. Like a cheap version of Brian Eno's "Music for Airports." (You think wistfully of this record, sitting far away and out of reach in the hermetically sealed storage pod with the rest of your things which will rise one day in a sort of Rapture, the glory day when you find your home--and you mean this both in the larger sense and in the quite concrete one.)

You find yourself blissfully happy the music police are not here tonight. Because you like this non-music, its unchallenging quality, perfect for exactly this time and this place. It reminds you of a long-ago time, another of your many lives, when for six months you lived on ether and fantasy. You went down to Philadelphia, and the promise of happiness, and through some mistakes of happenstance, the soundtrack to the journey was the stuff they call Lite Jazz. Why this was, you don't remember; it just happened that way. And so the memory of your happiness for that time is laminated to this particular type of sound, and now it melts on your tongue as sweet as sugar ice. So you don't want some tiresome pedant from the hipper-than-thou school of music appreciation giving you a bad grade for liking something you shouldn't.

You close your eyes now, breathe in deeply, out. Just as you're trying to find your sitz bones on the floor, vaguely aware of the sound of American sitar floating in the air among you all, anticipating the "om"--

Please, I want to understand: why are there always some people in a yoga class who have to show they've taken voice lessons by harmonizing an octave and a third above the rest--but off-key--on the "om"?

--and suddenly the guy next door starts up his weed whacker. The sound comes in through the studio windows, open for fresh air against the moment when, in the middle of a long Warrior II, your thigh muscles start to tremble and you realize you're feeling rather warm. Is there any uglier sound in the world than a weed whacker? Zing, buzz, zing, buzz, around his yard he goes, and it goes on and on, thirty minutes, while you try so hard to concentrate on the breath, and then, at last, it stops. But in a few seconds, you can hardly believe it, a leaf blower starts up, and its sound is perhaps even more abrasive, and you can't really imagine there could be that much plant matter left to require so much energy to obliterate.

Please, I want to understand: what is so awful, so offensive to the sight, of leaves and growing plants that they must be assaulted ceaselessly by gas-powered machinery so that finally the yard is as free of this abomination of non-human life as a living room?

Now you are starting to think ugly thoughts. It comes into your head, the phone call from a friend you got just before coming here, in which you heard the upsetting news that she encountered a couple of guys that afternoon in the cornfields where you walk the dogs who told her they were going to set steel traps "for coyotes and rabid foxes" along the placid stream. It suddenly comes to you: Do they think you're idiots, to believe a leg-hold trap can tell the difference between a sick animal and a well one? What is it, a medical diagnostic tool? You can't help but think of the fox you saw a couple of nights earlier, coming home after dark: he crossed the road, reached the berm, stood for a moment as if on a pedestal, turned his head and was silent, surveying a far greater reality than the one you inhabit, then faced forward again and leapt away with such grace it left you breathless. So now you can't get it out of your head, the scene of struggle, torment, pain--

Please, I want to understand: how can it be that the skin of this living being can belong to someone else? To be torn off and exchanged for some money to be put in a pocket?

--and next you are remembering the passage in a book you just read, about the early days of Amazon exploration, in which one of these heroic men of science forced a pack of hysterical, fighting horses and mules into a river full of electric eels and piranhas--driving them back in with spears when they sought to escape--just out of curiosity to watch how they expired.

Please, I want to understand: what gave them the right?

Please, I want to understand: what is the matter with us, anyway?

Finally, you realize your ability to heed the injunction to "be present in only this moment" is shattered, though you try to get it back. You breathe deeply. Night is falling now. The sound of the leaf blower abruptly stops; it has taken him over an hour to get his lawn completely clean, and you know that it has accomplished something deeply meaningful for him, even if you lack the capacity to know what it is. As does he. That's all right. We know so little about what we do, or why. These are the eternal questions. Sometimes you just want a few moments where there is nothing you want to know.

In a few moments you will say it, and bow your head. You will put your hands together in prayer position. Then you will acknowledge everyone in the room, most of whom are strangers to you, with a gaze and a smile. Namaste.