Legend Before The Fall

legends-of-the-fall-0026A rugged Brad via Sincerely Sassy

One of my best traits and biggest weaknesses is that I think I’m a complete legend.

Seriously. Bad moments and days aside, I have a lot of love for myself. I laugh at my own jokes, enjoy my own company and often catch myself tilting my head and making that ‘hmm, interesting…’ face in response to my own thoughts.

This is very healthy. Except when it’s not. Sometimes that self-love teeters on the brink of ego and very often, when I dance too close to the edge, Universe erects a funhouse mirror to show how grotesque, silly and small I look. Or nudges me into the abyss for a spectacular fall.

I’ll give you an example of the former. Going to language school one day, I was trying to ride my bike with no hands. I saw this guy do it when I was about 7 and it blew my mind. Of course many people here in Florence—from children to retirees—are capable of this feat. But I’m not that confident and have only just started feeling okay riding one-handed, so hands-free is still a distant dream.

However, I’m trying.

When I have an empty stretch to coast in I loosen my grip on the handlebars, engage my core, sit tall and pedal hard, concentrating furiously. I can go a few revolutions before I start wobbling side to side and have to reinstate my grip. This particular day I got a little further than usual, hands hovering around the handlebars. I gave myself a mental pat on the back, looking around to see if anyone had witnessed my amazingness.

At that very moment, the guy riding in front of me lazily straightened up, released his hands, fixed his hair, retied his scarf etc. He may as well have been playing a violin, so effortless was he in motion. My mental pat on the back turned into a swat on the forehead. You idiot.

This is a mild example, but a far more dazzling check took place in winter last year. I remember the afternoon: coming home from yoga, doing a bit of cleaning while dancing around my house, feeling healthy and vital. I was in a good rhythm of active exercise, feeling strong, and maybe even a little bit proud about how my body looked and felt. And I was excited to get back onto the netball court after a three-year hiatus.

Netball is a very fun and completely deadly sport. Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s a soft game for girls — if there’s anything scarier than a solid, 6-foot defender in a short skirt that knows how to use her body to keep you out of the goal circle, I haven’t yet faced it.

Oh yes, I know all about the physical dangers of netball. As a child and teenager I dealt with countless sprained ankles and wrists from this vicious sport — perhaps more than the usual amount given my delicate and graceful Pakistani joints (there’s a reason why sub-continentals are such good spin bowlers in cricket). And in year 9, I tore several ligaments in my right ankle trying out for a representative team. It took months of slow and painful recovery, with the added indignity of hobbling on and off the school bus whilst trying, and failing, to maintain a sense of cool nonchalance in front of the hotties from the local boy’s highschool.

Time heals all wounds, in my case a tad unfortunately. Because after a few years of dedicated yoga practice in my late 20s and early 30s, and feeling the need to build some cardio into my regime, I thought defiantly (stupidly): ‘I am not a runner, swimmer, biker, or gym-goer. I’m a netballer!’ So I signed up for a local social comp, very low-grade (in fact, no-grade), with my flatmate and good friend, Tina.

Our first game was that evening. I laid out an appropriately sporty outfit and even secretly conceptualised a post-game photo for social media, featuring me in my tights and t-shirt, all sweaty and fit-looking with my rude finger up, rebelling against the rules of society, my parents and the cold winter night. What a bad-ass! I think it may have been this detail that spurred the gods into teaching me a lesson.

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                          Me so cool sticking my rude finger up. Illustration via Ausbosnian

Excited, I got ready. I was pumped to have a run, flex my netball muscle and impress everyone with my fitness, team spirit and shooting accuracy. Although I’m on the shorter end of the spectrum, I’ve always prioritised honing this skill as it delivers the most glory for the least amount of work (there’s that ego again, as well as my fairy slothmother). We started a player down so I took the position of Goal Keeper, generously offering to field the circle defence with plans to orchestrate a dynamic attack sequence in the second half.

Seven minutes in, I was leaping to intercept a lob to the opposing Goal Shooter. I landed awkwardly and my right knee buckled. Which is pretty normal in netball — except this time it buckled sideways, towards my other knee. I actually saw it bend the wrong way and heard something pop. I went down. “Fuck!” I whispered. Then moaned a much louder and longer “Fuuuuuuck!”.

It hurt like hell. I knew it was bad. I was carried off the court, where I was told that the social comp didn’t cover insurance for injuries (great) and my knee was bound with makeshift ice packs. I bundled myself up in several outer layers of clothing and feebly cheered my team on as they won the match, shivering pathetically in the cold and pain. Later, people joked, “Well, it was worth it. At least they won.” I, however, was not in the mood for joking, and flung filthy looks at whomever dared to utter these insensitive words in my miserable presence.

After the game, Tina and I strategised how to get to the car, which was a short walk and a long staircase away. First I tried to hobble, using her as a crutch, but each hop sent shooting blades of pain up my body, beads of sweat pricking my skin in the freezing winter night. Deciding I would rather take an hour to walk slowly than endure the hopping, I tentatively put weight onto my right leg and almost fainted. Tina ended up piggy-backing me down the whole flight of some twenty-something steps to the car. And then up another 15 steps to get to our front door. She got a really great workout that evening.

Eventually, after a few hospital visits, an X-ray and MRI, the verdict was in: a ruptured ACL, the Anterior Cruciate Ligament being the thick band of fibre that goes through the centre of the knee and connects the thigh bone to the shin bone. Having completely ruptured, rather than just torn (“Think of it as an elastic band that’s snapped,” my surgeon helpfully suggested), there was no hope of natural repair and risk of further damage if untreated. Some people elect not to have the surgery, as you can actually function to a certain level without an ACL — but the level I needed was 100% dancefloor-fit, so I booked in for an ACL reconstruction.

ACL tears and ruptures are common in sports that demand high-speed, sudden and unnatural changes in direction, which places immense pressure on the knee joint, as well as the muscles and supporting structures surrounding it. Those of us that ski, snowboard and skateboard, or play soccer, football and, of course, netball, keep orthopaedic surgeons and their families well-fed.

And so, I underwent my very first surgery, floated in my very first experiences of morphine and oxycodone and woke up for the very first (and hopefully last) time in a pool of my own blood (not as dramatic as it sounds; my drip fell out in the middle of the night). I was on crutches for a short while, with daily physio on an exercise bike for months. Slowly, tentatively, this and yoga brought strength and mobility back to my knee.

Now, 8 months post-surgery, it is still at times stiff, painful and fragile, particularly in the cold. It has been—still is—a huge lesson in humility: having to ask for help, move slowly and sometimes feeling older than I am. I will never play netball again — my choice. Many people do return to the court, but as much as I love the game, for me it’s not worth the possibility of going down this long and painful road again. Although it has been difficult to walk away from the very lowest grade there is.

Despite the mighty crash of my body and smash of my ego, there have been many silver linings. I was forced to slow down, which has made things quieter and clearer. I have developed deep empathy for those who are or have been injured, who are old and/or frail — particularly valuable to my future yoga teaching. I am full of respect for those that live with permanent disabilities, conditions or diseases that restrict them from physically moving frustration out of the body. I have a new-found gratitude for being able to do things I used to take for granted, like drive, practise yoga and dance myself into sweaty ecstasy.

Wonderfully, when I moved to Florence, I found myself living in perfect rhythm with my 90-year-old flatmate. “Everything in this house moves slowly,” Claudia remarked while we waited for our bread to toast one morning. “Including us.”

After a fall, we get back up again, bruised and battered, but hopefully more determined and sure of why we want to ride the horse in the first place. There will be more spills in this lifetime, no doubt about it. But when I tumble again, my safety net—family, friends, yoga, laughter, meditation and music—will be there to catch me. And THAT is the moral of this story (legend).

Polishing The Silver

How To Clean Flatware - Homemade Silver Polish Aluminum Foil perSilver spoons via Pets Show

I did something new the other day. I have never lived amongst silver (unless you count foil chocolate wrappers on the couch) and so this particular morning was my very first spent polishing some beautiful antique pieces in the Florentine villa I call home. Sugar bowls, vegetable service platters and Persian teapots all became part of my education.

It was strangely satisfying. Turning that dull, burnished metal into a glowing, warm, alive thing required a measure of strength, yet a delicate touch. In the still silence, as I rubbed a soft cloth over smooth surfaces, I became keenly aware of why ‘polishing the knob’ is such perfect sexual slang.

Polishing requires a rhythmic motion. Nothing aggressive about it, you must love the silver you are working on; treat it with respect. It is fragile, yet needs slight, even pressure to produce the best results. The form of the silver is often irregular, asymmetrical, and your fingers must navigate around bends, ridges and crevices to bring it to peak condition. Under a skilful pair of hands, it becomes warm. Each piece is unique in thickness, fragility, form and filigree; however they are all made of the same stuff. Silver, that bright, hard metal — a beautiful stirring counterpoint to the molten warmth of gold.

Sitting back, spent, I surveyed the finished collection in front of me on the table. I felt a deep satisfaction in achieving that glow with only intuition and the warmth of my hands.

I have to say, I did a pretty good job.

Pele (goddess) / Pelle (skin)

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Goddess Pele via Etsy

The day of the Vernal Equinox in the Northern Hemisphere, I run a bath in the evening for the first time in 6 weeks.

I am a dedicated bather. I’ve been known to luxuriate in a bath first thing in the morning, in the middle of the day, and at midnight. I light 7 or 11 or 14 candles, placing them near corners, curves, walls and mirror to better reflect and refract. Their soft flickering is the sole light source. There is no sound, except perhaps an Youtube track of rain and thunder, if the mood takes me. I stay submerged for an hour, two hours, skin shrivelling while heart expands. There is a book alongside the bath, and my journal, but often these remain untouched and all I do for the duration is breathe and watch the water play over my body and over itself. Sometimes I whisper, or sing. I become still. Sweat beads on my face and I don’t move to wipe them away. I am cleansed, whilst the sweet smell of me lightly perfumes the fog.

This day, I bathe to mark the beginning of something new. I have just pressed publish on my first blog post. I bathe to surrender, to baptise myself anew in the possibility of this written expression. The familiar ritual stirs something ancient inside me. Mirror and window cloud. Candlelight throws through glass to splay in fractals, reminding me of a description of a bullet entry point I once read in a Dr Kay Scarpetta novel.

It’s always a sensory experience, but this day what I notice most is the steam rising from my limbs. I don’t know if it’s because the air in Florence is cooler, but on this day the smoke is swirling, alive. Sinking down into the water, tensions release. I feel my sinuses fill with heat and my mouth opens of its own accord, slowly, inexplicably gaping in deep pleasure as I sigh.

I lift an arm, a leg, high into the sky. Marvelling at the way the heat emanates from my skin body, as if it’s a precious geological site (it is), like Rotorua or Yellowstone National Park, containing hot spots and steaming pools and ancient volcanoes (it does). Underneath the surface, molten lava swirls, a terrifying, beautiful lake of potential. It sometimes erupts from my eyes, or my mouth, through my fingers or from my loins. Releasing energy from deep within. Sometimes violent and sudden, sometimes sweet and fluid, sometimes stubbornly viscous. But always alive, in motion, even when it’s hidden. Even when all seems like cold dark stone. Even when I say I’m okay. Even when I’m not.

Airport Heaven

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Landing strip of the non-pornographic kind via The Four Percent

Am I talking about first class? Sadly, no. Still, on my way to Florence, I had a moment. In the prayer room of Abu Dhabi International Airport, to be exact. I had never been in a prayer room before and I don’t know what led me there, but it was the best thing I could have done during a 6-hour stopover sandwiched between a punishing 14-hour flight and a mildly less punishing 7-hour one.

I hope I do/did not offend anyone with my presence there — my understanding is that these rooms are multi-faith. And although I do not identify with any single traditional faith (which, on reflection, may be doubly offensive to those who frequent the rooms. Sorry everybody), I was seeking out a space for quiet, safety and reflection. My intention was prayerful, though no particular words were spoken outward, or within.

I spy the sign near McDonalds, of all places. In a corridor on the way to the bathrooms, a small door signals the way to the women’s prayer room. I feel instantly relieved that the room is female-only, though I wasn’t aware of a male-based fear beforehand. There is an antechamber where you remove your shoes and can wash your feet. I untie my laces and assess the possibility of someone stealing my Pumas and decide though I personally like their classic black design a lot, the fact they have started to form to the shape of my foot probably means they are of little appeal to anyone else. I leave my carry-on next to the sneakers. Even I, heathen that I am, know that wheeling this utilitarian receptacle with its squeaky wheels into a room for praying, and then snapping the handle down with its inevitable flourish, is a little off. If the case goes walking, so be it. Quietly opening the door I draw my energy inwards, to give any occupants privacy.

Inside, it is small and carpeted; already a comforting contrast to the vast, cold hardness of the airport. There is a young woman, pretty and made-up, in modest Muslim attire. Like me, she is shoe-less, casually sitting against one wall of the square room looking at her phone. Phew. If she’s checking Facebook, surely it’s okay for me to be here. We exchange eye contact and a brief smile of acknowledgement as I pad across the carpet to the opposite wall, out of her direct line of sight. I gently place my backpack down, sink to the floor cross-legged and close my eyes, mala beads in hands.

In the time-zone Bermuda Triangle of travel I sink, unusually effortlessly, into meditation. Becoming breath, the tightness seeps from my body. There are faint noises of women chattering in the corridor to the bathroom, but it doesn’t pull me out until CLICK. My eyes blink a split-second after the door opens.

Two women come in, one older and one younger. The young woman who was there when I first arrived is gone and there is an older woman in her place. So there are three others in the room with me. Now that I’ve assessed my neighbours with the skill and speed of Jason Bourne (although admittedly I completely missed the exchange of human bodies while in meditation), my eyes flutter closed again. I listen to whispered, murmured prayers, entranced by the breathy urgency of their faith. After some time, they quieten and start to gather their belongings, clothes rustling.

“From Indonesia?” one says. “This is my daughter”.
“Yes. You from India?” the other responds.
“Pakistan.”
Me too I think. But I’m too shy to say, too scared to explain that I’m not Muslim, not even Christian like I was brought up. I don’t want to offend, confuse or make them angry. My spirituality is of the body and breath, of meditation and yoga. I think I came to this room hoping to be alone so I could breathe deep and sigh as I stretch my limbs, crack my back and roll around on the floor in a mission to massage my being from the inside.

But I don’t wish these women away. I feel connected to them in this place of sanctuary, though a little guilty (ah, there’s that good old Catholic upbringing!), like I have stolen this experience from that which is sacred for my profane self. To sit safe, cross-legged in my socks in transit, on this journey of a lifetime, is indeed a blessing.

And as I watch them quietly leave, I realise another: the simple sense of connection. Despite our differences, our chosen practices provide an anchor, a compass, a comfort, in all places and times. I see these women and my heart says Namaste. I glimpse their light and bow to it. For in this room we are the same.

Moonshine

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Applique and embroidery piece by the incredible Sarah Naqvi

For a few days each month, I go a little crazy. I am wired. I can’t sleep. My mind races and my heart thuds. Each night when my internal wheels are spinning I think, Tomorrow I’ll support myself better in this phase. I will avoid sugar, alcohol and cigarettes. I’ll meditate. I’ll drink herbal tea. And each morning when I wake, startled and haggard, nerves frayed, I seek out those which destroy any chance of peace.

In the evening, I try everything. Again. Reading, deep breathing, masturbating. All offer a momentary, shallow, unsatisfying distraction from the grinding wheels of mild panic, omnipotent like the faint, high-pitched sound of a blender that never turns off and only I can hear, as I frantically and furtively scan for the source, twitching and paranoid.

My weariness is sharp, with thrusting pangs of deep nihilism. As I stand in the light drizzle at the bus stop, I picture myself collapsing to the ground with a heart attack, my bad knee buckling under me. I wonder if the Japanese tourist group will take photos as I lay in a crumpled pile on the ancient cobblestones.

Later at home, revived after a steaming bowl of pasta pomodoro and ricotta, I smoke a cigarette and contemplate the irony of me expiring right there at the table, unable to call out to Claudia, my 90-year-old flatmate to whom I am companion. If I do manage to feebly pass some sound through my gasping vocal chords, it’s unlikely she will hear me, because she is slightly deaf and has the television in her room turned up loud to watch an Italian soap opera based on Neighbours, her daily trashy delight.

I constantly think about death, harassed by my own imaginary grim reaper. In bed, I have to focus hard to unclench my jaw, teeth and tongue. As soon as I release my effort to relax and catch the elusive wave of sleep, my muscles tighten once more into an oral claw, like the cramp I sometimes get that forces one toe across the other, reasserting its unnatural bind when not physically held apart.

What is this monthly occurrence for, I wonder. A time for watching and waiting. Forcing me to live in intimate discomfort with my demons — neighbour, captor, lover. A relentless ticking time bomb of energy and frustration. I bear it, trapped in a busty corset in a musty ballroom, resigned to this terrible dance set to the sharp shattered screeches of a novice violinist, comforted only by the knowledge that when the dam finally breaks,

Relief.

The Adventures of La Loba

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She-Wolf by Barbora-Klapalova

Allora. Here I am, approximately two decades behind the curve in starting a blog. I have been very hesitant to begin because:

a) I don’t really read blogs myself and wonder if anyone does
b) I am terrified of sharing my thoughts for fear of being laughed at, rejected, ignored, dismissed, shamed or hated
c) I am a technophobe and wish, actually, that I could just photocopy pages from my journal rather than typing thoughts here. There is something about the computer that makes me edit, and I want this process to be as free and open as possible.

So forgive me, in advance (I am talking to my future self here, more than anyone else). In these posts, I may bore, confuse, annoy and offend. I hope you laugh, nod and light up inside, but you may very well cringe, roll your eyes or curl your lip in distaste.

But contrary to my natural tendencies and conditioning, I must ignore my concerns about you — friends, family, foes and future self. I have realised that I must go on this journey to challenge and find myself. I must write, as a discipline and an artistic process that will illuminate what is yet to come. I have no purpose other than to begin.

On a wall at Body Mind Life, the yoga studio I practise at in Sydney, there is this quote by Sting: “Yoga is almost like music in a way; there’s no end to it.”

sting-8Sting leaning on a tree, therefore spiritual. Via Rip It To Shreds 

Potential cringe right there, but I believe writing is the same. It’s likely that once I begin, I will be so overcome by the beautiful, seductive freedom of sharing that I will spurt out great gobs of gross and messy parts of myself, like a teenage boy who’s never been touched (see Jim in American Pie). It may not be good, or graceful, which is particularly scary for me — because I always want to present thoughtfully, with a sense of cohesion, as if I have some grip on what I’m saying and why.

But that’s not true to life, and that’s not what this is about. This is going to be a freewheeling, exhilarating, potentially dangerous, adventure. It will take me somewhere, and no doubt transform me. It will change how I think about myself, and perhaps how you think about me. Despite/because of this, I begin. Because writing is a muscle that will only get ripped and raw, rugged and rippling, with exercise. Like my physio Rachel says, Use It Or Lose It.

So, like Jim, I’m preparing for complete and very public embarrassment.

Welcome to the show.