We were in the youth center alone, printing flyers for an open mic night. She had been flirting hard all evening but not getting very far. I was tolerating her over-polished soliloquies because she was good, because I liked not giving her what she wanted. But then she slipped a prayer between poetry recitations. She rocked as she explained to me what the melody meant to her. She closed her eyes when she spoke Hebrew, and told me Jews are nothing without books. I began to soften. Her hands cradled the air when she described the netted cloths that stretch across men’s shoulders during the ceremonies. She told me she always wanted one with little disks of gold.
I thought of old ladies hunched in moo-moos and Sunday pearls, clapping as they shifted their weight to the beat. The way their heads quaked when their hands shot up mid-sermon quickly followed by thundering tongues drawing out the syllables—“praise to the LORD!” I remembered how my heart clenched during these eruptions that scared and enthralled my thirteen year old longing to believe. I remembered how I admired those feeble-legged women, petering as if they were ready to topple over. They stood for hours in white tents, sweat rolling down their faces because the only bursts of wind were the agreeing moans and breathy “Preach it” of other parishioners.
For years I had idolized those dramatic scenes, jealous that sheer breathlessness could feel like truth. But I was never moved like those wavering, gasping Southern Baptists. I was hot under those revival tents. I enjoyed the orchestral music and impressive AV displays of the Mega churches. I smiled at the austerity of the silver crosses hung on sparse trailer-thin walls.
I woke every morning at five. In those caffeine-free days, the yoga teacher’s dry sense of humor was enough to sustain me. We had three meditations a day: morning chant, group meditation at lunch, and evening chants.
Monotone voices kept pace with the drum. My own tried desperately to resonate, carrying away my breath with my thoughts. Each morning I stared at the Tonka painting as I plucked few dozen Sanskrit words out of my throat. To me they were representations not of the stories they told but of my own willingness to give myself over to this practice that it might feel meaningful.
My eyes watered when they burned the inscents. My heart carried the beat of the drum when there was one. My ass fell asleep during lunch. Eyes-lowered, I sat with a stubborn pride, and I waited.
She could tell I was scared. We were laying in bed, and all I could feel was my heart beating. I had never had someone so close before. She wanted to know about my shelf, about the thin black Buddha surrounded by slim candles. I tried so hard not to be pretentious about it, and we were talking ritual again. I explained that I had grown-up loathing the symbols of a church that condemned me for what I could not feel. I explained how being at Shambhala helped me understand formalism as the safe spaces we create to feel what we need to. I conceded that the sacred still captivated but eluded me. She offered to meditate with me. And I softened.
I told her I was asexual, and yet it had happened. I asked her for it. She was grateful at the time, but afterwards confusion lingered in her face. My eyes traced the curves of the ohm symbol on the wall, “Do you know what a container is? It is a way to describe a space that is sacred. In Shambhala there are a group of people who patrol the land, who sit in doorways of ceremonies. They are warriors of sorts. When they mark the entrance into something that is to be protected, they are said to hold the space.” She nodded, and we held each other.
She lay on the bed, book in hand as I wrote and rewrote a cover letter. Her giggle made me smile as she read out passages from a novel about a woman at an ashram. The witty and ironic account made me remember those days spent hoping and sitting. I should have asked her to sit with me. I at least could have learned more about the book. But I didn’t.
She told me not to talk to her for three weeks, and I pleaded with my eyes for more time. She spoke resolutely, asking for a “closing ritual.” I poked fun at her partly in a flirtatious tone that had to be all-too-wrong for the situation at hand, partly in an attempt to indulge her escapism for a fleeting moment, partly because I wanted to belittle her (I resented that she had made the argument that her experience is what was guiding her to choose to not contact me, which I took as a condescending slight at my age and lack of prior relationships). I said yes because I was glad she was willing to occupy the same space as me for a little bit before she left.
A day passed, and I was waiting for her to come take her car. It didn’t feel final. I was ready for my goodbye but it felt like the time had passed. I told myself that two people who love each other can say a better farewell. I wanted funny stories and singing. I wanted candlelight casting shadows on our faces. I wanted to sit with her and make something that we could burn together. I wanted that ritual I had taken a shot at her for asking for. I wanted that ritual I had never been able to connect with. I was pleased she had come in, if only to the entry. A few white matches gave way to swirls of smoke rising from the small black bowl. My eyes watered. She bowed to me, and I softened, "namaste."
That night, as I fell asleep to burning sage and candlelight, the New Year seemed oddly awake with possibility.