Death Valley • 28 December 2008

Things are going wrong in academia: not the right year to do your coming-out. The anonymous rumor mills online are full of despair and rage, people who can’t insure their kids, can’t imagine themselves as anything else, but do envision pistols in their temples. Ain’t no “positive thinking” superstitions among scientists, that’s for sure.

Hello, pain.

Last Monday and Tuesday, my triceps ached from the 108 I tossed in before Sunday practice. Guess my chaturangas are true, but it brought some Monday woe to the prospect of a week of thirds.

I did a self-punishment check: “beating yourself up with vinyasas,” eh?

Nah. Though practice was painful, so to speak.

Funny how little—an extra 80 minutes on the mat Sunday morning—it takes to create resistance in the machine for several days. Amazing to do this all the other weeks without any such drag. Interesting to see the limits of practice so graphically—in a way that did not come up at the summer solstice at all.

Years ago I saw BKSI speak at Josiah Royce Hall, the building I gaze on all day from the office I’ll give up in June. Someone in the audience asked about pain, and he held forth for a good ten minutes about how yoga has to be painful. He was incoherent—if the audience took a lesson from those ramblings, it was whatever they wanted to hear.

I have nothing better on this subject though. MW tells me pain is a healing force, but of course he is the same one who forbids self-flagellation via vinyasa. He means real pain. And the Sutras say future pain can be avoided, though that doesn’t sit at all well with every eastern teaching about how suffering arises from efforts to avoid pain—which is in truth inevitable.

I dunno. What I’m experiencing is trivial. Or: I am no longer skilled at holding pain in place long enough to learn from it. Anxiety is here; sadness for friends too. But come on.

I tried to walk right in to it this Christmas, rescheduling the holiday in New Orleans for Death Valley instead. The Editor and I thought we would make it an Existential Christmas, embracing the void at the LOWEST POINT IN NORTH AMERICA. My idea of a good joke.

Earth's Lowest

I expected desolation; no life anywhere; blinding light flattening all contrast; cracked earth; punishing, leathery winds. Some kind of object lesson in pain.

And got: more stars than I knew existed, kangaroo rats, salt flats churning like a slow-motion ice floe, sand dunes whose spines you walk like in some (terribly picturesque) refugee drama, too many Ennio Morricone moments to track, and hiking trails straight through scenes from Star Wars. Also: borax dust storms, snow in the high places, blazing blue peaks cradling you down in the basin, glinting iron ore and lime in the hills, a Red Cathedral hidden beneath Zabriskie point like some undiscovered Petra, a giant orange cinder cone so snuffed out that little French children can climb down inside.

Laughed at death, got the Christmas Dinner (with a stunning pumpkin soup with maple crème fraiche) at Furnace Creek, inspected the giant leftover machines of men who had a go at living here a century ago, cut out on to the oasis golf course as the sprinklers came on and watched Venus come up over the valley. 

Borax Storm, Snow Clouds