Ashtanga Ann Arbor • 4 September 2009

Monday I drove Pico Blvd from Santa Monica toward downtown, straight toward the wildfire smoke roiling in the east—smoke so dense that for days it generated its own precipitation, perfect white cumulonimbus billowing over the greys and ashen browns of the destruction. For once I sympathized with the forward-thinkers, the Editor among them, who say the dream is dead and life here is a mindless pillage of resources long depleted. It was earthquake weather this week; and gas was well over three dollars a gallon. The state is closing parks and libraries and selling off its treasures, its many-jeweled crown of the University of California is putting professors on furlough and grad students in the gutter. Apocalypses and lost causes rather turn me on, but I thought I’d come out to Ann Arbor for a while anyway.

The flight was horrible—a red eye next to a woman suffering hot flashes and large enough to need more space than just our armrest. What do you do but defer to the good mother? She blasted the air and I folded myself up like a beatle (thank you, ashtanga) and froze through the night, sleeping never and marring my record for idyllic air travel experiences. Using Shinzen's practice of finding the image stream and disentangling it from emotion, the mini re-traumatization showed me the seeds of the bitter hate that I have for cold: two incidents in my early twenties that have left an abiding, personal anger toward weather under 60 degrees. (One, a monthlong ski-camping trip during which I frostbit my right toes on riverside subzero nights, and the second a night on the shores of Lake Ometepe with nothing to keep warm but a bottle of Nicaraguan rum. It’s funny that, for all the trauma I witnessed as a child, the main scars in my body were collected late in life. And they are in a sense trivial—almost comic moments of fun taken too far. Still, I can almost not bear the cold—emotions of victimhood and fear overwhelm me.

By the time we landed in the pink sunrise over Lake Huron, I was fully, bitterly dissatisfied, albeit grateful that the loathsome circumstances would deepen my love for Detroit the second I stepped out in to its 80 degree heat wave. But then I didn’t. It was fifty degrees on the ground—cold enough to chill both produce and owls in T-shirts. The subliminal voices telling me to run back to California began to scream and I slid from regular dissatisfaction (a loss of equanimity) in to the swamps of despair (dissatisfaction + drama). But the Editor—now Professor to the likes of us—doesn’t have the option of leaving. He’s faculty now in one of the finest departments in the country, so even as I remain professorly free labor in the original sense, I am going to have a more than passing relationship to this place.

The chill-induced hate and fear hollowed out depths that have, in the days since, been filled beyond capacity with delight and pleasure. This exaggerated ambivalence is the calling card of culture shock: and it still happens, no matter how jaded I pretend to be, no matter that by now I’ve lived in four countries and eight states. When I’m in culture shock I get a temporary case of borderline personality syndrome—in which every one and every thing is either perfect or from hell, and every new experience is a new up or down vote in the referendum on the new culture.

Sound like your last trip to Asia? In the first days, Ann Arbor’s approval rating pendulumed between zero and 150. Characteristically for my manic body politic, the euphoric, delighted, yes side wants to annihilate the dissatisfied side. Though ultimately, if joy is to win, I don't want it to happen through dishonesty or repression. But at some point, I guess I’ll just learn to let satisfaction resume her natural place at the wheel.

Last night in the front yard, the sleekest, cutest creature of black and white wrestled imaginary playmates in the grass (this morning I found a beehive she’d unearthed in the front bushes—poor bees). Who knew skunks were so beautiful? The light of the streetlamp—yes, this is downtown Ann Arbor, we’re four blocks from Main Street even if this place has an enormous back yard that feels like a campsite on the Olympic Peninsula—made the fluffy blinding-white of her head and stripes shine out as she tumbled and undulated her potent, gorgeous fan of a tail. The creature rolled over and over, batted the air, danced and jumped, burrowed in to the grass. She made what felt like eye contact with me as I stood in the beveled lead-glass front windows of this ornate old house—but like the other creatures all over this zone, she views humans as benign. I thought of my first grandfather, a mink farmer who killed himself when furs became unpopular and he lost the farm… does my chest of inherited furs contain no skunks because consumers associated the most gorgeous pelt ever with skunk perfume? Very good… I’m happy I will never have the option of throwing one of this girl’s own grandparents round my shoulders when Ann Arbor gets bitter fucking cold.

Meanwhile, I’ve acclimated to 50 and it takes next to nothing to steam up what is surely the finest solo practice space that is. The Editor would lure me here with this; and it is better bait than any. The building is a restored townhouse, maybe 90 years old, with knotty pine floorboards and engraved brass fixtures, heavy mouldings, a clawfoot tub, and blue tilework in the kitchen. The practice space is about ten feet by twelve, with a north window that looks into pine trees and a west window opening up over the roof to the forest out back. It’s so motherfucking juicy in there I don’t understand it. What could be the power of this little room? It may be that the space is the perfect size for one (I could fit three, if the locals—who tend to like a lot of mat space—can pretend to be New Yorkers), or that the previous resident—an artist for Google—was very good at clearing spaces to make energy flow. But I suspect there is something deeper and older going on around here…I don’t understand this town yet, but it has some weird power and grace, and some kind of intelligence that has nothing to do with its having the highest social capital in the country.

I rolled in with a paltry mess kit: seven tealghts and a stick of incense superstitiously lifted from the home shala, doubts about Ann Arbor, and samskaras about the cold. But on Wednesday I woke at 5 (2 o’clock in LA; and having not slept the previous night) drawn to the little room’s gold floors waiting across the hall in the dark. The heavy walls—a whipped plaster just painted pale yellow—echoed breath back to me; one of the floorboards creaked loudly under each jump-back and crashed when I fell out of a handstand.

This space will make me quieter. Working the echo in the floor, getting light enough to make its reverb disappear, letting whatever forgotten history and strong energy this place contains lift me out of the dark and the confusion.