About twelve years ago I set out on a big adventure. My then boyfriend and I decided to drive from Salt Lake City, Utah, to wherever we ended up, which turned out to be Costa Rica, six months later.
That adventure is a whole other story, which maybe I will tell another day. Before we set out, however, we took our re-modelled school bus out on a test drive from where we were living, Montreal, to Boston. While there, I came across a cheap book in a remainder pile. It was a book on Zhan Zhuang, a type of Chinese meditation that essentially involves not much more than standing in the same place until every fibre of your body begs for movement. Loosely translated, Zhan Zhuan means standing like a tree. Or in some translations standing like a post.
I'd had a taste of what Zhan Zhuang had to offer a few years back when I'd started Tai Chi lessons in the basement of the Montreal Chinese community center. One day our instructor, Ringo, made us stand in a horse stance (legs shoulder width apart, knees slightly bent, as though riding a horse) palms facing each other at waist level. We stood until we could feel a kind of magnetic force between the two palms, which really didn't take very long. Ringo, who came from Hong Kong and seemed to have been studying tai chi since birth, had a way of putting things simply. "Stand like this everyday for an hour outside at sunrise for six months, and you will change."
He didn't elaborate. Partly this was because his English wasn't great. But Ringo had a way of using his poor English to hit on certain truths. He had a boot camp rigour when it came to repeating particular chi kung exercises. Just when we got to the point where our joints were ready to seize up, he would shout "one last times." There was no point in correcting his grammar because "one last times" really meant as many more times as he whimsically chose to inflict on us, which could be five or fifty. I sensed there wasn't much to gain from prodding him on how we would change after six month of daily sunrise zhan zhuan. The only important thing was that we would change, and from his tone, it sounded like there would be no changing back.
I've never pulled it off, the six months outside for an hour at dawn. And it's not something I'm going to pull off anytime soon. First because it's winter in Montreal and dawn happens sometime around when my school aged son and I are eating breakfast, just before he we head off to the bus stop. Maybe some year I will train him to make his own breakfast while I stand in a dark cold park imitating leafless trees. But not this year. Thank God, because last week we had a snowstorm and several days of gentle flurries that yielded a good three feet of snow.
I have pulled off six months of standing, from about twenty minutes to a half an hour, and I would say that I changed. I changed in gentle, pleasant ways. I lost about ten pounds and have managed to keep it off without much struggle. The journalism I do for a living comes more easily and seems to attract more readers and editors. During the time I started daily standing, about two years ago, the perfect apartment, a lovely school for my son, and a neighborhood I adore seemed to magically fall into our lives.
But other problems I've always had continue to plague me. I've been working on a novel for two years that has not seemed to evolve beyond a box of scrappy drafts. The bit of debt I seem to be going into each month has now added up to more than I make in a year, which fortunately isn't much. Whatever romance occassionally enters my life tends to fizzle up pretty fast. And the basic skills of household organization are as mysterious, exotic and elusive to me as Italian probably is to the average North American. I do try, but I just don't seem to get it, and as I write this, mess surrounds me like scattered leaves.
Last year I went back to the Chinese community center, but Ringo had given up teaching to devote more time to his family and the fast food chinese concession stand he owned in a ritzy-ish downtown foodmall, Le Faubourg Saint Catherine. In his place was Ron, who had always taught the Saturday classes, and now taught both weekend mornings. I happened to join back in on a day when Ron was teaching "holding the baloon", a stance where you hold your arms up about shoulder level as though you're holding a big baloon to your chest.
I proudly announced that I did this everyday, sometimes close to thirty minutes, and he received this news with a disappointing amount of indifference. "There's a saying in Chi kung, that goes something like, the chi doesn't start boiling until 40 minutes." Ron is not Chinese. He's actually an articulate, excellent teacher, but he has an arrogance that I've never found quite as charming as Ringo's. He shrugged with a slightly condescending grin and told me that 20 to 30 minutes was just considered just "playing."|
So I began to work towards 40 minutes with a sense of commitment that comes and goes. Today I can stand longer, much longer than I used to, in a range of poses that would probably astonish and impress many people. But with greater skill has come greater resistance. 20 minutes was something I could commit to daily. 40 minutes feels like a sense of purpose that I'm not entirely sure I want to have.
Woke up at 5 a.m this morning and knew I wasn't going to be getting back to sleep, so I stood for an hour. I can do this easily now. I can do this with my arms raised up to shoulder level. I can do this with my arms raised above shoulder level in a kind of circle above my head. I have a hard time doing this with my arms spread out wide behind me. But if I can pull this off for about five minutes then the force in my arms is stronger when I hold them out in front of me.
The physical pain is really something that I barely concern myself with anymore. Mostly because it isn't even there. But the emotional pain. In the stillness of the morning, in the quiet, it's hard for me not to notice that I'm unhappy. Not unhappy with standing, but unhappy in my life. Unhappy and worried.
I fear that my lack of ambition is catching up with me, and I'm not clear on how standing in a magnetic force field everyday for an hour is going to change that.
The problem is that there's this voice, not like a crazy disassociated voice, or anything, it's my voice I know. But it's my voice strong and clear telling me that this is what I'm supposed to be doing. More than that, okay this is really embarrassing, it's telling me that this is the purpose of my life. To do this, and to do this by myself. It's not telling me that I should go and become an expert in zhang zhuang, find a mentor, learn more. It's telling me that I should just stand. Stand here everyday. Change in the unpredictable way that Ringo promised I would. Change and write about that.
So for the time being that's what I'm going to do.
Or go directly to Part 2.