As my Lyft driver took a wrong turn this morning, my body tensed. Butt cheeks clenched, shoulders hunched, breath held. Perfect opportunity to practice, so I did. I exhaled and closed my hands into fists. I inhaled and unfurled my fingers like petals. Again. Exhale—contract. Inhale—expand.
I began this practice a week ago when I learned that the astrology ahead was stacked up for a tough battle of opposing energies, especially contraction and expansion. My brain took in those words and jumped the fast train to metaphor land, first stop birth. Next stop breath. I smiled, relieved as the limited binary dissolved. Contraction and expansion didn’t have to be opposites; they could be part of the same whole, a bigger cycle. The whole of creating new life (birth), or sustaining it (breath), for instance.
So often, when I feel things contract, when Mike and I get into it because we’re hot and tired and grumpy, which we were this week, I hold my breath. I turn my chest into steel and halt all movement, like the writer who told me many years ago that she would force herself to stay utterly still at night so as not to wake her husband.
I had all kinds of feelings, and questions, about that.
Now I wonder what sleeping husband I’m trying not to wake when I choose not to exhale. What part of me dare I not disturb? What sleeping rule or drowsing dictum? I don’t know, but in this moment, writing outside on a cloudy morning, the Willamette River rolling by, I breathe to find out. Hands on the soft cotton of my sky-colored shirt where it covers my diaphragm, I release the pressure valve. Who’s there?
On my exhale, I find I’m protecting myself from the Worst Case Scenario, the thing that hasn’t even happened yet. A future that gets flimsier as I let my breath flow. When I hold my breath, I think most often I’m holding it against whatever’s next. Not today. I let it go. I like this rhythm. I like how my blue belly rises and falls. The fullness and the emptying. The air on my fingers, cool like the air in that cave in France with the paintings from some 30,000 years ago. Grotte Chauvet.
Mike and I watched a documentary about it—”Cave of Forgotten Dreams.” Werner Herzog, with his signature deadpan, narrating. The space around his words filled with haunting music recorded in a church, a small choir of voices harmonizing. String instruments singing like ghosts. An ethereal blend of sound.
With permission for a limited visit, Herzog took a camera crew into these ancient caves and filmed the art—drawings of animals with tusks and hooves, with teeth and horns and paws. Handprints from one of the artists on the walls throughout the cave. You could tell which handprint was his by the crooked pinky finger. How amazing is that?
My dad, according to my Uncle Chuck, had a bent index finger, curved like mine. I remember Daddy’s hands, but not that part. I look at my index finger and try to find him there, or perhaps I’m pointing to him. Over there, or there. If we’d left handprints in a cave, my dad and I, would they look the same? Could some being years later be able to tell which was father and which daughter? Would someone hundreds of thousands of years from now marvel at that information? Might it move them to tears?
In the documentary, Herzog filmed an ancient Venus statue, the oldest depiction of a figurative object, found in another cave in southwestern Germany. The Venus of Hohle Fels, carved from a mammoth tusk. I was moved seeing her, as I’m moved seeing any representation of goddess, but I didn’t cry then.
Instead, I cried as the archaeologist being interviewed said that with the Venus, they found other things—personal ornaments, decorations, a piece of flute, objects that indicated humans who played music, had rituals, believed in mythology.
Hearing that, I felt so blessedly small and lovely in my human insignificance. I cried. I climbed inside one of the teardrops and lost myself in a bigger ocean than I’d ever imagined, considering that hundreds of thousands of years ago, some person probably held a goddess statue to pray like I did just last night, and made meaning and art with flute or charcoal, like I’m doing right now with pen and paper. I’m not sure I can fully express how deeply that moved me, and why.
Maybe because I’ve been on my own more immediate ancestry search. Looking for clues, looking for myself in my lineage. Before “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” I watched “The Italian Americans,” a four-part series. In those stories, I was both home and homesick. Home with the people I come from, the ones who make up at least fifty percent of me. Learning about them, how my Calabrian grandparents came from the struggle of poverty in southern Italy to a different struggle of poverty in America. Sensing into some understanding of the old pattern of suffering and struggle that lives in my bones.
Homesick for my dad who I only had for fourteen years. Both of his parents born in Southern Italy and emigrating to the U.S. My grandmother was three when she came over in 1901, accompanied by her parents; my grandfather was eighteen and sold a cow to book passage alone in 1903. On the boat over, to make some extra money, he played the concertina and tambourine for the passengers in first class.
I feel homesick for these grandparents I never met, for a sense of belonging I struggle to feel with the rest of my family now. I notice myself contracting when I’m with them. I love them, no doubt, but I don’t know where I fit when I visit. I feel like there’s only room for a me from a few decades ago, a self that doesn’t exist anymore. One from before I moved across the country and away from home, and everyone else stayed. I can’t find a place there for this me—Jen not Jenny. Or at least that’s the story I tell, and it makes it hard for me to breathe.
I wonder what sleeping husband I’m trying not to wake when I’m there. Maybe my mom’s sleeping husband. My sleeping father. Dead father. Gone. The elephant of a man not in the room. If I exhale, would I awaken his spirit? Would I bring him into the room just by being myself? Part of me doesn’t know how. I withhold my joy. I fold my hands in my lap, careful to cover my pointy index finger. If I lifted it, what would I point to? I don’t know.
The music from “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” touches that not-knowing that pulses in my chest. I don’t like not knowing. Except when I do. I do love a good mystery when I’m watching or reading it. Last night I read a footnote in the opening pages of adrienne maree brown’s book Pleasure Activism: “You might be thinking that movies aren’t real life. I am thinking that the line between the real and the imagined is a construct.” Perhaps the line between my current life and the one I’m dreaming up is fading with each word I type. With each note of ethereal music.
This month on our back deck, usually my refuge, there is no hauntingly beautiful soundtrack. Trucks rumble, saws buzz, and jackhammers drill. The city digs up the sewers on Salmon street. Yesterday, Mike pointed out new road paint on Taylor street, right in front of our apartment. The strange hieroglyphics of construction work to come—orange brackets, blue dots, white lines. My belly tightened as I imagined the worst case scenario—a summer of power tools grinding from morning to night. I did not want to breathe for fear of waking it. What will I do if they dig up the road that I live on?
Maybe it will be thematically resonant as I dig up this inner road, the one I’ve also been living on. Excavating my way into my own cave of forgotten dreams, the cave of my ancestors. Daddy. Nonna. A grandfather with a concertina. This September I’m going on a pilgrimage to Sicily to find them. Or me. Or all of us. But the cave of my ancestors is longer and deeper than I realized.
In Grotte Chauvet, enormous crystals, stalactites perhaps three or four feet long, descend from the ceiling. The people who drew the animals on the walls would never have seen them. In the wake of those artists, over thousands of years, the crystals grew, downward from the top, which sometimes is how growth happens. Downward, inward, backward.
The cave is a layering of art and elements. Skulls of cave bears, an absence of human bones, crystals, charcoal drawings. It’s enough to make me gasp and then hold my breath. But I choose to exhale with the contraction of time and space. Then fill my lungs with past and present and future and who knows when. Because if I don’t release my breath and make myself known, if I don’t wake the sleeping husband or father, the crooked-fingered artist or goddess-worshipping flautist, the toddler grandmother or concertina-playing grandfather, how, after all, will we talk? How will we find the room to inhale the expansive wonder of each other, a belonging so big that all the lines disappear?