Half Moon Pose and the Writer’s Split Consciousness

You can get into Half Moon pose in any number of ways, but here’s the sequence I like best:

1. From down dog, lift your right leg, inhale.

2. Step the leg between your hands into a low lunge, exhale.

3. Rise up into Warrior I, inhale.

4. Windmill open into Warrior II, exhale.

5. Flip your front palm up, arch back into Peaceful Warrior, inhale.

6. Transfer your weight into the front foot and lift the back leg until it’s parallel with the ground; lower your front hand until it’s planted a few inches in front of your standing leg. Stretch the other hand up toward the sky. Spin the torso open.

Exhale.

Understand: Half Moon is a difficult pose. The trick is that the standing foot—the one bearing all the weight—points forward while the rest of the body rotates open. The pose requires finding stillness in a kind of kinesthetic divide; the body oriented, for a space of seconds, in two directions at once.

Once you’re in the pose, the instructor will begin to cue you to go deeper. Lift your gaze to the ceiling. Hover your fingertips off the ground. Find expansion. See if you can fly.

I can’t lift my gaze or hover my fingertips. After four years of practice I still fall out of the basic pose. My body fights the split; it wants to pick a side.

They say the poses we find most challenging are likely the ones that have the most to teach us.

*

The first time I remember experiencing what I’ll call the writer’s split consciousness was June 2008. I was an MFA student at Bennington and Amy Hempel was my thesis advisor. In the afternoons, I’d take her dog Wanita running with me. Wannie was a kick-ass running partner—her stamina and speed increased with mileage.

One day I asked Amy if I could take Wanita for a swim in Lake Paran.

Of course, Amy said. She loves the water.

When we reached the lake, I panicked. I was in full protective custody of Amy Hempel’s dog and I’d never let her off-leash before. What if she swam out too far? If I lost her? If she got hit by a car?

As I stood at the edge of the water, addled with worry, tossing Wannie’s water toy and watching her paddle out and back, I thought of a story. A married woman takes a famous actor’s dog (already I was revising) for a walk to Lake Paran. The woman’s friend, a married man, comes along. They hike around the lake and wind up having a tryst, their copulation rushed and awkward, the dog watching, her leash tied around a trunk. But the dog is wearing a gentle leader (revision, again), and knows how to rub her face into the ground to loosen the nose strap. She shrugs off the leader and runs away. The man and woman don’t realize she’s gone until it’s too late.

I didn’t know what would happen next—I would discover that later, on the page—but I did know I needed to pay attention to the moment, to remember. I began tamping down the details: the way Wannie always turned right as she circled back to shore; the pinprick cold of the water on my shins when she shook; the deer flies buzzing, the late-afternoon slant of sunlight over the lake. The bottoming-out sense of losing control when I unhooked her leash.

In that moment—imbibing the real world with my outer eye and translating it into an imagined one with the inner—I felt hyper-awake, expansive. I was living two lives at once.

That day, for a space of minutes, I was able to stay there.

*

John Gardner, in On Becoming a Novelist, tells the story of happening upon a car wreck in Colorado. It was a gruesome scene—lots of blood—but Gardner’s first thought was I must remember this! I must remember my feelings! He says that what he felt above all was “disgust at my mind’s detachment, its inhumane fascination with the precise way the blood pumped.” Bernard Malamud, Gardner says, would focus intently on people’s gestures as they spoke; he might interrupt a story abruptly to ask why the speaker wore such dark glasses.

For me, the guilt comes at home. Here are my children, acutely alive, but also a hotbed of material that I find myself constantly observing, editing. My youngest daughter will say something about getting her feelings hurt and I’ll hear but not listen; I’m too busy noticing the way she chews on her lower lip. I once asked my youngest son, who speaks with a lisp, to say a certain word over so I could get the sound right on the page.

A few years ago one of my daughters went through an anxiety phase where she was pulling out her hair. I didn’t know about the behavior until her hairdresser showed me the spot. We have a little breakage back here, the stylist said. My daughter was mortified; I was silent, looking at the little cluster of spikes at the back of her head—the tip of a tiny Saguaro, bottlebrush, cat whiskers.

I used the image in a story. I translated the moment into art. But I felt that I’d failed in a much more important way.

*

Sometimes I’m overwhelmed with nostalgia for my pre-writing days. When my kids were not potential characters; when I could overhear a conversation or see a certain gesture and just let it go. When I could take a yoga class and not keep a notepad under my mat (yeah, I do this.) When everything didn’t feel imbued with potential to say something. Did such a time even exist? (I suspect not.) And if there was such a time, would I go back?

No.

The split consciousness has its gifts. Those moments, translated into fiction, let me access a time I might otherwise have forgotten; not just the way things looked, but the way they felt. Our neighbors used to have a little white dog with matted fur who would bark at us whenever I walked the children home from school. I put that dog in a story. Now, when I read the scene with the white dog, it’s a point-of-entry: the way my four-year-old’s hand felt in mine, the way my daughter’s waist-length hair got twisted up in her backpack straps.

Do the memories make living with the split worth it?

God, I wish I knew.

*

Half Moon pose, if I ever let it, has this to teach me: Your attention is divided. So what? It’s how you’re wired as an artist. Embrace the split. Sit with it. Don’t fight.

While you’re on the yoga mat, you’re supposed to let go of the running story in your head. Thoughts still come; you observe them and let them pass without judgment.

But I’m still a writer, even on the mat. Last week I took a three-hour class from a master teacher from California. He was small and erect, dark-skinned, early 50s but looked a decade younger. He spent the first hour talking. He used fuck and fucking as punctuation. He burped, frequently and loudly. At the end of his talk he said: I’m doing these things because I want you to practice non-judgment.

I’m lying there on my mat thinking, now here’s a character: a verbally abusive yoga teacher—abusive with compassionate intentions. And suddenly I’m paying attention, I’m doing exactly what I’m not supposed to be doing, I’m opening my eyes to note his shirt, his cargo shorts, the way his toes angle outward. I watch him shake his head at the muscle guys in the class, the ones who are quivering all over in forearm plank but still lifting a back leg.

Put your fucking knees down, he says to one of them.

The real teacher didn’t actually say that.

 

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About Jamie Quatro

Jamie Quatro’s first story collection, I Want To Show You More, is forthcoming in March 2013 from Grove/Atlantic. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, Tin House, Ploughshares, AGNI, American Short Fiction, McSweeney’s, Oxford American, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of fellowships from Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and lives with her husband and children in Lookout Mountain, Georgia.
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10 Responses to Half Moon Pose and the Writer’s Split Consciousness

  1. Sybil Baker says:

    Great job Jamie. Looking forward to more of these!

  2. I love these lines: “Do the memories make living with the split worth it? God, I wish I knew.”

    A meditation every writer can relate to.

    I strive, so much, to be present in my life – and find myself chronically struggling with the storyteller inside.

    • Jamie Quatro says:

      A daily – sometimes hourly – struggle for sure. I often wonder: is it even possible to be fully present in a given moment while still allowing the inner storyteller to breathe? I think I need to learn to trust more in my subconscious note-taking abilities; to believe that the important, the essential moments of my life will still get taken up – even if my conscious mind isn’t aware it’s happening – and will present themselves later, when I need them most.

  3. Liz Arnold says:

    Thanks, Jamie. A very thoughtful piece. I love Half Moon for the reasons you describe. It’s thrilling when you get there, sometimes disorienting, but the slightest distraction or imbalance can send you crashing… It teaches a lot, for sure.

    • Jamie Quatro says:

      Thanks, Liz. I’ve been ecstatic the few times I’ve managed to hold half moon long enough to find expansion. It’s an exuberant pose. Someday I’d love to start hovering my fingertips, maybe even practice the chapasana bind.

  4. Kierstin from my Telling True Stories class shared this link with me. So many ways I feel the split consciousness in my life – the observer watching. I think it is part of what I call my “third culture kid” stuff (growing up in several different cultures / languages / places), holding the past and the present and all the differences. Also I am a lover of quantum physics with waves and particles flowing into each other, not the same yet the same.

    • Jamie Quatro says:

      Thanks for writing, Kimberly. Quantum physics is a fascinating field! I wish I had the mathematical background to access some of paradigm-altering realities I keep hearing and reading about. I did read Brian Greene’s Fabric of the Cosmos and found it riveting. I may attempt a future post on the parallels between the quantum measurement problem (at least, my rudimentary understanding of it) and the writing process…stay tuned!

  5. Leora Satie says:

    Thanks for your most evocative observations on the writer’s split, Jamie. I was having my own split today in my mind a little earlier today. Physically, for me, half moon pose is out of the question, by the way. The split inside was–and always is for me– some version of the split between a transpersonal response to experience in favor of a personally passionate response. I define the transpersonal response as the one that always sees the bigger picture, laced with empathy for all concerned, and never siding with myself alone, no matter what the situation. This was an adaptation developed at a young age; apparently I was not really “supposed” to have any personal needs, or at any rate didn’t have much hope of them being met. Perhaps it was the Old Soul’s solution to Desire-Thwarted-Early-On. But when does this response work against me–as a human being full of profound longings and yearnings–both personal and collective? When does it fall into the category of The Spiritual Bypass? When have I really left my self out of the equation? And then, when will the human in me, long denied in favor of the transpersonal adaptation, collapse on its poor, standing human leg, out of the imbalance in favor of the leg that opens up and out? Will I ever be balanced enough to stand strong for myself, yet still soar energetically from the stillpoint of my central core? This is the split that lives in me; today I do my best to check that the standing, very human leg of me–with all its passion, longing, emotion, grief, rage, and very personal love– is given its due.

    • Jamie Quatro says:

      Thanks for writing, Leora. I love your interpretation of the split: taking care of the Self – so necessary! – versus sacrificing the Self to attend to the needs of others (I like your word: transpersonal). You’re right, it’s critical to find balance between the two orientations, or one “leg” is certain to collapse. The primary reason I practice yoga is because when I’m taking care of myself – or should I say, my physical, spiritual, intellectual, and emotional selves – I’m better able to care for those around me, especially my immediate family. It’s a delicate symbiosis, and a difficult one to negotiate. But so crucial.