On the first day I look for origins1:
 a crown, a garland
of laurel bestowed
for serving in wartime, in a lifetime;
so may we make for each other
garlands of tenderest gratitude,
coronas of lotus and laurel.
 a luminous circle left behind
dark moon during
this darkness remarkable only
because of the knowledge of light
that exists beyond it.
On the fifth day I boil bones to make a stock.
My grandmother’s recipe, something passed
invisibly from women’s hands—
tender, strong, the shape
into my hands, into my bones: a knowing
how to hold on.
The steam billows out from the stove and clouds the windows.
If I had a child, I imagine her hands
drawing flowers upon them,
play affirming life, a crack in the fog
of this uncanny war,
through which we could look out
on our neighbors and they
could look in on us: the humanity of it—
a small child and a grown one
making something warm
from a pot of bones.
On the eighth day I bike to the graveyard to feel alive.
A creeping numbness had come the day before—
outside a monotonous drizzle,
inside nothing left to sanitize.
Numbness came, after restlessness chased
its tail too long and curled up like a dog to sleep. She paced
and pulled gray drapes across my eyes.
In the graveyard things clarify:
Here lies death, naked, a stone. Simple.
Here are 500 corpses, sort of like you:
a strange camaraderie.
If you want to fast-track enlightenment, says the Vajrayāna master,
go meditate in the charnel ground2—in the graveyard
(or, says Pema Chödrön, in the hospital emergency room3).
In the cold chaos of a pandemic.
What is aliveness? Is she a lover? Are we so tortured
by love for this life that we tie her, cleave and claw
for her to stay longer? And is this not the very death of love?
The thin wheel of my bicycle turns,
an aluminum-and-rubber wheel of life; it traces
the thin line between existence and nonexistence—
I ride along its axis, a wild edge.
Death’s close breath rides right
behind me, pulls in
beside me, provokes adrenaline,
that drug that demands aliveness:
the immediacy of this body—
teeth, bone, muscle, breath; the thrumming
rhythm of it—lunar, circadian, dancing, heaving;
at once a strong, continuous song, and shaking,
fragile flicker—a small light
that will go out.
I ride til legs burn and lungs beg
to be freed from my ribcage, breath
like a bird released. I recite respirare, “to breathe,”
til it becomes spiritus, “spirit.”4
Air within becomes air without: this is the intimacy
of breathing. Two lovers intertwine in each inhale:
an erotic aliveness is born just now, and now
(and yes, even in this now).
Here, in the graveyard, comes aliveness.
Jessica Stern is a developmental psychologist at the University of Virginia and an associate editor at The Arrow Journal. When not in the lab, Jessie can be found drinking coffee, writing outside, and biking around Charlottesville.
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- Retrieved from etymology articles on https://www.etymonline.com/ ↩
- Judith Simmer-Brown, Dakini’s Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2001). ↩
- Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1997). ↩
- For discussion of how the etymology of “breath” is related to “spirit” in romance languages, and air/wind is related to ideas of consciousness in indigenous traditions, see David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World (New York: Random House, 1996). ↩