Last week, I taught a writing workshop in Provincetown, Massachusetts called “Transforming Chaos into Art.” Ten students from all over the country sat around a beat-up workshop table, sharing their stories—fragile, delicate, heart-wrenching, the stuff of being human—in an attempt to take the random, the coincidental, the tough break, the loss, the grief, the twist of fate, the inexplicable and create some sort of order out of it. To make sense of it. Ultimately, to make art of it. Because what else can we do with our stories but give them meaning?
By reaching out a hand.
By illuminating the path.
By saying me too. I’ve been here too.
There were tough, tough stories in this workshop. There always are. A man with a debilitating, rare disease. A woman who had been brutally attacked. A man who’d lost his life partner. A woman who’d been unable to have children.
And still, there was laughter around that workshop table. A lot of laughter. The workshop next door even had to ask us to keep it down.
There was a thrilling aliveness to the endeavor, the challenge of trying to put words to what it is to feel.
To meet life on life’s terms. To stay present to the shifting tides. Because the tides are always shifting.
At the week’s end, I signed up for a class offered by a local yoga studio: stand-up paddleboard yoga. I’d never been on a paddleboard, and though I do have a long-standing yoga practice, I wasn’t sure what one had to do with the other. But I felt compelled to try this class. Determined, even. Something was calling me to go out on the water and do yoga on a paddleboard. It was one of those feelings that I have learned, over the years, to attend.
As we paddled out to sea—my fourteen-year-old son, myself, and eight other students—I definitely felt outside my comfort zone. It wasn’t easy to balance. In the Provincetown harbor, we all stood up. Our teacher asked us to stand in tadasana, or mountain pose. This is a moment when we typically would be feeling ourselves rooted to the earth. Except, well, we were on the water. The wind was blowing. The sea roiled beneath me. I nearly fell. And I really, really didn’t want to fall. It was cold down there. We got down on our boards and did a few sun salutations. In downward-facing dog, I felt my board shift from side to side. I felt frustrated and wondered how was this yoga, how could I center myself if I wasn’t rooted to the ground? A few more poses: side plank (impossible!) and headstand, though performed admirably by a very buff guy from Miami, was so thoroughly out-of-the-question on a paddleboard that I sat down and just watched, in awe of his feat.
At the end of the hour, I hadn’t fallen in, but I also hadn’t taken the big risks. As we paddled back to shore, arms tired, exhilarated, I found myself thinking about what it means to be rooted, to be centered. Is the ground ever really sturdy beneath us? Or is everything changing, at every single moment?
We are here, yes. In this minute, this hour, this day. But just as my wonderful students had their stories—of life changing in a heartbeat—I know that balance is only possible second by millisecond. It is not achievable, graspable. The more we hold on, the more we lose. And the more we release ourselves to the chaos, the more we are able to live inside the magic, the mystery, the swells of the tide as it shifts all around us. The more we are able to be alive to our own lives, moment by precious moment.
Dani Shapiro’s most recent books include the bestselling memoirs Devotion and Slow Motion and the novels Black & White and Family History. She teaches writing workshops nationally and internationally. Her stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, O The Oprah Magazine, Elle, Vogue, The New York Times Book Review, and many other publications, and have been broadcast on NPR’s “This American Life.” She lives with her family in Connecticut. You can also follow Dani on Twitter and Facebook.
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