The downtown Y makes my Chinatown Y look like Beatrix Potter’s back yard. I should have given myself more time to get through the throng-filled maze: imagine Peter Rabbit lost in the garden of Mr. McGregor’s sargeant major brother who has invited five hundred warriors over for boot camp. Every square foot of the place pulsated with men pumping iron or raising their bodies up and down, up and down on various contraptions, or women zipping around a track that appeared and disappeared then appeared again with Peter Rabbit accidentally in the middle of it, about to be flattened by People With Pedometers. Aaagh! Where was Studio Four, where intructor Han Qing would teach me tai chi for beginners?
Have I mentioned that this year of daily doing some new thing is teaching me what a coward I am? Little things scare me, things like going to a new Y and starting a tai chi class. I didn’t think this would scare me – but when the time came to do it I feared all kinds of things. When I finally found Studio Four, these fears converged. Studio Four was lined with mirrors. The mirrors made me realize things about my body that I have tried to ignore. Lankiness combined with bulges to form a kind of elongated potato sack of a woman. Then there was my total inability to remember any kind of dance sequence, or follow any recipe, or any instructions, really. This had potential to be an evening of disaster. Did I mention the class would be taught in French?
I tried not to envision the instructor feeling sorry for me and publicly advising me to enroll in Basic Isometrics. I remembered my trainer at the Chinatown Y, Mike, telling me to think positively and not allow myself to believe I was incapable of balance and coordination. Then I remembered Mrs. Jarantilla, my high school home economics teacher, who cut up my finished apron to demonstrate pinking shears to the class because she thought it was a piece of scrap material. I was certainly capable of dismal failure. To make things worse, this was the fourth class in the series – I had missed the first three.
But the other people in the class were all shapes and sizes too, and all ages. Han Qing told us that today is the first day in the Chinese new year: year of the rabbit. She made a special hand greeting with sticky-up rabbit ears. Peter Rabbit started to feel better. Han Qing said anyone new could just begin learning from the point of entry, no need to catch up on the beginning moves: we could do that in the next series of classes.
She put music on and we began a series of movements that combined balance and focus. It took me a few tries but Han Qing moved slowly and explained carefully, and I remembered that I had read when learning tai chi it is important to go with the flow and not think too much. If I stopped my mind-brain and just flowed using the mirrors and Han Qing’s body and my body, I could sort of do it! I could do the few seconds of the new movement everyone was learning tonight, and I felt a glimmer come through from nature – a glimmer of what it had been like living at the foot of Butterpot Mountain in Newfoundland, with the full moon, and snow on the mountain, and the spruce trees’ simplicity of form, which is a repetition of snow on hands, snow on hands. The glimmer was short but it came while I stopped analyzing and just went with the body – hands circling, stepping like a cat, slowly, gently. Maybe I could do it. Even if I could learn only to do some of it some of the time, it would be a glimpse of moonlight over the wooded mountain. I don’t mind taking tai chi for beginners over and over again, if it helps my body connect with that kind of harmony.
As I write this, Dear One has just knocked on my writing room door and handed me this on a scrap of newspaper:
"Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one's self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily; and why older persons, especially if vain or important, cannot learn at all."
(American psychiatrist Thomas Szasz)