By Ray Squires
The Serenity Healing Center occupies a converted bungalow on the northeast side of Atlanta. In what used to be a family’s living room, I sit Indian style on the edge of a large square pillow. The brightness of an early fall day still warms the room, and eight other people join me in a wide circle. We’ve fought Atlanta’s afternoon rush hour traffic to get here in time for the first session of Emotion Release Meditation or what our teacher calls ERM.
As I settle into stillness I feel a whirring in my chest, right beneath my sternum. Concerns I’ve held all day run like a scrolling screen saver through my mind: We’re broke. Lucas might have a reading problem. Ben brought home an army brochure. Mike and I haven’t had sex in three months. I sit up straighter. Why so much mind chatter?
“Just meditate,” Soraia says. She’s Brazilian and everything she says sounds hopeful and sensuous, like a heavy breath. She’s our ERM guide, and whenever any of us who meet here on Wednesday nights reveal distraction at trying to understand our feelings, or agitation at the slow and sometimes seemingly backward pace of our healing, she says, “Just meditate.”
That is a very hard thing to do, even though it is simple.
I try to push my concerns like stale air out through my nostrils, clearing my mind till there’s only the inside of my eyelids. Eventually my breath suspends me. I feel in real time. A tear collects in my left eye and runs down my face, over an old scar just above my lip. I lick at the salty water. My chest whirs again. An urge to hit something erupts. I pound the floor twice with my fist. I see grey, then white. Breathe, don’t think. I growl and clench my fists, squeezing tight, squeezing out the anger. Then relief. Anger dissolves. It leaves my body. The colors behind my eyelids morph into lighter shades of thick flesh. The setting sun shines on me right inside this room. I float in the brightness.
Whatever it was that came up, passed, and I feel lighter, like an emptied suitcase. But my mind wants to know it was.
Soraia calls to me in her serene voice. “That’s good Beth, you were able to release. Now come back to center. There’s more in there. Stay connected.”
A moment of connection—connection with spirit, Soraia calls it—passes like a dream. It’s gone before you realize what it is, and noticing pulls you out. But if you can stay with it, emotions you may not realize you’re holding back release, if you let them.
My right foot cramps. I wiggle it and sit up straighter and try again to clear my mind. I begin the same, focusing on my breath. I’m almost serene when a new awareness disturbs me, the sounds coming from another woman named Karyn. Her piercing moans are like a wild beast being stabbed.
“Don’t attach to it, Karyn. Let it out. Let it come through you.” Soraia typically sits on a large pillow along the far wall of the room with another pillow behind her. I hear her rise and depress the room’s beige carpet as her small feet walk past me and over to Karyn. Soraia directs Karyn not to analyze her emotions rising from some deep place. Old stuff, Soraia calls it. Attaching to emotions that come up while you engage in ERM keeps you from letting them go. And the point is to let them go, so you can heal.
Sometimes, between sessions, Soraia will ask each of us questions to help us more clearly determine what is blocking our release. Often just mentioning a few details of our day or our past helps to unblock the energy. From these moments of exchange I’ve gathered that Karyn suffered incestuous abuse as a child and is now a respected, well-published but lonely professor of physics at Georgia Tech. She often screams during ERM sessions.
When Soraia asks us to relax and open our eyes, I glance at my watch. Twenty minutes left, and then I must go home and face the manifestations of my more recent past. Still, I have twenty minutes. For our third session Soraia pairs us up to help balance our energies. She pairs me with Shane, who I think is cute. I know I am too old for him and too conservative, but tonight I feel shy as he pulls his pillow up to mine. We look into each other’s eyes before bowing in. I try not to think of the sexual energy I feel. To do so must be bad in some karmic way, like a betrayal. But Shane is really cute. He’s a twenty-eight-year-old carpenter, strong and tall, and yet he might as well still be the twelve-year-old boy who failed to save his mother from breast cancer, or so I’ve gathered. From what he’s shared it sounds like he distracts himself from his guilt by smoking too much pot and dating overly demanding women.
I breathe very hard to clear my mind of Shane. Soon the ebb and flow between us speeds into a soothing hum. I stay with it, floating in open space for what seems like a wonderfully long time, with only joy coming up. When Soraia asks us to open our eyes again I don’t want to. But class is over, and it’s time to go home. I’m not looking forward to it.
Mike’s gotten home before me and is sitting on the couch watching blue collar comedy and drinking a beer. Beer drinking on weekday evenings has not been typical for either of us since college. But not much has been the same since I started ERM and then quit my job.
“Where are Ben and Lucas?” I ask.
“Ben is in the basement with headphones on and Lucas is eating at Conner’s house.” He turns his head from the television to look at me. “I told him it was ok since I’m not sure what the hell we’re having.”
Mike can be really sweet, but he goes through mean spells and lately he’s been a real dick. I swallow my response and put my keys and purse down on the computer desk that sits halfway on the worn wood floor of our kitchen and halfway on the brown shag carpet of our living room. Ben and Mike put the desk together last summer. It’s a little wobbly, but it holds the computer we all share and each of our password protected logins.
“Why didn’t you just order a pizza?” I ask. We have pizza or Chinese takeout just about every Wednesday night since I don’t get home from ERM in time to cook something. Exactly why it is my responsibility to serve our family food and not Mike’s is a pattern I’ve not yet addressed. I voluntarily took it on long ago when I was too young to think of it as a burden or to realize that it could have been any other way.
“Because I’m sick of pizza,” Mike says.
“Yeah, well I’m sick of cooking.” I head into the kitchen to avoid his reaction. I know I shouldn’t do that. I should face his reactions. I need to tell him what I’m feeling. Anger and resentment. I’m tired of his attitude, but too tired to sink into the abyss of us tonight. I’m buoyed by the silent attention I imagined from Shane. The lingering sensation vibrating through my forty-two-year-old body distracts me, and I take the easy way out, putting together a meal of leftover fried chicken and freshly scrambled eggs. By eight-thirty, Ben surfaces from downstairs. Mike and what appears to be Mike’s fourth beer sit at the dinner table.
Before joining us Ben turns the computer on. I look at Mike as if to stave off his ire before it erupts. We don’t typically allow Ben or Lucas to watch programs or play video games during dinner time, but this army brochure I’ve spotted on Ben’s dresser has me worried. He’s not exactly scholarship material and probably thinks he’d be doing us a financial favor by letting the army pay his way for a while, but I am scared to death of it. Teenage boys are the most dangerous things on the planet. Don’t give them guns.
I haven’t told Mike yet. I’m afraid he’ll say something. Puberty quickly made a stranger of our son, and I’m afraid that if we ask about the brochure or put Ben on the defensive right now we’ll only encourage whatever it is this brochure means.
“What’s that you got there, Buddy?” Mike says, putting a chicken thigh on his plate.
“I want to show you guys something real quick,” Ben says. “There’s a new kid in my biology class. He just moved here from North Carolina. His parents used to have these fainting goats.”
“Fainting goats,” I repeat, relieved he isn’t about to show us an armed forces recruitment video.
“Yeah. People in the country use these goats to keep their grass trimmed. It’s supposed to be environmentally friendly, you know, more natural.” While the rest of his body stays very still, Ben’s fingers flick quickly, effortlessly over the keyboard. “Maybe you could use them to keep the grounds at the old folks’ place, Dad. The geezers’d probably get a kick out of goats.”
Mike manages a crew of landscapers for a chain of assisted living communities around the Atlanta metro area. “Sounds expensive, Buddy. I don’t know about goats.”
“Yeah, I guess.” Ben continues at the computer and pulls up a video. “Look. Whenever they get scared they stiffen up and fall over.” He clicks a play icon on the screen and backs away for us to see. “It’s hilarious.”
A woman being interviewed explains that the goats make great domestic pets except for a genetic mutation which causes their leg muscles to stiffen when startled. “A flock of birds flying overhead can trigger one of the goats,” she says, “but then that affects the rest of them and they tend to all react together.”
“They just lose their balance,” Ben says, as a wide angle shot shows a herd of goats running and then, like a school of fish changing direction, stiffen and fall over together, legs straight out in front of them. Ben giggles.
“Poor things,” I say, indignant. “It looks painful.” Ben’s giggle sounds slightly evil. I imagine the mother who took on these goats, frantically trying to keep them from falling over all the time. “Is that why they moved? To get away from the goats?”
“No,” Ben says and turns the monitor off. “His dad died.” He sits at the table and puts some food on his plate. Inspecting a chicken thigh he says, “He’s kind of a goof, the kid.”
I’m not sure what scares me more, Ben’s increasing lack of sympathy or the fact that he may be smarter than me.
Almost immediately, ERM had the effect of boosting my self esteem, which hadn’t been boosted since my late twenties when I worked as an interior designer for Georgia Pacific’s international offices. I loved that job. Many of my friends who earned a similar art degree were not as lucky. Nobody told us that jobs in our field of study would take so long to find or would require an advanced degree. I happened to be in the right place at the right time when we needed the support that comes from a corporate job, like health insurance and maternity leave. Parenthood is another pattern I got us into before appreciating the true burden of it or that it was a choice at all. I traveled to Europe and Asia with that job till I was twenty-eight. The traveling got too difficult after I had Ben, and I ended up staying home with my boys for eight years. After that I got a shitty office job.
I got into ERM only six months ago, by accident really. My friend Steph got me started. She’s a few years younger than me and had been trying to get pregnant. Steph’s therapist suggested she try it, after acupuncture didn’t work. So Steph found an introductory ERM workshop that took place over four consecutive Sundays at The Serenity Healing Center. At the time the name of The Center sounded silly to me, like a new age embellishment. But I hear it differently now.
There were five of us in that introductory workshop. On the first Sunday morning Soraia nodded to each of us as we entered the room from her pillowed throne along the far wall. Her black hair streaked with gray and her firm posture enchanted me. She gestured for us to make use of the pillows and other kneeling aids available. At exactly ten she began offering a brief explanation of how to engage in ERM, sitting with a straight spine and relaxed face. Then she asked us to close our eyes while she read our energy.
I remember a soft rain patting the roof and I wanted to relax, but I felt obligated to give Soraia what she needed in order to read me, as if I could. I had no idea what that would be or what she meant by reading. I didn’t know yet that I didn’t need to give Soraia anything, or do anything. I just needed to be. ERM arises from and arouses authenticity.
After several minutes Soraia asked us to open our eyes. She went around our semi-circle letting everyone know what she sensed about us. She said she gathered that I often, and frantically, try to do for other people, so much so, that I often leave myself neglected, spent and unsatisfied.
“Does what I’m describing make sense to you?” she asked.
I knew what she meant, and yet I never thought of it that way before. I’d come to this workshop to support Steph. It wasn’t supposed to be about me. But it was. I accepted that and nodded my head.
As we began to sit with our eyes closed for longer periods of time, ten minutes then twelve, violent contractions of sobbing and gasps for breath emerged from where I knew Steph sat. She was the only person in our introductory group who Soraia instructed not to practice ERM alone.
We completed our introductory sessions and joined a beginner level group that met on Wednesday evenings. Steph was determined to get pregnant, but she continued to cry at every class. I teared up a little every once in a while but mostly released anger, whereas Steph sobbed with hysteria every time we closed our eyes. I felt relief when she told me she wanted to take some time off from ERM to focus on IVF. By that point for me, however, it was too late to quit. The meditative practice had become a part of me. The releases are like a drug that help me get through each week, especially now. After two months of ERM I quit my job, the shitty one I started five years ago when my youngest son Lucas began pre-Kindergarten. I never liked that job. But when I first took it, it seemed practical, regular hours, no travel, close to home and the boys’ schools.
The problem now is that I am hooked on ERM, but I can’t really afford the luxury of it because of our lower income. Mike, whose degree in political science left him managing the multicultural differences among North Georgian lawn crews, had little sympathy. His job isn’t exactly what he’d dreamed of back in school either.
He got little warning of my sudden career change. I wasn’t fully conscious of it myself. I just got overwhelmed one day and before I could stop myself I told my boss I quit and walked out, leaving her with a broken copier and a newly arrived shipment of unsorted office supplies.
Mike happened to have worked eighty hours that week. “Unemployment is the highest it’s been since the Great Depression, and you just quit your job? What the fuck, Beth.”
We’ve been distant ever since. And while I’m still angry with him, he was right. Finding a new job has been difficult.
Thankfully, a month ago, one of Ben’s friends got me an interview at a catering place. The boy’s little sister works there. That connection, my own waitressing experience from college, and crying during the interview got me the job.
I like the work. It feels more authentic than office management. At least we all agree that we are here to serve others, and it does allow for some creativity. My fellow staff members often request that I set up the cheese and fruit displays. There’re about thirty of us banquet servers, all ages, from teens to retirees. We wear black and white uniforms with thick aprons covering anything that might distinguish gender or rank. We work well together, kind of wordlessly doing what each of us anticipates needs to be done. At the end of each shift we sit down together to a meal of leftovers before washing and putting away the dishes. While cleaning up in the kitchen or setting tables with glassware and flatware we have time to joke around or sing to ourselves.
The other day I had the most honest conversation of my adult life with Luciana, a woman in her mid-twenties who started a few days after me. We had catered lunch to a group of fifteen neurosurgeons in one of the large Victorian homes near Atlanta’s midtown. After unloading the truck back at the facility I claimed space in the dish pit and began putting loads of glasses and plates through the industrial pull down steam powered dishwasher. It has a sauna-like quality to it. Luciana took to drying and stacking the dishes on the metal table next to it.
At one point she noticed the scar above my lip and thought some piece of food or something had splashed up at me. I felt awkward, like I usually do when someone notices my mark. I feel obligated to tell them that it’s actually a scar. Usually they then ask how it happened, and I tend to lie because the real story is somewhat off putting. But we had a lot of dishes to do, and I felt freshly revived from the previous night’s ERM session, so I confided in Luciana as the steam from the dishwasher soaked our rolled up shirt sleeves.
I explained how it happened a long time ago, back when my husband and I were just dating in college. “We were both drunk one night, and he kind of hit me,” I said.
Luciana gasped. “What?” Her hands placed the giant stock pot she was drying back on the metal table, and she looked at me.
I didn’t want her thinking Mike and I have some kind of abusive relationship, so I continued. I told her how we had already been dating for a year and that it was Mike’s graduation night. “It was an accident,” I said again and then went on about how we’d been playing with each other, kind of wrestling and touching and flirting as we walked home from a downtown bar. The night was still and hot and cigarette smoke clung to our clothes. At one point I started teasing him about a girl at the bar who seemed to know him. I saw her staring at him several times, but I thought she looked more hurt than flirtatious, like somehow he knew her too but was ignoring her now because of me. Of course, none of this is very clear. I was drunk, and actually it could have been me looking at an ex-boyfriend who I thought I saw leave with a girl I’d partnered with in biology lab. Somehow I think I might have mixed me up with that girl, or maybe I didn’t, but I remember insisting that Mike knew her, and he was adamant that he didn’t. My insistence irritated him and his denial irritated me, and we got a little carried away. I went to punch his shoulder, which I kind of meant in a teasing way, like an, “oh-come-on” type of punch. Mike went to block my hand from touching his shoulder, but when he did the back of his hand met with my face. A piercing sting froze me. Earlier that day Mike’s father had given him his grandfather’s ring, as a graduation present. Neither of us were used to Mike wearing a ring and the edge of the signet cut the skin of my upper lip stretched as it was at that moment over my teeth as my mouth formed an “oh” sound. The ring must have caught it just right because blood spewed everywhere. It scared us, and we stopped talking but kept laughing about it too. “I mean, who knows, we were drunk,” I said as Luciana continued staring at me. She’d stopped drying dishes all together and just listened. “It was pretty crazy,” I said and pulled my lips in, over my teeth and closed my mouth.
When Mike and I got back to his apartment that night we washed my face with cold water and then passed out. The next morning my lip was huge. Mike went to the store and bought Neosporin, and of course we didn’t know that I happen to be allergic to Neosporin.
“Anyway, it got worse but we were too embarrassed to go to a doctor about it.” I handed Luciana a clean pan to dry. “I doused it with peroxide, and eventually it healed. But it left this scar.” I rubbed my steamy finger over my lip.
“I’m sorry,” Luciana said. She rubbed my shoulder. I felt a wave of ERM about to come over me and almost cried but then some of the younger kids put music on and we went back to our work. I think that was the first time I ever told anyone that much about my scar.
I’m all twisted up tonight as I sit at the Serenity Healing Center. My youngest son Lucas told me he got made fun of yesterday when he read aloud in his fifth grade class. I noticed some illustrations of Uncle Sam on one of Ben’s spiral notebooks. And everything Mike says lately annoys the absolute shit out of me. I’m anticipating more negative comments about dinner and our general lack of money when I get home.
“Beth, how are you feeling tonight?” Soraia asks, calm and lucid from her pillow.
“I feel angry, irritated.”
“I sense some sadness in there too. Maybe underneath the anger?”
“We’re going to try to move some of your energy,” she says. “Get you unblocked so that sadness can come out. I think you’re ready. I’m going to pair you with Karyn.”
I feel a swirl of something stirring in my chest. I’m afraid as Karyn pulls her pillow up and sits in front of me. We bow and close our eyes. A few moments pass and then I scream and pound my fists and then sit rigid. Karyn puts her finger tips to my sternum and shutters them up and down very quickly. Something erupts. Waves of convulsions move through me, up my torso. My arms conduct electricity. I feel the current, but I am cold. Tears stream down my face, and I begin to sob. I cry hard for a long time. I lose any sense of caring about what this sobbing is about or how it must seem to anyone or me. I just sob and gasp for air until it stops. And then I feel Soraia’s hands on the small of my back, like cement drying at the base of my spine.
When I get home Lucas is at Conner’s again, but Ben is setting the table.
“What’s this?” I say and gesture at the plates he holds.
“Dad said he’d bring home wings. He had to work late. Some crazy old lady went for a walk and couldn’t find her way back to the rest home. He stayed to help find her.”
A tear collects in the corner of my eye, leakage from my release at The Center. I blink and consider correcting Ben by telling him that the woman isn’t crazy. She just has a memory-related degeneration. But a wave of calmness quiets me. He knows that. Surely, he knows that. Instead I say, “Hmm, I could go for some wings.”
While Ben finishes setting the table I throw a load of darks along with my catering pants and apron into the wash so they’ll be dry by tomorrow. On the ride home from ERM Luciana had called me and asked if I could pick up her morning shift. I’ll get to work a double and may earn overtime by the end of the week. Once the clothes are soaked I close the lid and go back to the kitchen. I find Ben sitting at the set table, but with his chair facing me. His body slumps forward and his gaunt face looks as if something horrible has just happened.
“Ben, what is it? Are you ok?”
“Oh yeah.” He sits up. “I’m just hungry. Lunch sucked today.”
Before I turn this moment of communicative connection into an opportunity to probe Ben about his growing interest in the armed forces Mike walks in the door. He looks tired, but he smiles as he holds up a brown to-go bag. “We found Mrs. Chester,” he says. “Her children are demanding an investigation and the director may lose his job, which means I may lose mine, but we found her.”
“Mike, really?” My stomach radiates heat.
“You hate that job anyway,” Ben says, and then “thanks” as Mike hands him the bag.
“Yeah, but we like living under a roof,” Mike says.
I wait for an angry glance in my direction, but Mike just ruffles Ben’s hair and then heads to the refrigerator for a beer.
We all sit at the table. “Where was she?” I ask and notice that Mike’s let his hair get a little long around his ears. It makes him look young. Unkempt and young.
“In the pet store across the street from the facility,” he says. “I don’t know how she made it over there, but she was holding a kitten in one of the side rooms where you test to see if this is the pet you want to take home.”
“See, I told you those geezers like animals,” Ben says and inspects a chicken wing. He puts it back and takes another.
Mike and I exchange a look. “Learn anything today?” Mike asks.
“Yeah. I did.” Ben wipes his hand on a napkin. “Our English teacher told us a pretty good story.” He gets up and goes over to the fridge.
“Don’t have a Coke, Honey,” I say. “Drink water. It’s late.”
He rolls his eyes and fills his glass with water from the tap and then sits back down at the table. “Mom, you studied art in college. You might like this,” he says. “My English teacher just got back from some writer’s conference and he told us how he and this writer friend of his were sitting at a café in some really cool place in San Francisco.” He doesn’t touch his food as he talks. His eyes widen more than I’ve seen in years, and he places his elbows on the table as if taking command. “They were talking about life and art, you know. And his friend says to him ‘you’re confusing the true and the real.’ And then they have this big long talk about it, cause, you know, artists play with the truth when trying to express something more honestly.” The speech ends, and he picks up the chicken wing again.
I don’t know how someone who refers to old people as geezers can say something so touching and intelligent.
Ben swallows a chunk of meet whole and surprises me again by continuing. “But I think it applies to more than just art, you know. Regular people do that all the time.” His eyes narrow, and he takes another bite.
“Do you think I do that?” I ask.
“Of course,” Ben says and chews. “That’s what’s cool about Mr. Hall. He admits stuff like that. He’s the best teacher I’ve ever had.”
“I didn’t know you liked your English class so much,” Mike says.
“Yeah. Sucks though cause I think he’s gonna get fired.”
“Why?” Mike asks.
“Some girl accused him of staring at her boobs, and he’s on suspension.”
“Oh my God, did he?” I ask and drop my cleaned chicken bone among the three others on my plate.
“Probably. She’s got really huge tits.”
“Sorry. But they’re kind of hard to miss.”
I am about to reprimand Ben for his linguistic indiscretion, but Mike addresses him first. “Well, I think your teacher’s an asshole. Only writers or artists have time to actually sit around and have a conversation like that.”
“Jesus, you two, the language,” I say, and then. “Mike, that’s pretty pessimistic.”
“I’m sorry. It is.” He shrugs. “But unfortunately, it’s true.”
“Yeah, but is it real?” Ben asks.
We all pause and then laughter bursts. The kind that leads to tears, for me anyway. Despite the sexism and the cynicism I feel relief. I wipe my eyes with my napkin and then Mike pats my wrist. It’s the first time we’ve touched in weeks. I turn my hand over and clasp his. We squeeze for a moment. Ben clears his throat, and Mike and I let go.
“Are you interested in that, Honey?” I say to Ben and pick up another chicken wing. “Do you want to be an artist or a writer?”
“Maybe,” he says. “My life isn’t exciting enough, though.”
A flicker of fear strikes me. I am about to tell him that of course his life is exciting, or it will be. I feel panic but fortunately I remember to breathe, and the fear floats off. I can’t control that. Instead I focus on Mike and his empty bottle of beer. Why not join him tonight? It’s been a while. Whatever I let go of earlier seems to have made space for us.
“Another one, Babe?” I say as I go to get a beer for myself. Nothing has really changed, but I feel lighter. I feel an urge to celebrate.