“The Zone”

I’m currently reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic because well, everyone told me to and to help me come to terms with having found a second calling in life that’s just as difficult to pursue as my first one. Somewhere in the midst of Section II, Enchantment, Gilbert refers to the ancient Greek term for what we would commonly think of as “being in the zone” in terms of creativity, eudaimonia. For the Greeks, this was the word for “the highest degree of human happiness” it means that we are taken care of by “some external divine creative spirit guide”. I knew what she meant immediately.

I guess you can call me a “young” writer, though I’m not technically young. I’m new, new to this art that I’ve dabbled in for decades. I have felt that creative spirit guide before though. I’ve felt it through music, through performance and visual art. I have accomplished and created things that I look back on and wonder, “where did that come from”? I have been in The Zone. It’s not an easy place to find, and when you do it’s not an easy place in which to stay.

My most recent trip to The Zone happened on a beach in Costa Rica. I went there for a very unique retreat experience that combined yoga and breath work with writing and creative study. Both disciplines are a huge part of my life and so I went there with a group of strangers, which is not a thing I would normally do, but I’ve been working very hard to get away from what I normally do, so I went. I left husband and dog behind. I didn’t think about the expense (well, I did, but not the way I “normally” would) and I went. Having no idea what to expect and scared as hell.

The experience was one that I wouldn’t trade and will venture into again as soon as the opportunity arises. I wrote a little while I was there. Not much. Nothing that I thought I would, but I learned. I learned constantly from my instructors, from my new friends and from myself.  I attended every class, every workshop and every group activity until the last day. On the last day I played hooky and went to the beach. I took a walk, right into The Zone. I wrote this…

Playa Guiones, Nosara, Costa Rica – March 18th, 2016

I walked on the beach, alone. Headed in a direction that was totally new. I went with no one beside me. I went with my heart open. I breathed. I looked down at the sand and saw that beneath my feet were hundreds of tiny creatures. Hermit Crabs? As the waves washed up on the shore, they were flushed out of their sandy homes. They began to travel back to the surf, leaving trails in the sand. Beside them I saw a bright wide eye looking up at me. I bent down to touch it. I plucked it from the sand and rinsed it in the salty water. It was a seashell. An abandoned home? I thought – “don’t look backwards. Keep your gaze ahead”.

I kept the shell gripped tight in my palm. I headed forward again. In the distance I spotted a group of birds all pecking away at the ground. “Something died”, I thought. I pushed on, pausing from time to time to admire the Pacific Ocean. A sight I’ve rarely seen. Traveling on, I began to close in on the birds. Buzzards. “There must be something good, something substantial there. There are so many”. I didn’t want to get too close. I squinted to try to identify the carcass that drew these birds together. I couldn’t tell. Some kind of very large fish. I was fascinated. I paused for a moment to observe the buzzards and I noticed that their struggles for power resemble our own. One bird stood atop the rotting feast while others crowded around. The instant one found a pocket of sustenance another was upon him, trying to take it for himself. That is how they survive. The one on top just stood there, surveying. There were two or three that stood a few feet away. Were they the weak? Had they already had their fill? Were they sentinels? I thought for a moment what they must think of me, and then I realized – they didn’t.

I turned to head back to find the others. Maybe I would swim. I walked and I watched and I cried. Just a bit. Just softly, to myself. Songs were swirling in my head. Songs that were not my own. They plagued me. I wanted my own thoughts. Didn’t I have anything in there that was original? I straightened my spine and walked on. I closed my eyes as I walked. “I opened my heart here”, I thought. And I cried again. Just a little. A little less than before. Less than the day I arrived.



The Flight

We had gotten up at 5am to make it to Newark on time for the flight to San Francisco at 9:56 and I was pretty twisted from it. It was early, but not as early as the 3am wake up call we had had when we’d flown to Florida to bury my Granddad just six days prior. That trip involved four flights in three days, all the while dragging our poor little dog along in his sherpa bag and in many ways I was still recovering from it that morning. I was exhausted and an emotional wreck. Yves was fine though, he always seems to function well no matter how little sleep he’s gotten. I however, go from zero to full bitch in no time at all when I’m tired.

I love to travel, but I hate to fly. People think I’m afraid of it, or that I’m cheap (which may be partially true), but really I just hate feeling like a head of cattle. As I boarded the 737, the idea that I was about to spend the next six hours winging my way to San Francisco curled in a tight little ball of self-protection was already grating on my nerves. I told myself to relax, soon enough we would be in Napa, in wine country, my mecca. I was excited about the trip, if not the flight. We had been hired to perform on the other side of the country and that doesn’t happen everyday.

As I made my way down the aisle of the aircraft, the full gravity of Yves’ seating choice hit me like a ton of bricks. In an effort to cop the coveted “row to ourselves” he had logged onto United’s website the night before to change our seating assignment. He chose row 36, the penultimate row, because it was blessedly free of a passenger in its middle seat less than 10 hours before our scheduled departure time. I had been so tired just thinking about getting up at 5am that I had agreed and therefore was complicit in the whole plan. I was his accomplice, even though everything in my body told me to stay closer to the front so I could de-board that sucker as soon as possible once we made it to the west coast.

The only saving grace in this moment was that I had called “dibs” on the aisle seat and the freedom that comes with it. Sweet freedom. Hindered only by the captain and his fasten seatbelt sign, I would be able to stretch my legs or arms or back whenever I felt the need. Plus, I could befriend the flight attendants and score extra water – nice!

I was on day 81 of a 90 day yoga program that had held me together since late June. I started it to protect my knees from the evils of jogging, but it went so much deeper than that once I got into it. My online instructor would say “come for the vanity, stay for the sanity”, and I did just that.

I practiced on day 9 just hours before Yves’ dad crashed his car into a tree less than a mile from his house totaling both the car and his face. On days 10 through 14 I squeezed in my practice between long hours at Albany Medical Center with Yves and his dad and mixing up rounds of Emergen-tinis at happy hour back home in our living room. A wonderful beverage, the Emergen-tini, it’s an as-of-yet un-patented blend of Emergen-C and Tito’s handmade vodka shaken over ice and served in an up glass with an orange slice. It boosts not only the immune system, but the spirits as well.

With each day’s practice came a new “intention”. Intentions are a big deal in yoga. In the beginning most of my intentions were things like “try not to be so pissed off all of the time” and “let it go”. So, I kept practicing.

I practiced at 11:45pm the night we arrived at the La Quinta in Florence, SC after hitting unbelievable traffic on our late July road trip to visit Granddad in Punta Gorda, that was day 27. I had been ready to give up that night, but I practiced anyway. I could control that practice if nothing else.

After seeing first hand how far Granddad’s cancer had actually progressed and how sick he really was my intention turned to “sending positive energy to Granddad”. I couldn’t believe I was trying, but I figured if modern medicine couldn’t ease his suffering maybe somehow my intention could work to comfort him. Maybe the yogis are right, maybe we are all connected. I’m not saying I bought it, but it couldn’t have hurt.

It was right before labor day when he died, Day 66, and I realized my intentions had shifted again, now they were “everything will be ok” or “don’t be afraid”. Had I learned something? Maybe, but I wasn’t aware of what it was.

On day 73 we flew to Punta Gorda for the funeral. I practiced in the hotel room the morning of the service, that was day 74. On day 75, I practiced hungover. I had let my 25 year old cousin, Patrick, talk me into “Helen Keller” shots at the pub after the funeral. I hadn’t wanted to miss out on a rare bonding experience with my younger cousins and I figured there was no better way than sharing and drink or two while exchanging stories of the man who had been our family’s anchor. That day my intention was “don’t throw up”, I guess I hadn’t learned too much.

By Day 81, stretching was my thing, and my intentions were more along the lines of “don’t be so rigid” and “stay in the moment”. You would think I’d be a bit more Zen about the whole “cramped little plane” thing. What can I say? It’s a process.

As we were taking our seats on the flight that morning, the crew chief announced that the plane would be, shockingly, 100% full. It appeared that we would have a third passenger in our tiny trap at the back of the plane. Yves’ plan had backfired. I really wanted to say “I told you so”, but this time I actually hadn’t. That was disappointing.

Not long after we had stowed our carry on items, our seat mate, an older gentleman of average height and build came down the aisle with his wife. She had the middle seat of the last row, seat 37B, possibly the worst seat on the plane. I looked at Yves and without a word told him that he was the one that would have to sit in our middle seat, I didn’t want a whole person between us for six hours and I had my aisle seat “dibs” in place. The middle seat was punishment for his folly, obviously. All I knew was there was no way I was going to sit there. I really hate the middle seat.

While I stood up to allow for the seating to be rearranged, Yves and our gentleman seat mate exchanged some bit of conversation to which I didn’t bother listening. Then eachof them sat in their assigned seats. I was confused. It only makes sense that the odd man out would take the window and let the married couple sit next to each other.

What I had missed was the gentleman’s tale of his supposed bladder problems which cause him to have to rise from his seat frequently to use the lavatory. He didn’t want to have to disturb us by taking the window seat, but he was willing to take the aisle. Of course he was.

All I could say was “I want the aisle, I chose the aisle”. I repeated it a couple of times. “I want the aisle, I chose the aisle.” This amused the passenger in seat 37C to no end, it was easy for him to make light of the situation, he had his aisle seat. A flight attendant asked if everything was ok and I made a joke about separating Yves and me due to our looming marital dispute. He responded with a comment about having access to soft restraints, which was only mildly offensive.

So I was left with a choice between having my aisle seat, but being separated from my husband the whole flight and having no one to make snarky comments to or taking that damn window seat and being cramped and trapped for the next six hours. I chose my husband; I’m a romantic. Really, I was just acutely aware of how bitchy I was coming off at that point and I felt guilty about it, so I took one for the team.

I nestled into the tiny seat by the window and made myself as small as I possibly could. I got out my book, “The Paris Wife” by Paula McLain. I hadn’t really gotten into it yet, so it was not long after that that I fell asleep for what felt like 10 minutes but turned out to be almost an hour. I was awakened by Yves who I had asked not to let me miss the complementary in-flight beverage service.

We passed the next few hours by reading, talking, half-sleeping and of course staring at the back of the seats in front of us. We had juice. We ate the provisions Yves had been wise enough to put together for our journey. We had learned our lesson regarding air travel and dining long ago, but had forgotten it the week prior on the way to the funeral when we ended up with greasy airport egg sandwiches as our only sustenance.

At some point I fell asleep again, and when I woke up – face pressed against the plastic interior window of the plane – we were over the midwest. The west part of the midwest. It looked like Kansas, I guess. I’m a New Yorker, what do I know? For some reason, it really struck me though. There was so much beauty in all of the squares and circles of America’s heartland and amazing color that I would not have expected from nature, especially not midwestern nature.

IMG_7642Most of my midwestern experience was up close, from visiting Granddad and Nammy in Indiana and Illinois as a child. We mostly got there by car. Granddad had loved road trips; he also hated to fly. When I was little we would make the trip from New York to Indiana (and later Illinois) several times each year. Sometimes my grandparents would come to Long Island to visit my mother and me first and then the three of us would drive back to their house together, but sometimes my mother and I would set out on our own and meet up with Nammy and Granddad along the way. We would always stop somewhere in Pennsylvania that had been deemed the midpoint and Granddad would choose a hotel with a swimming pool just for me. He never failed to swim with me. He had been a mere 46 years old when I was born and was an amazing athlete in his high school and college days, so he was still incredibly active when I was a child. Nammy would sit close by with her cocktail in hand refusing to get her hair wet, but Granddad would always agree to be my playmate. It was on one these trips that he had taught me to swim, probably at a Holiday Inn or an Embassy Suites or something like that.

So, the view became my best choice for in-flight entertainment (there was no way I was forking over that eight bucks for the Wi-Fi). Then I remembered that my phone is also a music listening device and I figured I would block out the chatter of the other passengers. Besides, my attempts to get Yves to enjoy the scenery with me had been less than fruitful. He was stuck in his digital subscription to Men’s Health.

As we winged west the landscape started to change. This was only the second time I had flown to the west coast and the first time was in the dark, so when the rockies appeared in the distance I was excited to check them out from above.

I had flown into Denver several times and always enjoyed that view, but of course, we kept going right past Denver. That’s when the real show started. It was about the time “Say It Ain’t So” by Weezer came through my earbuds that things started to change for me. There was something about the scenery that was so much more than scenic. The ‘90s alternative turned to gospel for me. I felt at once all powerful and totally insignificant. I thought of all my trials and all my errors. I thought about Granddad and all of the road trips we had been on and of the Holiday Inn swimming pool where he taught me to swim. I thought of his funeral the week before and wondered if I had said enough in my hastily written remarks. Granddad had taught me so much, how to drive, how to ride a bike and how to dive into the pool head first. He taught me that you only needed to know three chords and you could play a million songs, although I eventually learned the rest. He taught me that singing in the car made the trip go by faster. I guess it was second nature to him, he was a patient and caring man and a lifelong educator. In the absence of my own father he took on that role for me, he even walked me down the aisle when I married Yves.

“Loser” started up with it’s instantly recognizable sampled guitar intro. Beck’s nonsensical lyrics drifted in and out of my consciousness and the music took me back to a time when I really believed that anything was possible and it probably was. A time when the idea of life without my Grandfather was inconceivable.

The mountains just kept coming. Every second I thought I was seeing the most beautiful and breathtaking sight that my eyes would ever see, but then another second would inevitably come, bringing with it something equally breathtaking and jogging loose a memory or emotion that had laid dormant for years while I worked away at growing up. Warren G and Nate Dogg’s “Regulate” reminded me of senior year when I finally managed to get myself grounded and had to beg out of my limousine share for the prom. It was Granddad who leant me his car. He and Nammy had come to visit to watch me go through the right of passage that is prom night, and he didn’t want me to have to drive my clunky old Buick to the fanciest night of my young life. Instead I drove his clunky new Oldsmobile, but I felt as special as I possibly could driving myself and my license-less date to the Crest Hollow Country Club in Westbury, Long Island.

I remained hunched over in my seat so my head was at window height and thought about the distance that had existed between my family and me when I was a kid. I wondered when it had morphed from geographical to cultural and wished I could go back and bridge that distance but of course, I couldn’t. My eyes began to water.

I just kept looking out that window, wanting all of the beauty that existed below inside me and then wanting to burst from it. I took iPhone pics for a while, but when the real tears started coming I gave up on trying to capture what I was seeing, I couldn’t. This moment was so much more than an Instagram post. I saw ancient lakes that had long since dried up and jagged mountains that looked as though the most violent occurrences had formed them even though they were serene and majestic now. I could see history. Not our new American history, not the French second empires or queen annes of our historic river town in the Hudson Valley, but the history of life. I struggled to put it all into perspective, my loss and my experience in the weeks leading up to this trip. I thought about my grandfather fighting to stay alive long enough to see me one more time and the pressure I had felt that summer to make it there in time. To be there for him the way he had always been for me. I thought of how abstract my mother’s story had seemed of his rapid decline after our last visit in July and I just let the feelings that I had been holding back for months take over.

I have never understood why people believe in God. I’ve never really understood spirituality. It was one thing I never learned from Granddad and I’m sorry we never got the chance to speak about his faith, but I’m not sure I would have heard him had we tried. In that moment though, I was open and raw and vulnerable and for a time on that flight I knew there has to be something else. What it is, I have no idea.

I reveled in the view until the crew chief asked us to power down our devices and return our seat backs to their full upright and locked position. I dried my eyes with the last tissue in the Red Roof Inn pocket pack I had taken from our overnight stay on the return trip from Punta Gorda in July. I practiced a little plane-seat yoga and complained to Yves of my fall allergies, they seemed as good a scapegoat for my tears as any.

When we landed in San Francisco I was still tired and twisted from lack of sleep, but I was also renewed. I can’t say I was changed, but I was open to it and change doesn’t happen in one scene like it does in a film. It doesn’t take 30 minutes to resolve disputes or become the hero like it does on TV. Sometimes you have to go back to the beginning to see that it’s not the end, and that takes time. I wish I could say I walked off of that plane a new woman, but I’m way too jaded for that.

I sat in seat 36A for what seemed like an eternity while all of the other passengers gathered their belongings and de-boarded United’s flight 1727. Yves and I said goodbye to our gentleman seat mate and his wife. We thanked the flight attendants on our way out, jumped on the monorail and headed for the Budget rental car counter where I was immediately tested by an hour long wait in an overheated and forgotten adjunct terminal.

I am so grateful for that man and his supposed tiny bladder. Gratitude is big with the yogis. I’m glad I took one for the team. The window seat that I had been dead set against had made the whole trip. The gig would become a footnote. The taste of the Napa Valley wine that we sampled and ultimately spent way too much money on would fade away. The flight would end up being the memory that lasted, the event that gave me permission to let go of that summer and all of it’s sorrows and obligations. It led me to my next intention. “Be open to the possibilities.” What might have seemed like an insignificant moment at any other time in my life, gave me exactly what I needed to grieve and grow and be happy all at the same time and all without guilt. Maybe. Things don’t have to be perfect.

(c)2015 – Amy Serrago