I’ve been thinking about the sacred. Actually I’ve been thinking about cows.
Cow Face Pose, Gomukhasana, feels like a bare-faced ruminant version of Padmasana, Lotus Pose, the pose from which the yogi says Namaste, “We are all one,” an acknowledgment of divine connection, as in, the divine light in me reaches out and greets the divine light in you.
Sr. Anna, assigned to look out for me when I first arrived at my teaching position as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Mohale’s Hoek district of Lesotho, Southern Africa, who resembled the cows when eating prickly pear fruit—a bib of red juice staining her white chest—advised me not to answer “none” when asked what religion I had; she said I should say I have “my own.”
Cow Face Pose looks around with big eyes and sees grasses that resemble other grasses, sees grasses touch and lean, sees cows and reaches out to other faces and makes a connection to vows. It sees grasses sacred and grasses giving up, freedom through constraint, and grasses vowing to release. It absorbs, ruminates on intention, twirls with its tongue traffic reports, marriage vows, yoga poses and happiness, twines them together, then takes them all in.
In a sea of late semester events, an announcement of a fast-a-thon before Thanksgiving stands out. Either the communal aspect appeals, or the letting go (I’ve been making trips to the donation center to pare down my possessions, a consequence of teaching Walden), or both, so I sign up to let go of food. The event is sponsored by the university’s interfaith alliance group, and as I am untethered to religion, my motivation is mainly empathetic, aligning with the part of the event that intends to raise hunger awareness. Also, in the past year I have developed food sensitivities, making it difficult to order off a menu, to freely or comfortably eat. I often feel uncomfortable, hungry, or both. It’s probably not a great idea to fast since my weight is already low, so on the day of the fast, I expect to feel hungry, and I do. Unexpectedly, I also feel relief.
“Cattle” comes from the Latin caput, “head,” and originally meant movable personal property such as livestock, distinguished from the “real property” of land and small animals, wild or roaming, sold with the land. When I count: dog, laptop, car—my property is three. “Caput” evolved into “chattel” to mean unit of personal property. My daily practices and dearest routines, writing and yoga and walking the dog, are mobile. If I am in my car with dog and laptop, I leave the door to my rental house unlocked. “Chattel” evolved into economic “capital,” which does not take into account the value of vowed routine. What value for me to assign to fasting other than empathy; what value of practicing yoga other than intention and effort? Not what, but how, to think about vows after observing them come undone?
If form as extension of content is axiomatic, then Cow Face Pose (kneel, cross one knee behind the other, lower yourself to sit on your heels, extend arms straight out then cross and bend at the elbows, cross again at the wrists and lift) is a manifestation of the belief in freedom through constraint. The pose works paradoxically, constraining the body to bring release. The function of a vow is to make a solemn promise that binds you to an act, service or condition. The function of marriage is to make two of one and one of two (two pillows, two phones, two extended families, and one bed, one wireless account, one wedding). If the function of a marriage vow is to bind, then one form of marriage could look like Cow Face Pose. The function of rural Wisconsin, where I grew up, is to isolate, to meagerly surround, to test by degrees, to give you a pet calf to feed, then make you eat it. The function of a cow is to chew and swallow, and swallow, and swallow, thus four compartments in its stomach (rumen, reticulum, omasum, and abomasum) with different sensitivities to process a range of ingested forms, from metals to tender grasses. The function of my adolescent journal was to repeat with preoccupation who am I, (the subtext “what do I believe in” and, more moonily, “who will believe in me,” especially in my awkward adolescent form) thus the pages look alike and cartoon images of cows parade across the cover.
I grew up around cows, drank cow’s milk, ate the meat of a tender calf named Silver that for a while seemed a pet. It grazed tethered in our yard in the weeks before my father and the neighbor butchered it. During its internment I pulled up a lawn chair and watched its silver coat ripple as it bent to chew grass, swallow. I am told but don’t believe that I urged it to eat. When I left Wisconsin at age 18, I vowed to not eat meat.
In the food line where participants of the fast-a-thon have met to break fast together at the end of the day, one of my creative writing students and I talk about how intentionally missing a meal feels totally different than not eating because you were busy or forgot—the thought of food lost in the peripheral fur of time passing unnoticed.
In animal husbandry, cultural differences emerge, such as choosing to control cows with behavioral techniques or with physical techniques such as fences.
Follow the grassy etymological path of “sacred” and it leads to “looking” and “spying” via “revere” and “respect.” To graze these paths is to see a connection between secrecy and routine via ceremony, between seeing as spiritual, and belief as a small or large gesture of respect.
I kept my vow to vegetarianism for years, not so much because of Silver’s big eyes like pools, more because of rippling fur like silver waves. Then one day in Lesotho, a village family offered me a meal made of the rooster they had killed for me, and I became a social omnivore, reverent of occasion.
When were you happiest? I count settings defined by friends and landscape and animals. The Peace Corps began with a commitment to go to Africa for two years; I stayed for a third because I was happy there and learned also that I was faithful, and that I thrived on creativity born from constraint, energized by the challenge of how to keep things warm or cool and clean and lit without electricity or running water. I kept two dogs, traveled all over southern Africa and saw elephants, giraffes, water buffalo, hippopotamuses, rhinoceros, peacocks and baboons. My religion in Lesotho was to wake up, drink coffee, maybe bake bread, and feel good to be alive. During my MFA in Colorado, my friend Kerry and I hosted parties that led to dogs wandering through the rooms and people freezing jacketless outside and flowers glued by cake frosting to table legs. The morning found us tired yet renewed. Our religion was to wake, write, work by day, then go out drinking with other poets at night. During my doctoral qualifying exams, my religion demanded 120 books in 40 weeks, three books a week. I read at a desk facing a chestnut tree, observing it through three seasons and the one squirrel that hoarded chestnuts for the winter. What other way to get it done than to vow to a schedule and keep it?
If I’m not listening to lectures on philosophy or opera while I drive, I tune in to the sounds of engines and wheels and wind, and visual rhythms of brake lights, stoplights, roadside colors and shapes that merge as I speed up, and separate when I slow down. Or I listen to the traffic report, which I have come to love since moving to southern California. Amazing stories of herds of traffic, told in codified language of “CHP on the scene,” “stalled,” “hazard,” “sig alert,” and “accident in the clearing stages.” My favorite part of the report is the list of stray objects to watch out for. You wouldn’t believe what people let fall from their vehicles on the freeway: ladders, dressers, hay bales, port-o-potties, mattresses and, one day, “Cow, northbound 101, in the far right lane.”
The face of my dowry cow has a secret smile, knowing that during my vegetarian years I ate a cheeseburger once a year around Thanksgiving, and maybe bewildered that my dad has announced he is engaged to be remarried—my dad who lives in rural Wisconsin, divorced within a year of my divorce. In Cow Face Pose, I’m drawn inward not apart, and away from resentment. In the Peace Corps, the last time I liked living alone, I focused on immediate constraints of food and water, fuel and shelter, and whether or not the man walking toward me meant me harm. I didn’t sink into the past or grow anxious about the future. I recognized how far away the past was, and put off unwanted advances from men by pointing out the logistical nightmare of getting the dowry cows to my dad in the USA.
I read that people who marry and stay married, and people who never marry, are happier than people who marry then divorce or become widowed. Better never to have loved at all than to have loved and lost.
We should take vows more often to learn what a vow requires, practice keeping promises to be or do; we could warm up by lighting a candle every night, holding a pose, reciting something aloud with feeling from memory after having researched the etymology of each fucking word. A vow requires commitment. I eloped, the words spontaneous, not really vows at all—unseasonable things said on an unseasonably warm February day, sun flashing through the clouds on pale grass trampled by geese. If a cow eats too much metal it can develop “hardware disease,” and the smallest compartment of the cow’s four-part stomach is compared to a honeycomb because of its sensitivity. A vow should have a good metaphor, especially when you have never done this before. Maybe better if ex-husband and I had vowed to do something always or never, to watch geese migrate together every fall, to never keep a lawn, to forever add light to February. A vow should be specific. Grad school friends (now divorced) married one year in July and invited the wedding party, which included the ex and I, to help choose the wedding wines. We blind tasted seven or eight white wines, made notes, compared. Our preferences varied slightly but everyone hated one wine, comparing it in tasting notes to hot dogs and motor oil. The loathed wine turned out to be non-alcoholic. A vow requires authenticity.
A vow parts the water like a ship’s prow, opens a path for itself, follows its own seam. A life or death vow, paradoxically, might be easier to keep than a promise of little consequence, the way a dull knife can be more dangerous than a sharp one. A vow should have a bright edge, and heat to melt the seam, should be pure and too gleaming to be trained, so silver as to be inseparable, soft enough to merge.
I vow to practice Gomukhasana/Cow Face Pose every day one December—maybe on January first I will be released. Release from hips and shoulders whatever lingers, whatever makes my landlord, a retired German physicist who made his fortune by invention, pause by the patio where I practice yoga and say, “You know you look much happier than when you first moved here.” Release myself from, or release from me, whatever stopped me for years from smiling big enough to show my teeth, and what for a while made evening loom as something to get past, or through, and whatever else—old, borrowed, blue—no longer serves. I recently released what must be the last of the shared domestic items from my old life: half a set of flatware, replaced with a Christmas gift, what my mom calls “silverware” no matter what it is made of and which, unstoried, gleams.
When I was happily married, my religion was to wake, acknowledge happiness, and step out into the day unconstrained. When I was unhappily married I woke, acknowledged my unhappiness, spoke with restraint and, if asked what I believed, would have answered “none.”
If I had been born in Lesotho, ex would have had to offer my father cows. Vows would have implied that I would take new names, give away my old clothes. Our community would have supported our twining, my training, the cows handed along from one husband to another.
If instead of “death do us part,” we say, “for a while” or “as long as we’re in love,” then what? One can strangle on a too loose vow.
I think I now better understand the value of fasting, and of sacrifice or discomfort as part of a sacred experience or vow. There’s longing and hunger, going deeper into the tangle, followed by a better, more clear view, and then a release.
Divorce sounds like a division, but it’s only an acknowledgement of the fact that the ground can fall away beneath you while you sleep.
Some days I see too much constraint, get hung up on the lock in “wedlock,” on the definition of “wed” as in “to train” and prevent from growing wild. I hear “husband” and stumble over the association of animal husbandry, the very sound of husband all bumbling and plodding, its beginning “huh” so dull, the “s” and “b” bumping shoulders like clumsy oafs, and “und” echoes “und und und,” like great dull hooves.
Sometimes I think too much about marriage as form, as constraint, or out of reach. Sometimes I think too little of marriage. Maybe I think too much in terms of self and other, and not enough of love, or now. I was married once. Before, during, and for a year or two after that marriage ended, I thought once would be enough. Now I think I was married once but not enough.
I have seen cows gentle, cows stupid, cows with utter focus walking in a straight line from where they stand to their desire (water, prickly pear, grass, shade), gently stupidly crushing under their hooves all that exists in between.
Once someone and I loved each other, and that we loved and both wrote poems seemed more than enough. We were unreflective about marriage. We hadn’t had a wedding, we were always quick to say. We eloped, more leap than vow. Eloping without a vow might be too open or wild or ill-defined, like remote parks in Alaska without roads or signs—you don’t know the way in or when or if you have arrived.
If you have never been married, what do you envision? A ring, a plan, everything in pairs, a double-wide path into the future?
In Lesotho, a cow, struck by the smell of another cow’s blood, trotted screaming along a path set to intersect with my path. Terrified, I looked around but found nothing to climb or hide behind.
If once you were once married and now are not, do you see one floating free, one untethered with plenty of others around, or one leaping the fence and then—one standing outside alone?
If fasting brings relief, and practicing cow face pose for thirty days—committing to its constraints—brings release, then should I start or stop fasting from affection? Should I give up company or wine on a Friday night, or Friday nights? Or get married—every day—for thirty days? Or write everything down?
I kneel, cross my right knee behind the left, and sit on my heels. I extend my arms straight out, cross and bend them at the elbows, cross again at the wrists, and lift. I embrace the pose’s tangle, which stretches, intensely, my shoulders and hips. I hold, try to keep my vow, keep my breath even. I try to be soft yet strong, too silver to be separate, so soft as to be wed. And wait.