I’m hanging out upside down the other Friday night. I’m doing a handstand. And I’m trying to remember when was the last time I’d done one. When was it? Let me see, oh, that’s right. Never.
I practiced yoga for a couple of decades but handstand always eluded me. It was too scary. I could never get my feet above my head. My yoga teacher always said I was close, but I could not get there. My brain told my body I couldn’t do it, and my body believed it.
Being upside is good for you, body and soul. But it’s freaky. Unnatural. It’s easy to avoid doing it. Most people do. Most vertebrates can avoid handstands with the greatest of ease.
When I stopped practicing yoga in order to devote myself to Pilates, I put it out of my mind. And yet handstand is part of the Pilates repertoire. A small part, but it lurks, nonetheless, at the back of the advanced menu.
You do it on a piece of equipment called the ladder barrel, which is tricky to describe, but it basically is shaped like a mailbox. And a couple of feet away, attached by two runners, is a small ladder. It’s used for all kinds of different exercises.
Handstand goes like this. You lie over the barrel, reach out and walk your hands down the ladder until they are on the runners.
And this is the hard part. You have to pike your hips like you’re diving and kick your feet into the air. That’s the theory. My teacher asked me to do it. Quickly. And I did it. I didn’t have time to think that I couldn’t do it.
And when I got up, I panicked. “I’m not strong enough” was the thought my brain was shouting at me. Quite loudly. I was going to fall and break my neck. Again. (I have three fused cervical vertebrae, a thoughtful little gift from an insanely drunk Austrian who couldn’t tell that he was not competent to get behind the wheel of a BMW.)
I wobbled and thought words that should not be repeated. Then I said those words out loud.
My teacher calmly talked me through the panic. The trick to handstand is not thinking it’s solely about arm strength. It isn’t. It’s a whole combination of muscles working together. Tighten your abs, my teacher said. Glue your legs together and reach them as high as you can towards the ceiling. I did what she said. And the panic passed. I was hanging out. In handstand. Blood rushing to my head, which is a good feeling.
Pilates is full of moments like that. You think you can’t do something because it places you in an awkward, unfamiliar position. And you give it a shot anyway. You trust yourself if not to achieve it then at least to not fail in attempting it. Go all Winston Churchill and never give up, fight them on the beaches and never, ever surrender. That kind of thing. And more often than not your courage will reward you. Maybe not the first time, but it will happen. And it’s such a rush. When you surprise yourself.
A while back a friend told me that he thought I was in better shape emotionally than I imagined. At the time I didn’t believe him. I liked the story I was telling myself then.
The handstand has changed my mind. I’m choosing it as a metaphor. Because the handstand came on the day that marked exactly nine months since my husband made himself absent. It made me realize that I’m strong. I can balance my not inconsiderable body weight on my arms. And that’s not too bad. Not at my age. Not at any age.
Sure, you panic at first, but you don’t give in. You don’t fall on your head and re-break your neck.
It’s time to move on, that’s what the handstand told me. Drop the pain. Drop the regret. Embrace what’s coming next. Be a little bit bold.
And because I’m kind of dense, the universe chose to reinforce that message later in the evening. I was standing around, minding my own business, when a young man came up and favored me with his opinion of my person. It was two thumbs up kind of opinion. And it was a surprise, because I’ve known him for quite a while, and when he’s not a Pilsner or three past his best, he’s discreet and reserved guy. I had no idea that he had any opinion of me at all, let alone a favorable one.
Tall and trim with a thick shock of straight dark hair he pretty much can tick all the boxes on the standard hotness test, so what he said was flattering, to say the least. I wondered what he thought the next morning. He wouldn’t be the first person in the history of our fair city to say something when their sober self is well in the rear view mirror and wake the next day with the impulse to bang their head against the nearest hard object. I did it myself with an Israeli Defense Force veteran one night. (Fortunately IDF vets are hard to shock, and he has not held it against me.)
So I’m bolting the tall, trim one and his flattering words onto the handstand metaphor. I can stand on my hands and I’m not completely repulsive to attractive members of the opposite sex. That counts. That’s important.
I can stand on my hands so I can clean my apartment properly and make it a home and not a place where stuff goes to die. I can stand on my hands so I can get my finances in order and face the divorce process squarely, instead of ducking and weaving. I can stand on my hands so I can trust that there’ll be a time when I’ll be ready to have another relationship.
In the meantime I will enjoy my friends, my job, my colleagues, my garden. New York. I’ll enjoy being single and being free.
Because if I can stand on my hands, then I can stand on my feet.