Speaking in Tongues

When the sun set on Jerusalem,
I watched the ultra-Orthodox sway
in prayer at the Wailing Wall.
I heard the adhan, but I could not enter
the mosque as I am.

At the Holy Sepulchre, I remembered
the mantra my transcendental meditation
guru gave me when I was six.
There was no God in my childhood home,
just Nietzsche angst quelled by om.

Funny, even though you grew up
filled with the Holy Spirit ,
you did not learn how
to speak in tongues
until I baptized you
with my sweat.

I know nothing of your God,
but I know everything about surrendering
to your body and your mouth
breathing life into me.

I want to say sweet Jesus
and amen when I hold your body
so tightly that I feel like I’ve been resurrected.

In my bed, your heart
beats an ancient hymn
that sounds like home to me.
I am still godless but you have given me
something I can believe in.

—Candice G. Ball

Why I took up contortion at age 47 & joined Sam’s Circus

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The amazing Samantha Halas.

When a friend I met through the yoga community invited me to join him at a contortion class, I immediately said yes because I am always down to try something new. Some people collect material stuff; I collect experiences. I thought it would be a one-off novel way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

I had no idea what to expect. I just knew that Samantha Halas, Winnipeg’s most famous contortionist, taught the two-hour class out of a church basement in St. James. When my friend and I arrived, we were guided down to a church basement that looks like a play area for children. Mats shaped like puzzle pieces cover part of the floor. There are stall bars, gym mats, fit balls, and contortion canes.

Samantha greeted us, exuding warmth and confidence. Although I had only seen photographs of her wearing exotic costumes in contortionist handstands or poses that showcased her extreme flexibility, I would have recognized her because of her big, soulful eyes, her perky chin, and her Bettie Page bangs. Her face is made for theatrical performances. She has a dizzying array of expressions, which has set her apart from other contortionists.

My face would have had an expression of relief when I surveyed the students. I was not the only middle-aged person, but many of the students are in their early to mid-twenties—and the exceptionally flexible ones seemed to all be named Anastasia. In fact, there are so many women named Anastasia that one goes by “Banana” in class.

The class always begins with a warmup with bands to open up shoulders and the back. Every two-hour class is different, but in general, Samantha focuses on splits, backbends, and contortion elbow and handstands.

I found it daunting to see one of the Anastasias warm up her back by arching so far back her head almost touched her derrière, but every single person in the class offered helpful tips and encouraged me.

During the second class I attended, we focused on splits. I have a fairly decent centre split, but when Samatha said, “Very good. Now go into oversplits off the gym bench,” I thought “What?” But I did it. She reads bodies very well and has an uncanny ability to push everyone far enough that they grow but don’t get injured.

Until I took a class, I did not appreciate how strong contortionists have to be to support their weight—and sometimes other contortionists’ weight depending on the choreography. That’s why at the end of every class, we do around 100 push-ups and intense core work.

I took my first class in December when I was still 47. Now it’s time for full disclosure: I was dating the friend from yoga and he’s much younger than me. A few weeks after I turned 48, February 19 to be exact, the relationship ended primarily because of the age difference, but we’ve remained friends. Even though I had been doing walkovers at my yoga studio for years and pushing the limits of my backbend in hot-yoga class long before I got involved with a younger man, I started to question everything. Are these activities age appropriate? Is it bad to push a middle-aged body even though it feels right? Am I having a mid-life crisis?

I turned to Samantha and she encouraged me to shake off all the doubts. “I think a surprising number of people talk themselves out of things they want because of notions of age or because they think somehow people who are good are just dealt the right cards to get there,” she said. “And although I’m sure that’s true in some cases, more often than not, we all are fighting our own battles—even the people we admire have their own battles. I love contortion because it has helped me become a person who works hard for what she wants and overcome fears and barriers though determination.”

It delighted me that a dear friend in her early 50s started going to Samantha’s beginner class after she saw my Facebook repost of the class schedule. “A handstand has always been on my bucket list,” my friend told me. She loves the classes and admires Samantha’s physical and emotional strength. (A subsequent blog will focus on her journey.)

For me, taking up contortion goes beyond the physical. Stretching past the point of comfort is a metaphor. I don’t want to live my life in a cushy comfort zone. I want to push myself to reach farther, dig deeper and get stronger.

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Sam suggested I do a backbend off a mat and go down on my elbows so I can feel my back opening up. This will prepare me for greater feats such as scorpion.

Some of Samatha’s protégés will join Cirque du Soleil; students like me won’t ever perform, but we will grow as people because we have taken on something challenging. “People can find challenges in anything from learning how to fix a car, speak a language or dancing,” said Samantha. “If people are curious, I think they should try regardless of age. If you only compete against yourself, you will always win.”

Whenever the sexist, ageist voices start nattering at me, I think of Alicia Keys’ response to Adam Levine when he teased her about wearing some makeup after she took a bare-face stance, “I do what the fuck I want.” All women should do what they want.

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My first time up in a handstand in canes. It was exhilarating. 

 

Reunion

Full Moon with Silhouette Trees

Rustling leaves in moonlight
blue shadows on white sheets.

How did we meet again
in this prairie city of bridges?
We should have found each other on the Metro.
Paris is used to this sort of affair.

Your eyes glow like amber
Shhhh,
you say
when I warn you
of the dangers.

Be careful, be careful,
I say
before I get drunk on
your tongue.

A simple rise and fall
but your breathing
sends a flutter
through my body
like a butterfly
in a glass jar.

Undulations–
breathing you into me
blue shadows writhing on white sheets.

My body forgets
distance and years apart—
the ache of longing gone for tonight.

—Candice G. Ball

 

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September

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Snakeroot, may apple, cotton root,
hot baths and pennyroyal—
she’s collecting seeds, potions in brown jars.

How she wanted to miscarry,
but she still felt it in her breasts,
heavy pressed against Saturday night’s dress.

Rue, the morning-after-
pill, mustard baths
but the seed went astray, multiplying.

She remembers July, the sultry sky
when she kissed him—
how the last star winked, said yes.
Yes at 3:00 a.m. tangled in secrets
and sweat. Oh, the wine, stars and seeds!

No wishes upon these late stars,
already spent. Leaves fall
yellow, brown and ash.

She chokes on the fumes—
nauseous in a Greyhound heading
south for the procedure.
The child inside her runs and hides,
a fugitive in her body.

In Fargo, gin and tonic and strong cigarettes
to gather lost thoughts,
crossing borders, ripe fields and dairy cattle.

Alone in the prairie landscape: terrible grey seeds
and sky sink in her belly. Fallen leaves.
She wants to forget September.

—Candice G. Ball

BFF

Two women holding hands

She’s the first one you called after you woke up, got dressed, and stumbled out of an apartment—and she made you laugh even though your head hurt and you could barely remember your own name. She’s the one you trust as much as your own dog to sniff out suitors. She knows how many lovers you’ve had and how many you regret.

She answers the phone burping out hello because she knows it’s you without checking call display. You can’t use your fake-happy phone voice with her when you want to cry or shout because she’ll call you on it. Her voice picks you up faster than a triple-shot latte and she gives you more comfort than a huge bowl of pasta. She’s your ninja cheerleader in a power suit and she will take down anyone who fucks with you.

You send her half-naked selfies and ask if your boobs need more oomph. She’s the only one who’s privy to your retail-therapy sessions and your pizza benders. She has navigated every dark, dirty corner of your character. She’s the keeper of all your secrets and your best-of and worst-of moments. She’s your wonder woman and wonderwall and her love made you the beautiful, resilient woman you see reflected back at you in her eyes.

—Candice G. Ball

 

 

My Grandmother’s Flower Garden

Blooming sweet peas

The scent of sweet peas, a vintage tin full of assorted buttons, French toast with butter and icing sugar and my grandmother’s touch between my eyebrows, rubbing away my five-year-old troubles.

July sun on snapdragons, pansies and marigolds. She teaches me the names of flowers and how to nurture beauty. Later, at her kitchen table, we play I spy with my little eye and then she lets me guess her thoughts so I think I’m psychic. I fall asleep on the living-room floor under a pink comforter while she watches Johnny Carson and does her crossword puzzle.

Hidden money and notes, gathering up loose thoughts in a journal. She must have been so scared. Chronologies scrambled and names of simple items forgotten: salt shaker, coffee filter and dish soap.

No longer a child in my grandmother’s garden, I tell her the names of the flowers she planted—snapdragons, pansies and marigolds. I tell her my name. If I brought her sweet peas, would she remember her own name?

Four decades between me and my grandmother’s fingertips on my face, but she still makes me feel safe. My grandmother’s touch, Oil of Olay scent, and her telepathic, magical love. The last time I saw her, she had a glint in her Irish eyes when she said I know you.

—Candice G. Ball