I lost a friend last week. Many people lost him, because David Rakoff had more friends than anyone else I know. And then there were all those people who'd never met him, but who had nevertheless come to cherish his unique voice through his brilliant collections of essays (Fraud, Don't Get Too Comfortable, Half-Empty) and his contributions to NPR's This American Life. In fact, to say I know (alas, knew) and love (tenselessly) David Rakoff feels a little braggy because he was the sort of person so many people wanted to know—to be friends with. I remember, for instance, when I was still on Facebook, somebody joking that he was so happy after David accepted his friend request because it made him feel "worthy." David had that effect.
David, in the city he loved. March 2009.
Even though the web seems to have exploded with David interviews, quotes, and photos this week, I hardly recognize him in these things. What I miss now isn't David the writer, but David the insightful, hilarious, generous, beautifully mannered, and sometimes mysteriously old-fashioned person.
I practice yoga every day, and one of the most valuable lessons this has taught me is the one people often call "single-pointed focus." Through yoga, I've discovered that such a thing is actually possible. And yet tiny thoughts do occur, bead-up like drops of dew or sweat, bubble to the surface, then evaporate. Thoughts like: I miss David. David's dying. David's so funny. He loved those big cupcakes. And those tiny custard tarts.
Over the course of the last month, when David was really sick, hundreds of "bead thoughts" about him surfaced as I practiced. These were so fleeting, they didn't have a chance to dig in and hurt. Or maybe it was just that they were so straightforward, so essentially factual, I had no reason to wrestle with them. There was no dwelling, no imagining (his pain, his fear, his approaching death, my loss—our loss, the world without David...). That sort of thing, the dwelling, only happened later—during the very last part of practice, called shavasana, or "corpse pose." I've experienced overwhelming sadness in shavasana before, when a beloved aunt of mine died, when my husband's much too young cousin died, when my funny little dog, and then my other funny little dog, and then my last funny little dog died... Each time, shavasana revealed itself to be something much more than a "relaxation pose." Each time it was, frankly, a thoroughly unpleasant ordeal—a confrontation with mortality and all the inchoate confusion, rage, and fear that stems from that imponderable condition. Instructions for shavasana are to lie flat on your back, arms to the side, slightly away from the body, hands facing up, head and neck relaxed, feet gently splayed. Basically, you're just hanging out, eyes closed, every part of you—limbs, belly, face, and breath—relaxed. In his book Ashtanga Yoga: Practice & Philosophy, Gregor Maehle says shavasana "prepares us for death," and I suppose that's true if you do it correctly. Because to maintain single-pointed focus during shavasana is an entirely different matter than doing so while practicing something more challenging—core-crunching navasana (boat pose), for instance. Maintaining a single-pointed focus while doing pretty much nothing means to focus your attention on nothing. Shavasana, Maehle writes:
...teaches us to completely surrender and let go. When the time comes to die, this ability to completely cease doing—to surrender totally—will enable us to abandon all identification with this body, this personality, and this ego. Then we can separate from this life as easily as a cucumber separates from the vine.
That cucumber-vine bit comes from a traditional Indian prayer, and alludes to the fact that, unlike tree-fruit, the "separation between the cucumber and the vine is peaceful and without external force." In shavasana, I have, on one or two occasions, sensed the truth behind this pretty but powerful metaphor. When you really participate in the pose, the nothingness of shavasana indicates something both awesome and fragile. Not the difference between life and death, but the porous connection between them. I haven't been poetic or brave enough, for the last month or so, to contemplate that juncture with anything close to single-pointed focus. Instead, I've distracted myself with worries, fears, imaginings, and memories. I've hunched my shoulders and cried under the towel I use to cover my eyes. But David would have found this more or less amusing, I think. The simple human feeling of it, the sweet failing. David appreciated movement—as a young man, he danced—but he had no truck with yoga or yoga-type stuff. The idea of karma, at least in its most popular "you-get-what-you-deserve" formulation, was, to him (as it is to me), not just wrong-headed, but deeply offensive. He was a tough, elegant, smart, funny, magical, creative, original, and essentially practical man. His humor was black, which is another way of saying it was wise. If I'd told him all these thoughts about corpse pose and cucumbers on the vine, he might have come back with something like, "Burgers and fries, everyone dies," which, for some reason, was a standing joke of his for a while, back when we were in college. Of course, he was right about the burgers and the fries. And the cupcakes. And so many other things. He was one gorgeous cucumber. And I have a lot of soggy shavasanas ahead of me.