This Burning World

by Alexis Penney

There is no summer in the Bay. I keep waiting and it never comes. Not in July, when I get sent back here by The Company, nor in August or September, not even in October. There are warm days, or really just warm hours, when the sun subtly reveals herself and I wonder why I’m dragging my winter coat around, my oft slept-in olive green carapace. It smells like my punk friends from high school, and sage and weed and funky yoga studio, sweat and feet – all in a way that I like, because it is mine. I am in a cult. (I am leaving a cult.) I’m here for a job. I have a crazy boss. It’s a family business. It’s a soft religion. It’s a calling. I’m a healer. It’s just a job. I was forced to move here. I was given a choice.

I am vibrant and I am sick, in my mind and heart and spirit. The first week back in Berkeley, I get fucked by a Gemini in my AirBNB. His skin is brown and gold, and he feels kind and safe. His dick is small enough that I can actually take it, which I find hot. I’m trying to be more receptive – as if I’m not taking on enough. The Company dropped me there, downtown near the university, in a room I share with a German couple, castaways from Burning Man. I lie awake and listen to them breathe. I imagine they can hear all of my farts. The window looks out on a weird alley parking lot. I am back and I am lost.

I end up crashing on a couch for a few weeks, for $200 or so, and later, a bare floor with a single dad and his preteen daughter, Jade. The dad has the same name as my psychotic boss but is nothing like him in any other way except that they are both are sort of fatalistic, which I think is true of most straight-identified men – that they resign themselves to their man-mandated fates. Some nights I come home high and hang out with Jade and her friend as they discuss the merits of Justin Bieber remixes. They eye me warily, and I can’t tell if they, like most people I meet, think I’m hot or cool or a freak. 

I am in exile. I am teaching donation-based yoga. I am without purpose. I am casually changing lives. I arrive in the middle of a teacher training course. They seem especially grateful for my presence. I flatter myself that I’m more sensitive than the blithely tone-deaf white girls running the training. But why? Because I am queer, have lived femme of center and dated men of other races? It is 2016 and I am obsessed with social justice, advocating as the ‘right’ kind of white person – that highly coveted label of ‘ally’. Maybe I’m just more self-aware than most. Maybe they love that I’m more obviously sort of a mess. I get cute, hand-written cards when they graduate.

I left the east coast in the middle of a training course, directly after the first cult-like initiation experience – the program’s hallmark. Inside The Company, it’s referred to as ‘group building’, ‘self development’, ‘ego balancing’ and sure, maybe it’s all those things, but it is also shocking and intense and done entirely without informed consent. It is a day of deep challenge held only by the fried full-time teachers and senior staff – many of whom were fucking, or had been fucked or fucked over by, The Boss – culminating in a sharing circle where people divulged their most traumatic truths. It is a practice of listening and also of learning to perform vulnerability for the program in a very specific way.

That training group had been their most diverse, in terms of race, and while it was a powerful group to ‘hold space’ for, there were glaring ruptures in the protective container we thought we’d made. During the wrap up discussion – usually intense but optimistic sessions, where everyone is not-so-subtly urged towards neutrality or gratitude – Raquelle, a black woman with thick braids, attempted to articulate what she had felt. She burst into tears and started screaming at the top of her lungs, “But I DON’T feel OK! I DON’T! I’M NOT OK!!! NONE OF THIS IS OK!” – then she just wailed, long and loud. I will never forget that sound. From that moment, in my heart, I knew what we were doing at those studios was wrong, but it took several months for that knowledge to fully penetrate my mind.

That life was gone so fast, I have whiplash. At least, in New York, I lived with my vibrant and loud (and frankly often annoying) queer sistern in our pseudo-commune, a sprawling series of lofts right inside Bed-Stuy from Crown Heights. ‘Trans Central Station’, one of our neighbors called it. Casa Diva was our particular loft, full of divas as it was. I felt connected through them to nightlife, sex work, drugs – to all that I had given up to teach. We had been throwing epic parties: donation-based queer ragers, creating sacred and ‘safe’ space for gender dissidents and their allies, with some of the wildest drag floor shows I have ever experienced. I felt a part of something, in its pulse. That community, those parties, had been my lifeline. 

In Berkeley, there’s none of that. Not while I am sleeping on this single dad’s floor, cuddling with a beagle-shaped mutt that Jade and her friend have dyed blue with Kool-aid. I am afraid of my old friends here. I am afraid of my new gender here. Or is it my old gender? Or is it a lie like those other carefully cultivated dominant identifiers that Saturn, in his return for me, is scorching to ash? Is my gender-queerness, my burgeoning non-binarity, just a mask for cis fragility? Who can I even ask? My manic shit-posting, constant political posturing and postulating having alienated the people that I called my friends. (I thought I was trying to help.) I need help and nobody seems to care. Or, that is what I tell myself – a story that’s convenient.

By night, I get stoned and wander the streets. I learn that one must always ask permission before touching trees. I huddle in my coat against, or maybe with, the salty mist. I prostrate myself to the spirits, asking desperately to be of service – to feel needed and necessary and right in a place once again. I seem to mistake the one in need with the one who must serve. Teaching is so much harder without community, without a sense of home or family. I am manic and exhausted. The students are downright confrontational. The raging sense of entitlement so palpable in the Bay Area seems to have deepened. There is a lot of space for everyone’s baggage, but somehow they still feel pressed, desperate for more, like territorial dogs.

The Gemini identifies as ‘power vers’. “Honestly, goals,” I reply. He lives with his boyfriend, also a Gemini. We stop sleeping together after I move in to the spare room in their funny little North Berkeley four-plex – an oasis. The carpet is clean and beige and I have my own bathroom, tiled dusty pink. From my window, I can see a McDonalds, the parking lot of an autobody shop, a vacant lot; some hardy, mangey shrubs, and a trailer. Lone homeless mystics rove the area at night, some occasionally howling into the darkness, but for the most part it is quiet – creepy quiet for someone who, at this time, sees ghosts in every dark space and hears voices through the silence.

I feel as though I’ve failed, though I’m not sure at what. I feel like a waste of resource and space, a burden to the Earth, who I claim to worship and serve. So, I default to what once worked – I return to turning tricks, to create a secret nest egg with which I can quit. I am popular as a prostitute in the Bay, I always sort of was, but especially now; the perfect mix of granola, New Age, health conscious, and tattooed, rough-around-the-edges twink. I also begin haunting every hook-up app I can find, like a hungry shade, an avatar of myself. I think I am addicted to sex. I take a quiz, scoring eleven out of 20. It says clinical attention should be sought at five.

I feel hot. I’ve gotten more tattoos. I’d Googled ‘pagan tattoo artist’ on landing and, naturally, found a Priestess of the Morrigan with a practice by the Geminis’ place. In runic sigils, she tattoos Gaia on my belly. She has the lightest hand of any tattooer I’ve encountered. A trio of ravens, envoys of the Morrigan, follow me for the rest of my time there; sometimes pecking through trash, sometimes staring down intently from a tree or fence. I feel protected by her and Her. Blessed. Next, she inks ‘True That’ over rainbow crystals going down my ribs, a nod to the Germukhi mantras I learned from the Kundalini yogis. They heal faster than any tattoo I’ve ever had.

Sweaty under the plastic bandage, as I walk to the subway, the mountains ringing Berkeley open up and swallow me whole. I feel a part of everything in a way I haven’t for years. I am a mystic. I am One and Connected with All That Is. I am developing a uniquely contemporary American form of mysticism, I convince myself. I will go back to college, go to Seminary, become a spiritual leader in some ordained way, write books on pop culture and theology. This could save the world! But I am also alone – so deeply terribly separate – an alien to my culture and planet, a friendless spiritual dissident. I attempt to see and find myself reflected in the bodies of these men on the apps, in this Garden of sex. 

I have so much sex. Chubby teens who want to suck my dick, buff older dudes who want to eat my ass; the ‘straight’ guy who just wants to compare dicks that I end up milking to shuddering completion; so many PHD students, so many therapists, social workers, psychology researchers, a chef – a succession of Virgos. Yoshi is a Japanese painter and set designer. Stoned, we make out in the hollow shell of a tree, before I take him back home. His skin is like the inside of an almond; his beard hairs black, thick and straight like a paint brush. His dick is perfect, just smaller than mine, but slightly thicker, uncut. Afterwards, he tries to cuddle a little aggressively and I slink out from his arms. I really like him, though, especially after he sends me a close-up of a cockroach: ‘saw this beautiful roach today’, but ultimately, he just wants to be friends. I decide I’m fated to date a Pisces, and lo one emerges from the apps. Eddie drives a fancy car and wears ill-fitting jeans. He has never worked out but has one of those perfect bodies with an unexpectedly large dick. Somehow, our physical chemistry just clicks. I text him a picture of a beautiful bush covered in a milky spider web. ‘I hate spiders,’ he says – it’s never gonna work.

I am unraveling. I see a self that I had packed away because they didn’t perform enough peace to be trusted as a teacher – to do this job. They’re back and they’ve mutated, gone feral. I look like the grizzled and haunted protagonists of the comic books I’ve read since my teens. I fantasize about eschewing my possessions, St. Francis style, and moving onto the street to meditate, like the wild cavalcade of mystics, possessed by various spirits, addictions and sicknesses, that populate these streets. One, in particular, tends a veritable Zen garden of stuff: trinkets and talismans and trash, and seems to be a monk. I wonder how much of their life is choice?

I am taking Bikram many times a week. In New York, I had practiced for years in The Company’s hot studios, learning a 60 minute sequence, taught with accessibility and meditation in mind. In Bikram world, the classes are 90 minutes and brutal. The teachers often suggest the postures should actually hurt. In the lobby, there’s a cartoon mural, which I viscerally hate, of a red Devil instructing others in yoga postures, in Hell. That’s what it feels like, for someone new to their tradition, to be screamed at instead of supported, to be asked to hurt yourself by pushing harder, deeper (more always more) versus encouraged to respect your limits – to listen to yourself.

But my body thrives, my energy surges. It keeps me sane and alive. The extra 30 minutes really changes things – I feel revolutionary mobility in my joints and my spine. I am incredibly horny. Strange things begin to happen. People that I can tell aren’t attracted to me thrill at my touch. I feel sensual and tactile and able to pleasure sexual partners in wholly new ways. I am permanently hard and can cum multiple times without losing my erection. It feels like a yogic Siddhi – a power developed through practice intended to test a yogi’s ethics and ego mind. It also feels like a blockage, a geyser choked in a kinked hose, which I am barely able to transmute without completely losing control. I love them all. “My heart is very open,” I say increasingly often, which is true and also sort of a lie. I start to understand the transgressions of the Boss, and those like him, in some backwards and roundabout way – their sexual abuses that masquerade as healing and love. I can sense how he unleashed energies with nowhere to put them – developed his body without maturing his mind. How he might imagine he is helping those he harms.

I get Bikram now, too, and the flaw inside the whole tradition. They are awakening kundalini energy without taking the necessary additional steps – the breathwork, heavy and challenging meditations; mind-bending kriyas where are held arms aloft, or God chanted for an hour – to utilize and so balance that energy. They have no elders, no teachers, no community, no accountability, of course there is rampant abuse. Their yoga is incomplete, immature – a cultural artifact fractured by colonization. A business divorced from yogic ethics, which may not have been all that healthy to begin with. I have seen the Boss in the hot room. He is terribly unfocused, can barely function. I feel that I am being shown these things through my body and practice so that I can make a choice.

Most evenings, after I close the studio, I get high and walk up the Ohlone Greenway, which cuts through Berkeley and up into Albany. It’s named after a colonially devastated local tribe whose spirits or memories I often feel in the dark. I pass the regular denizens in their tents, with their gently murmuring radios, under skies far darker than you can find above New York. At times, there is no light at all and for hundreds of feet I am alone – me and the birds and the rodents and the bugs and the ghosts. I take pictures of ominous and curious graffiti. There are many spiral-like symbols, religious revelations, a familiar tag that says ‘Psycho’. Honestly, same. Urban divination, I call it, everything I see: leers, hisses, stares, reveals, winks. Sometimes, I hear voices in the wind, in the trees, calling my name. One night, I come across a group of people singing around a backyard campfire. “All come to look for Americaaaaa.” I stand and cry for some minutes then walk away quickly. I hang an American flag across from my bed, upside down and backwards. I practice handstands against it. I use it to wipe up cum when I can’t find anything else.

I don’t remember my very first yoga class. I don’t remember my first several classes, or even the first few years of my practice, except in bright washes of painful, sun-drenched hangovers – the smell of feet on finished hardwoods, the spins I would get whenever I closed my eyes too early, or at all, depending on how many drinks I had had the night before. But I know my first teacher was Diana. Diana, with her Scandinavian lilt, tall and blonde and incredibly warm. Number one in a long line of mother figures I sought out like an orphan in those studios – the same studios I have been returned to by The Company. Her kindness appeared to radiate from a confidence and strength that I (and my own mother) then seemed to lack. Though was I really devoid of care and empathy? Or was I just too hurt, too pained, too hung up on my own shit? Diana’s easy presence with my woundedness felt alien. And yet, during that initial class, I caught a glimmer of someone inside me that I hadn’t known existed, and afterwards, my back didn’t hurt, my stomach felt at peace. I was sore but in a cozy way, like my joints had been heated from the inside, and, for the briefest moment, there was a relative stillness in my mind.. So, I kept going back. 

At some point, I stop being able to teach without having panic attacks. Most days, tears stream down my face as I walk around the studio, teaching and adjusting. Diana takes my class regularly, starting the first week of my return. A watershed moment, the rounding of a wide-arced loop on a spiral path. I have reached the same spot, but I am in another phase, living another life. Years ago, I only acquiesced to take class at the very back, by the windows; more comfortable being seen by the people on the street than proximity to the teacher or fellow students. Then, one day I am late and have to practice in the front row. I sweat, hard, as I always do – like my body is wringing itself out of shame and booze. I struggle, I suffer, but it’s getting easier. At the end, as I shyly attempt to slide out, Diana catches my eye. “Great job, up there in the front.” I can barely stammer a reply. She had seen me? She was the teacher, of course she had, but in that moment, I am so struck and affirmed and terrified. Seen as never before. I take class up front from that day on. I tell myself it’s because I listen better, feel more connected, although, as I progress, I also like the idea of it being a performance, in tiny beige shorts with a greasy burgundy mop and last night’s made up face.

Later, I say the same thing to my students as they make their way into their practice, up to the front. I want them to feel seen. I want to do what Diana did for me, to convince them that their work is worthy – that they are worthy – and to keep coming back. I still feel incredibly seen in Diana’s class, even though I am in the back once again, humbly, as a teacher, wary of setting an intimidating example. She always manages to offer subtle and astute adjustments and encouragement, without distracting anyone else. I have heard that she once had her own nervous breakdown following abuse by The Boss. She hasn’t been full time since, doesn’t have to deal with him. When I tell her I am leaving she looks into my eyes and I know she understands why. I am so honored that she comes to my class. She has recently had an abdominal split to deliver her first child, and lays in the back in goddess-like supported postures. It is a pleasure to hold that space for her, or is it still the other way around?

I am in a cult. (I am leaving a cult.) Everywhere I walk, people starve and suffer, and I don’t even reliably have spare change to offer. I rent an SUV. I really don’t have a lot. A bunch of books, some clothes, some bizarre stringed instrument that I found on the street; that cum-stained American flag, many ritual objects, a plant. A day or two before I go, I hang out with a non-binary activist who has previously labelled me ‘problematic’. I end up charming them, taking them to lunch and letting them fuck me after a Bikram class. Their dick is too big but I manage to make it work for a bit. It hurts but I like it – par for the course, I guess. I let the world in, taking it all in without knowing how to let any of it go. I load up the car, who has perplexingly revealed to me that her name is Caroline, and return my keys to the Geminis. I leave Berkeley and I don’t know when I’ll be back. I’d like the next visit to be a true choice – a pilgrimage, a gesture of respect to this place that has changed me so much – or else I fear I’ll be flung back when I next need to be taught something, scrubbed clean by ocean salt. The cold veil is thin as I’m driving down the coast. It is October 31st.


This piece was originally published in Somesuch Stories Issue 4, which is available for purchase via AntenneBooks.


Photograph by Alexis Penney

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