When Mountains Go Missing

By | March 11, 2024

Guest post by Jennifer Sinor, author of The Yogic Writer: Uniting Breath, Body, and Page

Four months ago, I thought I had lost a mountain. I opened my door, one morning in September, and it was gone. A shape I knew as well as the sky—its elephantine folds, razor ridgeline, sides that ran red in the fall when the weather turned—had vanished. I stood on my toes, gazed left and right, but I could no longer see the Wellsvilles.

For weeks I had been watching the new building west of my office go up, concrete block by concrete block. When the university first proposed the new building, I had assumed it would be set back on campus, toward the edge of the parking lot, not within feet of my windows. Upon each new layer of block, I measured with my untrained eye the height I thought the building could eventually reach—certainly no taller, I hoped, certainly not up to the glass. And then came the day in September, the sixth to be exact, when I walked into my office and looked out my window to see a concrete wall. Nothing above, below, or around. I had been entombed.

The Wellsville mountains are considered the steepest in the continental US, not the tallest but rather the fastest rise from ground to peak. They are staggering and dominate the northern Utah valley that I call home. I have stood on the saddle, seen the land fall away beneath my feet, and watched the sun set over their shoulders more times that I can count. When I pace my office, thinking about my writing or my students or my future, it is those mountains that have reassured me that, in the face of it all, beauty remains.

The loss of the mountains that day in September lodged in my body as grief. I immediately grew angry at a world that insists on building, at a university that values the new, the shiny, but by the time I arrived home that evening my thoughts had shifted. Those mountains were no more mine than they are, quite honestly, yours. I know them well, but I don’t own them. My gaze of twenty years is not possession, my love of their line is no stake or claim. And then there was the naked privilege of the fact that I lived a life where natural beauty surrounded me.  What exactly did I think had been taken? And by whom?

“I feel like I’ve lost something that I know was never mine,” I told Michael that night as I arrived home, dropping my bag to the floor. “Who can I call to complain?”  It would take me months to realize that nothing went missing that day except what the poet Denise Levertov calls “ that witnessing presence.” In Levertov’s poem “Witness,” the speaker laments that at times the mountain is hidden by low hanging clouds but more often, the speaker admits, “I am hidden from the mountain/in veils of inattention.” If I were being honest, I had lost the Wellsvilles  millions of times before September 6—every single time I had failed to notice.  In addition, a famous Indian proverb tells us that “all that is not given is lost.”  There are only two ways something can be lost to us. The first is when we fail to notice and the second is when we try and hold on to it.  The ability to first see and then to let go is the foundation of yoga, of the breath, and of making art.  And it’s a lesson I will spend this life learning again and again.

We breathe some 24,000 times a day. The vast majority, if not all, of those breaths go unnoticed by most of us. We continue to peel potatoes, order replacement ink cartridges, and shovel the snow, while our body perpetually opens itself up to the breath of the universe and then surrenders it right back. Everything we need to know about living a deep and meaningful life can be found in the breath. The inhalation, the way the air rises in the body and arrives at fullness, is a lesson in gratitude—gratitude for all that we have been given simply by the miracle of taking birth. And the exhalation–the clearing away that happens as we breathe out, the distillation down to void–teaches us the importance of letting go. Between these two tethers our humanity dwells. The Yogic Writer begins with the breath and suggests that art cannot be made outside the present moment. We must actively cultivate a relationship with our breath, trusting that the lesson learned by following its rise and fall will change how we live. From the very first breath we take, we inhabit this body and no other, and our art arises from our direct experience of embodiment in this world. When we return to our breath, return to our bodies, and become aware of the fullness of this moment, our relationship to our writing changes. We no longer strive to get somewhere because we realize there is nowhere to go. We write not to publish but to offer, and we learn to surrender and let go of the results.

I wrote The Yogic Writer because I have been breathing with my students together at the start of every class for more than a decade now, and I see what happens when we return to our body and our breath. The breath is only the start of how the practice of yoga can change the way we write—not the yoga of the West, all asana, all striving—but rather the foundation of yoga, the three-thousand-year-old history and philosophy that teaches us to awaken to live the life we have been given.

I cannot see the mountains, but I know they are there. I feel their tug through the concrete; I can sketch their shape on the inside of my eyelids. The same is true for my breath. I know its architecture and return to it again and again throughout the day. If I remain with my breath then I will always see that this moment is full—of words, of mountain, of sky.

Jennifer Sinor is Professor of English at Utah State University, USA. She is the author of several books of literary nonfiction, including Sky Songs: Meditations on Loving a Broken World and the memoir Ordinary Trauma. A teacher for thirty years, Jennifer Sinor holds a PhD in composition and rhetoric from the University of Michigan and is a certified yoga instructor (RYT 500). Currently, she teaches creative writing to undergraduate and graduate students as well as community classes on writing memoir. In addition to leading weekly yoga classes, Jennifer helps facilitate the Amrita Yoga Satsang, has offered meditation in a local jail, and has taken numerous courses and classes in yoga history, philosophy, and practice in both the US and India.

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