what a woman in San Francisco taught me about my shoulders
I lived in the alleyway right before Gino and Carlo. Golden Boy Pizza is delicious.
Photographer: Zornitsa Shahanska
I used to live in North Beach, San Francisco.
A small and quirky part of the world where I felt at home among the old Italians and jazz musicians.
In those days I slept in a closet lined with bookshelves.
I frequented a neighborhood bar where the bartender, Jim, never let me pay for my drinks.
There was a jukebox and classmates to drink with.
I was 22 years old and tiny in my own selfhood, away from home for the first time.
Wide eyes. Poet's heart. Tender to the elements.
One night there was a woman.
I was standing in the doorway of our corner bar talking to a friend when she made a beeline in my direction and stopped to point her finger at my face. She was maybe 40 years older than I was. Probably drunk. Definitely furious.
"Stop hunching your shoulders! Stand up straight. What do you think you're doing? You wanna be a little girl? Be a woman, dammit! Stand up straight!”
Mauve lipstick, green eyes, long neck, strong shoulders, clear voice.
She stared into my eyes for a long moment and then she left me there in the doorway a changed person.
My neck turned to watch her walk away as I straightened my body and rolled my shoulders up and back like the human being I was made to be.
To my classmates, who could hear her from inside the bar, her words sounded like an assault.
In my eyes, they were a passionate warning. A gift. I will never, ever forget it.
The man I was with looked at me shocked and said he thought it was cute when I did that with my shoulders.
Feminine and sweet.
"What a crazy lady," he said.
But it wasn't feminine and sweet and she wasn't crazy.
They were sad and insecure shoulders and she was having none of it.
I didn't know yet how to exist fully in my own body. I didn't know how to meet all the difficult feelings that arise with being human. I certainly didn't understand my own power.
Yet, even as my shoulders curled around my chest to protect my heart, I knew that I was a person who wanted to stand up straight.
After that night, I became a sort of shoulder investigator.
I learned that my shoulders feel weak when I don't honor my own voice, speak up, and say what I mean.
They feel weak when I allow a relationship, a job, a circumstance to go on longer than it should.
They feel weak when I overindulge and don't take care of my body and my mind.
They feel weak when I give my power over to another.
Our bodies speak. To each other and to ourselves.
Now, when I feel a heavy emotion and I want to hunch my shoulders to block the pain, more often than not I roll them back and breathe through my chest.
I stay with the feelings and I allow them to teach me where I need to let go and where I need to fortify. I do not abandon myself. I draw near.
I let the bones of my body guide me.
I advise with the council of my heart.
I trust the compass of my throat.
I remember the woman who found me and schooled me like only an angel in a dark alley can.
San Francisco gave me many things.
This, one of the most significant.