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what a woman in San Francisco taught me about my shoulders 

North Beach_Photo by Zornitsa Shahanska.jpg

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.

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