In 7 memorable months, my family was visited by 2 of New York City’s dreaded housing plagues: lead paint and bedbugs. If you count hardhearted, greedy landlords, then we had that plague, too. Twice, we packed up all our stuff, tried to keep normalcy for Ruby, and twice we were disappointed (crushed, really) to find out that we could not live safely in the apartments we had moved into.
In the first apartment, our landlord evicted us after Ruby tested high for lead in her blood rather than deal with the lead. We were living on a month-to-month lease since things had been previously very friendly between us. He also blamed all the lead exposure on a single bookshelf we attached to a wall. In our next apartment, my wife had two allergic reactions to bug bites before we happened to catch a bedbug scampering across our bed at 3 AM. Ruby and I soon started getting bit as well. Our landlord had lied to us about bedbugs in the building – the previous tenants lasted only three months.
We weighed our strategies: court, rent strike, living in plastic biohazard suits, but ultimately, though we were deceived both times, we had little recourse but to walk and take our revenge fantasies with us.
The feelings of powerlessness, rage, and worry were having a field day on my body. I’d walk around during the day, thinking of how unfair it was and hating my landlord. It felt as if someone were drilling my head down into my body. My neck and shoulders were hardening into concrete. Adrenaline was pumping all day long; it began production early in the morning, waking me up around 4:30 or 5.
Each time I thought about the unfairness of our plight, I could feel a wave of tightening seize my body. My wife and I were paralyzed with how to proceed. How do we fight to get back our security deposit? What were our rights when we were clearly not at fault?
It wasn’t until I checked in with my body that one decision became clear. When I thought about staying and fighting and going to court, my body contracted into a fist. When I imagined just leaving – money be damned – I felt the fist relax and enjoyment seemed possible again. At that moment, and many others throughout the 7 months, my training in the Alexander Technique helped me find a place, as Rumi wrote, “Beyond our ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
Steering myself over and over from the hypothetical, from rehashing the past or recounting our injustices, to the present experience of living in my mind and body was tremendously healing. It not only kept me moored to sanity (mostly), I was training for how I want to deal with hard times in my life. I don’t want to be driven mad with fear or completely lost when life becomes unstable. I want to be embodied enough to breathe and to think. In the revenge fantasies and fearful projecting into the future, I was always having to fend for myself. Coming back to my body and mind also meant returning to my family and the humor and love we still managed to improvise, picnicking on top of our plastic bins with Thai takeout. Soon, it would be time to move again and leave the plastic bags behind. By returning faithfully to the present moment, I could really leave it all behind.