Rainbows of Light

Back in May, in the early days of the pandemic, I signed up for an online qigong class. I’d never heard of qigong before but the class was offered through a local community school that I love, and I was stuck at home without enough to do so I figured I’d give it a try. I’m a person who can feel very uncomfortable doing “body things” in front of other people, so the fact that this was online made it more appealing to me, not less, even though of course the class would typically be offered in person. 

I told a few friends about the class before it started, taking a guess at how the word was pronounced. My version was quite different from what my instructors call it; it’s pronounced something like chee-gung, and the word qi is in there because the practice is a Chinese system of movements and meditations that are meant to work with the life energy, called qi or chi in Chinese. Qigong is related to tai chi, which is better known. Its movements are slow and graceful, as if underwater.

My instructors teach a form of qigong devised by the teacher and writer Daisy Lee, who has developed a practice meant specifically for female body systems. This appealed to me too. I’ve always loved women’s spaces—not heteronormy events like bridal and baby showers, which create in me a kind of dread and sweaty distress that might fairly be classified as dysphoria, but dorky, often queer spaces like feminist groups and women’s art organizations. I feel safe in groups like that, accepted and even liked. A blessed relief. At first, when the class was still new to me, I fretted over what to wear and felt I had to cover my overgrown, messy hair with scarves. Now I can show up to class with no bra on and feel almost as comfortable in my skin as I do when I’m alone. 

I’ve now taken the class three times and consider it an important part of my life; in a way it’s been essential to my feeling of well being during the pandemic. I love the movements of qigong. Many of them match my breathing in an easy, natural way, which allows me to reach a meditative state in a way I just can’t in sitting meditation, which makes me fixate on my breathing till I start to get freaked out. If grief and other emotions can get stuck in the body, then it stands to reason that the right movements, with the right intention, could help them get unstuck. Most times when I do qigong I start to yawn like crazy, and my teachers both say that this is a sign that energy is moving through me. In one of my favorite qigong exercises, we bring our hands straight up over our heads, then draw them down in a wide circle over either side of our bodies and imagine that rainbows of light are streaming from our finger tips. 

Rainbows of light! How baller is that? I love the language of qigong, too. The instructor Robert Peng, whose video “Qigong Ecstasy” I’ve watched on my instructors’ recommendation, says to let your heart soften and open, like a fragrant flower. When we breathe out, he says, we’re filling our bodies with this loving energy. A younger version of me would have thought this sounded corny, but this version of me quite likes it, finds it easy to imagine. Maybe my heart can be softer, more loving. Maybe the universe really is an ocean of qi, and I’m just bobbing around in it like an adorable otter. 

All my life, whenever I get interested in something, I read about it. I study it. But qigong must have felt more sacred than other things, or maybe I was just content to let my teachers be the ones who knew everything and trust them to tell me whatever I needed to know. After several weeks of practicing I realized that it hadn’t once occurred to me to read about it on my own. Aside from asking the internet why I yawn so much, I’ve let the practice be something I encounter not with my mind, but with my body. Once a week during this strange, scary year, I move my small body through the space of my room and pull rainbows of light all around me. 

A Maui double rainbow

The other side of that moving window

Let’s get this out of the way: I am something of an Ali Liebegott superfan. It started 13 years ago with The IHOP Papers, her novel about a lovesick lesbian waitress named Francesca that I read almost straight through one hot summer afternoon while I sat at my desk. It’s a wonderful book—heartbroken and messy, packed with arresting images, so funny it hurts. Her next novel, Cha-Ching!, addressed the subject of addiction, and though the main character in that one was more mature, she was still just as tough and funny as I needed her to be. “She’d … always wanted to make a mood ring for alcoholics—the rainbow of colors could translate into words like lonely, and sorry, and marry me.”

Back around the time The IHOP Papers came out, I was poking around the zine section of Bluestockings Bookstore in the Lower East Side when I found an unassuming photocopied zine with Liebegott’s name on it. In my mind the writer was already famous, and I was stunned. Ali Liebegott still makes zines? Not only that, but she’d signed and numbered it; my copy, which I still have, is number 40 of 50. (To sign it she’d crossed out the typewritten “© 2007 Ali Liebegott” and scribbled her signature and an xoxo, which was a very ziney thing to do.) That little booklet held a couple of short pieces, excerpted from a longer work, about sex, suicide, and her dog. It was called The Summer of Dead Birds.

Continue reading my review of The Summer of Dead Birds at Utne