My friend Naomi donned a far-off gaze as if engrossed in a romance novel. “Trust me, you have not experienced pure bliss until you’ve felt the gentle hooves of a baby goat jumping onto your stomach while you’re in savasana.”
I followed her to the wrought-iron gates of St. John’s Cemetery and my voice fell into a whisper, “You know this is insane, right?” I gripped the carrying case handles of my yoga mat, swinging it across the front of my body like a pathetic rubber shield. I sucked in my stomach as I walked through the rows and rows of headstones, a superstitious habit developed on the school bus over a decade ago. On bus number twenty-five, we spent the trip to Carroll Elementary School by concocting tall tales. It was widely accepted that if you didn’t hold your breath as you passed the cemetery, a spirit could steal your soul. Or, if you stared too long at the statue of the veiled angel, your eyes would bleed. Sammy Gordon tried to convince Naomi and me that he had counted to ten while looking at the statue, but Naomi knew he was just a liar with a chronic nosebleed condition. I would have to lose these childish superstitions because for the next hour, I was supposed to focus on my breathing.
Naomi led me to a small wire pen, like you’d find in a petting zoo, encompassing the only patch of dirt unclaimed by burial plots. The dirt was covered with a thick layer of hay, damp from a recent storm. Naomi was wise to bring a towel with her. She unrolled her mat on a spot adjacent to a towering crypt with six concrete pillars, dome top, and name carved in curling script. I stood, adjusting and readjusting the position of my yoga mat so I wouldn’t be ass-towards the mausoleum. The O’Hara family might find that disrespectful.
“Sit down, Kristen, and relax. Remember you’re here to relax.” Naomi advised. This had been Naomi’s five-hundredth attempt at helping me “relax.” Cycling class nearly gave me hemorrhoids; glass blowing resulted in lumpy molten globs; cooking instruction caused Mrs. Doubtfire style burns; and the wine/painting party turned out to be more of a become-your-own-canvas disaster. And still, relaxation is a foreign word to me. When Naomi asked me to choose archery or goat yoga, I went with the less lethal option.
I donned Naomi’s skin-tight floral yoga leggings, bearing the same horseshoe-shaped logo that made me fit in with a group of America’s Next Top Model wannabes who seemed to never stop taking pictures. The last time I had set foot in this cemetery was over a decade ago. Then, I had worn a more somber outfit.
“Find a space and start practicing your inhales and exhales,” said a woman in a worn-out sweatsuit with paint stains, who I inferred was our instructor. “The goats should be here soon.”
A few young couples joined, along with a mother with her two preteen daughters. Our group seemed out of place, as if someone took the ropes and turnstiles of Splash Mountain’s waiting line and redirected us here.
“What’s wrong with regular yoga?” I tried to sponge away awareness of my surroundings by taking a deep breath.
Naomi shrugged. “Goats are supposed to help you connect to nature or something. And it’s like a form of animal therapy.”
“And were all the puppies and kittens unavailable today?” I swept wayward strands of hay from my mat.
Naomi crossed her legs, setting her upturned palms on her knees, like a zen goddess. “Kristen, Re—”
“—everytime you tell me to relax it makes me relax less.” My hand slipped from my mat, into the wet dirt. Naomi passed me her towel without even opening her eyes.
I caught a glimpse of the veiled angel and my belly refused to emit carbon dioxide until I closed my eyes. For a few moments, I managed to lie back and breathe, until I heard beeping and bleating in the distance.
Backing into a narrow strip of dirt, a small trailer stopped abruptly and the beeping ceased. “They’re here!” The yoga instructor cooed, but in my head she sounded more like the girl from Poltergeist. Naomi and my pen mates smiled and cheered as if they just heard Oprah was doling out gifts.
The farmer got out of the truck, scratched his bristly beard, his wide belly, and reached in the side of his overalls to scratch his hip, I hope. He gave a respectful nod towards his passenger 4 seat, from which a large gray goat crossed. Its horns scratched the roof of the truck. “Easy, Dolly Parton, don’t you go anywhere.” Gingerly, the farmer rubbed the back of her neck. Dolly returned to her seat and I swear she kicked her hoof up and flipped back a long section of her fur, a gesture of silent sass. The tips of her hooves were polished with red paint.
He pulled the trailer door open, unleashing about a dozen goats no bigger than labrador pups. The goats swarmed the farmer who plied them with food pellets. I plugged my nose in anticipation of pungent odors of dirt and manure, but in timidly releasing my fingers from my nose, the air had milder odors of hay and only a slight tinge of urine. I recalled how pungent the smell of lilies had been at St. John’s on the day we buried Nonna. For weeks after, Nonno’s house lingered with the sad fragrance of memorial bouquets. Compared to lilies, hay is a much more soothing olfactory sense.
The yoga instructor herded the goats into the pen, speaking as if she were a pacifying Kindergarten teacher leading kids to a school assembly. “Alright now, single file please.” The goats’ interpretation of single file was more like a buzzing hive of bees.
The farmer stood outside the pen, closing the gate. “Alright, Dolly wants to go to the county fair, and this place gives me the willies, so here are a few ground rules. Everyone grab a handful of food to welcome the goats. They’ll wanna put their scent on your mat.” I shook my head, while Naomi and others grabbed a handful of pellets. The goats were in a frenzy, not knowing whose hand to feed from first, so they just seemed to huddle around the same hand until they moved onto the next.
A model wannabe with long, straight hair tried posing with a nearby goat. The goat mistook her hair for food and she shrieked. “Next rule,” the farmer added, “tie up your hair. The goats can and will give you a haircut.” Her friends supplied a hair tie and she proceeded to take selfies.
The tween girls giggled while the goats nibbled at their palms. Their cute moment was ruined by an unexpected stream of goat pee on one of their yoga mats. “Another thing,” the farmer tossed a roll of paper towel their way, “these are livestock, not house pets. They are not potty trained. So, just wipe away any messes they make.” Naomi and I instinctively looked at our unstained outfits and wished we had followed our yoga instructor’s shrewd choice of clothing for this occasion.
“Goat poop is so weird. I don’t wanna see any.” I felt squeamish.
“Don’t think of it as goat poop.” Naomi replied as a goat defecated, on cue, in the hay between our mats. “Rather, it’s coffee beans....that you don’t want to ingest.” She shrugged and scratched the goat on the head. Naomi avoided the small circles on its forehead where its horns used to be. She read the name written in sharpie around the goat’s collar, “Aww Reba. You’re such a cutie!”
“Last rule and this one’s the big one.” The farmer menacingly scanned the group. “You can pick up the goats, but do not hold they upside down in your arms like a baby. You will break their spines.” The tween girls looked like they were about to cry. The farmer drove the point home, “And they could die.” The mother wrapped her arms around the girls. The farmer pointed a mud-caked finger at Naomi and me. “Don’t hurt my goats.” Naomi and I held our hands up, bemused. “Here’s the proper way to pick up a goat.” The farmer put one hand around Reba’s chest and the other around her hind legs. He lifted Reba up, placed her back down, wiped his 6 hand against his dirty overalls, and walked back to his truck. As he opened the door, I caught a glimpse of Dolly, curled up in a pink gingham-patterned dog bed. The door closed and they left.
It was just us and the goats surrounded by at least a thousand graves. And while I sat on my yoga mat, I pictured Nonna lying beneath the earth, about five hundred feet from me.
I watched the group interact with the goats. Some cooed and called them precious and cute and even referred to them as “little angels.” A lean woman wearing a flowy black blouse silently bowed her head towards a brown-eared goat named Shania, who gazed back at her like they shared a secret.
“Do I have to grab one?” I sheepishly asked Naomi, pointing to the goats like they were yoga blocks.
In a voice as melodic and soft as a lullaby, the yoga instructor added, “Let them come to you.”
Naomi scratched the neck of a nearby tawny goat, gesturing that I should do the same. “Come here, give Taylor Swift some love.”
Taylor leered her black rectangular irises towards me. “Nah, I’m not really a fan.” I inched my yoga mat farther away.
We inhaled and exhaled on counts of five, while the goats loudly groaned and munched on the hay. They climbed over our mats, stepped on our legs, and brushed against us like cats on scratching posts. As I drew my hands to my heart, a brown goat with a white fur on its belly slowly crept towards my mat.
“Go away, Wynonna.” I closed my eyes, hoping that when I reopened them, the goat would have found a more willing yoga partner.
“Shift your feet forward into a push-up position.” The instructor demonstrated. My elbows shook and my hips begged to droop. “Now, shift your weight to the right and raise your left arm towards the sky.” As I copied the pose, I felt Wynonna Judd’s slimy spit on my right elbow, which knocked me out of a side plank. She must have mistaken me for a plant. To her disappointment, I was neither leafy nor green nor capable of photosynthesis.
On the second vinyasa, a young family passed by slowly, crossing to a pristine, red granite headstone. I was afraid they’d mistake our sun salutations and warrior poses for some goat-worshipping cult, but they seemed not to notice. The son, no older than twelve, carried a bouquet at his side. When the boy lowered the bouquet alongside the granite, the white roses and lilies drooped and the eucalyptus curled into a frown.
I reached my arms towards the sky, then stretched them to my toes. The air wasn’t musty or gritty, as I’d expected it to be. Apart from the goat business, it was as fresh as if standing on a beach and the ground gave me that gentle sinking feeling of soft sand. With each repetition of the sequence, I gradually dissolved my awareness of the mausoleum, the rows of headstones, and even the bleating goats.
I copied Naomi as she tucked her hands behind her head and pushed her hips toward the sky, dropping her head to her mat. Finally comfortable, I closed my eyes and breathed in and out. Wynonna reemerged to double check that I wasn’t a plant, this time licking my face.
“We practice the final resting pose to celebrate our aliveness,” the instructor explained while leading us into savasana. It is a pose also referred to as the corpse pose, because it involves laying on your back, eyes closed, with your arms gently at your sides. A few goats laid down in a restful trance. Naomi watched with delighted wonderment when Reba walked on her stomach. Wynonna walked toward the veiled angel statue, turned around, and laid her head on my calf.
Our namaste was interrupted by the farmer’s reentrance. Dolly bleated from the passenger window, sending a seismic echo from the baby goats. As I rolled up my soggy yoga mat, I watched the goats trail onto the truck. The farmer, like a rural, less jolly Santa, called them by name, “Kacey, Miranda, Faith, Patsy, Loretta!” After calling all three of the Dixie Chicks, he determined his tribe was all accounted for, and all had their spines still intact.
It took me twelve minutes to get to Nonna’s grave. Five minutes of stalling in the pen, fussing with the straps of my sandals was followed by another five minutes of Naomi pleading with me to cross the veiled angel. It only took two minutes to actually walk the five hundred feet. I placed a pressed lily on the headstone and silently wished Nonna a happy birthday.
a space to roam freely
you are necessary and brave, and you are strong. you are smart. you are worth every step it takes to stay alive. you are capable, significant, and brave, even when it feels like you’re not.