What color is your heart?
Sometimes things break. In the span of just a couple of hours, I had a broken car, a broken bowl, a broken toilet, a broken nail, a thread pulled in one my favorite leg warmers, and a mal-functioning Roomba. Tied off the thread, emptied and cleaned the Roomba, replaced the flapper in the toilet, filed the nail, tossed the bowl fragments, and paid a handsome sum to the mechanic to replace the ignition coil in my car. It took a couple of days, but my world order was righted. And then the phone rang.
“What’re you doing? Did I catch you at a bad time?”
“No,” I told my caller, a man who supervises a gym where I used to teach yoga. “I’m glad to hear from you.”
“I wanted to reach out to you,” and suddenly the sunshine was gone from his voice. “I wanted to tell you … we, we lost Bugsy[*] over the weekend.”
Oh, Oh, Oh, Oh, Oh.
I said into the phone as many of the right things as I could think of to say to a man who has just lost his brother. When we hung up, I climbed on my treadmill and took an especially long walk. The day continued, a normal enough Wednesday, until late afternoon when I was driving toward my yoga studio; then the memories started to roll in on a tide of sadness.
Several years before, Bugsy’s brother stopped me to chat one day after class. He was inquiring about private yoga for his brother—was I open to the idea? Of course I was. Private students offer a special intensity and challenge, but they also show great gains, especially when they add home practice to their time with me. Before too long Bugsy and I connected and made our first appointment.
Bugsy was a surprise from the moment he pulled his truck up to the door of the studio. His long, curly hair was still wet from the shower, hanging well below his shoulder blades. He wore no shoes and seemed happy if nervous to be walking in the door.
I showed him around and invited him to unroll a mat anywhere in the studio. There are two columns that too often make an invisible barrier in the center of the space. Bugsy unrolled his mat from column to column, at home in the center.
Although he had practiced some yoga and had an admirable meditation practice, Bugsy asked to be treated like a beginner. We started with simple sun salutations. He moved slowly, on purpose, breathing and concentrating, shaky and unbalanced. Bugsy had lived a wide and various life, only some of the details of which I would learn over the next two years. But hard living showed in his body—his feet were clenched, his balance was wobbly, and his hands sometimes shook uncontrollably. Some days he’d bounce in and be up to any challenge; other days he’d arrive low, ask for restoratives and chakra balancing, and barely talk.
On his good and lively days, Bugsy welcomed difficult poses, flying into half-moon at the wall or turning deftly upside down. He continued to struggle with balance, but he did so with determination, completing a pass at a pose and smiling more to himself than to me with pride and accomplishment. He’d take the second side, maybe wobble through, maybe nail it, and stand up giddy.
“Would you like to do that again?” I might have been asking a child if he’d like to go inside Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory for the wide-eyed glee that would answer my request.
Bugsy worked with animals and often talked about them in glowing and loving terms. An old dog rode in his truck to every yoga session, waiting patiently for him summer and winter. Bugsy thought nothing of leaving his truck running the entire time he was in my studio so his companion could enjoy heat or air conditioning. I never had the heart to suggest that burning fuel for that hour was harmful to the environment. Somehow when Bugsy did it for his dog, it just didn’t seem like it could be that terrible.
One day Bugsy came in a changed man. His long hair was gone, cut into a sleek do that didn’t even cover his ears. That day and in the weeks that followed, he opened up with stories and information from his life I’d never heard before. He gave me a more complete version of the team of caregivers and healers that supported him, visualizing his healing path, a team I was honored to be a part of. Even during his lowest moments, Bugsy never failed to show his gratitude.
And no matter what happened in practice, whether he fell or soared, cried, shook or laughed with delight, Bugsy always stopped at the studio door on his way out, turned back, and flashed his wide smile and startling bright eyes at me: “Have the best day ever,” he’d grin and be gone.
Once many years before in a bookstore, hanging out with an edgy boy I was hoping like hell to impress, I picked up a slim volume and fell in love with the poem “There Are Men Too Gentle to Live among Wolves,” by James Kavanaugh. I showed it to my companion who dismissed it as utter schlock, and I hastily put the book back. But a few days later, unaccompanied, I went back to the bookstore and purchased a copy, captivated by the spirit of the bittersweet sentiment. The day I talked to Bugsy’s brother, awash in memories, Kavanaugh’s poem came back to me. Although Bugsy could have walked nimbly among actual wolves, he was one of those spirits who could only walk lightly on this earth.
Bugsy departed under the waning Wolf Moon. In spite of this sad loss, our blue-green marble keeps turning, pelted with ice and cold. As we turn a page to a new moon and the Chinese New Year, welcoming the energies of the Snow Moon and the Fire Monkey, I’m filled with gratitude—I’m one of the lucky ones whose life was touched by Bugsy’s unique spirit. I’m honored to have memories of him to share and to carry a little flicker of his light with me. Namaste, Bugsy, Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti. Thank you for being you, Rxo.
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[*] To preserve the family’s privacy, Bugsy is an alias. If you knew Bugsy, you’ll know why I chose that name. If you didn’t, consider the movie Bugsy Malone—one of my childhood favorites—a musical about gangsters in the twenties played in complete seriousness by kids with bazookas that shot whipped cream. There are parallels between the titular character and my Bugsy, captured by the theme song, sung by composer Paul Williams: “He’s … candy coated/For all his friends he always seems to be alone/But they love him/Bugsy Malone.”