Monthly Archives: March 2018

Dark Gifts, Part I

It’s very hard to grow, because it’s difficult to let go of the models of ourselves in which we’ve invested so heavily. — Ram Dass

On August 15, 2015, on the bottom floor of a gutted house in downtown Los Angeles, in the middle of what was once a living room, Ron Athey lay stretched out on a table naked, balls bound and swollen, fishhooks pulling back his eyelids and his nipples, the skin of his collarbone, his belly and his thighs, like acupuncture gone wild. A short row of men lined the side of the altar on which he lay, and massaged his quivering thighs and heaving torso. There was a balcony upstairs, where viewers congregated and drank from the open bar, from whence a spotlight shone down, creating a circle of bright light around him, evident from all vantage points in the venue. Even from a fair distance, I could see the beads of sweat above his upper lip, as the men massaged thick wads of cream into his sweaty flesh. One of the men stepped aside, gesturing and encouraging me to walk forward. I made my way up to the platform to stand next to Ron. I put my hand on his chest. I felt it rise and fall as I rubbed gently. He didn’t look at me. His eyes were angled toward the ceiling, but it appeared to me like they were looking at the sky.

I stepped away to let others through, and to look for my friend Denise, an art professor who had worked with Athey as a graduate student at CalArts. She had invited me to this art show tonight because, she said, “you are brave.” I hadn’t known what she meant. Athey has a long history of bold and bloody performances, which she well knew, and I didn’t. I found her buried in the corner, looking small, like a child. She asked me if I touched him. I nodded.

“I can’t” she said, “It makes me nauseous, seeing him like that, doing that. I could never touch him.”

I nodded again. I got it. The room was hot and dense with the smell of beer, blood, sweat and massage oils. Intellectually, I understood this whole thing was raw and intimidating and probably a little dangerous. But I felt comfortable in the space, and oddly at peace with the worshippers, the theatrics, the suffering and the witnessing of it. The laying of hands felt familiar to me, and the noisy backdrop was like a soundtrack of speaking in tongues.

A voice boomed through the speakers and the spectators hushed. Ron rose from the table, as if from the dead, peeling back the hooks and discarding the wires. He garnered a cape and hat and began to walk in a circle, and with each step, his cape blew back gently to reveal his naked, vulnerable body, testicles now unbound and gorged with blood, so they looked impossibly large. The audience carefully stepped back to give him space. The voice from the speakers spoke of Pharaoh and mercy, exculpation and redemption, sin and ablutions, captivity and exodus. I thought of Moses and his band of followers leaving Egypt and walking toward the promised land.

I stood silent, reverent and rapt, as did the viewers around me.

The truth is, most people are horrified by Athey’s art. He has performed prophecy, pain, Christian mythology, transgressive and redemptive sexuality, and the politics of queerness when being HIV-positive (as Athey has been openly since the 1980’s), was a death sentence. Critics find him masochistic, dirty, extreme, and grossly inappropriate. I can’t argue with any of those labels. Yet through his work, I am reminded, yet again, that pain is inevitable, and suffering is a choice. Throughout his performance, I felt like I was more than a voyeur, or even a witness. I was a participant in a holy catharsis, in a space transcendent like a cathedral, communal like church.

For some of us, change and growth, transformation and metamorphosis, require more than words. For some of us, the symbols and integration of those symbols on or into our bodies helps us shift identities, from archetypes we clung to as children, to more fluid ways of seeing and being in the world. Sometimes this takes more than intellectual knowledge or analysis. Sometimes we have to walk through the desert barefoot and feel our way across the sand, without a map, or even the assurance of a destination point.

When I am afraid of cataclysmic change, I often think of the goddess Kali, who is the embodiment of the terrifyingly beautiful cycle of life and death, the pyrrhic clearing of the old to make way for the new. She burns away what no longer serves us and forces us to shed outgrown patterns and strategies and emerge as something new. Kali destroys the safety nets we cling to, so that we can grow into a new container of being.

Ron Athey’s work, like Kali, has stayed with me, walking beside me like a friend.

Athey’s fishhooks and binds are clearly self-imposed. By inviting people to participate in his suffering, to bear witness to the process of transformation, he gives us permission to endure our own pain, without apology or excuse. This isn’t an apocalyptic message. The visceral experience of being present for another’s transformation reminds us that we may have to give up our old, comfortable life to change the way things are. Athey reminds us that healing, like freedom, is a process.

Experiencing pain doesn’t mean we’ve failed. Pain is inevitable. Suffering is a choice. When I think about the ways I willingly push myself–my body, my mind, the boundaries of social acceptance–I am reminded that growth comes with a price. Paying it is a fair exchange.

 

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The Throat Chakra

Truth.  The real truth only comes years later, when finally one day your body feels safe enough to feel it. –Tom Spanbauer

The screaming started a year after I had my thyroid removed, and a few weeks before someone I used to love broke into our family home, causing a great deal of damage.

For three weeks, on and off, at what felt like random intervals, the demon would come to me and sit on my chest in the night, dense with the weight of an anvil, and slowly drain the breath from my lungs. Paralyzed, I would watch it compress my chest, pinning me to the bed, syphoning my lifeforce, eliminating my breath in tiny increments, freezing everywhere in my body but my eyes, which continued to blink and dart and roll, furiously fighting against surrender, refusing to accept death at this creature’s gnarled hands.

But eyes aren’t much of a defense against a demon, and I would feel myself begin to fade into the sheets until somewhere in my throat the scream would begin to form and escape my mouth in a barbaric, primal roar that wouldn’t let up until it exhausted me into a little ball of quivering quiet.  

When the screaming began, my family would turn on the lights, and see that nothing was there, so they would shake me, gently, and then more aggressively to wake up, please wake up, while I screamed without words at this thing, at this thing, please, get this thing off of my chest.

At some point I would recognize the person who was actually in the room, but the demon still held me, so that I had no control over the scream, where it started or how it ended. When my senses became alert enough to hear it, it was a sound outside of me, just as the sounds of my family pleading for me to stop were outside of me, instructing me to wake up, trying to convince me I was dreaming.

But it wasn’t a dream. It was an assault.

The voices of my loved ones made familiar sounds outside of me and I could hear them, even as I heard the scream outside of me, alien and intrusive, like an out of sync audio track in a foreign film. The scream was its own entity, and I could hear that sound like the crescendo in an orchestral score, the sound of a woman rising up and fighting for herself.

The throat chakra is the energetic space that pertains to our self-expression, our personal truth, how we define our purpose in life, and our ability to express ourselves to others, with creativity and authenticity. When our fifth chakra energy is blocked, we may find ourselves unable to speak our truth when we need it the most, we may have difficulty expressing our needs and desires, and we may lie to avoid conflict or to keep others from knowing who we are.

Communication is, at base, an act of connection. We may be connecting intellectual ideas, clarifying economic transactions, or sharing intimate feelings, but regardless of tone and content, the action of communicating merges us with our listeners and expands beyond the boundaries of our own minds.

To open our fifth chakra, we practice synthesizing old ideas into something new, something more concrete–through listening, speaking, writing, chanting, telepathy and art forms. When we share these things openly and honestly with others, we deepen our connection not only to them, but to ourselves. When we lie, to ourselves and to others, we create dissonance and distance.

Of course, before we can share our truths, we need to be self-reflective enough to know what they are.

At the time, I didn’t find the the gash across my neck, nor the stitches, nor the healing process, nor the fact that my vocal cords had been stretched apart during surgery, to be of any particular significance. Nor was I able to acknowledge, even afterwards, how the fear of that demon was connected to signs that the past wouldn’t stay in the past. I wasn’t able to connect these dots because I didn’t know myself well enough to know what I was feeling, let alone express it to anyone else or to ask for help in understanding my relationship to these events.

My throat remained constricted, tight, strained and raw during those weeks, even on nights I wasn’t screaming. On the nights I did, I could only whisper my way through work the day after.

I am now committed to a daily spiritual practice of ruthless self-honesty. And when Visuddha, my fifth chakra, is open enough, when I have rigorously practiced communication within my own body and mind, when I have sat long enough with the pain to have built up neural pathways of radical honesty, I will find the courage, strength and will to express these truths to others. And I will be ready to create art.

 

 

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Anahata

For the person who survived on scraps of affection, there may be a lifelong habit of contraction that is only obvious when you are showered in appreciation. Here the heart is challenged to receive at a greater capacity than it has ever known. Bearing the pleasure means beginning to notice those jumpy places which anticipate pain, which expect abandonment, which brace for danger when it’s no longer there. Only then can we begin to invite a gentle exploration of pleasure, allowing life into those areas which have been cordoned off in self-preservation. We must acclimate, often through grief, to the life-giving nature of love which is all around us waiting to be received.  — Toko-pa Turner

When I was Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles for the first time, I was 10 years and 5 months old.  I was put in “isolation” in the Hematology Ward, which means I was housed alone, and medical personnel wore masks and gloves when they came into the room. I didn’t understand what was wrong with me, and neither did they, but I was covered in bruises and petechiae, and I had what looked like a single bug bite near my pubic bone. They drew vials and vials of blood, took my vitals every few minutes, lanced the welt, and discovered that my platelets were dangerously low (below 5,000 per microliter) and I had chickenpox. These may or may not have been related.

I spent a lot of time alone in the hospital.

For the next 3 years and 3 months, my life revolved around my illness. When I wasn’t in the hospital, I often slept on my grandparents’ fold-out chair, because they had a phone and lived less than an hour from Los Angeles. They were old and my grandmother had had a stroke a few years prior. The house was quiet and I often went days without speaking to anyone, or anyone speaking to me. I didn’t go to school, and for a long time, I had no access to books. I spent a lot of time on the fold-out chair, looking at my grandmother’s accordion desk. When she died, it’s the only thing I wanted.

I rarely talk about any of this.

It wasn’t really the illness that broke me. It was the isolation, the distance from the community into which I was born, the inaccessibility of my siblings and my parents–who all lived far away in the mountains, and for whom visiting wasn’t convenient or a priority.

Three years is a long time at that age.

The girl in that hospital bed has begun appearing to me lately, asking for my help.

This may or may not be related to learning to accept love.

In the chakra tradition, the heart is the center, the essence, the spiritual core, the source from which energy flows in each direction, from the lower three chakras that represent physical matter, to the ideologies of the higher three chakras that house our spirituality. The heart chakra integrates and balances the various aspects of our being, including what we long for and what we fear.

As we age, we continue to hold awareness of all the ages we’ve ever been. We might think of the entity comprised of mind/body/spirit as a container that houses all parts of ourselves, from the needs (met and unmet) of our bodies to the needs (met and unmet) of our spirits.

The task of the heart chakra is to recognize and integrate the disparate aspects of ourselves, from the performing parts we embrace to the shadow selves we fear. For most of us, it is a challenge to have compassion for all of these selves, especially those we believe are broken.

Rather than seeing love as an extension of need or desire, when we develop unmitigated compassion, we can begin to build an empathetic connection, starting with ourselves, and extending to others.

When we work to balance the fourth chakra, we begin to transcend ego, and loosen our self-defined boundaries. While strong boundaries are necessary to protect ourselves from abuse, they are also an attempt to shield ourselves from pain and vulnerability. But pain and vulnerability are central to the human condition, and denying them keeps us closed off from reality. Meditating on the heart chakra helps us recognize the people, places, events, commitments and emotions that scare us the most. Facing these with with an open heart is central to our well-being and to our growth.

The world I grew up in was the only world I knew, and it was so normalized, it has taken me a very long time to understand what I gained and what I lost from my isolation.

I wish I could go back and hug the girl in the hospital bed. I would tell her I love her, and I would sit with her and hold her hand and read to her, and I would assure her that whatever happens, I won’t leave.

 

 

 

 

 

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Some tips for young journalists

I did not think of language as the means to self-description. I thought of it as the door — a thousand opening doors! — past myself. I thought of it as the means to notice, to contemplate, to praise, and, thus, to come into power….I saw what skill was needed, and persistence — how one must bend one’s spine, like a hoop, over the page — the long labor. I saw the difference between doing nothing, or doing a little, and the redemptive act of true effort. Reading, then writing, then desiring to write well, shaped in me that most joyful of circumstances — a passion for work. — Mary Oliver

 

I accompanied nine of my students to the College Media Association Convention in New York City this week, and here is a small sample of what we learned:

Meredith Talusan, Executive Editor @ them:

“Part of it is just being at the right place at the right time, but the way I look at it, as long as I’m doing good work, the opportunities will present themselves. I’m most interested in the quality of my work.”

We should have a Chief Content Officer.

Kimberly B Johnson, Associate Editor at Konbini:

Brand Identity

Obtaining the Knowledge

Finding the Stories

Becoming the Expert

When you immerse yourself in a culture, the stories find you. Small companies will give you more freedom over your platform.

Joanne Lipman on That’s What She Said: What Men Need to Know (and Women Need to Tell Them) About Working Together

We all have unconscious bias. We have been taught to overestimate boys’ skills and to underestimate girls’ skills, which starts in infancy.  For example, by objective measurements, parents overestimate their boy babies’ crawling abilities and underestimate girl babies. As early as six years old, boys pay themselves more (in Hershey kisses) than girls do for the same tasks. In fact, in repeated studies, boys paid themselves more at every age than girls do.  And in college, professors call on male students more frequently than female students.

Women get interrupted more often than men, even if they’re Supreme Court judges. And often, it takes a man repeating what a woman says for her idea to be heard.

Open secret: women are not as valued as men are in our culture.

Advice from journalists at VICE

Modern storytelling requires a multi-platform news delivery system, and the world is hungry for what youth is creating.

Have a portfolio with links to work you’ve done, posted on platforms like Medium.

Keep an updated Instagram site.

Do something that gets you out of your comfort zone, and keep producing. Master your craft. Be consistent and reliable, develop a personal style, and be adaptable (code-switching).

Take as many informed interviews as you can and don’t give up.  Self-learning is crucial. Look at professionals you respect and find out the trajectory that got them there. You might be surprised.

It’s not about internships or degrees. It’s about active links to your work, and strong storytelling with multimedia delivery, regardless of platform.

Some of the perks of working for VICE  include: no dress codes, options to telecommute, and free snacks.

From various students, advisers and industry professionals, during presentations and conversations:

Twitter is mandatory for journalists. Your social media accounts should be your name. Avoid dashes, underscores, or any symbols difficult to remember. Be as consistent as possible across all platforms. Building a following on every platform will help with engagement, sourcing for stories and brand building.

When people visit your social profile, are they impressed? Does your social media presence look like you?

When someone wants to hire you, they will cyberstalk you. Period. Be sure you know what they will find.

Your photo should be consistent across all platforms. Create a brand for yourself. Become a logo. Cover photos should be thematically consistent. (Look around at the background and be sure there’s no clutter or diversions.)

Your bio: must-haves: name, what you do, what you’re passionate about, and don’t mention anything in your bio that you’re not willing to post about.

If you want to get hired in this industry, you need a website. Use Google to search the best domain to buy your name. Maybe use WordPress, but buy your name, rather than use a .wordpress. Make the effort. Figure out how to do it and take the steps.

Generate content and post on your own website, in addition to social media. Everything should link to your website, which should have all your social media icons. If you start a blog, make sure you post regularly. Give your contact info on the site.

Don’t have a private social media account.

Connect on LinkedIn – make sure you have a professional presence – which may be a duplication of your website – connect with as many people as you can on it.

To truly do personal branding well, you need to treat your own social platforms like that of a brand; any brand that performs well will have a clearly defined strategy. Set an objective. Define your audience. Set you voice and tone. Create specific goals for each platform, and decide how you will measure success.

Outline a list of words/adjectives to use that define and describe your brand. Always use an image with a post when possible, and size your image for each specific platform. If you’re not professional on a platform, make it private (even though, of course, nothing is ever private).

Use hashtags in a sentence, whenever possible. Try Hashtagify.me

Monitor and keep a constant eye on your network/beat, follow members of your community on social media, set up google alerts and use google trends.

Engage and be social on social media. Get involved in the conversation.

Grow and become a node for information and serve needs that are unmet by other organizations

Be (and stay) active on the social accounts you decide to focus on. Don’t be afraid to schedule tweets to keep your feed active.

Block people you don’t want following you.

Consider Trello/Slack integrations

Adopt newsletter strategies that can help with workflow issues.

Understand the difference between digital content versus print content.

Consider Apple News, traffic drivers, partner platforms, algorithm de-prioritization – developing communities you can talk directly to – you can’t trust any other platform to prioritize you.

Instagram stories – cover live events, show behind-the-scenes, and cover sports

FaceBook groups – Your publication can be enhanced by developing a community – by being an authority on everything on campus, delivering content they can only find through us – form a community group, make it private, create a barrier of entry, an air of exclusivity and connectivity

Lauren Duca, American Writer on “Establishing a Unique Voice in Today’s Media Landscape”

We should practice radical transparency – We’ve been doing a performance of objectivity in journalism, pretending the truth is a math equation. But we have new tools now. We don’t have to rely on the appearance of being true; we need to do the real work of researching and showing our process to the public. Legacy newsrooms used to be filters and provide accountability, but there were always holes in that. False information has always been presented to the public eye. We need to rethink how we factor in as journalists.

It’s impossible to keep track of the news at all times. We need to offer the public guides that they trust.

Freelance is powerful work because you’re not owned by anyone;  you can speak your truth, and you don’t have to wait to start.

While there are certainly new challenges in the digital age, there’s also an opportunity for diversity of voices, for independent channels, for stories we’ve been numb to for many years.

Read and reread The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect by Bill Kovach

Journalism is a trade, not a profession, and you learn by doing. You have to be motivated by your own sense of ethics, and have a commitment to verification. People may label Duca a“deranged feminist,” but she is transparent that she is writing opinion, not polemics.

Duca tried to sum up her career trajectory, the bottom line of which is that she was always desperate to find out how other people did it, and what she noticed is that you can master as aspect, but as a journalist, the ground shifts under our feet.  When you’re searching for stories, think about what excites you, what you want to tell your friends later when you get drinks, what have you been strangely exposed to.

You have to write to be a writer. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. No one really knows everything.

New journalists much challenge power by empowering citizens with information.

Media companies are desperate to tell stories online and young people are particularly adept at producing stories online with an emotional connection. Know your strengths. A freelance career is tough, but you can use the time to learn your field. The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm is a fabulous book.

The more you build your foundation, the stronger a journalist you will be. If you want to start a column (and you’ve been told that no one cares what you have to say), consider what you are uniquely bringing to the conversation. And then be rigorous in bringing it.

The truth is not a math equation. If you’re drawn to defending someone, and you are committed to verification, do the work to prove that position, be willing to learn and stay open, keep people around who will challenge your perspective, so you don’t get caught in the echo chamber of your mind.

If you’re a young woman and you do responsible work, but continue to receive harsh criticism, recognize that some people don’t think a woman (especially a young one) has the right to an opinion. Newsrooms traditionally blindly accept patriarchy as the norm in the media. As yourself who is controlling the lens.

 

Infinite Game

…every love story is a ghost story…

Last week, a friend brought me 80% Dunkle Schokolade from Germany and I couldn’t taste it.

He opened the packaging like performance art, broke off a shape resembling a scar. I watched him do this, grateful for the gesture, mesmerized by the movements. I reached out, tried to appreciate the taste and quality and texture of his gift, but it felt cold in my mouth.

I wondered if it was his kindness that scared me.

This morning, I made coffee and I saw the bring pink hues of the Haitian art packaging that protected the leftover chocolate on my desk. I turned it over to read the history, looked at the list of ingredients, curiously fingered the ridges of the foil. Then I wrapped myself in a red wolf blanket, warmed my hands on the coffee mug and held the chocolate next to the heat of the drink, softening around my fingers till it was pliable, like clay.

I licked the chocolate and a wave of resistance sprung up like a flavor, unspoken goodbyes choking me as I swallowed, a machine gun of memories punctuating the background, loud and violent, like a backdrop of war. My parents, my grandparents, the Field, Phosterians, Chapel, the Trip, Quiet Street, Devotions, driving through grooves of mud so thick, getting out is more than dark and dirty.

I hadn’t thought to tell him that Europe is not always a college playground, that sometimes abroad is the only place you can think of to go, but it’s not far enough away.

I dipped the chocolate in the coffee and rolled it around with my tongue and the coffee and chocolate calmed me, like a cigarette. I sensed the taste of fig, with a touch of floral and a tinge of nut, and it was warm and layered and acidic inside of me, the way a lover moves inside of you, and the bitter sweetness alternated in syncopation, like a heartbeat.

 

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