Monthly Archives: April 2018

Ajna

pexels-photo-270775.jpegIf a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. – Thoreau

For the past few months, I’ve been training with a woman we call J. She’s an accomplished athlete, dancer, performer and business owner, and every time I see her, she pushes me out of my comfort zone.

Last fall, I agreed to dance burlesque and pole with her troupe. Two weeks before the show, right before I knew she was delivering the program to print, I came to my senses and realized I wasn’t ready. I spent hours drafting the perfect text message, apologizing to her for inconveniencing her, assuring her that she could take me off the program and adjust the performance timing to accommodate this beneficial change, thanking her for taking a risk on me, and then apologizing three more times, in different ways, to assure her I knew I had been delusional when I had initially agreed to do this.

I pressed “send” right before I taught my regularly scheduled vinyasa flow yoga class, relieved I had done the right thing, realizing I had jumped in over my head, and was now safely exiting the metaphorical pool before I drowned.

I taught my class, secure in the rhythms of language and instruction, sequenced to my well-rehearsed musical playlist.

After class, I looked at my phone. There was a text message that read, “This isn’t a decision to make through text. I’ll be at the studio at noon. See you there.”

I stared at my phone is disbelief. I became mildly angry. I had done the right thing. How dare she make me question myself. Did she need an apology in person? Why? And how dare she make me any more uncomfortable than I already was.

I typed, “I’m sorry I’m not available. I hope you’ll forgive me for wasting your time. I’ll see you after the show.”

I sat with that for a moment. I looked at my phone. I didn’t press send. Instead, I looked at the time. 10:30. I had plenty of time to figure out a better way to say that. I set the phone down and packed up my things. I changed my clothes. I walked to my car.

I looked at my phone. 11:00. I didn’t press send.

I put my bags and yoga mat in my car and walked to a cafe. I ordered tea and sat down. I looked at my phone. 11:22.

I deleted the text message. I told myself that I respected her as a person and I should be courteous and face her. I decided to apologize in person.

I drove to the studio.

She looked at me casually when I walked in and told me to get dressed, that we needed to go through the routine a couple more times to see what changes we should make.

She told me to warm up.

I fought the urge to argue and didn’t respond. Instead, I walked out.

I stood outside the studio, shaking.

Then I went back to my car, grabbed my pole shorts and changed in the bathroom. She had turned on the music by the time I walked back in and I grabbed a mat from the stack and began to stretch. She adjusted the lights and the tempo and said, “Ok, just let me see a quick run-through so I can gauge where we are.”

I began.

Two weeks later, I put on high black boots, a camisole, and short shorts. I let the girls adorn me with tribal make-up and symbols. I was still shaking, but I performed with the troupe, two nights in a row, to loud applause.

As Sri Aurobindo says, “In order to see, you have to stop being in the middle of the picture.”

J has never mentioned my text message. Neither have I.

Who marches to the beat of their own drummer? Who is the marcher? Who is the drummer?

Whose judgment was I afraid of? And why did I let that the fear of that judgment infringe on my attempt to challenge myself and do something outside of my comfort zone, something I had obviously felt compelled to try?

I worried that the other women in the troupe thought I was embarrassing. I worried about other women in my social spheres who might find out I was doing something inappropriate for my age. I worried I was being self-indulgent and ridiculous. 

We still have subtle punishments for women who insist on who they are and what they want. Kate Manne argues that misogyny is not about hating women, but rather about controlling and punishing women who challenge male dominance. Misogyny rewards women who reinforce the status quo and punishes those who don’t. We are all complicit.

I judged myself for playing whore in a world in which I had previously chosen to play madonna. I didn’t agree with this unilateral bifurcation, but here I was, afraid to upset the status quo by switching roles.

So how do we pay attention to what we want, and listen to our own intuition? How do we support other women in doing the same?

We can consider the space of ajna, the sixth chakra, which engages inner and outer seeing. The sixth chakra is found in the cone-shaped pineal gland, located in the geometric center of the head at approximately eye level, derived from a third eye, which begins to develop early in the embryo and later degenerates. The pineal gland acts as a light meter for the body and is sometimes called the “seat of the soul.” To develop a more intuitive form of seeing, we need to look at fields of energy, not at objects themselves, reaching with our minds to see beyond what we’re accustomed to looking for, developing a wider lens to capture what is outside our ordinary field of vision.

One way we can learn to listen to ourselves and develop clairvoyance is by embracing an art form. At its fundamental core, art provides a vehicle for resistance. While our practice will undoubtedly include supporting professional artists and the work we admire, we must also join the conversation by creating art ourselves.

Oppression exists in so many forms, many of which are not easily detected. Art does the difficult work of identifying those things.

Jeanette Winterson reminds us that “the process of art is a series of jolts, or perhaps I mean volts, for art is an extraordinarily faithful transmitter. Our job is to keep our receiving equipment in good working order.”

J chose to be an artist because it was the only career she knew of that would allow her to speak her truth at all times. Some people wear their hearts on their sleeves. She wears hers in the spotlight.

I don’t make a living performing with my body, but I have made a career out of performing with my mind. There’s something empowering about stepping out of that comfort zone, widening the definition of what I think I can do, who I am, how I see and let myself be seen.

I’ve decided to inject myself with the unpredictable, and this new way of moving in the world is a lifestyle I seek and often regret seeking. This tension is part of the discomfort.

The healing power of art is not a rhetorical fantasy. Art opens the wound to clean it, and then gradually teaches it to heal itself.

As Beth Pickens says, “You have something to contribute to anything to which you feel committed. Right now, as you are, with what you already have, you can contribute…. Have a clear view of your relative vulnerability and risk level in the world. Feeling scared does not equal being unsafe. Feeling fearless does not equal safety…”

In the past four months, I have engaged in arenas I didn’t think were possible for me to enter.

I spent my young adulthood thinking I wanted to be with an artist. It’s taken me a long time to realize, I am an artist.

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Quiet Street

Once you realize that the road is the goal and that you are always on the road, not to reach a goal, but to enjoy its beauty and its wisdom, life ceases to be a task….

― Nisargadatta Maharaj

Where I come from, like anywhere, there are rules. Some are written, but most are unwritten, passed on member to member, generation to generation, word of mouth, tongue in cheek, morphing as they circulate, like an ontological plague.

Learning the official promise and bylaws at the Organization was easy. At the beginning of meetings, everyone recites the pledge: “I promise by the strength of Christ to be brave, pure and true. I will fulfill my duties at school, home and club; do my part in [the Organization’s] activities, keep all dates and promises and read at least one verse in the Bible daily.”  

It takes a little longer to learn the laws, but anyone who wants to be recognized by leadership, to earn a pin or a neckerchief, to move up into Phosterians or RHLA, strives to live by these, as well:

A member is brave. He/she will not shun duty. He/she realizes that bravery in standing for the right is greater than mere physical strength. Coaxing of friends and jeers of enemies cannot persuade him/her to do wrong.

A member is pure in body, mind, speech and conduct. He/she will not defile his/her body with tobacco, liquor, or other harmful habits. Because he/she keeps his/her mind pure, his/her speech and conduct will also be pure and he/she will choose to go with a clean crowd.

A member is true to himself/herself, to parents, to all leaders, and to God. He/she will not lie, steal, cheat or gamble. He/she will honor his/her parents and be respectful to those in authority. He/she is reverent toward God.

In theory, these were the only rules, but in practice, the parameter of acceptable behaviors was vastly more complex. To thrive in this Organization, you had to learn the boundaries–meaning, the bi-conditional logic of what is and isn’t godly.

The Organization obtained its current property when my mother was a young child, leasing the initial 4 acres of riverbed from a local philanthropic family in 1952, and then acquiring adjoining use rights from the Southern California Water Company and the Los Angeles Flood Control District. My family turned a former garbage dump located at the end of a cul-de-sac, surrounded by suburban homes, into a sanctuary of ballfields, and the bowl of refuse became a worship center to a close-knit homogeneous ideological community that has thrived for decades.

However you approached the entrance to the Organization, an unofficially zoned no-noise buffer emanated approximately a mile in each direction. Upon entering that perimeter, no matter what was taking place prior, everyone would hush, and the participants on the bus would be quiet until we drove down the driveway into the basin of fields. Whatever your age, whether you entered the property by car or bus or bike, the blocks of homes outlining the entrance were all part of Quiet Street. If you wanted to stay in the fold, you made the journey silent as a contemplative monk.

The practice of silence served two purposes, but the second one didn’t occur to me until long after I left.

Ostensibly, we were quiet to respect the residents in the surrounding homes. If they weren’t bothered by our noise, they wouldn’t complain to law enforcement of our presence. We all understood that what we did in that basin was unconventional (and, of course, holy) and only those who fully understood God’s purpose should be privy to it.

I walked, biked and drove through Quiet Street thousands of times from my first memories as a toddler through my teenage years, and each time I did so etched in me an unwitting meditation practice. We left what we called the Outside–a world of commerce, temptation and worldly pleasures–to pass through the silence of those transitional streets, to cross the threshold of the cul-de-sac thoroughfare and burrow down into our spiritual home.

A student asked me today how I learned to drop down into my body, how I learned to be still and practice inner-knowing. I didn’t explain Quiet Street, nor quote how at the end of all our exploring, we will arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. What I did share was a simpler truth: throughout my childhood, the practice of mindfulness was integrated into my daily life. Learning to be silent, learning to be reverent in the midst of chaos, learning to pause and respect the physical space of a spiritual journey, is a practice I am deeply grateful for, and one I continue to honor.

 

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I Will Not Let Thee Go Except Thou Bless Me

The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays. —Søren Kierkegaard

I left organized religion many years ago, but religion has not left me.

Growing up, I was taught to give thanks in all situations and to pray without ceasing, for this is the will of God through Jesus Christ.

To pray without ceasing is a difficult habit to cultivate and an even harder habit to break.

Anne Lamott says there are three prayers every person should learn: “help,” “thanks,” and “wow.”  And I agree with her that fostering interdependence, gratitude and awe is a humbling and worthwhile practice, whether or not we believe in a literal God.

But prayers are so much more than an expression of intent; prayers are a vibration, like poetry and music, and there are as many vibrations as there are art forms to express our range of human emotions. There are prayers of supplication, prayers for comfort and love, prayers for rescue and mercy and healing, both for ourselves and for others. Some prayers are like breathing, some are like listening, and some raise up your hands like a flamingo, whether or not you emit praise.

But the hardest prayers to give up are the conversational ones, the ones where we simply commune with God, about our day, about the minutiae of our microscopic participation in the world as we know it, where we unwittingly define and share our values, softly appealing to a higher perspective.

Talking to God is not the same as talking to yourself. It’s more like looking for yourself.

Giving up prayer like that is like losing your best friend.

One of the uniting principles of the upper chakras is communication, which is an act of connection. We take patterns of thought and make them specific through the process of naming. And prayer is a type of naming, focusing our consciousness by drawing limits around the context of our prayer, why it is this and it is not that. To pray is to clarify a thought, to set boundaries, to specify what we value by naming what we want or need. Praying gives structure and meaning to our thoughts, rather than random ruminating or otherwise spinning around our own manic mind-talk.

When I left the Organization, I wanted a blessing on my way out. I wanted someone from the family I grew up with to believe good things could happen to me while not wrapped in the confines of that particular subculture. I wanted someone to let me go with a handshake or a hug. Actually, even a nod or a wave would have been welcome. I wanted someone to wish that the road would rise up to meet me.

I spent years wrestling with that one, and it never came.

The sound of grief, like the sound of prayer, has a distinct force and vibration, and this vibration exists through all form of matter, energy and consciousness. In fact, the Hindus believe that vibration, working through various levels of the density of audible sound, is the basic emanation from which matter was created.

Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, ”I will not let thee go except thou bless me.”

When I left for college, and first heard the scientific rationale for atheism, I began to shift my belief system to accommodate these supported truths. Eventually, education would lead me to develop a new understanding of concepts like neighbors and moral responsibility, as well as community and belonging, widening my interpretation of ecumenical and congregation to center around connection rather than separation, and to privilege love over fear and guilt.  

I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in prayer. And when I think of family, I know I would still wrestle an angel for their blessing.

 

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Dark Gifts, Part II

 

suitcase-person-happy-calm-160939.jpeg

“Let me fall if I must fall. The one I become will catch me.”

–The Baal Shem Tov

 

We have been living in the Mess Hall at the camp for months when Christmas rolls around, and I am excited by the snow.  My siblings and I are all struck silent and still by the prospect of being confined, although we don’t know to call it that.  We are huddled at the top of a dirt road, safe in the Mess Hall, relieved that it is impossible to drive down to get to the main road and make the 95 minute trek to Communion. So here we are.

Trapped, but safe.

I feel like the luckiest girl in the world to be in this winter wonderland, away from the possibility that my parents will be summoned to preach or teach. I don’t want anything for Christmas except for to stay here forever, to stop driving down the hill, to never have to drive down the mountain again, for this cocooning never to end.

The Mess Hall is one large room with a concrete slab floor, and we are fortunate that there is a 1947 stone fireplace, where we can dry wet things and hang stockings. We have stockings made of felt, with felt images, pieced together by women who have been called by the Lord to work with their hands.  We are told that coal or oranges are traditional gifts, relegated respectively to children who are either naughty or nice. Now that we’re living as if we belong in another century, we believe this, having almost forgotten there was ever a world before now, that we once lived on a street, with neighbors, in a house with a toilet and a shower.

The night in our bunks is cold, but we are full of hope.   

“The man in the moon is watching us, Mikey.”

My brother looks at me with droopy eyes, like he’s been ordered to nod off, but refuses. I point out the window, toward the glow of the moon, noticing the pine needles strewn across the field of snow like Hansel and Gretel’s bread crumbs, marking the way home.

“Is that God?” he asks, “Is that where God lives? Or Santa Claus?”

“God lives in Heaven,”  I explain, “Santa lives at the north pole.”

“Is the north pole on earth or in heaven?

“The north pole is where the magic happens on earth.  God saves his magic for after we die.”

“Are you going to die?”

I’m only four years older than he is, but I look at Mikey with maternal confidence, like I know what I’m talking about.  “Santa won’t let me die tonight. But if I do, if I die before you, I will ask God to make sure Santa takes extra good care of you.”

“If God can do that, why doesn’t God just take care of us now?”

Our parents rustle in together, en route back from the outhouse.

“Lights out” our father barks, and darkness descends as if from the hand of God.

We wake up to sun reflecting on snow, the pine needles too numerous to follow in any one direction.

Underneath the stockings are four suitcases: yellow for Lori, pink for me, blue for Wendy and brown for Mikey.  We will live out of these suitcases for the next ten years.

My siblings and I spent the rest of our childhoods (every weekend, most summers, and whenever we missed our ride back up the mountain) at whatever home would take us in. I learned to pack lightly, to come and go, to conform to whatever subculture I entered for the time it took to sleep and be fed, and then to leave and try not to come back too soon. I learned to be polite and ingratiating, but not get too attached. I learned what love looked like, how it manifested itself, how intimacy was expressed in so many different ways in so many different homes, but I also grew to understand that love was for the families who lived there and I was always a visitor. I learned to come and go without asking for anything, to avoid being noticed, to take what was given, whether I wanted it or not. I learned to live with disappointment, without attachment, to travel lightly and to exit quickly, before I could see the visible signs of being unwelcome. My escape hatches were pre-planned and well-rehearsed. At one home, I would jump off the garage roof to slip out the back gate onto an adjoining field. Occasionally, I slept out there on the grass.

The first man in my adult life who loved me made quesadillas with avocado in his mother’s kitchen, food he enjoyed and wanted to share with me. No one had ever done that before. The second man who loved me stocked his refrigerator with foods I liked, so when I came over, there was always something for me to eat, without asking. These were more than kind gestures. These were concrete illustrations that they wanted me in their space.

I returned their love largely because I felt claimed.

I’ve begun a meditation truth practice. For one month, I have been committing to sit with whatever truths come up about myself. This practice doesn’t require me to share these truths with anyone. If something feels relevant, I may write it down. But the practice is merely to show up and feel what comes up, without running away. Every day.

Showing up for myself has been far more difficult than manipulating exit strategies. I’ve always been ready to jump off the roof of my own life. Staying on the ground is harder.

Certainly, there are things I’ve been mindful to build, and I am proud of the home, career and relationships I have spent decades cultivating.  But I am the kind of person who would rather walk than wait for a ride. I am more comfortable with physical discomfort than with nurturing, and I would rather sleep outside in the rain than ask anyone to take me in.

As T.S. Eliot reminds us, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

There is always the return.

I still find it difficult to know what foods to choose for myself, to have any idea what I want or need, to see self-nourishment or self-care as activities worthy of my time.

But I’ve come to know what is mine.

Almost a thousand years ago, Hildegard of Bingen, a visionary who worked in seclusion in a monastery rather than accept the limitations of a woman’s traditional life trajectory, reminds us, “We cannot live in a world that is not our own, a world interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. Part of the terror is to take back our own listening, to use our own voice, to see our own light.”

You cannot disown what is yours, no matter how many times you walk away. Wounds that heal still leave scars, and sometimes all we have to follow is a trail of blood. I would rather keep moving than sit around waiting to be claimed. Over and over, when things start to settle down, when I begin to feel too comfortable, I look for the exit sign.

But now, when I throw my things in a suitcase, restlessly searching for the next transition, I know how to find my way back home.

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