Tuesday, July 31, 2012

WBEZ's Race Out Loud

A few months ago my favorite NPR affiliate started this great summer series called "Race Out Loud", and exploration of race in Chicago. It's been stellar: from stories about the segregated late-night seen in Chi-town to the ways that race can be funny, from family narratives to compelling interviews, it's been a thorough and real digging in of an issue that is still a huge part of the fabric of America, and of Chicago.

And they asked me to participate!

Check out the essay I wrote here. Many thanks to Natalie Moore and the good folks at BEZ. I'm humbled and honored to have my voice be a part of this conversation.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

a morning prayer post-ashtanga workshop

Crack me open like a geode, for all the world to see, that I may shine and sparkle in the sun, and so others may know what is possible in the bodies, hearts and minds of people all over the world.

It will not be easy, nor will it feel good, but here I am, ready, asking, determined, surrendering.

Open me.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Joy of Being Ordinary

My mom used to tell me to work smart, not hard. (She used to tell me a lot of things, if you haven't heard it from me yet: stay off your knees or else they'll turn black; boys don't like girls with short hair; you don't think, you're such a bright girl, but you don't think... I could go on, but that isn't the point of this post.) This didn't make a lot of sense to me, because I thought that I might not be very smart. I didn't think on my feet, I wasn't witty and clever with words, so I didn't always have the bright, brilliant ideas that she thought her daughter should have. She also told me I was special. Only years after moving away from her have I learned that I'm not special, I'm ordinary. I consider the people around me, gifted, convicted, well-intentioned artists and professionals who are moving mountains to make their professional and artistic dreams come true.
I don't think I'm one of these people. I like to think of myself not as a hanger-on, relative to these people, but more as someone who's orbiting or floating beside them, doing my own thing. Finally. I spent a lot of energy berating myself for not being better, more able, more worthy, not being super(wo)man.

I have to tell you, I'm delighted by the idea of being ordinary. It feels like such a relief. I don't have to be so attached to my work, because I'm learning to detach from it. I can just be a regular person, and do my best to make my life successful--that is, full of health and joy and challenge and growth--and I don't have to walk around with the burden of being exceptional.

I'm currently teaching a group of young people whose world spends its energy telling them they are special. There are a lot of pedagogical and developmental realities they live with that I find difficult. I want to take each of them by the shoulders and say, "Kid, it is a wonderful thing to be ordinary. Have ambition, want to succeed. But cultivate some compassion for yourself right now, because when you fail, you will need it. It is okay not to be the best at something. I promise you. The likelihood that you'll be happier because you went to that ivy-league school or because you managed those eight extra-curriculars is really low."

But I have to temper that instinct with what I'm there to do, which is provide them the opportunity to earn advanced credit for their study, and teach them how to write. So each day, I try to challenge them; I try to provide them with skills and opportunities that will help them grow, perhaps even beyond their young years dictate. But I also want to show them that the rabid ambition they live with is only one way to live, and it may not even be the best way. They can be beautiful and special and lovely, and also be ordinary. I am, and I feel much better this way.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

What my dreams are telling me...

Last night I dreamt that there were secret passageways in the house I grew up in that were suddenly open to me. The bathroom that was "mine", a pea green-and-white tiled monstrosity from the '70s, suddenly had a door in the shower that opened into an entirely different room. I peered into the bathroom, which was dark, and could see that beyond the bathroom that I knew, through a carefully crafted door that looked like a puzzle piece (from all the tile pieces that were a part of the door), there was an expansive shower room. Steaming water--no threat of high temp, the perfect kind of hot--flowed through a ditch in the floor. I could see water falling from the ceiling from a rain shower head. I was astonished. It seemed to me this room had been there the whole time I'd been living in this house, but no one had told me. My mother was there, and seemed nonplussed by it; she'd known about it the whole time. It seemed like a gift, the discovery of the room, but it was a gift I couldn't really use anymore because I didn't live in the house.

There was another secret passageway in our basement (which didn't exist in the house). It was the office of a therapist, a kindly, balding white man who seemed to know me from a young age. After talking with him I came to remember him, and wondered why it is that I hadn't been permitted to spend more time with him, to use him as a therapeutic resource, to have him help me make discoveries about my mental and emotional health, as a child and young woman; why instead had he only been introduced to me as a friend of the family. I could see that the basement had an exit to the street, and was near a park with a playground. My husband appeared in this part of the dream, as well as a good friend of mine, and we all seemed happy to see this man, to reconnect with him, and to finally know the truth of my house, which had heretofore had all these pieces of itself locked and ferreted away, which had, until this time, been holding secrets.

I count myself lucky that my dreams, these days, are less and cryptic and more general. My parents are less active agents in my dreams (and in my life, and I am often thankful for that, too, albeit a bit sad abut it), and the metaphors for the family that I am trying to understand are less hidden, less cryptic: which is good for me, because I've never been great at puzzles.

As I continue to dream this way, I want to tune in to my dreams, to listen carefully. There's so much in the world competing for our attention, and there's a lot our bodies and minds are trying to tell us. I hope for listening, for a better sense of what's coming through, so that if the dream is a guide, and not just a reflection, I'll follow it.

Monday, July 16, 2012

help wanted.

this isn't a post about Chicago storms, it's a post about what's ugly and scary and real.

I don't know if I can say what I want to say about this in five minutes (because I just started a new job and have to continue working for that), but here goes:

I read this article about what went down at Penn State today, and I thought it was really compelling. I'm sure this has been happening to boys and young men all over the country, like the filmmaker being interviewed posits. I'm deeply saddened by the fact that educators and coaches have been taking advantage of students, and have been prioritizing the money they make at colleges (evidenced by the covering up) over taking care of young men who were victims. But I also can't and won't demonize the men who take advantage of them. The speaker in the article makes the point that no one is above reproach, and if that's really true, that means that someday, after a trail of unfortunate experiences, I could become someone who would sexually prey upon those weaker than me. So could you. If this is true, if it really is, then we can't crucify men like Jerry Sandusky. We have to get him help.

It makes us feel better to label him, pedophile, monster, predator, disgusting, atrocious, inhuman. But the truth is, he was somebody's kid, too; sadly, maybe he was somebody's victim. People aren't born this way. For us to label him and thereby distance him from ourselves, from our tidy, "normal" humanity, is just one of the many lies we tell ourselves to feel better, to sleep at night.
It's time for a little more truth. Even if it keeps us up. Everyone deserves our help. Even the Jerry Sanduskys.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

On My Yoga Mat, Humility and The Fire of Cleansing

for Cristina Correa, because she asked me to

I'm one of those people. You know, those men and women you see on the street with the yoga mats in a bag slung over their shoulder or across their chest? That's me. I heard someone (an stand-up comic? an angry friend?) say once that if he saw another person with the movement clothes and the yoga mat bag, he was going to punch them in the face. I guess we are pretty ubiquitous, and if you think it's serious here, try LA or NYC. You can't swing a Hanuman without hitting a yogi in those cities.

(That's a bad yoga joke. See, Hanuman is a Hindu deity also known as the Monkey god who has a yoga pose named after him for his . You know, because monkeys have tails. The original phrase is you can't swing a dead cat without...? okay, I'm letting it go.)
A pen-and-ink drawing of Hanuman in Hanumanasana, aka the splits, by artist Emanuele. I swiped this picture from Heidi's blog, Chai Yoga. Image can be found in art book Metamorphosis. Click here. I SO cannot do this pose. Yet.
Anyway, for a while I took these words to heart: I shrank into myself whenever I had to run the streets with my yoga bag--to and from school, when catching a class after work, or even commuting to studios on my bike. I felt like I was one of those insufferable yogis that people who don't practice yoga come to hate. I guess my saving grace is that I don't have 90-dollar yoga pants that can post special vented comfort or sweat wicking; I don't have the standing mani-pedi appointment at Bliss to keep my toes looking all sweet and tidy when I'm in wide legged forward fold (although, candidly, I covet those pedicures. My feet, while not hideous, bear the marks of someone who works them hard, and I would love to have tidy, pretty red toenails to admire during my practice. But wishing for this feels decadent; having cute toes might get in the way of all of my super-holy prana being moved around).

But I am one of those insufferable yogis who will talk too much about her practice, about what she's learned on her mat, about where she feels her energy blocked and I do have the fancy-pants mat. Years ago, when I realized that yoga was becoming a real, significant part of my life, I made an investment. I looked at Manduka, the popular black mat that one often sees at classes, that teachers are always unrolling in studios. They have a great ad campaign, rooted in the idea of what you and your mat do together: that inversion workshop across town, the two weeks you broke up with your girlfriend and couldn't stop doing sun salutations to get her out of your body, the workshop in Costa Rica, like that. It's cute, and the mats seem nice, but I went a different direction. I bought a Jade mat, not swayed the ads featuring yoga rock stars (Shiva Rea, Dharma Mittra, Duncan Wong, Faith Hunter, Nikki Myers, etc.) who pose in provocative or blissful positions with theirs, but because the mat's made of natural, sustainable rubber, because reviewers said it has great grip (and enough down dogs that ended with me face first on the floor taught me to seek good grip) and because they work with a charity that plants trees, and for every mat purchased, they plant a tree.
I love this mat. I love how thick it is; whenever I do kneeling poses, I never have to double up. I love the color, the website calls it "Sedona Red"; "Tibetan Orange" is nice too, although perhaps a bit too bright for someone with my temperament. I love that my hands stay put even when they're sweaty. When it came, it smelled strongly of rubber, and I loved the smell that would waft up to me from the floor.

It's heavy. Taking it with me is a commitment; I better do some yoga if I'm hauling around a mat that weighs, like five pounds. It barely fits into my cross-body yoga bag. For the record, I have other yoga bags (people never know what to buy you when they find out you're into yoga, like the standard journal gift to a writer), but I make it fit anyway, because it's my favorite bag. When I wear that bag, with my mat inside, heavy and certain, bouncing against my hip occasionally as I walk, I feel powerful, I feel strong. I feel like a warrior, like an archer with a quiver of arrows ready to take aim and fire.

On top of this, it is one of a scarce few spaces in my life right now where I feel like I can connect with the Divine. It is a place where prostration feels normal, but also like more than just a way to warm up my spine. Every morning lately, I've been fortunate enough and able to roll out my mat and spend some time on it. It is a place where physical movement can connect with what's inside my mind and soul. It's a place where what's been troubling me begins to make sense.

I have solved some serious writing (and teaching) problems on my mat--or at least brainstormed solid solutions. I have felt the joy of understanding drench me in stillness. I have NOT, as I hear so many other yogis say, had a spiritual experience in pigeon pose: no sobbing or giggling or transformative discoveries. I feel my hips opening something fierce, but that's about it. I did my first headstand on this mat, I do occasional 2-second bakasanas on this mat, and I remind myself as often as I can to detach from the consequences and the results on this mat.
This is Natasha Rizopoulos. She has a beautiful practice, and is an Ashtanga yogi. I took a workshop with her in 2008. But I know she's just like me, because sometimes she can't spell so well.
from The Green Yogi
The top is crane. The bottom is crow. They both have the same Sanskrit name. Can you tell the difference?
 Lest I give you the completely wrong impression of my practice, let me say that recently, my yoga mat has been a place of ass-kicking and humility. Several weeks ago I started practicing Ashtanga yoga, which, like many things yoga, has a hillion jillion different definitions*; I mean this kind of Ashtanga. The primary series is known for organ cleansing and muscular-skeletal alignment. It's called yoga chikitsa. Yoga therapy. (I know, right?) I'm working as far as janusirsasana A, which is to say, not that far into the primary series at all, if you know it. Every morning for the last two or three weeks, instead of scribing out a practice on a scrap of paper (as I'd been doing the last several months) or going with the flow, I commit to a strict series of poses. They're all familiar: sun salutation A and B; forward folds--standing and seated--that test my ability to surrender; hip openers for which I have such narrow range of motion that I wonder what is locked in my pelvis; balancing poses that have me appearing a broken-limbed flamingo and make me want to cry with frustration; and more vinyasas than I can do. This doesn't feel like worship! I think as I am soaking a hand towel with my foul smelling sweat, and trying (and failing) to soften my jaw. This feels like torture. I am so locked out of this practice. I can't do this! Why can't I do this?

I am wholly unaccustomed to feeling like I can't do yoga. I started practicing when I was 19. Yoga came along right before a descent into a pretty dark time in my life, and it was one of the tools I used to climb out of there. It's one of the longest relationships I've ever had. You might not know it to look at my practice; oh, there are SO many poses I can't do. What I mean is that yoga, and especially my yoga practice, is a place where I rarely encounter--well, failure, as it were. I take the modifications that I choose, but even that doesn't feel like failure; it feels like attentive listening to my muscles and joints. I like yoga because it makes me feel whole, it feels challenging but sustainable. The classes I take, especially my home practice, it all feels within my grasp. But Ashtanga is just wiping up the mat with me. I really do feel locked out.

Is this what worship is? I've read plenty of literature about the ability of a practice like yoga to help you create a spiritual awakening, connect to and release trauma stored in your tissues, about asana as a part of the path to enlightenment and oneness with the Divine. Maybe there is a kind of worship in such wrestling and flailing and struggle that feels like anything other than me looking and feeling like a crazy, wheezing fool will never be. I suppose that even now as I feel humbled by the limits within myself I am confronted with every morning, I can acknowledge that each limit is an opportunity to release any desire for growth, achievement, result (which does not come easy to our Western minds--we've got that brass-ring/American dream/goal-oriented perception of life locked and loaded). Do your work, says the sage Patanjali, and don't think about the results. Practice, and all is coming, says the late Patthabi Jois, the father of Ashtanga vinyasa. So I do. With all of my trembling hamstrings and erratic breathing and daydreams of upward bow or full lotus or a headstand that is neck-happy, I do my work. I do my practice, safely but still as locked out as ever, and I think less of the fact that I can't hold my leg straight, waist-high by my big toe. I try not to think of anything. I breathe, and I listen and I try not to think.

Every morning before the sweating and puffing, before the invocation, I light a candle. Just one for now, another comes later, but I light it and see it and take it into me. I consider the fire, and what fire does, as an agent of destruction and creation, and at its best perhaps, transformation. I breathe that flame into me, hoping that the yoga will burn off the junk I don't want or need anymore, hoping that the therapy, that all the hip opening and forward bending, and even the occasional twist, will help me be free and stay humble. If not, I guess the practice will have given me another chance to detach from expectations and results.

*please don't mistake my goodnatured exaggeration for a lack of devotion to yoga. I know the eight limbs, they matter to me and I take them all seriously. But not too much so.