Monday, December 23, 2013

Close-together love

It's been difficult for me to write here lately. I've been thinking about a lot, and while I often enjoy this space as a space for thinking aloud (which is how I throw down) some of what's on my mind is still in that dark, mossy, hidden-under-a-rock stage. It's true, I suppose that I'm holding something back from you, but it's not in malice or distrust. I'm just trying to think about a thing, and before I can think out loud about it, I have to do it quiet and in the dark.

Did I say here recently that I've been thinking about love? It's on my mind, it feels as if the word's been following me, although I'm not complaining. But I've been moving slowly, trying to figure out what the next chapter of life holds for me, and here are some of the images that come my way.

Ah, Cornell West. I might not always appreciate your particular brand of political style, but I do love your words. "What love looks like in public" seems to have a sweet kind of resonance now that Illinois has joined 15 other states in validating a particular civil right (now, can we resume fighting for incarcerated black men who need to be treated as humans and not a pest problem? I just have to ask...). What love looks like in public: how our systems honor our myriad beliefs, how our institutions care for our citizens. What if we had justice that did look like love? Or, what does a small act of justice look like? What does it mean for you to be, show, do love-as-justice right now, today, to one other human being?

There's this one, too.

I made this one my lock screen because it feels so important. It's Che Guevara, someone I know nothing about--I see his face silkscreened onto onsies, and I want to buy them for every woman I know who's having a baby; what stops me is the low likelihood that the moms I know would actually dress their kids in clothes with Che's face on it. It would either be too ironic, or there's an enduring ignorance of Che and his enduring legacy. Still, it sounds nice to consider love as an act of revolution. I think the real revolution would be if that love manifested itself in diplomacy, advocacy, education and compassion, and not occupation, violence, bullets and explosives. It's not impossible.

I wrote this post recently as a kind of call to love-as-engagement: to love means to buy in, to a community, to a relationship, to an experience. Participate. Now I am thinking of love as a choice.

When I was younger, I think I remember my mother saying to me that you could choose who you fell in love with. (I wonder if she said this in order to communicate with me that she wanted me to choose a "certain" kind (gender? race? religious affiliation?) of person to fall in love with.) At the time I remember thinking that seemed inconceivable to me. Love is... powerful. It felt like magnetism, not just like lust. Love seemed like... like a plant finally, finally blossoming in the sun it's always needed to grow joyfully skyward. Love makes people behave stupidly. How could anyone control that? How could you look at your lover and say, "hm, no, I've decided not to love you after all." I mean, come on. If it were that easy, would we even have break up songs?

I feel quite different from the rest of my community lately. I don't mean special, just different. After Thanksgiving, I realize how different I am from the people who raised me. Many of them are kind, warm and generous with me, and they try to know me and to understand what matters to me, but we are different. After last weekend, I realize how different I am from the family I married into. The difference between us seems pretty insurmountable. At times I wish we were less different; or more accurately, I wish my families were more like me. I wish I didn't have to field so many questions about my interracial marriage or my dining choices or my spiritual practice. I wish we had more in common politically. It gets old, and it reinforces my belief that I'm the family's black sheep. It would make the holidays an easier experience.

I feel like there's rhetoric in black pop culture that says you didn't choose your family but you gotta love 'em 'cause they're your family. Usually it's someone from at least one and often two generations back, declaring this in a booming low voice in order to resolve some years-long conflict. Do you "gotta love 'em"? What does that mean? Does that mean that you put up with behavior that hurts you, or that you don't say anything about it when a relationship pains you? Does it mean you roll your eyes when your grandfather says homophobic things after dinner but you stay quiet, that you don't call your aunt on her racist remark? Does it mean that you avoid talking about what matters to you because no one will agree and it's better to keep the peace than to speak the truth?

I don't know. I wish I did. The more I think about love, the more I wonder if it's not an experience that has to exist between people.

I've often thought that love was an act of will. Like, you can't make someone love you, but you can will yourself to love somebody. I've heard a friend of mine describe love like bedtime: you do all the things you do that read love to you, and you sort of trick yourself into feeling love and trust that when you get there, the love will have arrived. She also described forgiveness this way, but I don't think it worked for her.I don't think this is how love works, that you fake it on the outside and hope you'll feel it on the inside.

I think maybe love means you have to keep choosing over and over to put yourself with people that make you feel vulnerable and exposed. May you'll be exposed to joy and compassion and beautiful closeness; maybe you'll be exposed to unkindness and belittling and biting judgment. But through it all, you see the people you want to love with the eyes of god. You look at them as struggling, scared little people who want, just like you, to love and be loved. You do your best to love them, even though they hurt you--because they will, even when they don't mean to, or don't want to, this is certain--and when they hurt you, you try to love them through that hurt.

And if they really can't be nice to you, if being with them means you get hurt over and over and over again, then you love them from far, far away. Until you can learn to love each other close together.

I wish for us all people with whom we can share close-together love.

Friday, December 6, 2013

part of the process


On my mat today I was dogged with a kind of discouragement. The practice has felt sticky and hard lately. I get bored with the steadfast consistency of poses in the primary series (my vata energy kicking in, wants to move more, to do poses I don't do every day and to play with the sequence, not be disciplined in it), and I get discouraged by the fact that my body still seems uncooperative in some poses. Nope, after months of practicing this pose, my hip still won't rotate enough. Nope, I still lack the upper body and core strength to hold that inversion. Nope nope nope: my practice is still where it is. I dutifully go to class, unroll my mat, do my practice, and try like hell not to compare myself to the other women and men who seem so far beyond me in their practices.

Then I roll up my mat and get in my car to go home. Today, on the way home, I asked myself: Jess, why do you want to move forward? Why do you want to be able to rotate your hips so, to hold these Marichis so badly? (only one of four here, all of which seem utterly unattainable.) What do you think will happen when you can perform garba pindasana or kukutasana? (p.s. the text on that link is in Spanish, but the images are perfect.)

The answer came: well, I'll fit in with everyone else. I'll no longer be the girl who leaves Mysore early because her practice is so much shorter than everyone else's. I will look good by looking like the rest.

Oh, ugh. That's no kind of reason. If your practice is about keeping up with others on their mats, then you should hang it up.

Then I remembered. Yoga is a tool, not a goal. To want to advance further in a pose or sequence is just ego.

Last night I read a passage in a book about the yoga practice as a part of your dharma: a practice that helps us all discover and realize what it is we were put on earth to do. Today I kept reading, and the book continues, "when you pursue your asana practice to help fulfill your dharma, it becomes imbued with the passion of purpose; it is no longer a ceaseless drudgery to appease the aches of the body, nor an endorphin-riddled addiction for a daily "high," but a yearning, a calling to be more fully who you are."

Yes. That's right. That's what I want my practice to be. Not drudgery, but a part of my pursuit of my dharma. It felt like a baby-breakthrough. Warming on such a frigid Friday.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Because I miss records

I've been thinking a lot lately about ruts. And yoga mats.

I bought a new yoga mat recently. I was crazy about my old one, crazy about it. It was red, my favorite color, and heavy and cushy and it would unroll beautifully on any practice surface, and with authority. It was made of rubber and I never slipped on it. I loved it. It felt like home. It felt like church.

But I also beat the hell out of it. Maybe because I have stiff hips, or because my knees don't touch the ground (yet?) in down dog, but after years of practice I wore holes in that mat. Big holes.
The ones at the front where my hands go were there, but less obvious. The ones in the back? Insane.

They became the kind of tracks that I would step into whenever I would come to my mat: landing spots for every vinyasa; markers for how wide my legs should be in many standing poses; they were like friendly, but deep, ditches.

For a while they were lovely. Then I began to feel they were just ditches. My feet would find their way into them, even if I'd tried not to. I wondered what kind of bad habits, what kind of bondage, was my practice experiencing by virtue of these ruts, these ditches on my mat?

(Oh yes, friends, it's a yoga metaphor. You thought you'd had enough.)

So in the circles I run in, there's this TED video--we show it to our students and reference it in discussion about story, about privilege and inclusion--called "The Danger of the Single Story" by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie. I've probably linked to it already, but just in case, I'll include it again here. Read through, and then watch it: 20 minutes of power, vulnerability and conviction. So when I consider the ruts on my yoga mat, I think about the single story my mat/practice is telling. "THIS is the front of the mat and THIS is the back. THIS is where your hands go and THIS is where your feet go. THIS IS HOW IT WORKS."

In the Hindu tradition, there's a a word, samskara. Samskaras are "subliminal activators", and are often describes as seeds in the mind. They're the kind of ruts that exist in our consciousness that create patterns of behavior. We like to think of ourselves as free agents exercising our will, but samskaras are just the little ruts into which the tires of our existence and consciousness get stuck and we act without thinking.

Now I don't want to descend down a karmic rabbit hole or anything--and we really could, because we find that we perceive life the way it is based on our samskara, based on our past learning and how we react to various triggers; our actions aren't the result of our big, brilliant brains and our passionate wills so much as they are the ruts we've grooved deep into our consciousness, which is really what karma means, but we're not quite going there. So I'm going to oversimplify, and probably screw this up some, but here's what I'm trying to say. Our reactivity to certain stimuli is conditioned by our past experience. You have (yet another) difficult conversation with your boss, and before you know it, you've emptied a pint of Ben & Jerry's, and your mother's voice is thundering in your ears; a friend thoughtlessly points out a flaw, and the next night you're waking up naked beside some woman who's name you've forgotten. It's because our consciousness is operating on the single story, and it's often buried so deep that we don't know why we slammed a pint of gourmet ice cream or had mindless, disconnected sex with a stranger or snapped at our kid when he patted our (larger than we'd like) belly with affection.

So there are dozens of single stories I'm telling myself right now, or perhaps, asking why I tell myself. (Because really, I'm not done reinforcing bad and narrow perceptions, that would just be too easy.) There's a single story of the family I was raised in, and what it will always be because of what it was; there's the single story of the writer, or the teacher, and the question of how much flexibility is held inside these labels; the single story of all the roads as yet untraveled, and who I get to be versus should be if I wander down each one, or all of them.

There's a lot of mis-perception caught up in all this, right? This is one of the things that I love about yoga. It is a practice by which I am given the opportunity to see the world, my relationships, my self, reality, as it really is. through cultivating awareness and observation, it helps me call my attention to the places where I'm stuck, and allows me to ask why I'm stuck there.

Ruts are easy. It's no fun trying to pull yourself out of a mental, emotional or behavioral ditch. But think of how much progress you can make when you're not stuck there anymore.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

coming alive

A friend gave me this recently. I think about it a lot lately.

Don't ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

--Howard Thurman


You can see from the photo that it's misattributed to H. Truman (Harry S?) Howard Thurman was a black author, minister and civil rights leader. Dean of the Howard University School of Divinity. But he still can't get his name correctly written about his own words.

Coming alive. I hope so. One moment, one day at a time.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

what's underneath your words

Today I am thinking of the words compassion and brahmacharya.

Brahmacharya is one of the yamas (which is one of the eight limbs of yoga, we've been through all this already, right?), the restraints, ways that we're encouraged to behave as practicing yoga students. They include things like honesty, nonviolence, not stealing and a few others. Brahmacharya is often (mis)translated as celibacy. Listen, I should say, if it's not obvious to you because you don't know me well: I'm no kind of Sanskrit or yoga scholar. At least, not today. So I can't say I've studied ancient texts in Sanskrit and that celibacy is not the word. I can just say that a lot of what I've read makes brahmacharya something other, or more, than celibacy.

Another way it's translated is as moderation. In fact, I was on the bus a few months ago and saw a woman carrying a Lululemon bag that with the word on the side. I'm pretty sure I laughed out loud, but I had the good sense not to speak to her about it. It looked like this.

please note the cookies, candies, liquor bottles, french fries, playing cards and pills that spell out the word. Thank god for Lulu, to show us what moderate really means.
Really? I thought to myself. A company that sells $100-yoga pants has the nerve to advertise using the concept of moderation? Who y'all think you're trying to kid?

The blog post on their website featuring the bag includes a strange post from a woman who says without brahmacharya she'd sit around all day eating fried chicken, playing with puppies and posting selfies on Instagram. Instead, she found this yama, and now she's whipped herself into a tight, fit, "healthy" and (anything but) moderate shape, through various yoga and cleansing programs. I found it pretty disturbing and a little sad.

But that's not the point. The point is the word. I recently learned that the etymology of brahmacharya is, "to walk with God." I was driving down Ashland Avenue when I heard this, and it took my breath away. I almost had to pull over. The idea of moderation coming from a word that means to walk with God: it was astonishing.

When I was little, someone told me the story of Enoch, remember him? "Enoch walked with God." I think I learned it in school, and they made us say it over and over again, "Enoch walked with God." Evidently one day, God was so taken with him that God just beamed him right on up, and no one ever saw him again. When I heard this, I thought of this story. Now that I think about it, I don't know what the teachers were trying to say: maybe if we walked closely enough with God, we'd get beamed up, and spared the reckoning that is dying, or the always complicated and often painful experience of being human.

So something else this speaker mentioned was brahmacharya as using your vital life force appropriately in order to connect more efficiently with the divine. The vital life force is probably something that could be used when you're having sex, so maybe you think about not being indiscriminate, so that you can connect to your higher self when you want and need to, rather than being zapped from all the lovemaking. But maybe you use your life force at work, in front of a room full of thirsty young minds, or typing away at a keyboard and herding corporate digital cats, or dealing with an endless line of customers who demand that you move heaven and earth to meet their expectations. Is there enough of it leftover so that you can get still and quiet and connect with the divine, when the time is right?

Maybe walking with God, connecting up or connecting out, makes us better able to abstain when we want to, and not be bound by our desires. I'm not a person who believes if it feels good it must be bad, I'm just not. But there are things that I don't want to do that I do. I binge-watch television on Netflix. As hard as it makes it for me to get up the next morning, I take the iPad to bed and watch the 11th episode of some show I've already seen three times late at night. Every now and then, I buy a horrible, sugar-filled, gluten-free vegan cupcakes, and I eat the entire thing, despite knowing how shitty I'll feel afterward. I consistently over-schedule, and wind up late for something.  I get so angry with people who cut me off, and with people who expect me to move out of their way. Really, I'm not above shoulder-checking strangers as I walk down the street. I'm not confessing to these things because they're particularly bad. They're not particularly bad. But these are places where I begin to feel out of balance, where I want more of the divine. Maybe I walk with God so I will experience less attachment, or aversion, to experiences like these.

I don't know yet. I'm still thinking about it.

The other word on my mind, compassion, is a buzzword, right, it's being thrown around so much that I wonder if it even has meaning. The etymology for compassion is with suffering, or suffering with. No surprise. What I was thinking is something I heard here about being compassionate: if you don't have compassion for yourself you can't be compassionate with anyone else. I hear this a lot in terms of love: love of others starts with self-love, and I don't have any issue with it.

I was thinking about suffering. Suffering is something that no one wants to do, and that we try with all our might to avoid or to avoid feeling. Being sick, being sad, being lonely: we do whatever we can to bounce out of those feelings mightily. But what if we didn't? What if we just let ourselves hurt? I don't mean the rest of our lives, that we marinated in our pain and used it as an excuse not to grow. I mean what if, instead of distracting and over-medicating and indulging and drinking, if we just felt the pain? If we acknowledged our own pain, loneliness, ache? Maybe this would allow us to be more compassionate. Rather than feeling pity for someone who's hurting, maybe we can say, I know that hurt, I'm sorry that you feel it, because it really, really sucks.

But what I've been thinking about is that we can't be with someone else who's suffering if we're doing everything in our power to avoid our own suffering. If we can't acknowledge our pain, and ever having experienced it, does our sympathy have any chance of being meaningful, of producing true connection? I don't know.

At any rate, there's a lot on my mind.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

take it easy.

I hurt myself on my yoga mat yesterday morning. I don't really know how it happens. I wasn't checked out, thinking about what I was going to eat for breakfast or what I'd dreamed about last night or Peyton Manning's game last night or what time the sun was going to come up. I was thinking about what I was doing: I was in plank pose, and trying to lower down into chaturanga dandasana with my knees lifted (which is something I don't do very much because I'm building upper body strength consciously) and something in my thoracic spine snagged and I flopped down onto my belly with the grace of a trout.

The good news is that it was near the end of my practice. I didn't have a ton of poses or vinyasas left to do, so I knew a rest was coming soon. After the last few poses I lay down on my mat and thought to myself, Damn, I hurt myself. Then the voices started in. I heard my father's voice first, telling me I should be more careful. "Be more careful" was something my parents said to me a lot. Worry defined our relationship for years. When I moved out of the house, I would call home and my father would answer the phone, and the first thing he said, without fail was, "Is everything okay?" It was fine, but it also imbued every call with an urgency that was never there: it displayed his tendency to walk around in an almost constant state of anxiety. It's as if he wasn't glad to hear from me, he was worried because if I was calling then I had a problem.

Anyway, his voice telling me to be More CAREFUL was the first thing I heard, lying there on my mat. The truth is, I wasn't being careless. I was focused, I was playing my edge, and I was tuned in to my body. I wasn't flinging myself around in poses and trying to wrap my ankles around my head. I was practicing my practice. Then I heard my husband's voice, which was saying, oh are you okay, oh, I'm so sorry.

After those voices, I started thinking that it was okay that I'd hurt myself. I hadn't done it on purpose, and I hadn't been careless, and it had happened and it was okay. Be compassionate, I thought. This injury gives you a chance to approach your physical practice with integrity, and to treat yourself lovingly, gently, sweetly. We need a lot of compassion when we're hurting. Maybe it's because so often we're irritated by our own pain, as if somehow we shouldn't hurt, we should be bigger than this, or we don't have time for this, or this pain is so small and it should get the hell outta our way.

In the few poses I had left and in savasana, I began to think about injury. I don't like injury, I don't know if anyone likes hurting, but still I'm grateful for injury. When your body hurts, the pain forces you to slow down. You must tune into your physiology really clearly to know where your limits are, and continue to move in a way that's good for you but also that's healing. Pain is an opportunity to take care of yourself and do things that are healing.

How often do we do that in life? So rarely, I think. When we have a headache, we don't walk away from the computer and turn the TV off and get quiet and still and hydrate. Instead, we take a couple of aspirin and continue life at the same breakneck speed. There are so many products we use to try and avoid feeling our pain, so many things we do to treat our symptoms but not to deal with what's causing them.

Yesterday, after my practice, I spent the day taking it easy. I took an Epsom salts bath, I lay around with a heating pad, I rubbed various things into my muscles (or rather, my husband did: thanks, Honey!) and I even took a muscle relaxant. None of these really cured the pain. I just wound up more or less achy, grumpy and sleepy for most of the afternoon, and I slept maybe 14 hours. This morning, when I woke, the pain was worse than before.

This morning, I'm planning on taking another slow day, trying to take care of myself and trying to get a little work done. But I'm also thinking about emotional pain and its similarity to physical pain. I want to say something pithy about how when we feel emotional pain--which generally happens as a result of knowing and relating to other people--we don't slow down and stay present and see if there's something we can do in the midst of the feeling to make it better, to heal. We lash out or we retreat. We don't move toward the pain, and gently and respectfully deal with it, to see what it has to teach it, and how we can heal. We pop all kinds of psychic painkillers and do everything we can to forget about it.

You know, people talk about prayer and God being bigger than we are and affecting our hearts so that we can love one another better. But I think that maybe the way that happens is painful. So few of us want to do the hard thing, to do what hurts in pursuit of healing. Does it matter how much we pray if at the end of the day, what will heal us is the thing we refuse to feel? I don't know. Generally, we pray for a miracle, for a change in the other person, we don't pray for the bravery and humility and self-compassion to do our own hard internal work.

Anyway, my back hurts, but not because I did anything wrong. Because sometimes, we hurt. I'm using the pain as an opportunity to practice self-compassion. There's plenty to go around.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Open Letter to My Cousin, Shortly After His Wedding Day


Dear Cousin,

Congratulations! You and your new bride are about to begin a new phase of life together, and as a member of your family, I couldn't be more excited for you. Weddings tend to bring out the need in people to give unsolicited advice; also, you never had a big sister, and I can't claim to have been someone who was close to you growing up, or told you what to do like a sister; still, in keeping with those traditions, I'm going to lay on you some lessons I've learned in my short time being married.

Marriage is the greatest, most fun, and exciting choice you can ever make. If you've chosen a life partner who makes you laugh, whom you can talk to, who helps you to be a better version of yourself, you are in for an exciting and life-changing ride. You might have thought you were having fun when you fell in love with one another, and after you got engaged, if you two are anything like us, you had the most fun being engaged. But trust me when I say that being married is better. Way better.

Having said that, marriage is not a fantasy, nor is it like what you imagined it.When you consider the life-long relationship that you and your wife are building together, remember this: your marriage is your own. It's not your parents' marriage, it's not your cousins' marriage, it's not a perfect marriage, and it's not (thank god) a Kardashian marriage. It's yours. You and your wife decide what it means to love each other, to support and take care of each other, to be faithful to and honest with one another. You get to build it any way you want. Let go of "what it means to be a husband," because the only thing that's relevant is what it means to be Elizabeth's husband; don't consider what it means to have "a wife", consider only what it means to be loved and cared for by your wife. You will encounter a lot of social programming about what you think marriage should be--some of it from friends or parents or relatives, some of it even from inside you. Listen to it, but ultimately, trust your intuition to guide you to the best relationship.

Marriage is not a state, it's a choice. You two slipped rings on fingers and now you're enjoying the sand and the sun. It's lovely, but soon you will return to real life. Real life is hard. To be married means to wake up and choose every day that you will do life with your partner. When you become complacent, when you begin to treat your marriage as static and unchanging, it stops growing and it stops serving the two of you. Every day, make the same commitment to yourself and your wife that you made in front of your families and your community, that you will do life together.

Don't be afraid of conflict. You're going to hurt each other. This is part of what it means to be in relationship, so don't be surprised when it happens. When it does, communicate clearly, respectfully and openly. When you're angry, it's hard to do this, but listen closely to each other. Really listen. Let go of the notion of being right, or being wrong, because it just doesn't matter. What matters is your connection to each other, how you treat each other, and how each of you works to sustain a relationship good for both of you. If you have behaved badly, apologize quickly and sincerely, and if you need to, forgive quickly and sincerely. It's okay to fight, because conflict is growth trying to happen, and if a thing stops growing it stops living. Use moments of conflict as an opportunity for each of you to be a better human being, and for both of you to move closer to each other.

Laugh together. A lot in this world makes you serious, or angry, and so it is SO important that you and your bride have fun. Don't take yourself, or each other, too seriously. Take serious what is serious, and laugh at what is funny. Be nice whenever you can, and don't ever take each other for granted. Say please. Say thank you.

A wise woman I know says that marriage isn't even about love, but it's about serving as a developmental object for each other. That's psycho-babble, but what it really means is that romance is nice, affection is nice, but your work, as people married to each other, is to heal the baggage you bring into marriage and to help one another grow into the best possible versions of yourself. Often this kind of growth won't be comfortable, but it will make you a better husband and a better human being. The love and support you get from a good partner who wants to help you grow is indescribable. It's what allows you to do things you never thought possible, and what helps you to recover from sadness you never knew you'd experience.

I love you, cousin. I'm so happy that this experience is a part of your life. I am so grateful to have been a part of your community. It means something to me that I am someone who bore witness to the commitment you made, and I want to support you in any way I can in your new chapter of life.  I'm not much older than you, but I'm happy to share what I've learned.


I am always willing to be any help I can to you and yours. Please don't hesitate to ask.

Love,
Jessica

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

New Project with Ms Fit

I'm so excited about this new project I'm writing over at Ms Fit. I tend to blog here a fair amount about yoga, without shame, but since I'm a part of a great health, wellness and fitness community, I'm blogging there about a new project I'm undertaking. For one month, I'm going to devote myself to an Ashtanga yoga practice. What's Ashtanga? Click here and find out.

So while I'm obviously still active here, I want to invite you to check out my project there.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Love-ly



I've been thinking a lot about love lately. Not the way I love James Bond movies (I can't help myself) or the way you love chocolate or the way you love how your butt looks in that pair of jeans. The real love that passes between people. Capital -L Love.

The first time I told my husband I loved him, he told me I didn't know what I was talking about. Yeah. It lives in our marriage as one of those things, those moments one person (maybe be) keeps bringing up after the fact, like a fight about someone's mother-in-law or some other tired marriage cliche. We were making out at my place, had been dating for several months, and it felt like the right time, so I said it. He said something like,"Jess, we can't know what it means to love each other, not yet. I know you mean well, but you don't understand what you're saying."

Ooh, I was SO pissed. How dare this man--granted he was the most tender, thoughtful, open and honest human being I'd known to date, but still--how dare he tell me I didn't know what I was talking about? What kind of arrogance did it take to know what he thought was going on in my heart? Here I was trying to be vulnerable and connect with him through my major feelings, and he was tossing them back and telling me I was a kid playing with a grown-up concept I didn't understand. I felt so condescended to, so belittled. It was the first time he'd ever provoked that kind of feeling from me.

Although now, after six years together and three years of marriage, I wonder if maybe he was right.

I've been wondering what love is: if the love that a woman feels for her partner is less like a relational love and more like loving chocolate or some celebrity. Love is a feeling, but it's also a force, an energetic experience that moves us to do things: speak, think differently (maybe!), move toward or away from someone, it can even drive us to deceit, manipulation, murder. Is it a one-way stream of energy, like wind or a city street? Am I not so much in love with someone as I am in love at them? Is there a difference?

I was thinking of my parents as I was wondering about love and what it is between people. I imagine that my mother, and probably my father too, would still say that they love me, even after so much time has passed without us engaging in relationship. Even after all their pain--which, I imagine, is the only pain they are even semi-conscious of. In our most recent dealings with one another, my pain was irrelevant, and also according to them self-inflicted--and all their sacrifice and all of their tolerance of me, they still love me. I tried to imagine the scenario in which either of my parents would say to me that they loved me. Sadly, in my imagination, it felt so untrue. To love someone, you have to know them: who they are; what them believe in and want for themselves and their people, for the world; what they like or dislike; how they spend their time. Knowing all these things that you might about them, you could like them or not, but you have to know them.

If you love someone, what do you do? How do you love them? People do all kinds of jacked-up, despicable things in the name of love. A man may beat his wife because "he loves her" and wants her to behave in a way that keeps him calm. A mother may deride her son because "she loves him" and wants to prepare him early for the fact that the world is a cruel place. Parents may force a child to attend church for years, with no awareness of their child's faith journey because they "love" their child, and fear for her eternal soul. These people think that what they're doing is expressing love. Would their children and partners agree?

I think that most love, most love I know, has been one-way love. I reflect on some of the behavior I've been party to and I realize that this does not feel like love to me. You cannot love me unless you know me: adore, cherish, esteem, sure, and thank you because those are lovely. But love is an active verb, and it is not one-way. Two people in relationship agree on what it means to love each other. Sometimes love means I will let you beat me because I know that the moment I say "Jell-o", you will stop. Sometimes love means you will let me pick your clothes out for you; or you will cut my hair. You love me and I love you because we've named what passes between us as love. To love someone takes their consent. And I don't mean sexual consent here, I mean relational. It need not involve any touching at all. You can love me, and I can love you, if and only if each of us can say, "Yes, I witness what you feel for me, and I can affirm that it is love."

Consent. In love. Is that real? Is that revolutionary? Or I am I just late to this party?

In a Christian circle I used to run in, I heard the phrase "do life" a lot: as in, this is a person or community I want to do life with. Maybe that is what love is; if you love someone, you choose to do life with someone, whether it's for the rest of y'alls lives or until you decide you no longer want to do life. I read recently that the Sanskrit word for love, bhakti, stems from the verbal root bhaj, which means, "to participate". I read this and it took my breath away. Love means participation, it means buying in. You don't need to "fix" anything or "change" anything, but you are invested, you are participating actively in that person's life in a way that serves them and serves you. 

Now, I suppose the other side of this is: what if the person who says they love you really believes that they love you, but you don't? What then? Yes, indeed what then. I suppose that if you two can't agree on what love is in the context of your relationship, then the relationship must be reconfigured. You treat me a certain way and you say, "Jess, I love you." I say, "I'm sorry, what I feel coming from you is something but I do not feel loved. To love me looks like this; what comes from you looks like that." This is not a fun conversation to have. It requires supernatural listening, and an enormous amount of compassion for the self and for the person you're in relationship with. 

Now, maybe you can't get down with this idea of love as a shared, consensual practice. Maybe you love someone because you know what it means even if they don't. Okay. I might respectfully say that you might be loving at them, which makes them into an object, not a person in relationship with you. If that's okay with them and with you, loving them the way you love french fries and chocolate shakes, then you do you. But this is not the love I want from people in relationship with me. I want us to know each other, and I want our love to be affirming for all of us. 

A love that requires so much of me, and so much of the people I am in relationship with, might mean that I love only a very few people. But I hope not. I hope love is a kind of self-charging battery, and the better we love one another--in relationship and not as objects--the more able we are to continue to love others, and the love will spread.

(I am only just now wondering if this is how Christ loves the church, an enduring model for how we should love each other, which (at least theoretically) requires a great deal of sacrifice. I don't know. I imagine Christ knows the church, with its totally messed up damage, with its struggle to stay relevant in a world that is both wrapping itself in the love of God more ardently (read (some)human rights and (some) social change) , and also so terrified of change that it is blowing itself up and shutting itself down. The more I think about Christ as a model for life, the more I wonder how realistic it is for me to be comparing myself to THE SON OF GOD, for fuck's sake. What chance do I have in arriving if that's my yardstick? But this is all just parenthetical and wondering, and not so important after the fact. Just a post-script musing.)

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

some real talk on meditation

"Meditation is not a way to make things easier; it's a way to make them worse, so you will have to grow in the process.
 "The worst pitfall, I would say, is using meditation to "spiritually bypass" other concerns, concerns that can only be handled in their own terms, or on their own level. People think that meditation will take care of their money problems, their sex problems, their food problems--and of course it won't. What it will do is make you more sensitive and aware; and if you've got a painful life problem, meditation will probably just make it more painful because it will make you more sensitive. Meditation means you can't hide the pain anymore. You have to step right into the middle of it.
"In particular, meditation will not take care of most psychological problems. If you're basically a neurotic, meditation will make you a nice, enlightened neurotic. If you're a real schmuck, meditation will make you a real sensitive schmuck. It doesn't eliminate fundamental psychological or neurotic difficulties. and in some cases it can make them worse.
"I wouldn't say that [meditation is of no use with all psychological problems.] It can be of benefit in many ways, particularly in strengthening witnessing-awareness, but preferably alongside a psychotherapy designed to deal specifically and directly with your particular neurosis.  My point is that many people think that meditation is some sort of panacea, and it isn't. It is a direct way to engage your own growth and evolution, and, as is always the case, growth is painful. It hurts. If you're doing meditation correctly, you are in for some very rough and frightening times. Meditation as a "relaxation response" is a joke. Genuine meditation involves a whole series of deaths and rebirths; extraordinary conflicts and stresses come into play. All of this is just barely balanced by an equal growth in equanimity, compassion, understanding, awareness and sensitivity, which makes the whole endeavor worthwhile.
"But it's not just a day at the beach. Look at the life stories of the great saints and sages, and you will see tremendous struggle and pain. And notice that most of it starts after they have progressed in meditation, not before. My point is that there are extraordinary benefits and extraordinary pains, so hang in there. Just don't meditate instead of taking out the garbage--physical, emotional or psychological."  
---- "The Power and Limits of Meditation" by Ken Wilber



Thursday, September 26, 2013

my eyes are up here: censorship, body positivity and social media

I'm not sure what I was planning this morning: I need to write another post; I need to run to the store and get some nutritional yeast, and one or two other things; There are several unread chapters of the Gita calling my name.

But instead I'm here, writing about this, because our world is a broken, unfair place and I can't stay quiet about it. I'm a writer, and when something happens that I think is wrong, my first instinct is to write about it.

[Insert Photo of my breasts Here]

My inbox was full of unhappy emails from my fellow editors this morning. (Some of you who read here regularly know I'm on the editorial staff for this magazine. I couldn't be prouder of it.) Evidently, all of us had our personal online accounts (of a rather large social networking site, you know the one) flagged or seized or starred--or whatever you do to someone's digital profile in this final frontier of the Internet--because of a link the magazine's account had posted to its followers.

I'd love for you to become subscribers of Ms.Fit, but for now I'll just say that a large part of our agenda is publishing content that helps women of all shapes, sizes, shades, genders, identities and walks of life make choices that are healthy for us. The editors and contributors of MsFit work to make fitness and wellness a basic human rights for all women, something we can engage in without being shamed by the media, erased by the patriarchy, and subjugated by voices and forces--some external, some internal--who would demand we love and cherish ourselves less. It's important work, and it's important to us. We have a sense of humor, but we are not messing around about this, you can believe that.

Evidently, some time in the last day or so, we at MsFit posted a link to a blog called The Militant Baker. The link contains images from a photo shoot that are (presumably) being used for a book about body positivity. I don't know the writer at The Militant Baker, or her work, super-well, but I like what I see so far. This post, the one that got us all booted, is replete with images of all kinds of women, in various semi-nude states, who seem full of love for their bodies.

Go on, have a look. I'll wait until you come back.

So, after reading the dismayed emails about being frozen by said social network, I tried to get on this morning, and instead got a stern lecture--albeit in text--from the social network, about "Community Standards". I've read them carefully, and here's where I bet they'd claim we went afoul.

This first phrase falls under the "Graphic Content" section:

We understand that graphic imagery is a regular component of current events, but must balance the needs of a diverse community. Sharing any graphic content for sadistic pleasure is prohibited.

Now, what exactly are the needs of a diverse community? Maybe a diverse community needs to hear a challenging truth, and to take a breath even as they feel their values or aesthetics being challenged. Or maybe a diverse community needs to be anesthetized by pretty, easy pictures and simple games that won't cause a stir. I think it's pretty clear that the photos here aren't sadistic in any way. These women look like willing, even jubilant, participants, so consent seems really clear. Here's where things get a little sticky. See "Nudity and Pornography":

We also impose limitations on the display of nudity. We aspire to respect people’s right to share content of personal importance, whether those are photos of a sculpture like Michelangelo's David or family photos of a child breastfeeding.

 Okay. "Impose[ing] limitations" I think I understand, though I wish there was language about what those limitations are. It seems to me imposing them is arbitrary, maybe even hypocritical. I didn't do any kind of search for objectionable nudity--which would generally be less pro-woman, more misogynistic and likely more prurient--than the photos attached to the link, but they're out there. I know they're out there because one of the other editors did do that search, and showed us some stuff. Ick. Now, I don't want to get into the "if they can, why can't we?" game, because I don't know how relevant or productive it would be. What's really unclear to me is this whole, "aspire[ing] to respect" shared content. Does that mean, we wish we could respect your content, but we don't, or we're trying to respect your content, but we suck at it? Or is it just an insincere nod, the kind of thing that says, we get that breastfeeding is a natural, completely non-sexual part of life, but still, there's a woman's boob in the shot so for God's sake pull that heinous content down before you start a riot.

how do ya like them breasts, baby?


Yes, I will absolutely concede that these are not photos of women breastfeeding. They're photos of women in love with their bodies. They seem proud, diverse, joyful and unashamed (god forbid a woman ever be unashamed). Quite frankly, they remind me the most of that Dove soap commercial, only with more nipples. The women here are (as far as it seems to me, clearly) not minors, and there's nothing prurient or sexual in nature of these photos. There's just a lot of boobs. For the record, it's nothing like the boobs that people mean or imagine when they talk about pornographic. These bodies are natural; they have miles on them, they tell stories and communicate a level of self-acceptance that I wish every woman I know possessed. These are your sister's bodies, your mother's bodies, your ancestor's bodies.

But there is a lot of boob.

(One small critique: there are a lot of white bodies in the photos sampled. I know, I know, there are some brown bodies, too, and a fair amount. I'm always on the look out for my own reflection, even in this kind of work, and I would have enjoyed seeing more diversity throughout the photos, rather than single brown body or the "brown body group shot". I didn't see any of my ancestors' bodies. Having said that, what I saw was a sample, I think, so I don't know what the finished product looks like.)

Hang with me, I'm almost there. How do I feel about this? I feel victimized. It would seem that the weight of the text--and of its importance, HUGE--is completely irrelevant compared to the included images. As a writer and as a human, I find this deeply distressing. I could write a brilliant post about how each of us is lovable and can exercise compassion and how we should listen without prejudice and disagree with grace and consideration, and whatever; and if I include a sexy, art-designed image of some dessert, or some hottie with his shirt off, it'll get more hits. Really? Has our world so degraded in its ability to share ideas that the images are more important than the words?

I'm not saying images have no power. I've read enough crappy magazines, watched enough bad TV and seen enough fucking video game footage to know better. I believe in media literacy. But words are alive. They have meaning. We are still arguing about the n-word. Hip-hop is so potentially damaging not just for the way women are treated in its videos, but in its lyrics. Hashtag, for crying out loud, we make things trend with words! We communicate in words. When I open my mouth to challenge someone, emoticons don't fall out, nor do images or paintings. Words fall out, and on a good day, they're thoughtful words. If the faceless people in charge of "community standards" had taken five minutes to consider the text and import of what MsFit was sharing, would they still have found the images so objectionable? If so, why? Is it because the bodies are un-airbrushed, un-Photoshopped bodies? Or is it just because the bodies are bare breasted?

So I don't like that our work is being flagged by The Man, or that we're being labeled as questionable because of some feminist, body-positive content we shared. I guess this means we're doing something right. Nobody ever said that challenging the system from within was easy work. It's not an easy blow, I'll tell you. But this is the work we do, and it matters so we keep doing it.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

It's Close

I've written about my hair before here, right? Is anyone else tired of the black female body being not just belonging to Michelle or Maria or Denise or Kendra, but being a political battle ground for beauty standards, gender stereotypes, racial identity and feminism? I am so tired of the rhetoric.

Tired of it, yes, but that doesn't mean that it goes away, or that anyone else just gets it, simply because I'm tired of explaining it. I appreciate the frustration of those who say, "It's no longer my job to explain to you why your ignorance offends me. Go read a book, go get an education." I get that. I've probably said it, and I've recently heard it, or something like it. Still, I believe at my center that if people are going to connect in a genuine and lasting way, if relationship and discovery and learning are going to bring about genuine change in our thinking and behavior, then each of us will have to willingly wear the responsibility (dare I say it? the gift?) of teaching other people what they do not know. I never want to make anyone feel ashamed of their ignorance, even if it does offend me.

So for the last eight years, I've worn locks. (Not dreads, nor dreadlocks: locks. The difference? Locks are a style named for describing the process of hair locking onto itself in a tailored structure. Dreads are an imperialist name given to Caribbean citizens by British colonizers who considered their hairstyle "dreadful". Let's decolonize the style, shall we, by banishing the term "dreads" from our vocabulary.) I locked in 2005, during graduate school, when I was looking for an opportunity to really get to know myself, my hair, to open my arms to my physical experience of what my beauty was and is. 

I've worn my hair locked through seven apartments, two boyfriends, one (!) husband, nine months of engagement, three-plus years of marriage, five years as an art school faculty member, eight years of yoga practice, two broken friendships, two broken relationships, travel to 13 states and one master's degree. It's been an eventful eight years. In that time I got lots of compliments. Some were genuine and grounded in a sweet sense of appreciation, and many were from sisters who were also natural or locked. Some were from people who'd never seen someone with hair like mine close up and marveled at me, a bit Venus-hottentott-ey. I've lost count of how many times a white person reached a hand into my head--without asking--and touched my hair. It made me nuts--can you tell by the context clues?

Lately, I've been thinking of cutting them, my locks, off. I learned that some traditions hold that you only cut your locks under a momentous occasion: someone has died, a relationship has ended, you've made a major life change. (I liken the shearing of hair under grief to an old biblical practice. In the old testament, when someone was grieving, they'd cut off all their hair, put on sackcloth instead of their clothes, pour ashes on their head and sit by the city wall and wail.) Fortunately, no one has died nor am I overcome with grief. But life change, I can get on board with some of that.

2013 has been a big year for me so far, and I don't know what the last four months are going to hold. Still, I feel like change has been a part of this year's m.o.

So I did it.


I did it myself. I bought a pair of scissors and a set of clippers and I stood in my bathroom and cut them all off. 

Hours before, I asked my husband to take a photo of me, in all of my waist-length, eight year glory. Then, I said thank you and goodbye to my hair, and I cut each lock, one by one. 


Voila!

I took this one myself, with the space phone. I am covered in tiny hairs, but I feel wonderful.

So how big a deal is this? I don't know yet. I know that my husband is still looking at me mildly bewildered, but he hasn't burst into tears (which is what my mother did the first time I cut off my hair. I should give her a break. Her sense of identity--mine and her own--has been caught up in physical appearance, and especially hair, for as long as I've known her.) I know that my head feels lovely, and I feel beautiful. I know that I will have to ward people off touching my head without asking, and I will try to do it gently, but sometimes I will fail. Not much else has changed. But I feel good and I look good. 

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Purity of Love

I am so overdue for a post here, I know I know. So much has happened in the last four weeks--geeze, I guess it really has been about that long--and I've been thinking about how to write about it, and it's all bigger than I have time for now.

But I have time for this and I'm thinking about it a lot. This month, I've been taking a class at one of my favorite yoga studios in the city about the Bhagavad Gita. Simply put, the Gita is the penultimate holy Hindu text. It's often compared to the bible, and has at times reminded me of various books of the Bible--Job, I Kings, and even a gospel or two. The book is basically a conversation between Arjuna, a kick-ass warrior who has to fight a battle that gives him great moral concern, and Krisha, his charioteer, also known as the Supreme Being, all gods in all places and times, creator sustainer destroyer: The Shit.

This week I read a passage wherein Krishna shows Arjuna his true self. It basically scares the crap out of Arjuna, and he falls down, stunned and astonished beyond any capacity for reason. Krishna returns to his regular, nice-guy charioteer, and Krishna says to him,

Very rarely seen/is this form of mine/that you have seen./Even the divinities/are always/desiring a vision of me.
Not by the study of the Vedas,/ nor by austerity,/ nor by giving,/ nor by sacrifice/Am I able to be seen/ in such a form/ as you have seen me.
Only by the offering of/ one's love to none other,/ O Arjuna, am I able,/ in such a form, To be known and/ to be truly seen, and to be attained,/ O Fighter of the Enemy. 
This knocked me out. Krishna says to his friend, "The only reason you can see me, is because the love you've offered me, the love we share, is so pure and true." I thought what a beautiful metaphor for relationship this is: perhaps we can only show ourselves, our true selves, to the people who can love us most certainly. To love someone is to put up with a lot, to give a lot and to tolerate a lot. Do the people you love really see you? Are you showing your real self to the people who love you the truest, the most certainly and ardently?

This question has a lot of resonance for me right now, contemplating how to self-promote. The very idea of work like this makes my teeth ache. I expect I'll get over that someday. Or else, I'll find some other way to live. In the meantime, I like thinking of a relationship wherein one can be so transparent about his true identity because he is loved so purely by his friend.

A wooden Krishna in Bangalore. This guy seems really easy to hang out with (there should be a flute in his hands) and he apparently was quite popular with the ladies. Don't cross him though, because according to the Gita, he will melt your face off.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Do your practice, all is coming

So I've written about Ashtanga in this space before, but not as much as I'd thought I had. It's been on my mind for weeks now.
This is Kino MacGregor, the yoga world's Ashtanga darling. She's got a killer bod, and her down-to-earth instruction has made the practice accessible for lots of practitioners. I can't swear by her methods, but she sure is cute. And check the delts.

This isn't a yoga blog, it's true, despite the fact that I write about yoga an awful lot. I write about yoga so much because I think about it, and because it's a really useful tool in understanding some of what I struggle with in life (right now, a sense of direction, #BlackPowerisforBlackMen, what "Spirituality" means, who am I post-surgery). My yoga practice is the place where good writing happens, it's a place that is safe when almost every other place feels threatening, and even when my practice feels distant or stiff (as it does right now) or rife with self-judgment, it's where I go. So even as I'm thinking about how much it hurts to connect to the pain of rejection (specifically within the context of culturally being abused and rejected by black men, not as a mate but as a member of one's (my) own community), yoga feels appropriate.

So, Ashtanga. If I haven't said it yet, I have a complicated relationship with Ashtanga. Ashtanga is a deeply athletic, highly structured system of asana that involves practicing the same sequence of poses, in the same order, with the same breath technique and the same energy locks, or bandhas. It's broken down into several series, Primary, Intermediate, etc. and I think there are seven or eight in all. But Primary is Primary, no matter where you go. It's a bit like Bikram, or maybe a Catholic church in that way: you can walk into any Ashtanga studio anywhere in the world, and the Primary series will always be the same. You don't need to speak the language to practice.

(As an aside, the name is a bit of a misnomer. Ashtanga translates to "eight limbs", which actually describes the path of yoga as a lifestyle as opposed to exclusively a physical practice. Asana, poses, is only the third  limb of eight that constitute yoga: but that's a bit of a rabbit hole and would take us off our point.)

I love the structured nature of the practice. At its best, it feels rhythmic, meditative, familiar and always challenging. Structured things make me quite happy. I love order, and I follow rules. I swoon in office supply stores. There is a part of me that is deeply soothed by the structure and order of the Primary Series. I don't have to decide what to do, because it's all there, laid out for me, I just have to show up and try.

I fell in love with Ashtanga in grad school. I'd recently moved away from my friends and community, I was chest-deep in my thesis, and I spent so much time making words that I wasn't interested in any kind of experience (especially a spiritual one) that involved language. So every Sunday night, I would go over to Yoga Now--back when it was on the North Side, on Broadway at Thorndale--and take the free class taught by Patricia Hyland. A dark-haired short woman in her 50s, Patricia had been practicing Ashtanga for decades, and would start every class with an unsolicited and rambling mini-lecture (welcome by me, despite my need for silence) about Ashtanga. Then she'd decide it was time to get down to business and we'd do Half Primary, all of us. It was hard. It was quiet. It was an opportunity for me to dive into whatever I was bringing into the room that day, and to come face to face with it. I loved it.

But I also have a hard time with it. I'm the kind of yogi who takes the whole idea of different yoga traditions with a giant grain of salt. There's a kind of purist vibe about Ashtanga, its ancient quality, its connection to the Indian subcontinent (Mysore is both a method of practicing that involves learning sequences slowly, one pose at a time, over many months or years, and the city in Southern India for which the method is named), its profound discipline and punishing demands. I believe in the wisdom of our teachers, and I understand why one woman would  prefer Iyengar to  vinyasa, and why Tantra traditions just seem too far out there for some Type A's, but really. At the end of the day, it's all about a physical practice that unites movement and breath, body and mind, gross and subtle, masculine and feminine. Does it matter what lineage we hold up as our favorite? (Having said that, my sweet spot is Tantra, because that metaphysical, shiva/shakti stuff is right up my street.) I wonder about the safety and accessibility of some poses: Ashtanga strikes me as a system of yoga westerners would take to like fish to water, because it's can be goal-oriented, about go-go-go, push-push-push, achieving the next level. Lots of people hurt themselves when they practice thoughtlessly; they push too hard. This is true of just about any physical activity, so it's not a huge deterrent, but still. Also, I struggle with the beauty of Ashtanga. Ashtangis are gorgeous, and I mean in the way you'd expect a yogi to be: they're lithe, muscular and graceful. During practice, they mist themselves with oil and water (only so that they can shove arms through legs in kukutasana) and they glisten with strength and beauty. Not long ago, Yoga Journal did a spread about this woman and this project, and it really rubbed me the wrong way. As stunning and powerful a practice as this is, I don't trust the outward celebration of the stunning physical body that it creates in its practitioner.

Given this love/hate relationship, I go back and forth with Ashtanga. For a time, I practice, working diligently but compassionately with what bit I can in Primary series, then I decide Ashtanga's not for me, and I give in and do what I want to do: sun salutations that involve lunges, poses to open my outer hips that I can actually get into, yin (!) yoga. It's wonderful. But then I begin to feel like something's missing, like my practice, all loosey goosey and going with what my body wants, just isn't hooking me enough. I pull out my Ashtanga books and handouts, and I cruise the interwebs for one or two Ashtanga blogs that I can cling to for inspiration when my discipline is flagging and I just don't wanna anymore.

It's a cycle. Not vicious, but not fun.

I find myself back again, fascinated by the structured and nature of Ashtanga, thinking that given some other life changes I'm dealing with that it would be good to have a yoga practice that was a) unchanging; and b) could help me connect to myself, get to know that which is new, grow, change and discover. I need exercise, I need to build strength, stamina, discipline, endurance. Why not pick up a yoga practice which will help me cultivate all these things?

Because it's fuckin' hard, that's why.

I don't mean hard like, man-I-can't-get-my-foot-up-to-my-thigh-in-tree-pose hard. I mean hard. You want a practice that will force you in an unattractive way to get to know your ego, Ashtanga is it. It requires a lot of you and takes a lot out of you, and if you don't bring a truckload of patience and compassion to the mat with you, and I mean every time you practice, you won't make it. I find myself thinking of it as the ego smashing practice, because every time I step to the mat, what I think I know about yoga dissolves and evaporates in the room and it fills with my hardworking, frustrated energy.

I wasn't sure if I should even try practicing Ashtanga at this point in life. It's true, I need to get back to a place where my body is strong and healthy. I'm softer in places I don't want to be, and taking care of myself means building muscle tone, endurance and strength. I began to wonder if I was just too old, if I should just let go of Ashtanga forever.

But the Universe has been sending me all kinds of messages not to do that. On Sunday, the Foundational class I went to at my favorite studio was taught by an Ashtangi, and our class mirrored the Primary series in a way that was uncanny, although still accessible. Kino MacGregor, see above, keeps showing up on an online yoga magazine I check out. On top of which, one of the yoga blogs I read just posted a led Ashtanga-inspired video for beginners. The Universe is rising up to meet me, and it's bringing Primary series.

If my body learned these poses once, it can learn them again. If I learned to wake before six a.m. so I can finish my practice and have breakfast early, I can learn again. If I woke and practiced without checking FB or Twitter, I can do it again (although that will be quite hard). It just takes more time this time around.

I'm considering making my journey with Ashtanga a little more public this time. Not here, but maybe at my blog at MsFit. If you're interested, let me know. I like reading those kinds of things, but I don't know if anyone else does.

Until I decide, I guess my job is to put my head down, make my body my laboratory, and trust the words of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. Do my practice, all is coming.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Twitter made me wince.

I recently discovered #BlackPowerisforBlackMen, a hashtag that's been trending, a kind of home for a conversation about the privilege black men live with (and benefit from) at the expense of black women. It was borne out of #SolidarityisforWhiteWomen, which is equally powerful, but is also another story.

(Sidebar: I think it's really cool that what's rocking my world is a collection of letters and symbols, as opposed to a physical experience I had, something I ate or read or saw. I'm stunned that Twitter has been the home for this kind of dialogue. The Internet is changing our world, y'all; and I'm old, I don't even understand how fast things are moving.)

So tweets that feature this hashtag can and should be found if you do a Twitter search, but some I've read include:

"Because somehow I am expected to smile for u, on command, on the street, when we've never met." (@Shannonboogie)
"#BlackPowerisforBlackMen because the only real issues and people that matter in the black community is black men." (@B_Jenelle)
"#BlackPowerisforBlackMen when BM subtlely blame BW for fatherlessness and then blame them for homosexual black boys by extension." (@Minniemette-- this one is SO complicated, to me, I don't know where to begin)
"BlackPowerisforBlackMen when black men want us to protest police brutality and racial profiling but forgive Chris Brown, Kobe etc." (@ZerlinaMaxwell This hit me like a brick in the face, because I've experienced this very feeling."

It's powerful stuff. Mikka Kendall and Jamilah Lemieux are the women who started this conversation, and to whom I'm grateful for doing so. I've been thinking about it since it popped into my feed Monday morning, and I'm a week behind, late to the party as usual. Clutch Magazine collected some tweets and put them here, and if you haven't read yet, do it. This is a conversation that I'm not having with many people.
Holy God, this woman. She knocks my socks off. Jill Scott, will you be my mentor?

Months ago, I posted a stunning photo of Jill Scott on FB, and a friend of mine commented that she couldn't get behind JS because she has problems with interracial couples. In the article I linked to, she describes something called "the wince."

(So come with me down this rabbit hole.)

I totally know where my friend is coming from, at least cognitively. She's biracial, a daughter of a black man and white women, who love her deeply and taught her some lessons that have made her a pretty awesome human being and a thoughtful, compelling artist and educator. She's married to an equally awesome Latino man, and they have two beautiful children together. She is interracial couple; she lives interracial couple; she comes from interracial couple. To hear someone denounce interracial love, even as thoughtfully as Jill Scott does, strikes at a deep, elemental part of who she is.

But here's the thing: she's not a black woman. She's biracial, and they're not one in the same, much as we in the black community want to pretend and assert that biracial equals black. The one drop rule is dead, and anyone who would have you believe otherwise is walking through life with a small mind. I know, plenty of biracial people read as black and when they get stopped by Officer Bubba, it doesn't much matter who was white in his family tree. I'm also not saying that biracial is better, or worse, than black. I'm saying that being biracial provides her with a different experience, and it makes Jill Scott's experience further from hers. My friend's experience as a woman who comes from and shares two cultures make it difficult for her to experience the wince. Of course she can't get on board with this feeling; I don't know if she's ever known the wince.

Here's another thing: I write this as a black woman in an interracial marriage. I come from some remarkable black men, and I love black men, I've even dated black men, but I didn't marry one. I married the man I fell in love with. I didn't fall in love with him because he wasn't black. For the record, he's not white either (as if black and white are opposites when it comes to people, or love, as it if it were as simple as that.) He's American-Born Chinese, the first generation of his family born here, and when I described the kind of oppression and depression and dispossession I felt as a woman of color, he understood it perfectly as a man of color. But more importantly, I fell in love with him because he saw me and knew me, because my "angry black ass" didn't scare him away, and because he fell in love with me. I'm not ashamed of that anymore. People say the same thing of Christ, right, that they love him because he loved them? And Christ doesn't forget to fill up the electric kettle or chew too loudly over breakfast.

So, madly in love as I am with my husband, I understand at my center the wince that Jill Scott is talking about. I don't want another man, I got my man, and I love the idea of cross-cultural relationships and families. I love interracial love. But I know, and I see, how society heralds the beauty of white women at the expense of black women. I acknowledge the fractured nature of feminism in American history. I think about that section of Their Eyes Were Watching God, when Janie's grandmother is trying to warn her about what it means to be a black woman, about the rejection, dismissal, judgment and oppression you will endure from the world. I work to transcend the trappings of physical life and my expectations of it, of how the world treats me because I am a black woman--and this is what I have yoga for--but when I'm behind the counter getting shitty service, or when I'm being condescended to by someone my grandmother's age, or when someone is saying something patently racist and I'm expected to laugh it off, it's hard.

So when this happens, I want to believe that even though almost all of the world is uninterested in caring for black women, when everyone else has their own to deal with and black women better do for themselves, I hope, hope hope, that black men will show up for us.

And they don't. They don't show up. They blame us. They ignore us. They call us angry, bitter, and they choose women who have been heralded as the paragon of beauty for being the opposite of what we are. The sons, brothers, fathers and cousins make a choice that, whether they mean to or not, hurts us just a little.

How can we not wince?

Chalk it up to insecurity if you want, and maybe you're right. But I'd argue it's not an insecurity that comes individually, but that it's an insecurity that has been a part of the fabric of what it means to be a black woman in America, for centuries. It is one of many generations-old, deeply felt curses resulting from the original sin of American slavery. If black women are insecure, if we wince, it is because the men we need to champion us to a world that barely sees us in our own right, are actively moving away from us.

Perhaps this is why the hashtag weighed on me the way it did. It crystallized and verbalized a divide between black men and black women that is damaging my community. It woke a lot of people up, and got a lot of us thinking and talking, hopefully in that order. The question (as always) is how to take this energy, and education for some, and make something happen with it, as opposed to letting it just burn off like so much steam.

Monday, August 19, 2013

a surprise visitor

So my Favorite and I recently moved into new digs, and before we moved in, I did a bit of a cleansing ritual, to bless our new home. Now that we're, let's say, four-fifths unpacked, I thought it was time for a second ritual, so I pulled out the Feng-Shui (say, "fung sway") for Dummies and I did the Orange Peel Blessing. If you know me, it should come as no surprise to you that I'd do this kind of stuff. I'm the kind of person who believes in shifting the energy around them, whether it's with a deep breath, a sage smudge or a big change. My husband doesn't really go in for all of this, but he doesn't have to believe to benefit, and he's patient enough with me that I don't mind doing it alone.

All well and good, no biggie, lots of water sprinkling and chanting and flowers. Then, I sat down and started planning dinner.

So less than an hour after the ritual was finished, I'm sitting in the living room searching for a vegan sloppy joe recipe on the tablet (they were awesome), and a black-and-white cat walked in through my open front door.

What's interesting about this, besides the fact that we don't have a cat, is that we live on the third floor of a six-flat. Typical Chicago, but it's not a building that's super-open to wildlife. The cat came from someone else's home. It's not a building where everyone leaves their doors open, because it'd just be open to a hallway, you know, not anything special. My door just happened to be open because I'd opened it as a part of the blessing. Additionally, it was maybe six pm, so people were getting home from work and whatnot. Either they weren't at home, or they'd notice that their cat had scampered away.

I saw something move out of the corner of my eye, and I look over and there's this cat, green eyes, big pupils, two-tone coat, walking in like he'd come from the back bedroom. I half-expected him to say, "Jess, did you forget to fill the Britta pitcher again?"

"Hi," I said. He turned and continued walking into the living room.

I called out to my husband and told him that a cat had just wandered into our home. He seemed somewhat at ease, making his way into the dining room and through the kitchen, he went into the hall closet even, looking for something (a food dish? a litter box?). My husband came out of his office and we stared at the cat for a while.

I was completely flummoxed. I've seen cats before, I get cats, I like cats. But this one didn't have a collar, and I didn't know whom he belonged to. He was thin, not beat up or bald or sickly, but as he mewed, I noticed that he didn't have many teeth. Where had he come from? What did he want? What should we do?

If my husband tells  you this story he'll tell you he was cool and I was confused. Don't you believe it. He seemed at a loss, just like me. My husband mewed at the cat and tried to get it to come toward him, out into the hallway, but the cat was not interested. He put some water out for the cat, who couldn't have cared less. He moved boxes around, trying to block access to various parts of the apartment, and they were somewhat successful. He knocked on doors, and I knocked on a couple more, looking for who might be the family for this cat.

The whole time I'm talking to the cat, I'm thinking, do you want to come and stay with us? Have you come here because you're looking for a family and we're it? Or are you lost? I've just done this blessing to rid our home of negative energy and bring blessings and luck to our family, and you're what walks through the door. Can you stay here? I mean, our lease says NO PETS, otherwise we'd probably be talking seriously about getting one. Do you know that? Have you come here because you want to live with us? Or are you just looking for your own home?

The cat looked confused, and sometimes ill at ease. He would sit in the floor for a while, mewing, and occasionally the tip of his tail trembled. When the neighbors came home with their dog, Tater, his ears started twitching and he began to hiss. What I couldn't do was ignore the cat. I couldn't just go back to dinner planning and Pandora radio like nothing had happened. Because this cat must have had a home, someone who would love it. But I didn't know how to help him get home. I didn't know if his home was this home, or another.

After about 15 minutes of trying to coax the cat back out our front door, and looking for someone in the building who owns it, we found its owner. Turns out, the cat's name is Buster, and he lives with a lovely woman on the first floor. I'm still not sure how it is he got out of her apartment. I wonder if he's a building cat that she takes care of.

That night, I dreamed of pets. Someone had left three puppies and a cat for my husband and me to care for, and we'd never had a bet before, so we had no leashes with which to walk the dogs. I went door-to-door, asking to borrow a leash for each puppy, when I finally had enough and managed to get the puppies wrangled into leashes, they didn't want to walk. Puppies don't really know how to go for walks, you know? They have to learn. There'd even been some indoor pooping, because they didn't know where they should go or not go.

I'm glad the lovely woman on the first floor came to get Buster. I wouldn't want either of them to be lonely for one another's company. But I do wonder what message, if any, Buster was bringing into our home. What drew him up to the third floor, and what would he have done if we'd just let him stay?

If Buster comes back, I'll be much more relaxed this time, because I know where his home is. Maybe I'll find out from him if he'd like to stay longer, or if he just wants to upset an afternoon's activity.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Loving Our Changing Bodies

This is not my orchid, although I do have one. It doesn't look nearly as good.

It's been a busy week. A week ago, my Favorite and I moved house, and so now we're swimming in a sea of boxes, and my chief responsibility has been to try and unpack our lives.

BUT, I wanted to take a quick moment and share with you a piece I wrote about what my yoga practice has been like after surgery. You can read it here. Exciting!

Friday, July 26, 2013

Cool Summer's Round-Up

All too often in life I get stuck in a goove.

In part because I'm considering how to help my blog through some transitions, and in part because I'm moving soon and am swamped preparing for that, I'm posting another round-up. I like this as a form. Enjoy.

A principal has been insulting a few teachers at her school, and is catching heat for it. I think there's a Change.org petition about this, so have a look for it if you think this is deplorable.

It's not news, but my favorite live storytelling event is telling a story at one of my favorite wine bars on Monday night. If  you're looking for something fun, check it out.

WBEZ answers burning questions about why Chicagoans don't eat ketchup on their hot dogs and other burning questions. I linked to this because of the oldest sidewalk in Chicago; I thought the idea was charming.

I haven't watched Robin Thicke's video, or at least not all of it. I did watch about thirty seconds for the context of this video, but that was all I could take. I like this single better, and it was fun to watch even without the context of Robin Thicke and misogyny.

This article in the New York Times shows bums me out; health care is still an institution serving our nation's women inequitably.

On that tip, our nation's legislators are f-ing it up for all of us trying to get insurance. When I think about Congress, I want to emigrate, preferably to a small tropical island.

This is a lovely meditation on the connection between yoga and our religious and/or spiritual practice.