Thursday, January 31, 2013

does anybody really know what time it is?

You remember that section in The Bell Jar where Esther is talking about expectations? Her dippy college boyfriend Buddy Willard has come up for a visit--to see someone else actually, that horse-face girl from her hometown, Joan--and Esther, stinging with disappointment, thinks, "I decided not to expect anything from Buddy Willard. If you expect nothing from somebody you are never disappointed."

I've been thinking about that a lot lately.
from you can buy one there; a model, that is, not a real human heart.

Slap me with the hipster label if you want, after having read this book more than ten years ago, I still find places in it where the humanity is real. For some it may be the woman's answer to The Catcher in the Rye, with its young, privileged angst (and that book has not held up well for me) but I still feel parts of my soul echo when I read The Bell Jar. The feeling of being pulled in so many directions, the feeling of being ruled by emotions, of wanting so much from others and colliding headlong with their inability to give you what you need, the raw fear, the raw ambition, the vulnerability. It still speaks to me. Maybe that means I'm still stuck in my 19-year-old self. I prefer to think that the novel explores some ideas that endure.

But this isn't about The Bell Jar.

I've been thinking of making a Change. Not a haircut change, or a rearrange the furniture change, but a capital-C Change. To speak openly about it makes me feel vulnerable, so forgive the shady and hedged nature of my writing about it here. It's not ready to breathe on its own yet. Change. and I ask myself, What would change like this bring me? Would I become some stellar woman with a magic touch.Would I amaze others with my ability to throw down? Would I transform the hearts and minds of others? Or would it be more grunt-work, more disappointment and more monotony?

There are all these moments, places, relationships in my life, wherein I had expectations. Expectations that my family would like or understand me; expectations that my job would be there. Expectations that there'd be something for me to eat; that this feeling would last forever; that people, even when they are hurting, want to try to do good; that people can listen to each other. And over and over again, these expectations get destroyed.

(I imagine a hot water bottle overfilling to the point where it explodes.Which is interesting. My choice of metaphor might suggest that my expectations are so ludicrous that nothing, Nothing, is big or strong or smart or compassionate enough to contain them. That's not lost on me.)

Everything I read spiritually tells me that expectations are bad. That is, that they don't help you arrive at any higher version of yourself, they don't help turn me into someone who can love deeper or greater or more compassionately. There's a Sanskrit word, dukha, that means suffering, and according to the Yoga Sutras, it comes from a blindness, a refusal to see things as they are. All the yoga study, the meditation study, says to observe without judgment, to detach from the results, to witness feelings and experiences without being compelled to act on those feelings. So I guess I should say more about expectations. I think what happens is I come to a thing--a person, a relationship, an opportunity--hoping to find some part of myself that will be reflected or met in it. I hope to see or touch or recognize some part of myself in these moments. I hope to find some meaning in the work I do, the people I keep company with, the interactions I have. And I don't. Instead, they're flat, or worse, not only do I not experience a healthy mirror, but I get an experience that denies me: that tells me I don't exist, that I don't feel what I'm feeling, that I don't matter or I'm not real or that I'm not there.
So if there are all these moments in my life wherein I've sought a mirror, and expected to find one, only to be disappointed, I wonder is there a mirror even out there. Is there any experience that has meaning? Is there anything that can meet me where I am and give me what I need?

I don't like this kind of existential casting about. It feels decadent. It also feels hackneyed. Poor woman must be so burdened by not knowing whether or not her life has meaning, the millions of people who are hungry or dispossessed or incarcerated notwithstanding. But this is where I am: wondering, if the things that used to be so full of joy and meaning for me are now empty, does it even matter what I do? Is everything empty, devoid of meaning, of reflection?

Do I spiral into a nihilistic vortex that leads me to act without care for consequence? Does it lead to destruction? To inertia? To hedonism?


Friday, January 25, 2013

A New Venture: MsFit Magazine

I am so proud to be a part of a new effort called Ms.Fit Magazine. Ms.Fit is an unapologetically feminist, queer-friendly health and fitness magazine for women of all colors, shapes, sizes and lifestyles. Along with some wonderful women, I've been working on the magazine, and this past Saturday it launched so you can Read it NOW! And you should! Go check it out!

Here's our manifesto, penned by the brilliant writer and MsFit, and our editor-in-chief, Kathie Bergquist.

If you’re sick of mainstream health and fitness magazines that front like they are all about you looking and feeling great but never make you feel great because nobody in their pages actually looks like you, and you can’t afford all the fancy gadgets they say you need to be a whole new you, and what’s wrong with the you who you already are, and not every woman who is interested in an active, healthy lifestyle is white and straight and rich and skinny, and you believe that living consciously includes being conscious of the world outside of the yoga studio, and that our wellness also depends on the wellness of the earth and all of her people, if reproductive rights are human rights, and all girls and women deserve access to healthy food and active play, and strong women kick ass; if you think that, in a world where women and LGBTQ folks are shamed about who they are, about who they love, about liking or disliking sex, about liking food, about their bodies, about their addictions and their recovery, and where access to health care is used for political leverage or considered governmental benevolence instead of a fucking basic human right, and you’re looking for a community of like-minded people: girls, women, young, old, queer, straight, trans, cis, nerds, jocks, dykes, foodies, feminist men, grannies, tweens, who recognize that being strong and healthy is an act of political defiance against those who would like to see us weak, and that we all deserve the right to thrive in all of our fierce, beautiful manifestations, then you are a Ms.Fit.  Claim it.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Insert Label Here

This is a Rodin, one of the Burghers of Calais.
Doesn't he look like he's about to lay some wisdom on your ass? Listen up.

I'm married to a man who doesn't believe in self-labeling. Whenever I turn to him with the wrinkle in my forehead and say, "But sweetheart, what will people say/think about me?" He flicks his eyes to mine, then back to his laptop, shrugs a shoulder, and mutters, "Fuck 'em." He is patient with my slow shedding of my belief that to be black is to engage in a narrow set of behaviors, to be a woman, to be a Midwesterner, blah blah blah. Patient, but also liberated: he doesn't believe in any of it. A first-generation Chinese-American, or American-born Chinese, he knows about the kind of crap that majority culture puts on the other when individuals encounter him, and he's just not interested.

(So what's interesting about him is that he doesn't care about the label, but I have to get the label right when I describe him--American-born Chinese, or First Generation Chinese-American: I can't mess it up, because the label has some meaning. He will be the first person to tell you that Korean does not mean Chinese does not mean Laotian does not mean Japanese. So even as the naming is a ritual he's not feeling, the name has import. Ah, the compilations of humanity.)

I come from a family that was big into labeling, specifically, how the world (read: majority culture = white folks) sees you(me), what that says about you(me), and how you(I) should behave in order to thrive(survive). What it meant to be a "black woman" was an incredibly loaded reality, and one that I could never escape. Do this to your hair, do this to your voice, your lips, your ass, your elbows, wear this, DON'T wear THAT, go here not here, and on and on. Thank God we have all stopped talking about being post-racial, and perhaps we are on our way to a world that is post-black, which is to say all of that advice means nothing.  But I'm not sure if that's our world--I'm not sure if there aren't still people who want me to do/wear/buy/consume/vote/read (or not read, more truthfully)/watch a certain way because of my racial identification. I suppose the struggle is different now; I'm not having to face kids in the hallway or on the bus calling me an Oreo because they've never seen anyone like me. Instead I get funny looks from women, who point at ingredients in my cart and whisper to their girlfriends.

All this to say I read an incredible essay in this book, Sistah Vegan--a well-meaning and mind-expanding (if at times a bit uneven) anthology of essays and poetry by black women vegans--called "Journey toward Compassionate Choice: Integrating Vegan and Sistah Experience." Despite the grad thesis title, it was really accessible, the kind of essay that's part theory/part personal experience, with more or less sound deduction. What made it so incredible was that it articulated the complex mix of feelings I've been having for the last month or two.

I took this photo right after I finished a pretty strict cleanse. So much of the food world was just stunning.

When I went gluten-free/dairy-free, in 2009, I'd been a vegetarian for almost two years, and I worried about being a black woman who was gluten-free and practically vegan. Can a black woman be a gluten-free vegan? I worried. Black women don't invest this much in our own welfare and health care; that's for rich white ladies. Are Samuel L. Jackson, Flavor Flav and Mo'Nique going to roll up on my and snatch my black card out of my wallet? Black women don't have a legacy of caring for themselves. Caring for others, sure. For hundreds of years, Black women in America have nursed, wiped, swept, cooked, cleaned, washed, dressed and served others, and at their/our own expense. When your legacy in your homeland is invisibility, subservience, abuse and neglect, you don't really feel you have much right to self-care, much less resources on how to do it. After a brief (though not brief enough) foray back into meat eating, I returned to a plant-based diet last year, this time eliminating eggs on top of it all. As I learned about veganism in America, I noticed what a majority-culture movement it was. It was great that I had all this common ground with like-minded souls who wanted love for our bodies, each others' bodies, the planet and the animals; but where were my brothers and sisters? Where were people like me, who saw first-hand what obesity was doing in the black community, who struggled with diet-related illness in their own families and who wanted a healthier alternative for black consumers to choose?

In my search I came across the work of Bryant Terry, black vegan chef (I came home from a workshop he ran shrieking to my husband, "We're vegans now! Even you!"), and Breeze Harper, a PhD candidate at UC Davis, and editor of Sistah Vegan. Her work deals with postcolonial, anti-racist food justice, and particularly how the typical American diet has been used as a tool of oppression and manipulation on the female black body. Harper posits that veganism is not only a return to diets more honest for those with African ancestry, but that it is a rejection of oppression by the establishment. I'd never, ever heard the lifestyle couched in this context before: veganism as a means of decolonizing the black female body. It was astonishing to me. I hadn't felt particularly oppressed when I was eating chicken (which frankly, I never liked, despite the grinning black face with the drumstick), beef or pork. But the idea that eating the refuse from the masters' tables during Antebellum America had been carried down and was currently being reenacted at Popeye's and barbecues all over the country, well, that was intriguing.

I've seen my grandmother, mother, aunts and uncles, eat chitlins like they were delicacies, shred hamhock and fatback into pots of greens with glee; I've seen loved ones thoughtlessly turn to plates full of heavy, laden food when they were upset, confused, lonely. I'm no conspiracy theorist; I'm not trying to tell the story of crap food in the black community is an agenda by the white man the way others told the story of crack in the 80s. But the reality is that my ancestors didn't eat pasta, or roast giant yards of meat. (Frankly, you have to go waaaaaaaaay back before we can talk about anyone's ancestors eating that way. None of us is running from saber tooth tigers and mastodons anymore, so I don't know how relevant it is to eat like we might flee a giant predator. But I digress.) What was so freeing about the idea of veganism being a process of decolonization was that it gave me a sense of ownership over my own body. Maybe for decades, or even centuries, my ancestors have been taught to eat in a way that is ultimately bad for us; maybe the historical and/or stereotypical African-American diet is a holdover from slave days. Maybe, in being a vegan, I reclaim my body as black, feminine (and feminist) and healthy.

Which is where this essay comes into play. Inside my brain have been the "what about the animals," and the "what about my cholesterol/blood pressure," and the "what about all those leather boots/bags you still own, Jess," and the "what about how much energy we use to cultivate animals for food," and then this idea (of veganism-as-decolonization) falls into the mix like a manhole, heavy and loud and ringing as it settles. Decolonizastion is about my choice, but it results in a retooling of my self-perception. To be a vegan I don't have to be a Birkenstock-wearing, unwashed undergrounder, rabidly shouting at meat-eaters about the nature of what they're consuming. I don't have to be the uptight, spandex-swathed Mrs. who shops at Whole Paycheck and looks down her broad brown nose at everyone and everything that isn't vegan. What if my veganism, the choice to abstain from that which causes me physical, emotional or spiritual distress, is in its nature of decolonizing and reclaiming, an expression of my self-love, of my ownership of my own body, and of self-care? What if I can express that self-care and include compassion for others who make different, and even oppressive, choices?

Holy Shit.

Not to get all metaphysical, but it does feel like my consciousness has changed. This essay is an indictment of the mainstream vegan movement in America for not cultivating a relationship with black women, or indeed any sub-culture on the fringe; it also highlights the choice of eating as an expression of compassion, and self-compassion, which for some of us is more important that the animals or the environment. It challenged me to stretch my compassion to those who would defend their meat-eating choice, and reminded me that to witness the divine in another is to love and respect their right to choose as much as I love and respect myself. Writer Tara Sophia Bahna-James says, "[W]hen our own conversion [to veganism] eclipses our appreciation for others and their own narratives (even narratives we have come to associate with the behavior of an oppressor), it is desperate. And there is a reason desperation is suspicious. It is always too personal." Compelling words to a writer: every story, even the story of the oppressor, the butcher, the overseer, the abuser, has value. This is an interesting challenge to all of those veg-heads who would poo-poo our meat-eating family and friends. (including me: you should have seen the cross-eyed look I gave my in-laws after sitting down to their flesh-filled dinner table. Ultimately, Bahna-James argues this need to judge meat-eaters comes out of the dispassionate, desperate awakening--when vegans "come to Jesus" the first thing we want to do is dissociate with the oppressors, who are, in fact, ourselves.)

 She writes about our bodies as a map of our experience, not positive, not negative, but honest. The body knows all, it remembers anything and everything that's ever happened to you, even (and especially) those things which your mind has shoved away so that you can "forget." "By appreciating myself, and what I am capable of, and hence knowing the roads I didn't take in spite of that capability, only then does my current action become a choice. Only then may it be called good or bad. Without choice, judgment has no value. It is meaningless to call something 'good' or 'bad' that simply is. Only that which is chosen can be said to be chosen out of compassion or cruelty. Thus recognizing that our bodies are beautiful becomes a powerfully political act, a celebration of compassion directed at the self. And this is what is behind the Black woman's love of her body, which is so present in the ethos of Black contemporary culture." This is where she loses me a bit; I'd love to believe that self-love is a part of the ethos of contemporary black women, but I'm not seeing that reflected broadly enough to convince me. Sistahs struggle with our own self-love, our love of each other, and God help our love of women across the color line. Still, the idea of taking care of my body as a political act is positively revolutionary. I read this and remember the words of Audre Lorde:
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
 (She was never scared, was she?)

If we are all in a position to preserve ourselves, if our agency about how we eat is political, even revolutionary, what can--or will--come when we make choices that are an expression of our agency and our compassion?

She wraps the essay by labeling herself a "compassionate-vegan" instead of an "ethical-vegan". A fine label. I don't know what my own label says. You ask my mother-in-law and she'll just shake her head at you. My Favorite would say something about be being a woman who is growing out of her need for labels. My students would say Teacher, The Painter would say Challenger. But would they say vegan? I don't know, and maybe it doesn't matter. I know what it means to me to be a vegan, and after a year of putting the label on and pulling it off again, I think I can wear it simply. I don't have to defend it, when I do explain it, I can do so with kindness, and I care less (and less) what others think about me because of it. I like this learning. I like that how I eat is a reflection of my grounding in myself, my expanding consciousness, and my consideration for the world around me. Who knew food could feel so holy? The vegans knew, that's who.

Friday, January 4, 2013

mindfully distracted

Meditation is hard!

Recently, I interviewed this incredible woman, who teaches workshops in the Chicago area and areas farther flung, and in our time together I learned so much about meditation and the body-mind connection.

(A brief sampling: for meditation to be effective, you need to "sit" for at least eight minutes--five won't do, it takes eight for your body to achieve the kind of brain waves that can be useful to you; it takes seven times the amount of energy to start something that's still into motion than it does to keep it moving--so the better you can work to start you way toward your cushion, each day or habitually, the better you'll be able to keep going; hugs (go with me here, there's no kumbaya) are a meaningful part of development because people need touch--you need four hugs a day for survival, eight hugs for maintenance, and twelve for growth; and this one blew my mind: most thought or feeling patterns only last two to three seconds. The truth is a thought can't consume you unless your grip on it is too tight.)

I'd had my own fledgling meditation practice for a short while, about five-plus minutes of quiet sitting--sometimes with a mantra, sometimes without--post-yoga practice, for a while, but her workshop really tuned me up. So I've been at it pretty faithfully, for over a month now (?), and it seems that well, it's just practically impossible for me to sit quietly and not engage what's running through my brain.

So I have a habit: I have a time when I sit, a place where the energy collects and the vibrations are higher, I have a few physical talismans that put me in the mood, I have the comfortable posture all of it. For a while I felt great after-meditation: I would bound off my yoga mat and into my day, and all day long I'd have this insane amount of energy to draw on. Sharp-focused, engaged but not intense, present: I felt amazing. But it's harder now. I keep trying to increase the amount of time I spend on the mat, and damn it's tough. The sixty seconds between eight minutes and nine feels like a gulf. I swear, this morning, I was positively panting waiting to hear my sweet little alarm ring.

I blame the iPhone.

Ugh: the new digital device which holds a crap-ton of my life in it, that yes, I'm super-happy I own, but that still introduces this jittery, digi-voiced energy into my life at times when I'd rather just be digging the sounds of waves crashing, you know? There are affirmations that I have on my Notes, there's the timer, and occasionally, I plug into the device and tune into a Metta meditation or some other kind. Also, I use it as an alarm clock, and I have the habit of just "checking in" on the world first thing in the a.m. before I hit my mat. This is no good. There's some language here about negative ions, and how I need one of those giant salt crystal lamps to kick all that crap out of my bedroom and my life so that I can rest, wake, wash and dress without dying to know who said what on FB or what's on my Twitter feed.

There's been a rather large technology influx in my life, and I can't figure out how to integrate it. How do I make the analog and the digital work together? How do I use my smartphone(s) mindfully? I've tried a curfew, but that doesn't work. Thankfully, My Favorite's not rolling his eyes and admonishing me too strongly, but it's happened before and it's coming again, I'm sure. This doesn't even mention all of the thoughts that go running through my brain at top speed when I'm trying to achieve quiet (my feet are cold! what's for breakfast! what are you going to do about that student!!! are you still mad at her/him/them! yes you are! that's itchy! shut up! no, YOU shut up!) it's totally nuts in there.

Trust the process, all my hippy artist friends say, and I believe that too. Do the work and detach from the results, says the Yoga Sutras. I believe that for sure. Still, this is really hard.