A Photograph of me without me in it

A Photograph of me without me in it
A photograph of me without me in it

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Listening with Heart

I live mostly in my head: I’m a thinker. (See me tapping my temple with my index finger.) I analyze and ponder. For this, I get along well in “the academy” with professors and researchers and others who, like me, lead with their heads.

However, this week, in my “Empowerment for Students with Disabilities” class, the professor is requiring us to select one of twelve stances to practice and reflect on, and I’ve selected “Listening with Heart.”

Though I mostly try to be kind, this assignment challenges my usual way of being in the world. My ears, I’ve noticed, are closer to my brain than to my heart, so listening with my heart seems physiologically difficult: I try to imagine an ear at my heart, but that just seems like something that Frida Kahlo might paint.

I decided to give it a go, and on Sunday afternoon, my partner Ann, our friend Chris, and I went to a discussion on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at the Northwest African-American Museum. Sponsored by Book-It Theatre, which is now performing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Uncensored, the museum and the Central district location offered the possibility that we—all three of us white women—would hear diverse perspectives from African Americans.

As the meeting room filled with maybe fifty people, however, I noticed that few of those attending were people of color. I was disappointed, though I know that it’s not really fair to expect African-Americans to show up so that I can understand. Just as the meeting started, a smartly dressed older African-American woman sat at the other end of our row, and I was glad to see her there. I liked her red hat. I hoped she would speak.

The moderator, Sharon Williams, was a young woman in her twenties or thirties who opened with the declaration that this would be a safe space for a challenging discussion. She seemed wise, and I appreciated her optimism, both in proclaiming that the space would be safe and foreseeing that the discussion would be challenging. She spoke with such heart that I wanted to believe her optimism, but my brain kept getting the way: “How is she so sure?” I thought but then I reminded myself: “Listen with heart. Listen with heart.”

Four panelists opened the discussion with ten-minute reflections on Huck, truth-telling in American History (and the lack thereof), censorship, and racism. It was an impressive panel: David Bradley, a white-bearded African-American Professor of Fiction at The University of Oregon; Dr. Jocelyn Chadwick, an African-American woman who has taught English for over 30 years, starting at Irving High School in Texas and now teaching at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (you’ve probably heard of Harvard); Shelley Fisher Fishkin, a white Professor of English and Director of American Studies at Stanford (you’ve probably heard of Stanford, too); and Nancy Rawles, an African-American Seattle-ite who wrote the novel My Jim, telling the story of the slave Jim from the perspective of Jim’s wife (She’s also a writer in the schools, so she teaches history and writing to high school and college students, too, but she doesn't have a fancy label, and they didn't fly her in. )

The first three panelists spoke compellingly about Huck and its importance in the American story, and as I listened, I found that I could listen with my brain and didn’t have to try that funny task of listening with my heart.  I know the academy, and these were my peeps. Or at least I wanted them to be.

They were smart. Dang smart. (I’d like to take classes from each of them, but since none of them are from Seattle, that’s not likely.) I started wondering why Book-It had flown in such an impressive group, and as they talked I suspected that their stance was Book-It’s stance.

Each of the first three panelists argued that we should teach Huck because the novel, written after the Emancipation Proclamation but situated in the time and place of slavery, teaches us about our national history and about universal truths: we humans are often blind to our own bigotry; our nation in its American History textbooks and curricula hides are unpleasant inhumanity, encouraging such blindness; if we censor Huck we are complicit in promoting this blindness.

Then the fourth speaker, Nancy Rawles, began, and her manner and credentials distinguished her from the other three. She said, “I have decided to speak from my emotions. I am never going to read Huck Finn again.…I found the reading to be painful when I was a child. It was presented as a boy’s book, an extension of Tom Sawyer….As an adult, I was taken aback by the language….Ten years ago, a grandmother objected to this book in her granddaughter’s class. I’ve started thinking as a parent of an African-American child in the Northwest, where we have proportionally fewer African-Americans and where some black students will be the only African-American student in a class of white students….

As I listened to Nancy Rawles, I listened with my head and my heart. I thought, “And most of those students—even those in predominately black classrooms--will have white teachers. I was a white teacher myself, and I taught Huck Finn. I don’t think I can understand how this book feels for a black person.” I recall hearing a Harvard University professor remind me of the first rule of teaching: “Do no harm.” I wonder when I have done harm, and I wonder if the academic arguments are stronger than this harm. As I listen to my heart, I think teaching this book is wrong.

As I’m listening to my heart, the older African-American woman at the end of my row stands and speaks: “I am that grandmother. I came today because I suspected that my perspective would not be well-represented, and with the exception of Ms. Rawles, each of you on the panel has spoken in support of this book. This book degrades the children. There’s a new book called The New Jim Crow that does a better job of talking about race than this novel….”

My head interrupts her to say (to myself), “That’s an excellent book, but it’s not a great American novel and won’t be accessible to many high school students.”  My heart tells me to keep listening, so I tune back in to the grandmother.

“When I was in that white woman’s class [her granddaughter’s teacher was the white woman, I gathered], she was salivating to get to the word “nigger”…. My granddaughter had to go to an all-Black college....I look around the room now, and not many people look like me. That should tell you something. We’re through with Huck.”

My heart hears her anger.

The intellectual conversation among panelists and white people in the audience rebuts the grandmother’s argument:

“I had conversations in the 1990s about Twain with Ralph Ellison who had a portrait of Twain over his desk and said that Twain resonated with him, and he never would have been the writer he was without Twain.”…

“When we start talking about Huck, we start talking about schools….”

Huck Finn is the reason that I did not go to the Vietnam War….”

“Here’s the problem: parents think they’re gonna know who their children are going to be, and the parents are wrong….”

“Where do we stop? Lorraine Hansberry? Alice Walker? Martin Luther King, Jr.? Thomas Jefferson?...Do we just teach happy literature? Literature is supposed to move me to act, as Aristotle says literature should….”

“Most of us in the academy think that a reasoned explanation will be convincing. [audience laughter]…”

As I listen to them, I think that their arguments are compelling, but my heart returns to the grandmother and her righteous indignation.

An African-American man in his thirties speaks from the row behind me. He speaks with his heart, and I listen with mine: “When I was in high school, I was the only African-American in my class. An old white lady taught us, and she wouldn’t say the “n” word, so when she read aloud and came to that word, there’d be this long awkward pause. It was so painful.”

There’s that word again: painful.
My head can be convinced that Huck is necessary, but my heart cannot. “Do no harm,” I think again.



Sunday, April 28, 2013

Town Mice and Country Mice

When I was young Auntie (pronounced “On-tee”) gave me a book of Aesop’s fables, and one of my favorites was the story of the town mouse and the country mouse. (There was no suburban mouse.) As I look at the story now, I realize that the country mouse had it better than the town mouse, but what I remember is that each found traveling interesting and in the end preferred to live in the place they called home.
Last weekend, Ann and I visited our country mouse friends Colleen and Marie at their home on Whidbey Island. We call it our favorite B & B & D (Bed and Breakfast and Dinner), though now that they have a loveable dog Ruby, they call it Ruby’s Inn. They have a beautiful, large yard, with vegetables and fruit trees and lots of flowers. Sometimes we see deer. Lots of birds sing and flit happily about their yard. (At least, these birds seem happy. I wonder if birds experience emotion.)
Inside their home are lots of treasures from their walks: rocks and shells and sundries. (Ann and Marie found an unusual sundry when they walked this time: a new leather gun holster.) We stretch out on their living room couch and watch the ferries as they travel to and from Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula. A fire in the fireplace warms us. We laugh when Ruby dumps out her toy basket.
Saturday we took one of those ferries to see the film Girl Rising, a Paul Allen-funded documentary about eight girls in different parts of the world who share their stories of a moment of change. The directors paired each girl with a woman writer from their country, and in most cases the girl starred in her own story. Not all of the stories are happy, but with the girls’ grit and imaginations, they’re all hopeful. (If you have a girl in your life, you should take her—but know that one of the stories involves a rape that’s not graphic, but still…)
After the film, we walked next door to the Local Food Café for soup and pasties and a tasty truffle each. From our table, I looked out to the American National Bank’s old building, refurbished and now displaying a Jimi Hendrix poster in a second floor window and “Espresso” shining in the first floor window.
We walked back to the ferry through more old buildings used for new businesses. This town is just cute. When we returned to Ruby’s Inn, I took a nap while Ann and Marie walked Ruby, and Colleen did something very important that I can’t now recall, and then Marie, who is a physical therapist, called a previous client who severed his spine in a fall last year and has an amazing spirit and was willing to be a part of my book of interviews with people with life-changing health conditions and those in our lives. So we went to visit him.  
Sunday after breakfast, Ann and I headed back to our town life and went with our friends Pea and Ally to a one-man show called Riding in Cars with Black People. The writer and performer, Chad Goller-Sojourner, is a large African-American man who grew up with white parents in a wealthy Seattle neighborhood, and writes about how different being black is when you’re not identified as with a white family. In the opening scene, for example, he tells of being stopped by the police and asked, “Where you headed?” Not a question cops asked when they pulled over his white parents or his white neighbors.
Town mice back in town, we continued throughout the week to enjoy our town: I visited The Center for Courage and Renewal downtown (because who doesn’t need courage and renewal); I took the bus to yoga; Ann went to the movies with our friend Chris; we went to the Five Point Café with middle-aged Farkle friends (we were the only ones with any grey hair and without any tattoos at our table); this afternoon we’ll attend a discussion of Huck Finn and the “n” word at the NW African-American Museum.
Though we love visiting our country mice friends, we are town mice: Seattle for us is home. Still, we love the opportunity visit lives different than ours. They remind us that we see this world and live in this world differently than others with whom we still have so much in common.

Sunday, April 14, 2013


I usually “walk on the sunny side of life” (as Alison Krauss sings) but last Monday in my soul the sky was “grey and white and cloudy.” (That’s Simon and Garfunkel.)

It was not just cloudy in my soul, but as I walked home from yoga in the Seattle drizzle, I looked ahead to see my cloudiness mirrored in the eastern skies. More dramatically, when I came to an intersection and looked left, then right, then left again (like I learned in second grade), I saw black thunderheads on the horizons to the north and south, bringing to mind The Dixie Chicks:  Thunderheads across the mountains / As another dream goes by. / They glow like clouds from heaven, / But the devil has to have his way. / Thunderheads will bring you to your knees, /And make you pray for a rainy day.”

These skies matched my spirit. In yoga, a substitute teacher had had us focus on triangle pose, a pose where a yogi’s legs are wider than hip-width and straight at the knees as the yogi bends from the waist, dropping one hand to the ground and raising the other to the sky.

Triangle pose is an open pose, and was my most natural and favorite pose in my first yoga days twenty years ago. In those days, I loved the openness of my heart and the ease in my twist.

Since neurosurgery, I’ve learned to alter poses so that I can still do yoga and stay in its spirit, and I’m glad for this gift, but this day as I did a variation of triangle pose, I missed the old days, the old openness, and the old ease.

I do this altered triangle pose each morning, so trying the pose in this new way was not new to me, but remembering the loss as others in the class moved easily into the position was hard, and I swallowed a sob that rose into my throat. It was this loss that I felt as I walked home in the grey day and noticed the thunderheads to my left and right. I felt sad, but I didn’t have the luxury to sit with that sadness: those thunderheads might break lose any time now, and I needed to move on.

Since my brain tumors, I’m not much for scurrying, but I scurried as best I could to get home before the hail rained down. As I rounded the corner to my house, the ABBA song “Fernando” slipped into my consciousness.

The previous afternoon, friends Allyson and Pam had joined my partner Ann and me for the Seattle Men’s chorus’s “Dancing Queen” performance. There are a jillion of these singing men, one of whom is Ann's cute cousin Michael.  They sang renditions of Abba songs, accompanying the lyrics with hand motions and silly skits. They wore ruffled shirts in bright solid colors, a visual delight of pinks, oranges, purples, and lime greens.

In a skit that introduced Abba’s most successful song, “Fernando”, the chorus acted out a scene from a war between Sweden and Spain, though I think the song is actually situated after the Mexican Revolution. The skit was campy and fun, like the song. A disco ball over the audience flashed stars across our sky to accompany the chorus’s first line: "There was something in the air that night, the stars were bright, Fernando."  

The concert was just fun and funny: just right. That morning, when I had gone into the library to return my book, a woman at the counter was singing (fairly loudly and pretty well): "There was something in the air that night, the stars were bright, Fernando." 

I laughed as she sang and asked if she had been to the Seattle Men’s Chorus. “Wasn’t that fun?” she said.

I said it was, and laughed then, and I laughed again with the memory of the concert, all that bright ruffle, and her singing in the library’s hush.

As I walked up the sidewalk into my home, I again walked on the sunny side of life. I thought I had beaten the hail home, but as it turned out, those thunderheads just drifted away—in my spirit and in the Seattle skies.

It’s strange how the darkness can come and go like that.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

"Now try something crazy."

Last week in my yoga class my teacher Victoria had us imagine a hoola hoop in front of each of us. We were to pick it up and twirl it around our waists, then twirl another around our necks and another around each arm. As we contorted and giggled, she also suggested that we twirl an imaginary hoola hoop around one foot, but I didn’t do that because the floor was not imaginary and neither was my body, and I didn’t want to fall.

As the twelve of us in the room “twirled” spastically, she laughed and said, “Now try something crazy.” I’m not sure what she had in mind. I was thinking, “I thought this was crazy.”

So many things seem crazy to me now as I navigate this city with my disabilities.  Just that morning, for example, I had walked to the bus in gusts of wind so powerful that at times I had to stop and hold on to a tree just so that I wouldn’t fall.

I imagined what Snoopy would have typed about this day: “It was a dark and stormy day.”

Over the past three months, I attended a series of lectures on Yoga Philosophy and History by my first yoga teacher, Denise Benitez at Yoga Arts. The yoga philosophers we studied were perhaps crazy in a nerdy way. At least, I guess, my studying them was nerdy.

Which is okay with me. I embrace my nerdiness, and I seek companionship among others who are so inclined. (Cheryl, a friend in my ependymoma support group, recently crowned me “the epe yoga gal.” I love it!)

Denise opened the class with a welcome: “Hello, yoga nerds!”We all smiled and giggled a little in self-recognition.  We sat in the middle of the floor, shoes off, in this yoga studio on a Friday night while the cooler set had cocktails at the bar next door.  These nerds were my peeps.
As Denise talked about the Tantric Yoga tradition, I took notes on my laptop (of course).
As I took in the room’s textures and fullness, I remembered the first yoga studio where I learned from Denise twenty years ago.

In those early days, Ann and I parked in a lopsided parking lot whose asphalt was splitting. A rusting tall chain link fence surrounded the small lot.

We took the rickety stairs to the third floor where we waited in a cold hallway on a gymnastics mat rolled on its side and took off our shoes, leaving them in the hallway while we were in class.

We each took a spot in a long alleyway of a classroom and tried poses named for contorted animals: downward facing dog and dolphin pose, for example.

My body, athletic but unaccustomed to this kind of stretching and breathing, slumped into poses, though I found an early home in triangle pose (named for the shape, I suppose, not the instrument).

At the end of these long ago classes, we covered ourselves with blankets and practiced being dead as we relaxed into shivasana, or corpse pose. As we died to the world, the drumming class next door always crescendoed.

After class, Ann and I were always glad to see that our car was still in its rusted fence.
Denise is an outstanding teacher and has moved yoga-style upscale through the years.
When I was still taking classes with her, she moved to a airier, quieter studio in an area where rusted fences were not to be found. Giant metallic stars, lit from the inside, hung from the ceiling above the small cramped area where we took off our shoes.
Around the time of my tumors, she moved again. This was my first visit to her new studio.

As I sat sockfooted on the floor, awaiting the lecture in her studio, I looked around and marveled at the paper lights.  Outside the studio were shoe cubbies and a waiting area with rugs and comfy benches and—lo and behold!—a receptionist.

 I marveled at the change in Denise’s yoga home, though her light giggle and poetic spirit seemed at their essence the same.
As I remember, Denise was a fashion designer in New York City before she came to Seattle to teach yoga, so each new studio's richer décor fits her spirit.

I always marvel at the great luck that I had found such a crazy passion so early in my life, a passion that prepared me for the craziness and the joys of brain tumors and their effects.

Dare I wonder what the next crazy thing will be?