A Photograph of me without me in it

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

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

What if MLK practiced yoga?

Last week, I took an adaptive yoga class at the University of Washington. I love it. The instructor, Julie, learned about teaching at my last studio and recognized me from the start. There were five students in this class, one teacher, and four volunteers: that's a one to one ratio (and who says Ann's the math whiz in the house?) 

The class was lovely. We sat in chairs and did some supportive stretching; then we lay on the floor and did some more stretching, with more support. Julie apologized to me for such an easy class, saying that she knew I could do more. I assured her that the class was fabulous. I think she thought I was being nice, but I really did love not pushing myself, letting my yoga be more internal than external.

At one point in the class, Julie commented on the tension between rest and engagement, between what another yoga teacher might have called the elements of water and fire. We need to find space to just be, I think she was saying, and we need to find the places where we act for justice in the world. We need a balance in this.

I think often about this tension, about being present and fighting for justice, and in the week following Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I began thinking of this tension in the context of Martin Luther King, Jr's life and work. 

On the MLK holiday, Ann and I attended the performance Hands Up! Six Plays by Six Young Black Men. The performance was a series of monologues delivered by six black men in Seattle, but written by other black men elsewhere. Each story was a powerful telling of being a young black man in America today. In the discussion afterwards, each player talked about his relationship to his characters' story: stories of being mulatto, neither accepted in black nor white circles, stories of violence and vulnerability. 

Someone proposed that Martin Luther King, Jr would have felt sad in America today. I began wondering what MLK would do--and in what spirit--today. Would he still advocate for non-violence? I think so. I also think he would still say:

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, 
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. 
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar, 
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. 
Through violence you may murder the hater, 
but you do not murder hate. 
In fact, violence merely increases hate. 
So it goes. 
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, 
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. 
Darkness cannot drive out darkness: 
only light can do that. 
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

I think he would still fight non-violently for justice, fight with a heart full of love. I think he would still criticize the U.S. for our militarism, though today the argument would focus on Afghanistan rather than Vietnam. 

I summon his spirit as I work at the University of Washington, seeking for the school to integrate disability content into its non-oppression teaching. Don't worry: I'm not saying that my work is equivalent to his, nor that my spirit mirrors his, only that he inspires me with love and justice.

I find this spirit in me when I do yoga.

The work for justice is big, so multi-faceted. I wonder, does personal peace-seeking in yoga set the groundwork for peace and justice in the world, or is it just selfish?

Before my tumors, I worked too hard for a more just world. Since my tumors, perhaps I have found more humility. Perhaps I see that in order to give to the world in sacred spirit, I need to connect with that spirit daily. That's how it seems to me now, anyway. Like MLK, I dream of more just, more free, more loving world. 

I know I have quoted Oscar Romero here before. His words are so apt again:

It helps now and then to step back and take a long view.
 The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
 it is beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction 
of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
 Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of 
saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one
day will grow. We water the seeds already planted 
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects
far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of 
liberation in realizing this.
 This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
 It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, 
a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's
 grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the
 difference between the master builder and the worker.

I suspect that MLK understood this. I suspect that MLK and Romero drew water from the same well. I suspect each did yoga in his heart if not with his body. (I can't really imagine either doing downward facing dog). 

I suspect if MLK were here he'd say, I still have a dream.

And if Romero were here, he would tell me that the Kingdom is still not only beyond my effort, but beyond my vision.

And both, like my teacher Julie, would tell me to breathe deeply.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

You are what you read…and see and hear...

I've listed down the cultural memories of my life. Not all of them, but the ones that came to mind. I didn’t try to rank them or categorize them. I just wrote down what occurred to me. It was an interesting experiment. As I recorded my earliest memories in film, poems, music, and political events, I see how my earliest memories shape--or reflected--my political and cultural beliefs then and now in my 50s. Many of my earliest memories connect to Civil Rights, feminist, and even GLBT movements. Recently, more of my readings and films seem to focus on my quest for peace with a world that often saddens me. I recommend you try this experiment if you feel like it.

“R-E-S-P-E-C-T” Aretha Franklin (1967)
Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar”
“All in the Family” TV series (started: 1st grade)
Harriet the Spy (2nd grade)
Political memory: Watergate (2nd grade)
“Ben” Michael Jackson (2nd grade)
M*A*S*H TV show (started: 2nd grade)
Aesop’s Fables (from Auntie Myra—3rd grade)
“The Streak” (4th grade)
Island of the Blue Dolphins (4th grade)
“The Ransom of Red Chief (4th grade)
Nancy Drew and the Old Clock
Nancy Drew and the Secret in the Attic
Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl
Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo (7th)
Roots TV Series (7th)
Emily Dickinson: Collected Poems
Grease (movie—8th grade)
Political memory: The Oil Crisis (9th grade)
Political memory: The Hostage Crisis (9th grade)
“Another Brick in the Wall” (Pink Floyd song--9th)
“Flowers Never Bend in the Rainfall” (Simon and Garfunkel—10th)
“Diamonds and Rust” (Joan Baez—12th)
Pere Goriot (12th)
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (movie—12th)
The King James version of The Bible
Moby Dick (college)
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (college)
The Color Purple (book and movie—college)
Sophie’s Choice (movie—college)
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (college)
Shakespeare’s Hamlet (college)
Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (college)
Cane by Jean Toomer (poetry—college)
News: Space Shuttle Challenger disaster (college)
Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood (20s)
Frank Herbert’s Dune (20s)
Bhagavad Gita (20s)
Political memory: Fall of the Berlin Wall (20s)
Arthur (movie—20s)
Garp (movie—20s)
“Macneil Lehrer Newshour” on TV (20s)
Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (poetry—20s)
The Dixie Chicks (20s-40s)
Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees, The Poisonwood Bible, and the Lacuna (30s-40s)
Keri Hulme’s The Bone People (30s)
Katerine Dunn’s Geek Love (30s)
David James Duncan’s Brothers K (30s)
Political memory: Sept. 11, 2001 (30s)
Voces Inocentes (film—40s)
Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies (40s)
Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (40s)
Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air (40s)
“The West Wing” TV series (40s)
“Modern Family” TV series (40s)
Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River (50)
Cheryl Strayed’s Wild (50)

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Unasked for advice

Now that I'm a student again—after 27 years in the educators' role—I often want to give my professors pedagogical advice. However, I know that unasked for advice is generally perceived as thinly veiled criticism, so mostly I manage to keep it to myself. Sometimes, I can't seem to help it, and I share my thoughts. I imagine this may be irritating, but professors have mostly nodded nicely and ignored my advice. I find that irritating, but I can't blame them.

A year or so ago, a church friend emailed me with unasked for advice. I don't remember the advice. I don't even remember the topic. I do remember that I was furious: steam coming out the ears furious. I was so mad that I could not reply civilly. Ann was generous and replied for me, saying that I was too angry to write. 

Much to her credit, this friend emailed me to ask what had made me angry. I told her that I hear unasked for advice as criticism. I remember saying to her, "I think most people do." And yet, here I am, doing it myself. What this says to me is that I still have miles to go along the road to humility. In this, I am perhaps like my father. 

When Dad was a pediatrician, the nurses in his office gave him an embroidered cloth with one of his favorite sayings on it: "It's hard to soar with the eagles when you're surrounded by turkeys." It hangs, proudly in its frame, in his office at home. Another of his favorite sayings is, "It's hard to be humble when you're as great as I am."

Speaking for others is another way that we Americans tend to puff out our chests without even recognizing that we do it. In the meditation class I took this summer, the teacher taught us to use "I" language. Often someone would use more expansive language without even knowing it. I remember one woman saying, "I struggle to accept myself for who I am, to turn off the critical voice inside me. I think we all do." The teacher stopped her and reminded her to speak only from her own experience.

More often, people in the class used "you" when they meant "I". One might say, "When you struggle to hold in anger about your disease, you take out that anger on the people you love." 

I believe this is a cultural tendency of ours not to claim ownership of our experiences and our thoughts and to speak about others as our mirrors: We think, “If I'm like this, everyone else must be, too.”

I remember teaching Shakespeare's Hamlet in the first school where I taught. One student was talking about Hamlet's anger with his stepfather, and at some point this student started talking about herself without realizing that she had switched her pronouns from "he" (as in he, Hamlet) to "I" (as in me, myself, and I). 

Perhaps in this language, instead of self-aggrandizing, we are actually just making our world and our role in it smaller, when it seems to me—when I give myself time to think about it—that we are glorious and so is our world: miracles all. It is in humility that I can see myself as this wonder. How did such a piece of work as Mary happen?

Perhaps we need to become both smaller and bigger to see ourselves and our world as too wondrous to harm.

Poets from all over the world—our seers, our wisdom speakers—see our connection to all that is bigger than we are:

Tennyson writes from the Roman hero Ulysses’ perspective, saying, "I am a part of all that I have met." In one of my favorite lines, the Australian band Fruit sings, "We are ancient inside. We have intravenous skies." The American poet Walt Whitman begins “Song of Myself” proclaiming this expansiveness: "I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you." Furthermore, in the poem "Sunset," the Bohemian-Austrian poet Rilke writes, "One moment your life is a stone in you, and the next, a star."

Poets from all over the world notice how much a part of the world—of the universe—we are, but I don’t think that’s what we’re doing when we confuse “I” and “you.” I think in this semantic habit we are making our world smaller rather than recognizing with humility our expansiveness, something some folks call a soul. We are small and we are big, and we confuse our language so that we notice neither.

Why do we do this? Is it the same reason that we hurry from task to task, not slowing to recognize the crinkles in a turtle’s feet? Is it the same reason that we guzzle alcohol and caffeine, trying to get away from who we are? Is it the same reason we collect as much as we can, locking it all away in houses as big as we can afford?

Meditation gurus say that we are not aware of the present moment. We are in the past and in the future. We are outside of ourselves. We are disconnected from all that roots us. And we need time to find ourselves again.

But in our speediness—cars, the world wide web, and texting—we race past ourselves.

For me, the gift of moving slowly with my cane has been the gift of these brain tumors and their treatments. I am learning to be with myself and my world, to notice the miracle of it all. So here’s my unasked for advice for my world: Slow down.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Happy New Year!

Ann and I started New Year's Eve in Edmonds where I experienced the second day of a neuropsychological exam. For the exam, I did things like repeat back a series of numbers: first directly, then backwards, then in numerical order. This was the second day of random, meaningless tasks meant to exhaust me mentally. It did. I was also physically exhausted. When I got home on both Monday and Wednesday, I went straight to bed. Because I was exhausted, I had trouble with my balance and walked into walls a couple of times. (You'll be glad to know that I don't usually do this.)

I took these tests because my insurance company, Cigna, is denying me continuing long term disability benefits. Cigna does not really believe that I can work for 80% of my previous pay. Cigna doesn't know, but it's worth their time and money (none) to deny me benefits and require me to hire a lawyer and take a lot of meaningless tests. They must be thinking that perhaps I don't have the physical, mental or financial capacity to challenge them, and so they won't have to pay me benefits until 2031. And then the company can sell more cheap insurance to public school systems so that more teachers who have to leave work for health reasons will be hassled and won't receive the benefits that they are due.

And so I'm hiring lawyers who will take 29% of all benefits I receive in the future, and I'm spending my days and $10,000 taking tests that will show what's obvious: I can't work that much. The system's a racket. It really pisses me off. Not just because my resources are being spent but also because others with fewer resources won't have the money or support to challenge this company. And so the people who need it most won't get it. This is wrong.

(I don't like to be angry, and usually I don't even notice my anger until I explode, but this insurance company makes me feel like the mild-mannered Dr. David Bruce Banner in the 1970s T.V. show The Incredible Hulk before he got angry and turned green and beefy, ripping his t-shirt with his big muscles: "Don't make me angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry.")

The rest of New Year's Eve was more fun. After my nap, Ann and I had dinner with our dear friends Pea and Ally. They made tamales using chilis from Pea's home town in New Mexico. After dinner I took another nap and then we caught up on one another's lives, toasted one another with champagne, and went to bed: they graciously allowed Ann and me the bed on the floor with a bathroom.

So we woke up to begin the new year just right: four friends with bedheads waking late (my favorite way to wake) and having breakfast sandwiches together before Ann and I headed home.

At the beginning of this new year, I'm thinking about the Roman god Janus, for whom I (and many) thought January was named (but Wikipedia says it ain't so). Janus was the god of beginnings, endings and transitions, of gates and doorways and passageways. He is two-faced, with one face looking back and a second looking forward. So he has always seemed to me the right god for the new year.

This fall, however, I took a class in meditation, in present moment awareness. And it occurs to me that Janus looks backward and forward but does not just rest in the moment. It's the Buddha, facing forward, who does that. (I especially like the laughing Buddha, who seems wisest to me in his lightness.)

As I think of it, all of the Roman and Greek gods, the gods of our cultural ancestors, were always busy. Zeus was turning some  young woman into a swan so that he could have his way with her; his wife Juno was punishing the young women that Zeus chased; Poseidon was making waves; Cupid was shooting innocent folks with his troublesome love arrows. Even Athena, the goddess of wisdom, was the goddess of wisdom in war. She was always strategizing about how to kill off some folks. No god that I can think of just sat and laughed and loved the moment.

The heroes didn't either: Odysseus wandered around the world for ten years slaying monsters and being seduced by a tricky lady goddess (I never felt too sorry for him for that part.) In Tennyson's poem about Ulysses (Odysseus's other name), Odysseus doesn't even just settle down when he finally gets home and wins back his wife. He needs to move on to other adventures. He still needs "to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

Our popular art reveals this restlessness, too. Last night, Ann and I saw the movie, Wild, based on Cheryl Strayed's lyrical and reflective memoir of the same title. The movie got the action right: the grief and drugs and promiscuity; the months hiking through the California desert on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), the blisters, the creepy boy and the rattling snake. 

What the movie missed, however, was the book's lyricism and reflection. You may say this is impossible in a Hollywood movie, but I'd say it's not. Think of A River Runs Through It (also what I call our basement) or On Golden Pond. It's possible to be lyrical and reflective in film: it's just not prevalent. 

This predilection for action is part of our national psychosis. It's time to sit and be, time to breathe, time to listen, time to stretch, time to read poetry. 

Because I'm a twenty-first century American, I have an action plan for this cultural shift. Ann and I are slowing down. Each afternoon, I take a nap. Each night just before turning out the light, Ann reads a  poem aloud. At the bottom of our stairs is my winged words box, a painted (thanks, Karen K) mailbox stuffed with poems and quotations to share with the neighbors. Sometimes they share, too.

Last night, Ann read the poem "Lost" from David Wagoner's Traveling Light: Collected and New Poems:

Stand still.  The trees ahead and the bushes beside you
Are not lost.   Wherever you are in called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes.  Listen.  It answers,
I have made this place around you,
If you leave it you may come back again, saying Here.

No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost.  Stand still.  The forest knows
Where you are.  You must let it find you.

My brain tumors have taught me to slow down, to stand still and listen, but perhaps you won't need such stern teachers. I am writing a memoir about this learning. When I had written the first half, Recalculating, I thought I had finished. This half was about the ways I have taken a new path since my brain tumors, the way I was headed down a freeway but am now taking a road less traveled by. 

I thought I was finished with this memoir, but when I read Cheryl Strayed's Wild, I realized that there is a second half: Revisioning. This is the half where I learn to sit in the path, look around, notice the angle of the light, and smell the morning dew. This is the half where I learn to be still. (I have not written this half yet because I am just beginning to learn.)

Join the movement: join the stillness.

Let this be your resolution: I will take a nap every day. I will stretch. I will pay attention to the other bus riders. Each night, I will read a poem.