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Are You Learning The Right Moves?

19 Jul

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I’ve been taking an intermediate ballroom dance class this summer. Most of the class members are retirement age. Other than the teacher who is young and cute, I am the youngest person there. And I’m a “woman of a certain age” so that tells you something. But dancing is ageless.

It’s the same people every week. Some are married and some come alone, as we always shuffle partners. It is a privilege to be around others who know how to commit to a practice and to each other. There is wisdom and grace in it.

One learns much from partner dancing. You have to know whether you’re leading or following and how to adjust to the nuances of the individual you’re partnered with. Much is intuitive and nonverbal. When you’re really in tandem with the other person, it’s easy and fun. It feels effortless and right. But sometimes you have to struggle a little before you get the steps and rhythm down. Dancing keeps you on your toes in more ways than one. You have to pay attention. You can’t check out.

We’ve done a gross disservice to civility and relationships by not maintaining dance as a routine social practice. In previous generations dance was something everyone did. Now ballroom dance is ascribed to those on “Dancing With The Stars” while the rest of America sits home watching. We’re no longer active participants in an activity that was once common ground for all.

I love the politeness of couples dancing. The women tend to wear dresses and the men nice dress slacks. Sure it can be saucy and sexy but there is always a sense of respect and a very clear boundary. There is an intimacy that is both sweet and appropriate and men and women seem to enjoy one another’s company. Tonight someone’s pet poodle sat on the sidelines as we swirled to Frank Sinatra and Mr. Bubule. Community matters and so does dancing with the people in it.

 

 

Embracing the Mystery

20 Dec

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I’m going to be in Venice for New Years. Not Venice, California. Venice, Italy.

When a friend-of-a-friend invited me to stay at her Venice apartment this winter, I was reminded to not turn away the gift horse. As Sheryl Sandburg wrote in her book, Lean In, “When you’re offered a space on a rocket ship, you don’t turn it down.” You jump in no matter what is going on in your life, no matter how inconvenient. The dance doesn’t alway come around again.

Going to Venice is not convenient. It’s sandwiched in-between the holidays, a writing deadline, and a teaching trip in Memphis immediately afterwards. I’ve also been gone for the last two weeks teaching. But when is boarding a rocket ship ever convenient?  You either say, “Carpe Diem!” and do it or you stay safe right where you are, never fully becoming who you meant to become.

I like order and control, particularly as the old year transitions into the new. I like to mastermind my goals and get my ducks in a row. I work on my taxes and await the New Year with quiet respect. I don’t party it up with horns, streamers, and confetti.

In Venice the locals drink champagne in St. Mark’s square. I’ll work on my tip sheet for the publisher while downing a beautiful cappuccino and I’ll map out my goals walking along the canals. But then I’ll drink champagne too, gesticulating like the Italians as we embrace the wild beauty of the night.

On the way out, I’ll pass through NYC where I’ll have an apartment to stay on 5th Ave. near the Met and the Guggenheim thanks to a friend’s sister who is a film producer. They are leaving museum passes on the counter and instructions regarding my stay with the maid. There will be two Parisians there too. Do not turn away the gift horse.

My expenses are maxed out at present but the trip was paid for almost entirely by miles. Do not turn away the gift horse.

I will be tired and jet lagged and discombobulated teaching so soon after it all but this is life. Instead of trying to capture, control, or manipulate the Mystery, we must learn to bow to it. When she beckons, we follow. We do not know where we are going. All we can see is the magic and mist and romance of it all.

*Photo credit – Laura Sousounis

Attitudes of Gratitude

22 Nov

This morning, I tried hard NOT to flail my arms out in African dance class as I had surgery last month and don’t care to rip stitches out prematurely. But how can one not feel joy when you hear a drum beat? Drums are akin to our hearts. They are the pulse of life itself – lub dub, lub dub. Years ago when music therapists and myself would bring drums into groups at the Hebrew Home for the Aged, even acute stage Alzheimer’s patients would tap a hand or a foot, despite being practically comatose and near death’s door.

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I have the privilege of taking African dance with a magnificent teacher. I studied African dance fairly extensively in college, so it’s part of my blood. However, the reason I love my teacher is because she understands dance as a form of worship. She practically radiates something higher than herself.

Dance is a way to express joy and praise; a way to mourn and rage.

I dance so I don’t forget I have a body that is often far superior to my mind. The body has its own knowledge and its own divinity. As Whitman wrote, “I sing the body electric!” and as Hafiz waxed eloquent:

Every child has known God, Not the God of names, Not the God of don’ts, Not the God who ever does anything weird, But the God who only knows four words and keeps repeating them, saying: “Come dance with Me.” Come dance.

This is the week of giving thanks. Dance reminds me of the vitality inherent in gratitude. Often, thanks is pretty basic: I slept well last night. This coffee tastes terrific. Friends make me smile. Strangers can be kind. Let me give you a hug. The dog wagged his tail. I’m doing what I love. It rained in LA. Sunday is football. People still care.

Amen.

 

 

Wrestling with Waiting

6 Jul

Most of us have done a fair amount of waiting. It’s a part of life. Yet there are times when waiting starts to feel like we’re living in a &^%$# production of “Waiting For Godot.”

There are so many ways in which we wait. “Your time will come,” people will say while one waits for a job, or a meal, a paycheck, or a diagnosis. We wait for good or bad news, for the traffic to lift, for the storm to clear, or for that lucky break. We wait for others to change or for love to finally arrive.

Waiting becomes harder for us in today’s instant gratification culture. We can no longer tolerate standing in line at a store without checking our phones or making calls. When we arrive at the counter, we nod to that checker as if he or she were a mere servant inconveniencing us and then we promptly ignore him or her.

The most excruciating period of waiting I ever had was the seven days in-between receiving a suicide note from my mom and the news that she was dead. July 11th – July 18th, 8 years ago.

How do we wait and is there any benefit in the process? Is there a way out of existential angst or are we relegated to it like a form of purgatory? Can we sex, drugs, and alcohol our way out, or do we chin up like a little tin soldier? Do we collapse and fall apart or scale the mountain to greatness?

In yoga, the space between the breaths is viewed as quite significant. It is the transition point. The point were inhalation gives way to exhalation and then gives rise to inhalation again. That is the practice. Learning how to sit through the transitions of felt sensate experience without repressing or collapsing. It is its own Gethsemane. We typically endure alone while the disciples sleep. We die and are reborn in each impasse if we allow ourselves to breathe through it. It is the road to Spirit and to Grace.

It’s not fun to feel. But it is this arc, this wave that gives rise to desire, to momentum, to action, and to transformation. It is what ultimately brings joy. Without it, there is no art. No creation. No change. And no intersection.

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Just Say No!

17 Apr

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When I was in middle school and high school I was expected to get up at 5:30 a.m. to water the plants and take care of our animals before going to school at 8:00 a.m. This was in Southern California where delicate potted plants needed to be watered in both the morning and late afternoon. Much of our shrubbery had automatic drip and spray sprinklers but the plants that didn’t would easily die within a few days without consistent care, particularly the fragile, moisture loving flowers such as orchids and fuschias. These varieties are tropical in nature and not meant for an arid dry climate.

This was also the era of Nancy Reagan’s, “Just say no!” campaign to help young people not sucuumb to drug use. I think of that phrase now. As direct as Nike’s, “Just do it!”, “Just say no!” is a great motto, if you can adhere to it.

I bring this up because these days many of us the minute we wake up log onto the computer or our phones to check text messages and emails. There is little division anymore between work and private life. It’s all mushed into one undifferintiated mass.

I’d rather water plants at 5:30 a.m. and walk and brush two magnificent large dogs like I did when I was young than look at a screen the minute I open my eyes. It’s a more humane way to wake up. It’s more embodied; more centered; more intimate. It’s a semi- equivalent of a toddler jumping on your bed or a lover kissing one awake. When outdoors at 5:30 a.m., you see the sunrise and the way the colors shift with an ever increasing degree of light. Even if engaged in a type of physical labor, there is something balanced in it because it involves the body fully vs. sitting sedentary at a screen.

I was raised with a Midwestern, farm mentality work ethnic and that ethic is in my DNA. However, that ethic can be brutal when it’s not mixed in with nature and natural rhythms and interpersonal relationships.

Sometimes we just have to say no to work and to technology and to get into our bodies and into nature. This actually feeds productivity because relaxation restores the mind and soul. It opens new vistas. As all farmers know, sometimes you have to let the fields lie fallow in order to create a better yield. If you demand the goose that lays a gold egg each day to produce more, she can stop producing all together.

Creativity always demands a tension between inner/outer, surrender/will, rest/activity. There is day and night, light and dark, life and death, order and chaos. There is a reason on the 7th day, the Lord took a break. We must take a moment to see, “That it was good.” Otherwise, we miss the show all together.

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Running Water Over Stones

25 Mar

As I watched a group of neighbors dressed in black walk to Maudy Thursday services at a nearby church, I looked down and realized that I too was dressed in black. My yoga pants were black and so was my sweater. Only the neigbhors entered the church and I walked into the funky and traditional yoga studio near my house. “I’m worshipping at a different altar tonight,” I thought. However, for me, it’s all the same altar. Prayer, meditation, yoga, nature, church fellowship, and worship are all fundamental resources that help me feel connected to God.

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Although I have taken yoga classes for twenty years, it has only been in the last few that I have started to understand yoga and to realize why having a practice is vital for my emotional, physical and mental well being. Yoga teaches me not just about my body but about how I hold stress and negative thought patterns and how I can stop the constant gripping.

I went to class last night because it was a restorative one. Restorative yoga is different than active yoga. It is specifically designed to calm the nervous system. By using props (a bolster, blocks, blankets, and a strap), you put your body in resting, open postures and hold them for a good ten minutes, if not longer. As you relax into the poses, you can actually feel when the body begins to melt into the floor or the props; you start to notice when the body begins to surrender its never ending push for control and hyper-vigilance. You notice when it starts to release the defensive and protective armor that no longer serves.

“As humans, we are always pushed into stressful states yet the body cannot hold stress and relaxation simultaneously. If we train our bodies to relax, it is physiologically impossible to hold stress at the same time,” said the teacher.

“In growth and transformation, there is always a degree of discomfort. So when you hold new poses, you might initially feel uncomfortable.” I burst out laughing. Yeah, growth and transformation can make one a wee bit uncomfortable.

The first pose we did was called something like “running water over stones.” At least this is the imagery the teacher talked about. Lying on our backs with bolsters and blankets propped to put our spines in their natural curvatures, our bodies were akin to stones that stay  solid and stationary as water runs over them. That water, that ever pulsating movement of life can wear down the stones, yet if we are solid and stationary, the water doesn’t have to push us around. We can be in harmony with the flow of life.

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There are some restorative yoga poses where the props are meant to be intrusive, pushing the body to open and stretch more actively; others that are designed for the body to simply melt and surrender.

There is also the inhalation, the exhalation, and the space between the next breath. That space is vital; it’s where the next beat of life and creativity spring from. That is the space I am most interested in harnessing, yet it is the whole flow of breath that keeps one moving through transformation and growth.

“Relax, relax!” the Saturday teacher always says to me when taking the hatha yoga class. “You’re making it too hard.” If he only knew. If he only knew how often I can make things too hard or how hard I can be on myself. It’s good to take a look in the mirror sometimes. Yet he also says like a kind grandfather (and with a twinkle in his eye), “That’s beautiful. You’re holding the pose beautifully.” It’s also good to note our progress.

The Universe Supports Boldness

27 Jan

“He who hestiates is lost,” my father used to say when teaching me how to drive. He was referring to passive drivers, those who hem and haw when changing lanes or when merging onto the freeway. They often accelerate and decelerate irradically, never making their intentions known to other drivers. The result is comparable to having the foot on the gas and brake simultaneously. “People who drive too slow or without assertiveness are just as dangerous as those who drive too fast and reckless.”

My father used to race stock cars as a hobby and was an excellent driver. I don’t know that I can say the same about my skills but his words stuck.

She who hesitates is lost.

These words apply to so many situations. A figure skater going into a jump at high speed who pauses right before lift off, typically can’t land the jump and often lands on her fanny instead. Similarly, a surfer who hesitates when the wave is cresting, won’t pop up right. He’ll end up on his knees, or won’t pop up at all. Likewise, he’ll miss the wave entirely, or it will take him at the wrong time causing him to pearl, the wave sending him into a-not- so-sweet-tumble into green and foam.

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He who hesitates is lost.

So much about life is about listening for the right moment and then committing to it with boldness. To jump on every wave does not reflect boldness; just foolishness or ignorance. Instead, the conditions need to be right. The wave needs to break with good form and without too many people on it. But when you are in the zone of a perfect wave, it is a Nike, “Just do it!” moment. Do not turn away the gift horse.

Reading the waves is an inner art form but the inner informs the outer. The impulse starts within.

“The Universe supports boldness,” a friend of mine said recently. This is such a quintessential California statement; it reads like bumper sticker. And yet it is so spot on. The Universe most definitely supports boldness. The Universe is bold herself. She is wild, she is beautiful, she is free.

Valentine to the City

14 Jan

A few days ago I found myself in a hotel room with my legs up the wall in a yoga inversion pose trying to induce sleep because in the city that never sleeps, it’s often hard to dial down from the buzz. Because of NYC’s initiative to train 250,000 New Yorkers in Mental Health First Aid, there will be a number of instructor trainings to meet that said goal and thus, I was fortunate to be one of the trainers who visited here recently.

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Twenty years ago I was a New Yorker. I was one of those starry eyed youth who came to the Big Apple because why not? I will never forgot those years. Once Manhattan has been part of your life experience, it’s always in the DNA. You really can’t understand the city until you’ve lived here; until you’ve been crammed on a subway daily in winter, spring, summer and fall either bundled up in a coat or sweltering in the urine smelling tunnels when it’s 100 degrees underground. You really can’t understand the kindness of the people here until you’ve had the guy at the corner market store chat with you every morning while getting your non-Starbucks coffee in one of the cups you always see in cop shows.

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The city is a heart beat pulsing with life and vitality. I love the rumble of the trains and and the old fashioned glamour of Grand Central Station. I love track lines that take me outside the city to people and places I love and the sense that anything is possible if you put yourself in the right place at the right time and keep your eyes and heart open.

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En route to the airport a few weeks ago, my uber driver was very young. I knew he was relatively green when he put the airport address into his phone GPS when the directions are a pretty striaght shoot. I also knew he was just shy of a kid based on his demeanor, the way he spoke to me, etc. “Today is my first day as an uber driver,” he said. “I just got out of the navy and am at school. I like uber. Everything is a tax write off and I can work my own hours.” And you can also make some seriously good money, kid. Good for you! I was touched by his lack of pretense; his lack of needing to do things perfectly; and his willingness to take life by the horns. He reminded me of a young woman I met in the city who was visiting from Canada. She was here just because. It was her third trip this year because she is smitten with the city.

New York is an old city with a history and yet it retains the joie de vivre of youth. Sure, the city can wear you down. In parts of it, it’s loud and dirty and grey and gross. The rents are high and there are lots of people. Yet it’s also glorious and romantic and wild.

New York is vitamin B for the spirit. You just have to find time for a little legs up the wall to quiet down from the stimuli and to fully appreciate the vitality.

Content to be Content

21 Oct

I have 15,000 things to do today but the sun streams in through the windows, bouncing off the hardwood floor, and I am content to sit here. I am content to be content.

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Autumn is a time of sweet reflection. The heat breaks. The days are shorter and darkness drops in earlier inviting in cozy and rest. As a young girl, I loved being huddled under the covers in the bliss of childhood slumber. My mom would have to rouse me for school in the morning and I’d slightly protest, wanting to stay in the cave of oblivion that we only really get when young, cared for fully, and unencumbered by the pressures of the adult world.

In her recent memoir, “M Train,” Patti Smith writes, “The transformation of the heart is a wondrous thing, no matter how you land there,” she writes. “Oh, to be reborn within the pages of a book.” Although I read voraciously year round, I associate books with Autumn and Winter and the start of a school year. I also think of holiday foods, the crisp in the air, and cherished television specials and films. It is a time of reunion with loved ones, past and present. The smell of a turkey and fragrant pines, reminding us of people no longer alive and memories yet to make with new players on the stage.

Our lives move in seasons – seasons of darkness and depth and seasons filled with the lightness of being. It is the light and the dark that provides perception, depth, and contour. That makes our lives a living, breathing piece of art in the process of becoming.

Harvest. Pumpkins. Leaves and fading sun. Lessons stored and drawn upon like a squirrel’s cache of nuts for Winter.

This is not a season to be glossed over and rushed through. It is time to sip the hot mulled cider, to put one’s feet up and to rest after a considerable amount of work and exertion. It is time to prosper and be content.

 

Swimming Upstream: Lessons from the Salmon’s Magic

20 Oct

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I was teaching in Alaska a few weeks ago and as a gift to my colleague and I, we both received bracelets with animal totems specific to our personalities. Our host selected the “Double Salmon” totem for me. Delighted by the bracelet, I nodded when she told me that she had picked the fish as my spirit guide. “That fits,” I thought. “I can eat salmon for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” It was only when I was home that I looked up the symbology of the double salmon.

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Apparently, there is more entailed with this totem than a yummy tasting meal. One of the key traits is perseverance because salmon swim upstream, against the current. This isn’t the easiest way to journey, yet it is unique for the salmon. The fish transform from salt to fresh water conditions and then back again, if they manage to survive their arduous adventures. Although swimming against the current, they find a rhythm that enables them to do this with more ease than imagined.

I find this a lovely reminder to be faithful to our natures. When we embrace our paths, we fulfill our destinies. It’s not our job to tell salmon fish, “Hey, make things easier on yourself and swim downstream.” Instead, it’s our job to let salmon be salmon, allowing their unique encoding to unfold.

What if we were to fully embrace our natures instead of trying to fit into a mold of something else? What if swimming upstream is right for me and swimming downstream is right for you? What if we gave ourselves permission to simply be?

All my life I’ve wanted to be conventional. I suddenly realize there isn’t a conventional bone in my body. And that’s okay.

Double salmon also represent wealth and eternity. I like that.

Yet in Alaska, I was reminded of all the Great Spirits. While on a walk in the woods along the city, I actually saw a moose. Apparently, this isn’t so common. I was told I was lucky. Here was a huge male moose walking right across my path. Thankfully, he was somewhat calm. We watched in reverence, as the moose walked across the way and into the backyard of someone’s condominium with Denali as the backdrop. Moose are symbolic of many things: self esteem, mating, and a job well done and celebrated. I took note of this upon my return, when I did a bit of research on the moose spirit.

I’m reminded that there is magic everywhere in the air. All we have to do is dial into it and let it assist us. What a wonderful world it is, indeed!