Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Offend Your Mind

I recently heard a podcast where the interviewee related about a time when he left good, lucrative, successful work. There was something in him quietly pulling him in a different direction, but that new direction was pathless, off-the-grid, unpredictable, and frightening. While, on paper, nothing was wrong with the current path. He was good at what he did. Well compensated. Highly regarded.

He took a walk with a friend of his to sort out the tension. His friend listened as he laid out the terrain of the current conflict. Finally, the friend turned to him and said, "Offend your Mind."

At that, the interviewee burst out laughing.

It gave full permission to move away from his current work and explore the curiosities that were emerging. The path emerged in front of him in real time. New territory. Exciting. Worthwhile.

The only place the problem existed was in the limits of his logic where he had firmly defined worth, work, and self. In ways that didn't account for any of their scope.

I laughed when I heard "offend your mind" too as I've made my best decisions when I couldn't understand them.

I remember the fall of 2002 when I "should" have been a promising Junior at Mount Holyoke College. Instead, I had recently withdrawn, with a high GPA, and become a waitress, renting a room in West Philly. I remember walking down the sidewalks of Baltimore Ave often with tears streaming down my cheeks because I couldn't understand who or what I was anymore.

I made that decision with more clarity than almost any that preceded or followed and yet I still had to grieve. I had to grieve leaving that path. A path that I know, without a doubt, wouldn't have been healthy for me, but was clear.

I offended my mind. I offended my ideas and opinions and imaginings and beliefs. I offended it so greatly but that's because I was operating from other intelligences.

I've done that a few times since. I've felt really murky about my actions and choices because they lived in mystery. My mind couldn't decipher what we were doing. There was a lot of internal panic and sleeve tugging: "what are we DOING here???" But my body said, "keep going." Intuition said, "trust."

And intuition is a muscle. You can build it. The more you listen, the more you slow, the more you write down the dreams, journal the tarot, and trust what's off the map, the more guidance you receive.

I know. I live with an offended mind.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Comfort's Discomfort

Kevin loves landscaping long, muddy days in pouring rain. Bonus if it's cold. He's obviously a weirdo but he actually has some reasons for his preference-- among them, days like that make him more easily satisfied.

It seems counter-intuitive, but I've learned this to be more universal than his personal quirk. When he comes home soaked to the bone, cold, mud plastered to his boots, his hot shower feels like manna from heaven. Sitting, doing nothing, eating some food is a miracle.

When I've comfortably worked inside the shelter of my home, my shower, meal, and sitting are far less noticeable.

Recently, whenever possible, I go as remote as possible. It's hard to find truly uncultivated places these days, but I try. West Virginia is always a strong candidate. There are parts of West Virginia that are largely undeveloped, in fact, seem practically impossible to develop. I sat outside under a cool drizzle watching state park workers. Kids had set off fireworks from a trail and kicked off a fire. which closed the trail. No trail, no sun, no problem. I bummed about, ultimately swimming in an unlabeled swimming hole, found after multiple queries. I watched the workers reestablish the trail. I watched the workers navigating traffic, in the rain. Everything felt quiet. Our expectations, collectively, were pretty low.

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I'm curious what happens to your mind and outlook in those environments. I drove through more Christianity than I can remember. Christianity of every sort but Catholic! Tons of Baptist, even Mennonite. I saw country stores hanging fox skins and signs that said, "We're broke, we believe in Jesus, we know who we're voting for, leave us alone." There were proud Trump signs next to iconography and symbols of Indigenous people. Not one country store had any cheese apart from American though goats would be grazing nearby. There were plenty of jars of pickles and mayonnaise next to the white bread.

I've written before about how in these environments I get read as a WASP really quickly. I've also had a year. During it, I've sort of shifted how I encounter others and it's working better. I used to trust first and be surprised later. My current mantra is "trust no one and love everyone." I know it sounds dark, but it actually works way better. It means I'm more self-protective and more at home with myself. I'm responsible for myself and aware.

I saw a flicker of recognition in this worldview. I started noticing that with this as my outlook, I fit in better. In this neck of the woods, being polite doesn't mean being stupid.

I saw sign after sign urging us to humble ourselves before God as mountains soared overhead and trucks nearly ran me off curving mountain highways. This is a part of the country where humans are in context and proportion. Human power is very clearly limited.

I have various fantasies about living in the country but also an ethic that says, "don't move there unless you have a remote job." Jobs are hard to come by in all parts of the country. Moving to a poor part of the country and taking work is poor form.

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Kevin and I were fantasizing about living somewhere rural and I confessed that I'd likely want to build cabins to rent on airbnb and various projects like that. "I'd be developing what I love for being undeveloped." Kevin paused, "It's a bit different here. Yes, you're developing, but on that scale the forest takes it back quick. At home, when you build, it's permanent. No one is under that illusion here."

Life is a mandala, a moment of impermanence. Standing in the rain, under the shade of tremendous cliffs, directing traffic through nowhere.

The poet Morgan Parker wrote a beautiful book called Other People's Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night. A Black poet, Parker writes clearly about race relations in the US. Many of her poems illuminate the priority many white people place on their comfort and sense of well-being over truly understanding the functioning of racism in the US. I've had more conversations than I care to remember with fellow white people, trying to work through race, and hearing, "It's uncomfortable."

Yes, it is.

It's also more uncomfortable to brutalized or discriminated against.

When I travel, my comfort becomes significantly less important. I go longer without eating, I curl myself into tiny bus seats, I pack layers. My excitement over the adventure outweighs any temporary discomfort.

I've watched this tendency and tried to transfer it to my daily life. Why do I need to be so controlled by access to the food I want, when I want it? The sleep I want, when I want it? Why is my contentment so conditional?

Kevin's theory is that we need to be far less comfortable. He thinks the modern priority of convenience and comfort is making us sicker and sadder. Anytime he's by a body of water, in any season, he jumps in and swims in it. I've seen him swim in water with ice on the surface. He'll lose his breath and gasp for a minute, but as he recovers himself he smiles broadly.

I used to be very hesitant about getting into water. I'd walk very slowly. I wanted my body to gently acclimate.

This past winter in Mexico, I stopped that. I started jumping in without hesitation. It's better. My body is rushed by the surrounding water and then I surrender.

I'm curious: the more uncomfortable I am with myself, do I seek proportionally greater comfort in the world? And inverse: the more comfortable I am with myself am I then more willing to let the world be no matter my perceptions of how it affects me?

I'm watching out for where else I resist.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Evidence

On a particularly playful evening, my Mom started sucking in her belly and showing her rib cage. My older brother, then 16 (making me 8) started becoming all rib cage, all hollow stomach, squatted and haunched. She laughed and swatted and said it was yoga.


She had been one of the leotard-clad women in the 70s teaching her friends yoga in the basement. She was trying to juice and eat vegetarian. She knew she was pregnant with her fourth, me, at age 39, when she craved a cheese steak.


As a girl my parents took me on a trip to California. My Mom and I spent a day in Laguna Beach. Around lunchtime we hunted for a spot to eat. We dipped into a temple and looked at the buffet of ghee-heavy vegetarian food, listened to the droning kirtan, and saw the young white kids wearing saffron robes. My Mom asked the Hare Krishnas where we could get a burger. They giggled nervously and said, “I forgot people still ate cow!”


In college, I needed a part-time job. I wandered around campus to see what I could do. The religious center had an intricate Japanese tea garden. Woven mats. Stones (one duty was to pick leaves from them). I was hired to clean the tea garden.


The summer after first year in college I found a sublet in Brooklyn. I had an internship in Manhattan. My college had given me a stipend that covered some rent and expenses, but not all. I wandered around looking for a job. Randomly, unexpectedly, the health food store in the West Village, Integral Yoga, hired me. The dreadlocked yogi who worked in the bookstore came in to buy his bulk nuts. After classes above, students came down to pick up ingredients for dinner. I was cashier for the yogi's transactions.

My husband and I purchased our first house on a dead-end street across from a park. At the far end of our street there is a Jain Temple. I often run past the creek behind the temple. On the best days, the creek is bright with discarded marigold petals.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Yoga is a question

My relationship with yoga right now is funny and convoluted and for me, very central. I'm sort of having an affair with my practice. I made it secret and private and a bit clandestine so I could keep it sacred. I try to practice 4 mornings a week, doing the most classical and some say dogmatic stuff.

And then I teach sort of the opposite. I teach 6 regular classes a week and they're mainly informed by new conversations in functional movement. We explore patterns of movement, the classical poses deconstructed, and then reconstructed. To the degree that I have one, my goal is to try to make a space where each of us can truly begin to feel and know our body. Yoga teachers, for years, have told students "listen to your body" but the underlying truth is that most of us go to yoga to learn to do just that.

I try to teach a practice that is more about questions and space than answers and dogma. Cause what do I know?

My own body feels anchored by the classical because the practice I'm engaging in doesn't let me escape from my body. And I have a tendency to try to do so. Being placed squarely in my body, with no distraction, is useful for me.

I'm very clear that my students are not me. My students are practicing for a broad range of reasons. As facilitator, my goal is to see them to the best of my ability, keep them safe, and make space for them to explore, know, and steady. I learn a lot watching them. It reminds me that the broad variety of yoga practices (Ashtanga, Iyengar, etc) are generous-- there's an implicit understanding that we live many lives in one lifetime (if we're lucky) and we may seek balance in a plethora of ways. The practice is both a mirror so we can see ourselves and our own needs-- and a balm-- it gives us ways to create balance.

Yoga is not a magic bullet. It's not a one way ticket to zen. It's another means to coming to know ourselves and be intentional with how we are in the world. That's all. And that's everything.

I've positioned myself between a few voices in the yoga world and they're providing me with a really interesting orientation. Whenever I can, I practice with Alex Auder. I understand through her teaching a lot of functional movement patterns. I feel safe and comfortable in her class because she is so unapologetically herself. She's not for everyone and that's the joy-- she's not trying to be. By being herself so thoroughly I have the opportunity to opt in or opt out, and I opt in. I pull that understanding into my own teaching, reminding myself "don't dilute, obscure, or diminish yourself. That can be a distraction too when it's felt by the student. Be fully integrated to actually be able to serve the student."

I read Matthew Remski for his studies of abuse of power in the yoga world. He talks about the subjects and controversies that many yogis avoid. Through his conversations and insights, I start to map some of the pitfalls of power and abuse. I start to figure out how to own my space, make choices that are right for me, and untangle what is yoga and what is nonsense.

I watch videos from Diane Bruni and some of the teachers she's gathered around her in the study of functional movement. Some of it's yoga, some of it's something very different. It's a study of our bodies, feeling, form, and option. It's very organic.

I think about the stories I've heard of why or how yoga was invented. Some say it was whispered to a snake man. Some say the poses developed so we could sit quietly in meditation. Others say the poses developed to flush the digestive tract. Still more say that the poses were attempts to reintegrate into the natural world. As original yogis watched the animals and landscape and felt other than, they decided to imitate what they saw to try to get to its sense of being.

And then somewhere along the line that exploration became dogmatic.

I don't think that was the idea.

I think yoga is questions:

"where are you?"

"what do you feel?"

"how will your body move through the world?"

It's everything and it's enough.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Falling

Recently, I heard an interview with a dancer. The dancer said to free up organic movement she and her collaborators practice falling.

The interviewer, thankfully, had my reaction. How you do that?

The dancer, thankfully, had language around the practice.

The dancer said that the reason falling interrupts movement or hurts is because of our interaction with what we fall into. She said that if you visualize the floor as hard, if you expect it to be hard, your body behaves accordingly, tensing. This means that there is hardness in the interaction. The floor slaps your body, your body heaves to the floor.

However, it doesn't have to be like that.

When she practices falling, this dancer visualizes the floor as a soft, permeable, permissive surface. As she starts to feel a receptivity in the floor her body get softer. Her body responds to the floor as though the floor were soft and the interaction between body and floor gains that level of fluidity.

I am now practicing falling all the time.

Yesterday, I went to the ocean. The sky was beautifully, densely grey. The air was in the 60s and the water was colder than that.

I walked into the choppy dark ocean. When the water swirled around my ankles I gasped. My legs started feeling numb. A year ago, I would have shrieked and run from the water. 

But I'm practicing falling.

I breathed and I started talking to the water. Well, I started talking to myself via the ocean.

I let myself feel invited into the water. I reminded myself of how grateful I am for oceans. Just watching waves soothes me. I wanted to be in that water. I wanted to be with the ocean. I started thanking the ocean and feeling at home in the swirling water.

My body started relaxing into the water. I walked out. I stayed in the water for some time. I dove under a wave.

The water was bracingly cold but when I was a kid, I didn't care. I was so excited to be in water that the temperature didn't register. It's only as an adult that I put myself at odds with my environment.

I'm practicing falling.


I think this perspective could expand. There are a lot of environments and situations where I feel at odds.

When I shift my understanding of them, I change. I respond differently. I fall in and am received.


Friday, May 19, 2017

The Rediscovered Beauty of the Alarm Clock

Thanks to helpful human suggestions gleaned through social media, I ordered and now own the Moonbeam alarm clock.

It's cute, it's small, and it lives on my night stand. After setting up the alarm clock I left my phone downstairs for the night. I went to sleep and in the morning this thing loudly woke me up. It has one beep and it is not cute. However! I quickly turned it off and felt awake. I pet my cat for a bit. I slowly got out of bed. With nothing to distract me I decided to meditate first. I went into the office, sat on my meditation cushion, got out my mala, and did a 10 minute japa meditation sit.

And went about my day.

It was calm and intentional. It felt really liberating. I was choosing what served me instead of negotiating away from what drains my energy.

Our house has two bedrooms, one upstairs and one downstairs. In the winter, we sleep upstairs because it's warm and cozy. I placed the alarm clock in that bedroom. For those of you in the northeast you know that we are in a heat wave of 90 degrees in May. Thanks Climate Change. We moved down to our downstairs bedroom as that room has three exterior walls, more windows, and cross breeze. The alarm clock didn't move with us.

I set my phone as an alarm and went to sleep. In the morning the phone gave me a more soothing sound but when I rolled over to hit snooze I saw 10 billion notifications. I was already stressed. The screen was brighter. After hitting snooze a kajillion times I decided I would wake up. I started mindlessly scrolling through email and Facebook and the rest instead of getting out of bed. When I got out of bed, I'd wasted a good bit of time and had to hustle.

I had been discussing this whole process with a friend and felt like it was an issue of willpower on my part. She very generously phrased it as too much choice, which drains energy. That shifted my perspective. When I travel to places with limited wifi I feel FREE because I don't have to chose whether or not to engage with email and the rest. I can't until I seek it out and make it happen. Instead, all of that energy can be allocated intentionally.

That is exactly what I'm feeling in my mornings with the alarm clock vs my mornings with the phone. World's apart. Alarm clock wins.

I've just ordered one for the downstairs bedroom. 

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Mother's Day with Father Divine

Lucky for me, Kevin is interested in following bread crumbs.

Case in point, last Sunday, AKA Mother's Day.

The plan had been to go to Asbury Park and swim. Thankfully, we're both getting better at veering away from the plan.

It could have been a good day to pack a quilt and wrap up on the beach but it was cold, a little colder than the previous days when we laid these plans. Instead, we got some food in Philly. I knew I wanted to pick up some sacred stones for friends so I suggested heading to Garland of Letters. Kevin, always the nerd, happily agreed. The shop keep, with Buddha's naga serpents tattooed around his skull, let us in. I found myself fumbling over some moss agate and smoky quartz and assembled my gifts. Kevin found three rare books he's been obsessed with. While Kevin and the shop keep nerded happily together, I realized I'd forgotten palo santo. I picked some up and our friend, the naga-headed one, gifted them to us.

I realized there's a coffee shop near there that always feels good to me-- good light, pretty tiles, succulents. We headed to Chapterhouse Coffee to sit and plot what was next. As I sipped my cappuccino Kevin pulled a few books from the coffee shop shelf. He thumbed through and said, "Father Divine! I was just talking about him with Anthony! He was a Black man who founded a religion in Philly. The Divine Lorraine hotel and a few others were run by him and his followers. The followers still live in Gladwyne. We should go."

Normally, I'm not one for Gladwyne. It freaks me out. Seems to me that the oldest money in the Philadelphia area resides in Gladwyne. Driving through is beautiful. There are sun-speckled glades and gentle hills and soft trees but it's freaky! All the land is private. You can't actually be in any of that beauty and it doesn't seem like anyone ever enjoys it. I have many suspicions about how many torture lairs are underground in Gladwyne. All I feel out there is repression and corruption.

I also don't know anything about Father Divine other than his fantastic name and his beautifully named hotels. Yet somehow, on this particular day, it didn't seem like a bad idea to visit.

We began to drive from center city to Gladwyne. Here's the other weird thing about Gladwyne-- you never take the same route twice. I don't know that the roads actually exist. I think that the powers that be that make certain access points from day to day. You think I'm joking.

I have lived in the Philadelphia area for most of my life and I saw things on that ride I have never seen before. Somehow, somewhere near Manayunk we began riding on a residential street right along the Schuykill River. I DIDN'T KNOW ANYONE LIVED ON THE SCHUYKILL. A tiny street! People were FISHING out their back door! It felt like other areas-- maybe New Hope or Norfolk-- not the Philadelphia suburbs. I was shocked. If you want to get to this area-- if it's real! Try to get to Flat Rock Park. On the river. Stunned.

We climbed the hills into Gladwyne proper. Across from the Philadelphia Country Club we turned into the driveway of a private estate. One manor had 8 dogs barking at the fence. Fenced in nearby there were grazing donkeys, alpacas, sheep, and an emu.

I'm not joking about any of this.

We continued down the drive until we found ourselves at Gatsby's place. Seriously. An old mansion with an air of 1942. When Kevin and I are on adventures we're endlessly chatting so we were happily talking about something or another, parking the car, and walking towards the mansion when an old German woman in a 1930s school uniform comes to the porch and says, "Are you here for the tour?"

And that's when I thought we might die.

OK, I thought we'd wander around a largely abandoned place, maybe find a caretaker, and maybe take a tour.

It was way weirder than that.

This woman was genuinely sweet. Kevin eagerly said, "Yes!" The woman looked at me, dressed in jeans and a loose sweater and clucked, "Oh, we'll have to put you in a skirt."

She invited me into the mansion and found an old apron skirt with snaps. I began putting it on over my jeans as an old man in spats sat thumbing through a book to my right, a hunched over sweet woman in her 90s began clucking at me, and I spotted another very elderly woman seated in a chair in the room in front of me. I began to realize there were people EVERYWHERE. And they were all watching Kevin and I attentively.

It felt like a cult retirement home.

They gave us booties to slide over our shoes to maintain the cleanliness of the manor. The women debated who would take Kevin and I on our tour. The mansion was absolutely beautiful and completely frozen in time. The great room has vaulted ceilings, a fireplace with a Bible quote on the mantle, and life size portraits of Father and Mother Divine overhead. There was a music room, a drawing room, an office, and a dining room set for Mother's Day dinner. A table off to the side was filled with the only recognizable technology, a CD player and CDs. I asked about it and our guide said, "We listen to Father Divine's sermons as we eat."

In the music room she opened a beautiful wooden box filled with a giant perforated silver disc. "It's a music box!" our guide said, "this is what people listened to before the radio!" She wound it up and began to play it's tinny tune. We listened politely while people sat in their chairs or quietly watched us.

Holy shit.

From the dining room we were taken into the kitchen which was much more lively and gregarious. Women were preparing dinner, cleaning up, ironing, and cutting flowers. They even had a room dedicated to preparing vases!

After the tour of the house we were shown the outdoor shrine where Father and Mother Divine rest. There were estate trails that our guide invited us to enjoy. One took us to a cave where Revolutionary soldiers hid during the war.

Everyone we met on the estate was kind. We saw one other family touring; a couple about our age with two small children. They entered as we were touring the kitchen. The women giggled saying, "The children are wearing booties!"

Throughout the tour Kevin kept asking questions about belief and customs but we didn't hear much response. Our guide told us that followers believe in the Constitution and are patriotic. They believe Father Divine is the incarnation of God as was his wife, Mother Divine. However, theirs was said to not be a traditional marriage. Followers stay "virtuous." They all believe they are married to Mother and Father Divine but do not consummate relationships, which is why the group is slowly dying off. When we met visitors or followers everyone greeted us by saying "Peace." The Sisters, as they call themselves, lived in the mansion. The Brothers lived down the road. They share communal chores and responsibilities.

Father Divine was a Black man who originally married a Black woman. She passed when Father Divine was in his 50s. He found a young white woman in her 20s who he said was the incarnation of his deceased wife. This woman became Mother Divine. I tried to ask a bit about the group's racial politics but didn't hear much response. The elderly followers were predominately Black with a few white members, including our German tour guide who's parents joined the group when she was a toddler.

They seem to believe in prosperity gospel. At it's heyday Father Divine had or was given properties in Europe as well as many parts of the US. There were photos of Father Divine homes in the Hamptons and Hudson Valley in addition to the Gladwyne headquarters. The Divine Lorraine Hotel and second hotel in West Philadelphia must have also been sources of income but it wasn't entirely clear who built, owned, or managed what.

The space felt sweet and creepy-- a combination Kevin is fond of. The friendliness and care the collective gave to their daily tasks reminded me that these are simply the practices of any devout people. They infused meaning into tending the home, preparing the food, and engaging in the rituals they'd lived all the decades of their life.

It also reminded me of being with my grandmother. The house had the feel of the 1940s. Not much had changed. It's a time capsule and those are rare to find.

To see exactly what it looks like with a generous story, check out this piece: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/07/02/kristin-bedford-father-divine_n_7673846.html

We followed the bread crumbs to the Father Divine estate. We wandered the grounds a bit before returning to Flat Rock Park and winding our way home.