You have a favorite television show, a show you’ve been watching religiously for almost two seasons. But lately something has changed and it doesn’t seem to be a change for the better. So you begin to question the events and the characters against reality, and it becomes difficult for you to suspend disbelief.
All of the frenzied action and jump cuts don’t mean that the writers have improved the narrative. It does mean that there is a frantic grasping for your attention in progress. All of this activity can be compared to frantic break-up prevention tactics that arise even though it’s been clear to both parties for months that the relationship really isn’t in good shape and may not last much longer. More plot twists don’t necessarily make the narrative stronger in this situation, either.
When you tune in this evening, you begin to feel dizzy. You can’t keep up. What is happening with these people? Why is Wanda all of a sudden at the airport waiting for a plane to Sioux Falls? Who goes to Sioux Falls, anyway? What happened to James? Why isn’t he with her? He was in a car accident on the way to the airport? His ex, Jeanine, is one of the EMT’s whose ambulance, with suspicious synchronicity arrives at the scene of the accident? What?
You begin to dislike Wanda for going to Sioux Falls and of course James for not being with her. You don’t find their erratic behavior compelling. And those other characters aren’t looking like they’re doing such a great job of being foils to Wanda and James, either.
You wonder why Jeanine is wearing a nearly sheer low cut blouse instead of her EMT uniform and why her hemline seems so high. After all, she has just jumped out of an ambulance and sprung into action. Why is she wearing a skirt, anyway? She’s an EMT and who cares if the skirt is dark blue and the blouse compliments her skin tone. Something is very wrong with this picture.
What did you see in James in the first place and why did you think he was so fine? What did Wanda see in him? And when you think about it, they really don’t look that good together. You begin to question what you saw in them as a couple.
You wonder what you saw in this show in the first place and think you may have been wasting too many of your evenings watching it. After all, you could have been reading a book, watching that film you’d been meaning to see, the one that your friends keep telling you is so good; or writing your own damn screenplay.
Hell, you can write better than these drama-addicted writers who expect you to be addicted to drama too. After all, you really do hate to waste your time and these writers and their writing have begun to waste your time. So you turn off the television, open your notebook, grab your pen, and write.
My feeling anxious today arose out of my experiment with the bullet journal I started creating a few weeks ago. I have had the journal itself for about a month and have been more seriously considering starting one for the past 6 months. What drew me to the concept and practice was that it is analog and all of my “to do’s” “maybe do’s” “done’s” “future possibilities” and other stuff could be written and later found in one place and indexed for easy finding. Wow, I thought, this would really get rid of all of the To Do lists I create and leave in strategic places around the house, like the kitchen table, on my desk between layers of stacked paper, next to my track pad, on the bedside table, on the mini white board on the fridge, in folders, in random pages of books, in my jacket pockets, in tote bags, in my computer case. Consolidation sounded like the possibility of reaching nirvana in this lifetime.
What I didn’t bargain for was my perfectionism showing up and almost derailing my efforts. All of those beautiful, artistic, colorful photos of bullet journals on Pinterest and Instagram and on the bullet journal web page, plus my writer friend’s beautiful journals invited me to the process. But once I opened my journal-to-be and began to sit with blank pages, those same photos and examples shamed me. It would be more honest of me to say that I shamed myself with those examples. I worried about my handwriting and what it looks like on the page. My writing is big and the dots on the page suggested space for smaller letters. I am not a visual artist and the thought of pages filled with words and no graphic images had me worried. I worried about messing up the index by making mistakes and not being able to erase them as they were written in ink and not pencil. And I began to feel like all I was doing was making a lot of “To Do” lists in a book that could look a lot prettier and creative. The lists were making me feel as if I was unable to get anything done and that more and more things were being added each day to make longer and longer lists.
These thoughts swirled around with the images of what looked like perfect bullet journals and I felt insecure and unskilled in creating a journal that was actually designed to be flexible. There is a basic framework that includes a few sections, and symbols that one can use to track entries, but beyond that and even within that, what the journal looks like is up to the owner-creator. The reference guide even suggests leaving extra pages for the basic sections one creates, because one can’t know how much room one needs for a given day, month, gratitude page, list of ideas, or submission log.
And then I gave myself permission to not hide my mistakes. I wrote the wrong page number in the index, and instead of looking for White Out I crossed it out. I decided to change the title of the page I created to track my writing submissions, from “Submission Goals,” to “Submission Log.” That meant that I had to cross out the word “Goals” and write the word “Log” beneath it because there was no more room on the page. The fact that I changed my mind is written in ink and there it will stay in the form of a crossed out word at the top of the page.
I thought that creating a bullet journal would help me to gather the parts of my life that I juggle and move them from post-its and scratch paper to a book in which I could write them with the colored pens and pencils that I enjoy using. That is a work in progress and I have noticed that there are very few scraps of paper sitting around on my desk and kitchen table these days. I only use those scraps when there is something that really needs my attention immediately and I write the words in a really bright color. Those scraps get recycled pretty quickly, within a day or so, once the task has been handled. What the “bujo” is really helping me to do is to be more flexible with myself and not worry so much that I am making mistakes and that they are showing. I’m beginning to see opportunities for different types of pages (or “collections,” as they’re called in bullet journalese) that will take some of what is going on my daily logs and place them elsewhere, like “submissions” or “ideas” or “tech stuff” or things I haven’t come up with yet. That might help with the lists that are making me feel weighed down and like I’ll never get through the demands of my life. We’ll see.
I’m beginning to feel less anxiety and ease a little more into crossing things out and solving the challenge of allowing myself enough space to make the journal mine. And I’m giving myself permission to treat this as an exploration, an experiment to see whether this bullet journal system or framework can turn out to be something that will truly work for me. If it turns out that it isn’t for me, I can let go of it. I can cross it out and try something else that will truly work for me.
For more information about the Bullet Journal http://bulletjournal.com/
There have been a series of armed robberies in my district and in the city overall. In one effort to address the problem, our mayor, city council member, a BART representative and a police officer recently collaborated with residents and local business owners to hold a town hall meeting. Three of them are men of color and one is a woman of color, which is a first for the 23 plus years during which I’ve lived here.
Although I thought the effort was a good thing, I hesitated to attend due to the gate-keeping and profiling that are often expressed at neighborhood meetings. I just didn’t want to have to deal with that behavior on a sunny Saturday afternoon. I did not want to have to work that hard.
Despite the fact that I have lived in my current neighborhood for over 23 years, I encounter what I call gate-keeping and profiling far too often by some of my neighbors who think they are being vigilant, I guess, or something like that. The truth is, I don’t know what they think they are doing when they do or say these things that, to me, are ludicrous. I’ve come to the conclusion that they do not think at all. And after my most recent experience with the phenomena, I believe that the behavior is so ingrained in some psyches that it has become a knee jerk reaction.
If I hid out in my home and just drove to and from work, I wouldn’t be visible in the neighborhood streets and I might not think that this gate-keeping was strange. I would just consider it more of the same unpleasantness that I have encountered as a black person living in America. However, I do a lot of walking through my neighborhood on a regular basis and have been doing this for years. One would think that this would make me quite visible. A tall black woman with what is now a salt and pepper Afro, long legs and an energetic stride is someone to notice. I’m energetic and I move pretty fast. As the following lines from my poem How it Happens state,
What do they see when they look at me?
A dark, amorphous predator?
My pocketed hand grasping a gun?
My breasts want to walk
from block to block,
Iris to Eucalyptus,
welcome to rest my thoughts,
in a garden, on a corner.
At the end of the neighborhood town hall meeting I met a neighbor I’ll call “Sharon” (not her real name). As I was signing the sign in sheet that was being passed around, I sat down in an empty seat at a table. Sharon happened to be sitting at that table. She asked me whether I lived in the neighborhood. This is a good example of basic gatekeeper behavior. Ask a question of a perfect stranger that focuses on the concept of belonging. Sharon evidently felt that it was her job to question me because I might have wandered into a 2-hour neighborhood meeting on a sunny Saturday afternoon and boldly sat down at a table and written my contact information on a sign-in sheet when I wasn’t supposed to be there. Ask, even if that was what the city council person and mayor had announced and encouraged attendees to do if they wanted to be placed on a mailing list in order to receive information in the future. After all, I probably hadn’t heard them say those things, so she felt she needed to pull my sleeve and set me on the right path. That’s what gatekeepers do, make sure everyone, especially people of color, are on the right path.
I turned the interaction around quickly. I answered Sharon in the affirmative, made sure to mention and emphasize the longevity of my tenure in the neighborhood, and I then introduced myself by first name, and asked for her name. Next, I handed the “Do you live in the neighborhood?” question back to Sharon and stepped into the role of gatekeeper. Change in power differential through a double ward off to Sharon, whose excuse, once she awakened somewhat from her trance of privilege and entitlement, was that some of the people at the meeting were business owners and not residents. I didn’t quite get the significance of that distinction, as I guessed that business owners probably were as interested in not becoming victims of armed robberies to the same degree that residents were not interested in becoming victims.
I later realized the Sharon was making excuses as she became aware of how her question might have made her sound and/or look. That was interesting to me. Once I had led Sharon to conversational, neighborly civility by modeling it, she remembered that she knew how to appropriately address a stranger at a neighborhood town hall meeting. After all, until our conversation, I was a stranger who was signing a sign in sheet because she was concerned about the neighborhood she lived in and wanted to receive more information. Sharon then began to chat about her dog that she walked in the neighborhood quite often. She described her dog and called her a diva. I laughed and said that I would easily notice a little white dog that acted like a diva. The conversation had become civil because I had worked to ward off the bad mojo encoded in Sharon’s gate keeping.
I also had to redirect another attendee whose privilege and entitlement led him to stand next to me, and in a normal voice tone, despite glances from several other attendees, declare that the martial arts demonstration was “bullshit.” And I finally had to tell the martial arts critic that I could not hear, because he decided to start a conversation with another man and ignore our glances and some glares. Once I spoke up he apologized and eventually moved away to another spot in the room.
Despite these interactions with the privileged and entitled, the meeting ended up being not as bad as I’d expected it would be. At the end of the meeting, after my conversation with Sharon, I ran into a couple from my yoga class, and had a few minutes to chat with another neighbor who is one of the kindest people I know. What was hopeful about the meeting to me is that our mayor, who is Latinx was there, our city council member had organized the town hall and he is a man of African descent, the martial arts group was moderated by a male martial artist who was multilingual, one of the martial artists who demonstrated safety tactics was a woman, and the police representative was a man of African descent. So, despite Sharon’s gate keeping and the critic’s bad behavior, there were people at the meeting who looked like me and several of them were in leadership roles.
“Well, perhaps you need to step out there and make a fool of yourself.” Not the type of advice I would have expected from a mentor. Yet, that is what one of my mentors told me. I had enrolled in a certificate program at a nearby college after earning my master’s degree. I had begun to write poetry, yet had placed most of it in a desk drawer. I still wrote in notebooks, though, something I had been doing since childhood. But I didn’t see the writing as being central to my life. I knew I needed a steady job, one that paid a consistent wage.
I had grown up working class and Black in Brooklyn, New York, in the 50’s and 60’s. My father, trained as a carpenter, worked full time at a lumber exchange terminal in Greenpoint during the week and built bookshelves, cabinets, cabinets and various wood structures for relatives, neighbors, friends, friends of friends, and friends of relatives, friends of neighbors, etc. evenings after dinner and on weekends. My mother worked in the public high schools with students and their families to help prepare and support them in reaching the goal of college admission. With these role models and those of my friends’ parents, I couldn’t help but gravitate toward, and worry about finding a full time job post graduation.
I’d held two or more part time jobs as I worked my way through graduate school, and knew it was time to find more sustaining and sustainable work. The dean of my college was surprised when we first met. “You have two part time jobs? Most people struggle with just one job!” Well, most people were not African American New Yorkers raised by two southerners who had grown up poor during the Great Depression. I was not most people. I am still not most people. I’ve learned to face this about myself.
I’ve never quite fit in with the demographic that I supposedly belong to, which is more accurately, the one that I am often placed in by others. This demographic placement is, of course, based on my appearance. Growing up within my nuclear family this meant I needed to suppress some of my ideas, my true feelings and my opinions. In other words, if I wanted to respond honestly to some things, I had to hide those responses. No freedom there. That was what I learned to do to survive.
So, I grew into an angry young woman. Except that I didn’t know I was angry because I wasn’t allowed to express anger. So, I turned the anger in on myself and it stayed buried beneath the surface during my teens and most of my 20’s. An angry teen isn’t an unusual occurrence. A teen with buried anger probably isn’t unusual either. Around my parents and the other adults in my life, my anger was hidden so well, that it was also hidden from me. Perhaps it wasn’t only my independence that drew me to hang out with boys who became my closest friends in high school. They were comfortable with anger.
I had plenty of help with suppressing my anger from the patriarchal behavior that my family and community operated with. The anger was buried pretty deeply and I didn’t discover it until I participated in a workshop, which used strategies and exercises from acting to support people in recovering their self-esteem. I thought that I would never survive the time that I felt ready to explore anger. I don’t now remember the details of the strategy that I was taught and which I used for this exploration. What I do remember is how much lighter I felt once I had come out the other side of the tunnel. Let’s call it the anger tunnel, since that’s what it felt like. Somehow, I emerged from the other side a lot lighter and able to laugh. My fear of expressing the forbidden emotion had encouraged me to dance around the anger until I could no longer stand it. There was nothing left to do but dive into the anger tunnel. Looking back on this now, I see just how brave I was to walk away from the socialization I had experienced and recover more of myself.
I discovered that I was angry with myself for holding back, despite the fact that I had done so in order to survive. It has taken me years to appreciate my strong survival instincts, which I believe are due to the excellent genes I’ve inherited. My parents, grandparents and all of my greats could not afford to express their anger outwardly as their lives could have been snuffed out as a result of doing so. The social systems of Jim Crow and slavery guaranteed this fact.
So, this no longer angry young woman decided to leave a private sector job and return to school for an interdisciplinary degree that merged religion, psychology and philosophy. She did this in her late 20’s and she was happy reading, writing papers, reflecting on what I was reading and what I experienced and doing research. And in the mix of all of her scholarship, she began to write in verse. This was a complete surprise and a thoroughly new experience. But when I finished my program and I graduated, I stuffed the verse into a desk drawer. I didn’t take it seriously and I decided to return to school again. But this return turned out to be not a good fit. This led to the conversation with my mentor that began this essay. The conversation during which he said to me: “Well, perhaps you need to step out there and make a fool of yourself.”
Poetry allows me to do just that. I step out there and make a fool of myself. I have no idea where I will end up as I begin to write. I just follow the stream or words and return to it later to pull out the words, themes and sounds that ring for me, the ones that I am intrigued by or drawn to. There is a lot of revision and wondering about what I intend to say, where I am going with a line or a stanza. The sense of wonder is one that I revisit over and over again.
To be honest, writing prose also allows me to “step out there and make a fool of [myself],” too. It brings me back to the writing I once did as a book and film critic, curriculum developer and education research writer. Writing prose allows me to stretch out in a different way as a writer. It reminds me that I have some flexibility and range as a writer. And that is like taking a good yoga class or having a fun session at the gym.
Yes, I really do find going to the gym fun (but still need to do it more often). And most of all, I am buoyed, nurtured and fed by the practice of writing. I am going to reconsider and more accurately call this work that takes care of me, in ways that nothing else ever has, the discipline of writing. Writing requires discipline and it is a discipline. And I am grateful for it.
A few weeks ago, I sat riveted to a film about Alzheimer’s disease, caregivers, patients, and the human and financial cost of it all. Even though it was a Saturday evening and I had plans to go out, I could not move from my seat as the documentary film “Every Minute Counts” shared the stories of patients, families and the fate of elders with Alzheimer’s. I have something in common with the people in the film, as for nearly a decade; I cared for, advocated for and managed the care of my mother, who was an Alzheimer’s patient. My mom passed away last year.
For a portion of the film, Emergency Room staff at Massachusetts General Hospital were profiled and from them I learned a about a term and a practice called “granny dumping.” I was amazed that a term exists for the practice of literally dumping one’s elder relatives at the door of a hospital Emergency Room and leaving them there. A social worker shared that this happens often when family members, decide they need a vacation, become overwhelmed or don’t know what else to do with an Alzheimer’s patient. These people literally drive up to the door of the ER, leave the elder there, and then drive off. “Granny dumping” happens most often around the holidays. My guess is that the social worker meant the winter holidays.
The medical staff takes the person in and they end up being admitted to the hospital. The staff has the job of trying to find the family or making preparations for the care of the elder via placement if they cannot find the family. This kind of admission is called a “social admit” and is one that Medicare does not pay for; and it affects the hospital’s bottom line negatively. Social admits for people who have Alzheimer’s are also difficult because the patients cannot remember their medical history and also have short-term memory loss, so they can’t tell the staff what is wrong or what happened before they got to the hospital. They don’t know what brought them to the ER, they don’t know if they have other health conditions, they don’t know what meds they regularly take. The elders in the documentary film had Alzheimer’s disease and additional health complications. This is true of most Alzheimer’s patients and it adds to the complexity of treating them and caring for them.
Over the nine years that I cared for her, my mother made several visits to the ER. I was there with her, even if it meant staying at the hospital overnight and following her to her room when she had to be admitted. I was not a “granny dumper.” I was a single woman who moved my mother into my two-bedroom apartment and tried my best to figure out how to navigate the rocky and murky waters of her care, her changing health, and her quality of life when she was 81 years old. At the time, I was 53, single, and working multiple jobs in the field of education. And despite the overwhelming prospect of my mother’s changing personality due to a disease that does not stand still, I leapt into action and took on the most challenging job I have ever held in my life. It was a labor of love and one through which I had to constantly be reminded to take care of myself. At the same time I had to look out for the well being of my mother who was becoming more and more vulnerable and dependent on me every day. I had to mother my own mother. Alzheimer’s had turned the tables on us. The common saying in the community of those who work with Alzheimer’s patients and family members is “the disease does not stand still.”
A month prior to her arrival in my home, my brother had gone to collect mom after she almost burned her house down by leaving a pot on the stove, then going into the living room and falling asleep in her recliner. I returned home from work on my late shift evening, after driving home from San Jose, and retrieved a voicemail from one of mom’s neighbors, who asked me to call her. As Susan (not her real name) relayed the events of the evening, I felt sadness and worry. Apparently two of mom’s neighbors had to call the fire department because mom had locked the storm door to her home and the neighbors could not knock on the door or ring the bell. There was a lot of smoke in the house, but it turned out that mom was okay and nothing had burned but a pot on the stove. She was lucky that her neighbors were home and that they noticed.
After this happened, my brother moved mom several states north to the temporary housing provided by his new job, and the telephone check-ins between us began. He was upset that when he came home from work, he found that mom had left crumbs and food on the kitchen counter. He also didn’t know what to do about what seemed to be signs of incontinence. So, his girlfriend and I tag teamed to provide him with suggestions and solutions. I was doing all of this by phone from the other side of the country. His girlfriend was a few states away on the same coast as he and mom were. This lasted for a month or two.
My brother’s annual trip to a motorcycle race in Monterey, California turned into an opportunity for him to bring mom out west to stay with me for what we both agreed was awhile, while we tried to figure out what to do. I thought it was a good idea. It turned out to be an opportunity for me to research resources and find out what the possibilities might be for mom’s future, for my family’s future.
My brother agreed to research resources on the East Coast near his home.
In preparation for mom’s arrival, I called any local listing that mentioned the word Alzheimer’s and was fortunate enough to be connected with one of the social workers at a local adult day health center who was more than generous with information that provided me with a running start. Alzheimer’s Services of the East Bay or ASEB literally saved our lives. They referred me to Family Caregiver Alliance (FCA), based in San Francisco. This organization serves the entire Bay Area on the ground and also online, with fact sheets and information for families nationwide who are trying to figure out what to do about caring for a loved one who has become ill with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other diseases.
The family care team from FCA visited us at my home. They noted that the space was small for both of us. At the time, I didn’t understand what they meant, since two people in a two-bedroom apartment didn’t sound like it was a cramped living situation to me. So what the second bedroom was my home office and I’d given mom my bedroom and chosen to sleep on an air mattress on the living room floor? That was the way I thought about things only a few weeks into cohabitation with someone with dementia. This sleeping and living arrangement went on for 6 months. I hadn’t bargained for what would happen when mom began to sundown, or when she constantly repeated questions, became depressed on days that the senior day program was closed and asked questions about when she would be going back home, back to her home. It was heart breaking because even though I knew she was a lot safer living with me, I knew that the disease and her being uprooted had interrupted her life in a deep and fundamental way. There was no going back to the life she’d had as a retiree and widow. There was no going back to the independence she had enjoyed for most of her life. As a matter of fact, she was headed on a trajectory toward having less physical independence in ways that neither of us could predict the timing of. We didn’t know what the progression of Alzheimer’s would look like for her. We just knew that the disease did not stand still. It never does.
At the suggestion of the family care person from FCA, I signed mom up for an in depth evaluation at the U. C. Davis Alzheimer’s Research Center. The information we’d received from the nurse practitioner and staff in her hometown was good, but not as comprehensive as the information we could receive through a comprehensive evaluation. I placed her on the waiting list at UCSF Memory and Aging Center, as they not only evaluated patients, they also followed them as patients and assigned them to a neurologist and medical team. U. C Davis only evaluated patients. I was in for a bit of a surprise when we arrived at the U. C. Davis center. I thought I was signing mom up to be evaluated, but I didn’t realize that I was being evaluated too, not as a patient, but as a family member who was part of her ecosystem of care. They wanted to know what I had been observing and how long ago I, and my brother, had first noticed changes in mom’s behavior. This was difficult stuff to not only remember because of the emotional impact it carried, but also because of the detail it required to explain what had been going on over the past few years.
The evaluation was comprehensive and included a team of specialists that included psychologists, neurologists and others. Some parts of the evaluation included both of us together around a conference table with the team of researchers and medical professionals and other parts of the evaluation included me being questioned (evaluated, really) individually while mom was in another room being evaluated. One of the more humorous parts of this half-day of evaluation was when mom told the team that she had never had heart disease or surgery. Mom was so convincing that during my individual “talk” (evaluation) with the social psychologist, I was asked whether I was sure that mom had had heart surgery. “Does she have a scar?” “Yes” I replied. “Oh, she’s good” she replied and we both laughed.
As I was waking up, I was thinking that he was dead. He had died before Christmas, and he had died alone in Queens, in a home. I wondered why there had been no funeral, why I had no memory of one. I thought of his friends and wondered why I couldn’t remember any of their familiar faces and see them dressed up in their dark suits for him.
I wondered where our family things that he had placed in storage, were. I wondered whether his landlord had had to clear out his apartment. I knew I hadn’t done it; I’d never seen his apartment.
I lay there for a few minutes, turned on my side toward the windows and looked at the growing light through the blinds. I blinked several times. I thought about the winter holidays and I didn’t remember anything about his presence during them.
And after a few minutes, I realized that he was not dead. He was still alive and whatever dream I’d had was so powerful that my reality had shifted to a time after his death that had not even happened.
I’ve been reflecting on this dream off and on today and I’ve come to the conclusion that the dream was not about my brother, but about a system that persists in making him disappear, and from making me disappear as well. This system perpetuates dismissal, disrespect, silencing, demonization, and marginalization. It makes repeated attempts to make people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ people, women and the disabled small and insignificant. It has at its roots the desire to make people disappear through repeated attempts to limit their lives and to silence them.
I have lived in this system for six decades, and I have come to learn and understand that its survival has depended on my beliefs that I am not worthy and I will never have an opportunity to rest until I am dead. Its survival depends upon the belief that I will always have to push against the downward pressure of this system that was not designed with my living freely and breathing fully in mind. Three fifths of a white man did not include the descendants of enslaved men and women.
It is difficult to live within a system that exists because it regularly satisfies its urges to oppress. Those who are oppressed have to work consistently hard to free their minds, bodies and souls. As Bob Marley wrote “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery/None but our self can free our minds/ Won’t you help to sing these songs of freedom?/Cause all I ever had/ Redemption songs ” (Redemption Song). Singing is breathing; it is inspiration, and expiration. One of the Freedom Singers said that even if people working during the civil rights movement couldn’t talk together, they could breathe together through singing together. We need to keep singing together and we need to keep writing together.
An intuitive and gifted massage therapist, with whom I have worked for several years, recently told me that I haven’t been getting enough oxygen. She encouraged me to pay attention to my breathing and make sure that I exhale completely.
I have witnessed my mother’s death, the result of a long illness, over the past year. I cared for my mom for nearly a decade and her decline and death have been enough to take my breath away. Being a caregiver and care manager altered my breathing, I’m sure.
I’m also sure that the high profile deaths and videos of so many Black people, such as Rolando Castile, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin and the many other children, women and men killed in connection with law enforcement haven’t helped me to breathe fully, either. Systematic killing and incarceration of Black bodies is an American practice that is not new. What is new is the technology that allows us to view what is disturbing, needs to be brought to light, and historic.
I have witnessed the 2016 U. S. presidential election and its aftermath, which continues to and beyond this moment. The events of the past 48 hours have been breathtaking, to say the least. Oppression is relentless, sometimes subtle, at other times blatant and always pervasive. Many individuals persist with their work toward freedom despite this. Many writers persist in their work toward freedom despite this. Every idea birthed and every word written is an act of resistance, an act of freedom, an act of bravery, and an act of uncovering something valuable for emancipation from an oppressive system.
Lately, I have been listening to the soundtrack from the play “Hamilton.” I hear layers of meaning in the lyrics that go a lot deeper for me than I originally thought. “Why do you write like you’re running out of time, why do you fight like you’re running out of time, like you’re running out of time, like you’re running out of time,” sing sisters Eliza Hamilton and Angelica Schuyler and other characters throughout the play.
Apparently the founding father who had been born a bastard, who became a penniless orphan, an immigrant, and who was a driven man who feverishly and fervently worked toward the revolution that eventually birthed what is now called America. He was a white man who created the roots of the financial system we now live with and he married into wealth in order to secure his status as he had a low status as a poor immigrant bastard. He had a keen mind and writing skills that were sharp. And he was driven I am most interested in his tendency to write like he was running out of time. I feel as if I am running out of time, like we are all running out of time.
My brother is not dead and I am not dead, but the systems that have been constructed to diminish, marginalize and extinguish our humanity have been unearthed and are in full view and the entire world is watching. Every breath I take and every word I write pushes back against this hurtful, hateful, corrupt and bankrupt system and leads to its dissolution. I must get on with it.
But I can’t do this alone. I need my allies to work with me. We must all get on with the work of singing the chains off and singing freedom into being.
It came up again in yoga class this morning. There it was, the thought that I couldn’t do the next pose, which was Warrior III. After all, I was old enough to pass on this pose. The fear that my knee wouldn’t hold out, that the clicking I hear and feel when bending it these days means I should stop trying and what the hell did I think I was doing anyway? I knew I had arthritis in one of my knees, so what did I expect? My age popped into my head in the form of a voice much louder than those thoughts, yelled the number 63 at me, placed its hands on its hips and then stated quite clearly and indignantly “Really.”
I am very fortunate to study with a very skilled, kind, experienced, flexible and understanding Yoga teacher. She doesn’t let us slide, and she pushes us to grow; yet she does so in some very ingenious and stealthy ways. She reminds us about the adjustments needed to work with physical challenges, about using props to support us in the poses and the importance of alignment that is fundamental to Iyengar Yoga. It is not a beginner’s class and I’m not a beginner. She could see my distress today as everything tends to show on my face and she gently reminded us that we could stop at different points in accessing the pose. Perhaps using the blocks was as far as we might want to go. Or, we could go further into the pose with no props. I opted for the blocks, but I was disappointed in myself. I still surprise myself by the level of attachment I have to doing something “right.” It is difficult for me to recognize myself if I don’t move fully, If I don’t do something all the way. I realize now that this reveals an imbalance in my approach to life, which in turn is reflected back to me through my practice.
The freedom of dancing and moving has always been home for me. I first began taking Yoga classes in my mid twenties when I still lived in New York. I went to Integral Yoga Center on 72nd Street in Manhattan after work and on weekends. At the time I lived and worked in Manhattan. I loved the physical and spiritual union that the practice opened up for me. As a long time dancer and dance student, this was another way to incorporate movement in my life and there was an even deeper experience that brought me much joy.
I returned to Yoga here and there during graduate school after moving to the West Coast, but I was deeply involved in my course work and also working two jobs to support myself. I immersed myself in movement practices that combined martial arts, dance and psychology during that time. I also began to study T’ai Chi, which deepened my experience of movement and grounded me in a way I had not known before. T’ai Chi practice taught me what it was like to let life unfold for me and not push myself through life. Towards the end of my degree program, I was able to return to Congolese dance and this brought me great joy. I had missed the drums and the movement they inspired.
In my early 40’s I was introduced to Afro-Cuban dance, music and culture. Eventually I was asked to perform by two of my teachers. One of my teachers asked me to substitute teach for her when she had each of her two children. I was honored. I was at home in an even deeper way through the spiritual rhythms and songs and the secular dance styles. I recognized a part of my ancestry in an embodied way and this was a joyful reunion.
In my late 40’s and early 50’s I was involved in several accidents and my mobility was limited for varying amounts of time in the aftermath. This was only the second time in my life that I was unable to access my usually flexible range of motion and it was a challenging lesson for me. I worked hard at physical therapy, worked with a chiropractor and continued to study and practice T’ai Chi.
Nine years ago, I returned to Yoga through a Restorative class and home practice. I continued to take class and practice at home and my strength gradually returned so that I could begin to take more active classes. Parallel to this road has been my entrance into my sixth decade and with it, a reckoning with physical limitation and a focus on sustaining and strengthening what I can and letting go of what I am called to. This is yet another rite of passage through which I have entered into the interstitial spaces between surrender, giving up on myself then feeling bad about it, and navigating the lure of ambition that would have me push myself beyond my limits. I have to admit to looking around the room every now and then and envying a younger body, a flat stomach or even a young, pregnant woman.
My teacher’s gentleness with me when I can’t be gentle with myself is what helps me to find my way back to myself again. I’ve talked to her about my internal challenges brought about by my expectations of myself and feelings of defeat that are all tied up with ideas about aging, some of which are mine and some of which are imposed on me through the youth obsessed culture that I live in. And there is always another way to enter a pose that doesn’t compromise the health of my knees and allows me to practice my balance, which is generally pretty poor. At my teacher’s suggestion, I’ve been working on my feet, with toes that tend to grip the floor or the soles of my shoes habitually. This helps me to not take everything in my knees. I alternate slowly rolling a tennis ball under each foot, back to front, side to side over the entire sole. This is done in order to help my toes to let go of the gripping and to help my feet to come out of their habit of contracting muscles and relax. I tried this at work one day recently and I involuntarily started to yawn. This gave my co-workers and me a good laugh at the sound of one yawn after another.
Today Warrior III called me to meet myself through my limitations. The limitations were balance, and my attitude toward the trouble I had getting into and maintaining the pose without props. I surrendered and used the blocks. Then, when a different entry to the pose was introduced to the class, I tried it and was able to access and hold the pose for a few fleeting minutes. When I had to come down from the pose and back to standing, I was disappointed in myself for not being able to hold it longer and then I became disappointed at my less than charitable attitude toward myself.
I hope I will make peace with myself and with Warrior III one day. I have no idea how that will happen or what it will look like. There will always be another pose that will present me with my human, limited, beautiful self, instead of the lofty self I think I should be, the façade with perfect balance whose body never ages and I hope one day to have a non wavering acceptance of myself no matter what. Perhaps that’s why a few months ago I chose these lyrics of Leonard Cohen’s song “Anthem” to place on my desk “Ring the bells you still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” At least once a day my eyes wander to these words and I remind myself that I am doing the best I can at ringing the bells and taking one step forward in kindness.
Here is this week’s essay for the #52Essays2017 Challenge started by Vanessa Martir . Happy to be alive and writing this week!
I often don’t know when I am afraid. What I mean is that the fear doesn’t register consciously or at least in any thinking that becomes conscious in my awareness.
This might make me dangerous if I were to handle a gun. Right now I am writing on a computer. Before that, I was writing on a pad with a pencil.
This essay is not about guns, shootings, people who have been shot in the back as they were running away; it is not about dead children, or children who are now motherless, grandmother-less, grandfather-less, or fatherless. It is not about runaway slaves who got caught and what was done to them when they were caught. It is not about lynching. It is not about slave revolts. It is not about blankets infected with smallpox. It is not about assault rifles, tanks, riot gear, tanks, batons, tear gas canisters, sawed off shotguns, handguns, AK-47’s, M-15’s, rocks, bottles, car bombs, cars aflame, smashed windows, looting, marches, rallies, reporters, cameras, videos. It is not about any of these things.
Fear can paralyze. Fear can fan the flames of anger. Fear can make anxiety a constant companion. Fear can provoke numbness. Fear can help the brain to create a cloak that goes over the skin and coats it with touch repellant. Once the cloak is on and someone touches me I don’t feel a thing. Fear can extend that cloak to my sense of hearing.
Sometimes I can hear a compliment or an acknowledgement and it sounds muted or as if the person saying it is speaking from a distance. There is a delay until I can really hear the voice and the words being spoken. I sense that they are positive words and then recognize that the words are those of praise or acknowledgment. The voice and the words awaken me from a meaning and felt sense slumber and surprise me. Sometimes the same thing happens when someone is speaking mean and hateful words to me. I ask myself whether I’m really hearing them correctly; once I can discern my answer, I know. And then I can become present once again to pleasure, warmth, confusion, pain, anger, or hurt.
If I can’t feel someone’s touch on my skin and the words that are spoken to me don’t register at times, then those are the times that I am numb. Those are the instances when my senses have been dampened in some way, but I don’t know that the dampening is in effect immediately. I don’t really know it on a conscious level. It can take awhile for me to ride out the muted reception, process the touch or the words, allow an internal response to arise. Then I can become present once again.
I often can’t tell when I am afraid, but I have learned that sometimes when I am afraid, touch feels as if it coming from far away. And a voice can seem as if it is speaking to me from far away. A cloak covers me. And for a little while, I am safe in not knowing whether the touch or the voice is friendly.