It is What it is What it is but Really it’s Not

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It is What it is What it is but Really it’s Not

There is a moment during the course of an illness, either one’s own or that of someone close, during which the mind returns to memory, then the future, and then the agonizing present, and the result feels like Love. Not love in the normal course of a day or a month or a decade, the mundane love that makes a life possible and is also, paradoxically, possible to ignore: the Love of which I am thinking is more akin to the falling sort. All else fades. One’s reality becomes the memory of before the love, when the love first made its arrival, and fretful fear over the future date of its departure. Sum & total, c’est tout, turn out the lights it’s over – that sort of Love.

But in this case, the love overlays grief and loss as a fragile palimpsest. Just beneath the surface, illness. Pain. Of the physical sort, or the metaphysical sort. Illness makes electric feelings and memories long dormant, but illness is also a reminder, a reminder of a promise we were given at birth: all this too will fade.

How we live our lives primarily ignoring the solidity of this promise always leaves me in a bemused state of astonishment – we all do it, the denial is an addiction tucked into biological necessity. This is one of the brutally beautiful revelations of sickness: here it is, the presence of Death, undeniable as the tides.

Primarily, we live life as children. There is a boundary surrounding us. The boundary is time. It is age. Sickness. Death. In order to feel as though we are alive and free, we pretend the boundary doesn’t exist, or not yet, or perhaps only for others. To dwell is morbid, to ignore is freedom.

 

I have seen Death come to many, starting as a child with a great and slavish love for animals. One of the most visceral memories I posssess is that of lifting the great, warm, limp body of an enormous orange cat off the hot pavement in front of my house on a summer night. I was a tiny child. I remember feeling the blood, the heat and the unmistakable absence of Life all blended together, like a dream twining itself to a waking dawn. The cat, he was so soft, so surprised, really, at his violent murder. I remember thinking I could not pick him up, he was big as my body, and besides what was I to do with this noble and innocent creature…. these thoughts return to me as if his body were laid across my lap as I write these words.

There it is again: the visceral reaction to the presence of Death, how similar it is to the emergence of Love.

I have the image of a lonely noble girl in a stone cottage with her first stag. Is guilt inherent in the experience of life ending? This small girl, bewildered, yet very much transfixed and transformed by this first understanding that at the core of Life is Death, and the heart of Death would be broken without knowing first the song cycle of birth and growth and decay.

The Upanishads, the pre-Socratics, the encompassing myths from Greece to China to our indigenous peoples, not to mention the perfect lines created by British Metaphysical poets: all these tales and worldviews unfold for us the mystery and umbilical connectivity between Love and Death. It is a common and powerful tale, endlessly enthralling, to have one stand in for the other.

However, for those of us odd enough, unlucky enough, or perhaps just macabre and lonely enough, there is exists a distinctly personal overlap and identification with  Death’s preamble, no matter the length, and that of a new Love. Perhaps it is the immediacy. Or the urgency. Nonetheless, the link exists, like a pendant. Or a chain.

I am extremely lonely in my beautiful and rich life. All my interests, my intelligence, such as it is, my creativity, such as it is not, and my keen desire to get rid of the word “my,” which is a lifelong practice of Practice – all this fades during long weekends without my children or friends or lovers.

 

It is during these times I become decidedly self-destructive, both actively and in passive but long-lasting thoughts of cruel self-loathing. To stem the flow of this pattern, I have begun listening, uncharacteristically, to podcasts.

I love them. I love the disembodied voices. I love the act of listening, which is both an act in its true sense and more and more also a lost art. Poems require listening. Spiritual practice requires the deepest listening, too much sometimes for my traumatized body. Music requires listening and understanding and, I think, a response beyond the emotional. And podcasts, those written and spoken by thoughtful humans, require listening as well. But the listening is companionable; it has a sweetness to it that poetry rejects, that spiritual practice allows only occasionally, and that music dictates, necessarily, out of one’s control.

I digress. Podcasts. There is one in particular I love right now. In it, the speaker refers to grief and working with the loss of “Your dead person.” This phrase never fails to make me smile and to also wonder “which one?”

Right now I am working with the tumult of what this podcaster might call “Your sick person.” And the work is really just engaging in being actively present. And being actively present with a sick person one loves beyond all language is really, really exhausting. And this act of presence brings up intense memories of the “before” sickness, the during, and the “what next,” or, worse “what is… after?” And these memories, combined with the urgencies of the present woes and demands and newly carved out roles of dependency and irritability and need, resistance to need…

Well. It’s kind of like being in Love.

 

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Instruction

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Instruction

There is an arrogance in the act of teaching. When teaching involves touching a body, telling a body how to move, where to move, and offers suggestions on attitudes and worldviews usually left to close friends and lovers and priests, the ground one treads as a teacher is a landmine. As a student one is often blind to the effects of Practice until minutes, hours, years later.

It is a teacher’s moral and physical responsibility to see to it that the mines are pointed out and yet do not explode, and that a vulnerable student is awakened to the profundity of Practice in a compassionate, loving yet neutral environment.

For many years of teaching I have been aware of this arrogance, this risk. I first encountered my own unwanted power during my first year of teaching, when a much loved student with whom I had made friends came in tears to me one morning, and told me I was hurting her feelings by pointing out her practice in class. I almost stopped teaching on the spot: what I thought was affectionate communal humor was a knife straight in her heart. Bless her for telling me. And for forgiving me. And, most of all, for teaching me.

A true teacher, I suspect, reads students like a secret book. The crook in this finger indicates an old injury, which might indicate a tightness in the left shoulder. The tightness, however, may be due to guarding, from grief or a car accident or the stress of using the wrong desk – this the teacher does not yet know. A student is a secret book written in a language that reveals her plot slowly, with sudden revelations, stops and starts. A mystery. Occasionally, a comedy. More often, a tragedy. The more the teacher reads, the more quickly a plot might unfold.

But only sometimes, only with some bodies, some lives.

I have had one teacher who understood all of me all at once. Nothing about me surprised him. It was only his insight that surprised me. He is the most gifted, and the most troubled, teacher I have ever known.

We call these people outliers for a reason. One does not imitate them, but only learns what one can.

All of these thoughts and many more crude images were rushing through my head two days ago, when I made the mistake of going to an old studio where I used to teach to attend the class of a man I do not know. I understood by reading his biography that he probably possessed much arrogance and no lineage, and was in a great hurry, as for some reason so many Yoga instructors are, to show to the community that he possesses more insight and wisdom than most. I have lost count of the number of teacher biographies I have read that celebrate personal hobbies and an elevated state of status without mentioning training, gurus, or even credit from where the requisite “approved 200 hour training” was acquired. I like to walk my dogs and play in the ocean too, but the point of explaining one’s background to a potential student is not, or should not be at any rate, a whimsical exercise in “light and spirit,” but a list of one’s training, one’s background in Yoga and the teachers from whom one has learned this art. This is lineage. This is humility. This is the opposite of Western Yoga today.

The class in its “vinyasa” format was, to be perfectly frank, a usual iteration of repetitive standing poses, far too many lunges for any sort of body (the tight suffer with strain, the overly open risk tearing the labrum), followed by an odd combination of a deep back bend with no preparation, a deeper forward bend, and then, inexplicably, a call to go into urdhva dhanurasana (upward bow, a very deep back bend that can be harsh on the shoulders and wrists and hips, not to mention low back) with no instruction whatsoever.

As a teacher this made me discouraged, and I will frankly say rattled my own ego. All those years, I thought, of careful awareness, of loving alignment, of treating other people’s bodies like the sacred vehicles they are. Tender, tender, tender. And what most people want is some tunes and a groovy flow… bitterness flooded me for a moment like foul air. As an observer with some small understanding, however, I felt genuine sadness and fear for the students around me. No wonder doctors are suspicious of Yoga. As people who care for backs and hips and necks and knees, they should be suspicious. Because doing lunges with huge extension in the back leg for 60 minutes straight is… stupid.

And now, as I near the end of my rant, one I think about far more than I should, I will touch lightly on what was most egregious, most painful, about this class. And, if I could, I would share this with every teacher and student and victim of trauma I know.

The end of the class was an extended guided savasana. It was not, as advertised, Yoga Nidra, but was supposed to be a deep relaxation.

Instead of relaxation, for this brain and body, there was a clearly memorized or at the least oft-repeated and bossy script. Every word was directed toward the teacher himself, toward, quite literally, giving our full attention to him, to him as guide, as master, as the leader of the spirit body. We were told to separate the spirit from the body (where he got this notion as Yoga I know not. Perhaps he was a Catholic priest in another life), and that the spirit was to “hang over” the body, giving relief to the mind that, yes indeed, we are separate after all.

Not only was this instruction an act of destruction, to me, it was the very epitome of arrogance, of the attempt to embrace and steal a knowledge of a student one has not earned, has no right to, and of which this teacher, in particular, had no understanding.

I felt violation and memories of my rape wash over me. I felt my body recoil from his voice, as if I could sink further into the floor. I listened to the need for control in his voice, and thought for a moment I would never escape. I did not get up and leave out of respect for the students around me.

I did not get up and leave because I was scared.

Now a day later I see what a powerful lesson that wretched class was for my own teaching, my own insight about somatic vulnerability, respect, and the necessity to cultivate a light touch with all beings, particularly those who arrive at our doorstep as mysterious strangers willing to lend their trusting hearts to the unknown and the unseen. These strangers, these students, are the real teachers.

How I miss it. Teaching. How I grieve the ubiquity of arrogance, apparently everywhere victorious in our broken world.

~~   for Donita & Jane, two of the best students and teachers I know

Still Life

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Still Life

I cannot ascertain if not writing is a form of moral and aesthetic penance or fear.

My thoughts now are largely mundane: I’ve no money. I’ve a job a loathe. I bought a house I love. I cannot afford the house. The children start school. My husband-0f-no-more hates me, how is it possible to hate a woman one has observed giving birth, to one’s own children no less, and both dead and alive? Where are my keys? Why did I lease this car? Where is the money? Why did I buy that dress? And that one, and that one? Oh. I am a minimalist in thought only. Clothes are an addiction. If only I were skinny clothes wouldn’t be an addiction but I cannot tell you how I reached this certainty. Are the children happy? Will we burn in the fires? 

My teacher Richard Freeman is quite good on language. Not as a creative exercise but in explaining its function as being one of paradox: it is a primordial need. It is also an expression of the deepest ego, and must be quieted, perhaps even silenced, to move past spiritual and intellectual adolescence. I think about this contradiction all the time: language as need, language as an element, within the scope of a fully lived life, to be in some manner expunged or cast aside like so many costumes.

There is a blue cottage on a quiet street. Old trees have grown up and around the house. It is a fairytale. In the back of the house is a large patio. This leads to a small forest, truly wild with cottonwoods, strawberry bushes, families of rabbits who have nested under a large shed, painted blue like the house, and hawks and coyotes whose whimpering and unearthly whine I occasionally hear at night from my wide open bedroom window.

Because I love water and birds, particularly peacocks and swans, everything in the house is teal or navy or deepest green and the lines of the few pieces of furniture I own arc and curl like waves. Or the neck of a bird.

One morning.
A bath.
The bath is huge, deep, outlined in a rich pale quartz the color of dry sand. The wall facing the forest is glass, confidently private, so that one may bathe with the window open and gaze up at the tree leaves grazing a turquoise sky.

Under water one finds a silence that is deep enough to hear the heart. I sink my head, my hair, my weary eyes, into the water.

This body. What constitutes its essence now? Fatigue. Not beauty, not practice, not love, not even yearning. Exhaustion. An exhaustion so encompassing that to take the bath is itself an endeavor. It has been two years since this body knew a real home. Two years as a friendless mother, casting about in ever increasing chaos for answers that do not exist but must instead be invented, like an ill prepared magician hired for a last minute show.

This mind. It has arrived at a state somewhere beyond unhappiness or joy or even the avoidance or craving for either. Flatline. This is an image I both love and intimately know, and one can see the knowledge in my eyes, in the set of my jaw.

Briefly the memory shifts to the late winter. A long and gorgeous night spent with a beautiful troubled young woman, illicit substances, and conversations more intimate than sex. “I see you all the time,” she whispered, “and I think you are sad.”

How romantic, to be called sad by the beautiful blue eyed cocaine addicted writer down the hall. These are moments one embraces, holds fast to a heart one suspects is deadening from alternating neglect and abuse.

When does sad become… lifeless?

Thoughts drift easily in water, watching the constant and subtle waves move up and over chilled knees into the eddy of thighs, hips, groin: tide after tide washes over this exhausted body, limbs afloat like branches in a deep stream.

The water brings rest. Scent of damp lavender fills the morning air, the punishing sun begins its ruthless high summer ascent. Wrists float, the neck sinks, clavicles rise and descend with breath.

Why do I not write?
I have… nothing to say.
And how can I express that this honesty, the simple fact that the overwhelming and constant events of the last months silenced me to a state of mere survival, someone raw and strong and half dead or more, all at once and all the time – how can I express what relief this brought to me without shifting into metaphor, words, paragraphs, grammar, structure? Language? Language and all her lies.

In Zen sesshin one is not allowed to write, to journal, to engage in the prakriti of creative motion. Stillness. If there is any aim, it is stillness.

My stillness, for months, has had no intention. It has been the terrified reaction of the forest creature about to be hit by a truck.

Now I live in this blue house, on this quiet street, with a forest and a river for companionship. My son told me we are “finally home.”

And so we are.
I do pray that the stillness that arrives now has movement, enough even perhaps for language to creep through from time to time, and that like the old trees surrounding us we might find a way, long though it may be, to plant and rise, slowly, to the sun.

Burn

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Burn

~~ “He suffered with daring; he died without complaint”
— 
Claude Cahun

~~ “He gon’ think I’m a ho
fuck that I liked it
I was drunk & it was my birthday anyway -”
— 
Andre 3000 (spoken by Rosario Dawson)

In The Tree of Life
Malick fuses the link:
A
Beginning.
Berlioz’s Requiem,
brocade of grief.
And the dinosaur
who died by the river
where the dead boy caught crawfish
and his mother now stands
speechless as a Saint
or a rock
that may
or may not
be an old bone.
Bone, stardust, flight.
Her fingers trace
the rushes,
her hand becomes
a claw.

~~~~

When he grabbed my neck
from behind
I heard Berlioz.
(Unto Thee shall all flesh come…)
Ascendent voices. Encircling lyrics
of loss, of pleasure
and the gorgeous
threat
of death,
and I died to it –
to his linked fingers
and the chorus
and the leave-taking
his eyes took
so soon after ~
drop of rain in the desert.

God
I
thirst.

~~~~

A teacher said:
“the mind is slippery.”
I imagined an eel,
but really the mind
is a newborn child

all want and need and hunger
and guiding scents.

And these elements
change in relation
to one another –
solipsisms –
which is a slippery
word
for self-absorbed tale-telling
the kind we know best
and usually only.

~~~~

Yesterday
I woke to swollen hands
and eyes that looked past themselves
in a dusty mirror.

It was time
for the quarterly burn.
I am an expert
at leaving
little villages
as an army might:
drones
kill connections.
I love watching embers
lilting upward
to the night sky.

To one beau
I said:
“I am in the mood
for sparring.
And I will win, so please
stay away.”
In my kindness I spared him;
the rest I just deleted ~

I thought of writing to my children
while I walked in the rain:
Love everyone.
Trust no one.
And my Angels there
is no such thing
as a happy ending,
only
the repeat and repeat
of beginnings
that carry the weight
of a village priest
or a mother
burying her dead.

 

Shuttered

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Shuttered

I work.
I work and I dress beautifully.
I work and I dress beautifully and I listen with attention.
I work and I dress beautifully and I listen with attention. I speak with elegance.

I work and I dress beautifully and I listen with attention. I speak with elegance.
And then I go to a disassembled two room apartment
and I fall – no, I do not fall, because I cannot and because writing
the phrase “I fall” is lazy and anymore I do not write nor do I dance
nor really even practice – really I do not live

I just think about it.
Living.
What it might be like
What it used to be, but this, too,
is lazy
as is all sentimental mental gestures.

I keep thinking
is despair
a mind-state
or a feeling-state

and how the fuck
did we get
into this State –

trump
on the button
Iran on the brink

I cannot listen to voices anymore

When did language
become
mere noise?

Celan on the bridge.
Berryman on the bridge.
Woolf in the water.

Language
an assault
that cannot contain
mind-states
feeling-states
or the end of States.

Here is an amusing story:
I am in Love.
No.
I
Love.
Get me closer, shave away the excess.
Love.

A
young man
dark skin
darker mind.
Elusive and cruel
and he
stole me
from my-self

and he shook
my frame
like a predator.

His eyes are blacker than his skin.

For a long time
she was Artemis.

But now
she is
Persephone
with no mother
to grieve her.

The Dull “I”

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The Dull “I”

When I began writing I loved the long essay form of autobiographical essay.

Now I am so tired of myself, of writing even the slender, deceptively simply “I” thatfind it impossibly dull to do so.

What is left when one has grown so very weary of oneself?

Enlightenment?
Drugs?
Suicide?
Service?

Perhaps all, not in that order.

The I knows nothing. I know nothing.
Experience is a sequence of felt sense, pattern that turns on a dime to addiction or perception, opaque desire, and even when desire is sated, discomfort.

This is the current felt sense of the body I inhabit: discomfort. It has always been thus.
Eating disorders, unhappy childhoods, rape, assaults physical and mental, ambition, failures, love, touch sex marriage, children, embodiment in physical form – it all seems to lead to the same portal: let us be elsewhere.

I love drugs as much as I love practice. It is a prayer, isn’t it: let us be elsewhere.

Today I walked away from a lover, began perhaps to finally grieve my unending love for my husband who is the X on my blooded heart, found out he was dating, cried for hours upon hours, had my daughters come home only to observe them punch one another, and then felt the exquisite pain of my smallest child’s delicate teeth sink with rather alarming consequence into the softest part of my tricep. Blood, rage, tears, regret… on and on it goes. For all of us, every sentient being, all the time.

We took the dog outside into the warm spring dusk.

The moon reflected down on us her borrowed light.
And the patterns were suspended, drifting upward like used webs.

Quietude.
All that remains.

Moon Tide

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Moon Tide

When the arrival
is upon us
after years or minutes
or lifetimes

I do believe
all that is left
of our great
homecoming

is
heart-break.
And how could it not
be so
after the cities and roads and mountains
the grandeur of the Southern Pacific,
moon at dawn,
brown bodies balanced on waves
that look like lapis jaws

and you remember
only the footprint of a small seabird
whose name you never knew ~

she said, briefly ~

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she said, briefly ~

I

In each person there exists a point of stillness. I have had the most direct experience of this often inaccessible terrain while being guided in practice by Richard Freeman. In Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, if one slows down enough, there are moments that can stretch to an infinite vista, vast as the Universe: it is the brief abandonment of the ego’s poison-grip.

Before lifting the body, which at this stage of practice often feels weightless, into Salamba Sarvangasana (shoulderstand supported with hands), it is recommended to lie flat on the Earth, palms down, limbs delightfully stiffened just to the point of muscular sensation, not beyond.

This pose, which might look like a tense corpse, is called Tadaka MudraTadaka, from the Sanskrit, means a pond, or a pool. Mudra, loosely, is a seal, or a gathering in by the body, the hands, the head, to increase or decrease a certain energy or spiritual intention.

As the body rests-does-not-rest in Tadaka Mudra, occasionally a hollowing takes place. The hollowing is at the deepest root of the lower abdomen: it is as if the limbs, the ribs, the pelvic bones become the land, perhaps the land of our common, every day life, and in the center that land gives way to a sacred, secret and primordial, indeed impersonal, depth.

I have touched this depth in guided practice, in Zen practice, and, very occasionally, in my own exploration. This is the great stillness I believe we all seek, which is ironic: in the seeking we create suffering, grasping, and so the illusive, shimmering Tadaka floats further away. Water, after all, cannot be gripped.

We know this point through spiritual practice, through poems (Eliot’s Four Quartets: “At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;/ there the dance is,/ but neither arrest nor movement…”), through philosophy (Kant’s theory of noumenon vs. the world apprehended by the senses and intellect), and, of course, through personal revelation.

II

What does it mean when the access to stillness abandons the mind, or is stolen by that Thief in the Night, overwhelming circumstance?

The place of silence, which might be Peace – consider the Greek Eirene, so like Mother Mary – or Infinite Love – seeing Vishnu in one’s heart: this place is the perfect Jewel of the Soul. Or, if one is uncomfortable with spiritual image, this is where relaxation, genuine letting go, occurs. We build around this Jewel temples of protection, ambition, structure and illusion. It is the place within us that holds the most contradiction, as we will do anything to guard it and then exert equal effort to never visit it for more than a moment. If there is a center to Being, this faceted, blinding Jewel is the representation.

And here we enter a world necessarily beyond language, a world in which language itself is a poor symbol, an extended hand of mere gesture, a simplistic outline of meaning.

And yet, and yet.
For me it is more and more concrete, the Presence and then the Absence of soul, of peace, of love. Recently I spent a week in a madhouse. I went, simply, because the circumstances of my life, what I have done to myself, allowed others to do to me, has caused me to slip, fall, and the falling did not stop.

In the madhouse everyone was falling. And because humans have a need to love, to seek peace, we tried to catch one another. If one imagines the slapstick of Laurel and Hardy blended with Euripides’ brutal interpretation of murder and madness in Herakles, this is a fairly accurate portrayal of the comedic hopelessness of Bipolar-Major Depression-PTSD-Extremely Anxious humans attempting to connect.

III

Now I know.

Madness is the sacking of the Jewel.

Who does the sacking, and whether the Jewel can be replaced or if its absence is only an illusion is all a matter of interpretation, and, as one is in the middle of the mess, utterly irrelevant. What replaces the Soul when it’s gone is pain. A pain that is physical, existential, mental, in the body and out of body all at once and all the time. People who judge the suicidal have no sense of the pain that encompasses the Soul-less beings who are, quite simply, seeking relief from something so far gone it is indescribable.

Madness is absence, the incapacity to describe the absence, and the solitary confinement that is the natural result of that incapacity. In this way, just as Love can be an infinite loop of openness and joy, so can its departure: pain begets pain, the trip becomes a fall, the fall becomes an endless vertigo of isolation.

Aside: if you ever wonder what it’s like to be around crazy people when you, also, are  crazy: it is, in a word, comforting. We are all in this (secret, shamed) war together. And, to be as simple as possible, there is nothing left to protect, defend, or to dress up and pretend. My roommate showed me the open wounds on her wrists as casually as one reveals a grey hair. I was around impoverished addicts and perpetual liars and lawyers and mothers and beautiful teenage girls and an 80 year old retired executive and we were all leveled to an equality that I imagine only combat and sickness can create.

I have always been a child, then a girl, then a woman, of extremes.
I know what it is to touch Infinite peace under the guidance of Richard Freeman’s patrician, elegant hand.
I know what it is to live, if one can call it that, with moment by moment suicidal impulse.

This is either a gift or a death sentence. (What in life is not a death sentence? I cannot help but allow my mind to linger on the comfortingly obvious…).
But here I am, my daughters asleep by my side, and I am writing these words.

And I can see a glimmer of diamond in each of their perfect hearts.

Poem for D

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Poem for D
“-..and then I hear
your heart and mine beating,
and both with fear.”
– Rainer Maria Rilke, from the Book of Hours

Where am I?
What have I done

with me?

Over here?
No…..not over here –
~  ~ Over there?
Not over there either…
Under the piano
on top of the shelf
is no me or I
or even one Self.

Said I to Mama
at 3AM
“When people get married
they die to their Love.
Wedding. Cake. Then buried.”

A ballet leap
from dream to terror –

but then –
Mama’s skin
and the silk-soft Maltese
on his pillow –

In early dawn
I hear birdsong

~ ~ it is spinning
~ ~ ~ ~ into the tail of a peacock

Mama
breathes
me
~ to safer
~ ~ shores…

Prayer I

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Prayer I
~~
for Livi

I knew her breath
before her face –
cheeks flushed with meth,
black eyes embrace

the careless slaughter
of her own youth.
Livi. Daughter.
Mother. Her truth

long gone long ago;
she’ll shoot, smoke, snort,
gums numb from blow,
the notes from court

still shut and piled
with other shit
that makes a child
give up and quit.

Her baby sleeps
at home while she
sleeps it off, weeps
“One day you’ll see ~”

Livi love. Look:
That boy, his deed
is from a book
you cannot read.