Tuesday night /// Tantra
Review of The marrow's telling /// Dialogue about Cripple poetics
For the chamisa /// Navigating foam
The hungry body /// The word made flesh
From packet 5 /// Semester self evaluation /// Outline
Note to the reader /// Integration /// Coherence
|Rebecca S |
Beginning the journey /// Three photographs
Ellie Epp, Editor's introduction
Here is another two-semester collection of writing by faculty, current and former students - and one daughter. Four of the authors have graduated in embodiment studies in 2008.
To know more about embodiment studies at Goddard, follow this link to our embodiment studies web worksite. For 2008 embodiment studies workshops given at our residencies, have a look at online handouts for Dragon girls and Eurydice's voice.
Melody Lark, Thank you
Emilee Baum, Tuesday night
It was on Tuesday night that the thing in my chest finally moved. It had been sitting there for days, a tight aching knot of something that made me feel like crying, kept me from even thinking about next steps. It would climb into my throat and stick there in my craw, and my mouth would open and close and nothing would come out. I'd finally get a breath in and my head would be pounding, and it would drop back into my chest, the worst heartache I'd ever felt. I rocked myself back and forth, sobbing, as it climbed and sunk, climbed and sunk.
Finally I held it there, locked in my throat. I put my attention on it and massaged with my mind, gently squeezing and releasing. What is it, what is it I kept asking myself. What is this? What is it? And a word came floating up from out of the thick ache: sadness.
I breathed and kept my attention there. Sadness, I said to myself, and with a gelatinous pop it came up into my head. Pain, oh pain, oh throbbing pain ricochet in my skull. Still the attention, light attention, gently feeling. what is it? What is this? What are you?
Again a word came up from it, this time spreading into my left cheekbone, behind my right eye. Guilt, I/it said. and it throbbed alive, this guilt that is the left side of my face, reaching up into my cranium.
And as the guilt dissipated, a hard, hurtful nugget, a little plug of pain remained. It refused to move, refused to be anywhere, and I held my attention there. This little plug of thick rubber pain stuck in my skull, on the right side, just above my eye.
Exhaustion threatened to overtake me, but I stayed, my attention unthinking, squeezing and releasing this knot. It went slow, so slow up the inside curve of my skull, above my right eye. It stuck, dense and magnetic, the whole way. I stayed and stayed, what is it what is it what are you small one the smallest densest thickest slowest most hidden one what is it what is it
and with a crumbling, with a softening, I heard 'hurt'.
hurt, I said, and it throbbed gently. I throbbed, gently. Yes, just simple, pure hurt. I hurt, and this old young hurt was moved, was softened. It didn't dissipate upward, out of the top of my head, as I thought it might. Don't make me go, don't leave or push me away it asked. Just stay. So I stayed, I held that hurt as it softened and melted, and the pain began to drip and dissolve and distribute and release through the rest of my skull. I have had echoes of it since, but nothing quite as strong.
Emilee Baum, Tantra
the quickening eulogy
For this work, I fully go for refuge. I have taken refuge many times, even officially once. I took refuge in the tradition of my teacher, and the name by which that love called me was 'Fortunate Tara'. I took the four-armed Avalokitesvara initiation, and was supported by Vajrasattva at the time I took refuge.
Today, I go for refuge. I am not taking it passively from another. Today I actively go to refuge, I seek it out with every bit of my being.
I go for refuge to the embodiment of the enlightened mind, the Buddha. Every person has the capacity for awakening of the enlightened mind, including myself. It is to this I go for refuge.
I go for refuge to the wisdom of the path, to the knowledge that has been hidden and revealed in this world that allows me and other enlightened minds to navigate the journey in the most skillful way possible.
I go for refuge to the community of like-minded beings, no matter where I meet them or how they appear. I go to refuge of the sangha because I am not alone on this journey, though I am the only one that can walk my path.
I go for refuge in these things, I continually aspire to the sweet refuge of these life-giving things, because I am seeking to embody the awakened mind. I will continue to seek refuge in these things so that my journey will be ever quickening, so that I may ever more effectively enable the awakening of all beings everywhere.
In this state of intentional body and mind, my aspiration for this particular writing is to represent as precisely as I can to my listeners and observer my experience of these topics. The purpose of this document is to bring together these contextual influences in my life to more effectively nurture myself and my learning.
my oh my, you know it just don't stop
on and on, and on and on, what a day what a day what a day
and so it goes, and so it goes
I know why the black mother, I know why the writer's block. I know why the bones and the shifting veils of death, I know the window I've been looking at and why the curtains are parted. The gauzy white curtains that turn sharply or wave softly in the breeze. The shifting gold and oranges, browns and greens of the changing leaves. The drifts of snow that sparkle as diamond dust in the soft muted crunch of a nighttime parking lot. The window is open, I can smell the fresh air. The sunlight outside, the crisp nose invigorating smell of the season changing. I cannot see what is outside the window, but occasionally the curtain will flip or twitch or shudder and I will get a glimpse of it.
This window, I can crawl right through this window if I wanted to. If I wanted to, I could put my knee up on this sill that has been painted over white too many times. I can push aside these curtains that have been hanging in front of this window, these curtains which have been purple with moons and coyotes on them, have been geometric shades of expensive paper that softly whoosh when you move them and bang in the wind, have been old dirty sheets and torn hippie skirts, have been iron bars with no glass, have been many things. I can push these curtains aside and knee up, eyes wide as the breeze I've been feeling and the sounds I've been hearing and the thoughts I've been thinking and the heart I've been beating all sync up with what it looks like, my first long gaze into the place on the other side of the window. The vistas. The forests. The deep den places. The mountains. The marshes. The dangerous places. The places where things live. The place where the well is. The place where you just have to trust that you know what to do, and go ahead and do it.
It is the black mother who has reminded me of these places. She lives on the other side of the window all the time. She exists there to remind those who are looking that the window is open. And yes, it is big enough to crawl through, if you try. Come home, she says. I'm not saying it will be easy, but you can do it if you try. But don't come if you're not going to be on your toes, because this is no place for lazybones. Lazybones are good for chewing, out here.
And I try and try again to get through the window, to jump up or down or slide in to the other side. I keep getting disoriented, turned around about which side is which. I become confused, obscure, afraid. And finally, the black mother, who is terrifying by this time, all fire and rattling teeth and animal skins, reaches in her with her strong hands and grabs me by the hair and yanks. Suddenly and brutally, and I am through.
And it is bigger, and so much more exquisitely beautiful than I have ever imagined.
The importance and execution of the "critical" or "position" paper as a tool for education has varied tremendously by the structure of the educational philosophy or institution giving the assignment. In K-12 I practiced a very structured formula for the infamous "term paper":
- Write (or be given) a thesis statement / hypothesis
- Find at least three facts from three different sources that either confirm or contradict your thesis statement / hypothesis
- Make a conclusion that states whether your sources agreed or disagreed with your thesis / hypothesis and why
- Make a list of your sources
Over time, this model required more elaborate notation, longer page length, bigger and more sophisticated words, but basically remained the same through college. The most significant shift in college for me was learning how to write a position paper without actually using my voice (language that refers to me as the author, student, or idea-holder) at all. The task of that training was to completely eliminate my voice, and I succeeded very well.
In my graduate learning at Goddard College, I feel deep resistance to this standardized process, and I am not the only student who experiences this growing pain. Usually, students protest that they just can't write that much, they just don't know what they're supposed to do. Me, I know how to write a critical paper, and actually sometimes enjoy the process because it is so predictable and milquetoast. I am challenged now because the work of consciousness studies asks me to reintroduce my voice in an authoritative and almost cocky way with which I am completely unfamiliar. I have become so skilled at creating vapid position papers that present all sides of the argument successfully without actually putting a stake in the ground that I have forgotten what it is like to articulate my position. In every area of my life I am working to unlearn this terrible habit, an active intentional change that challenges tradition.
Today, the world is especially challenging for rapid change of thought and behavior, despite the staggering changes that technology renders in our minds and bodies. In general, change is and should be uncomfortable, because it requires transformation (and preferably growth). Many beings are hostile to this transformation because it makes them feel uncomfortable, which makes them feel scared, which causes them to act out of anger and fear.
Other people who actively and sometimes aggressively challenge their current contextual belief systems are often defined in our culture as odd or strange, eccentric but harmless, sometimes gentle genius, sometimes great thinker or scientist or artist. At the most threatening, these people are percieved and labeled as madmen and cult leaders; the language associated with strong beings in the margins of culture can be very frightening and polarizing. Change of thought is terrifying for most, and inherently challenging for all beings. Different cultural systems identify the impetus for this ongoing cyclic change in many ways: some call it original sin. Some call it alienation of self and other. Some call it many different things, and we are not concerned with the nuances of the naming of those things here.
The point I am making here is:
As a relatively young (aged 27 years) pale-skinned non-Hispanic white Caucasian female who was raised in a position of socio-economic and cultural privilege and am challenging a generally endorsed structure of oppression, I have had to sort through a lot of information to arrive at where I am.
The point I am making here is:
As a relatively old (aged 27 years) unmarried white girl who had a good raising but was cocky and got above her birthing, I had to seek a lot of grace before I could get to where I'm standing.
The point I am making here is:
As a timeless self-owned collection of skin and eyes and mouth and hands and ears and sex and voice and thoughts and emotions who has been raised in an evolutionary sensory environment that has stretched and toned this dynamic body-mind to be ready for anything, I have received many blessings and made many sacrifices to be here, sharing this moment with you.
Thank you, readers, for listening. Please forgive me where I am clumsy or as yet unrefined.
Like most things in our contemporary culture that involve the body, the word "tantra" has been given carpet bags full of garbage connotations to carry around. Set aside all of your kama-sutra associations for a moment, and just think about your body. Breathe three times on purpose, and as you do, feel your body: where is your body touching other objects? Where do you feel tense? Where do you feel loose? What are your toes doing right now?
Exploring these kinds of questions as you (hopefully) just did is what tantra is about. It is about being fully present in your body, whatever your body happens to be doing at the time.
Everybody always wants to know: well, then what about the sex? Isn't tantra kinky sex? And here's the answer: sex is done with the body (surprise!). Tantra is also done with the body. You can have sex without practicing tantra, and you can practice tantra without having sex. Don't be too disappointed: tantra does help sex be better. And that's all we're going to say about sex, so take a deep breath and relax so you can really listen. In fact, take three breaths, and when you're ready you can move on.
tantra in context
Tantra and the knowledge of tantra is generally described as esoteric, meaning the teachings are secret. Even within different trantric structures of knowledge there are etic (obvious) meanings for symbols and emic (secret) meanings for these symbols. This sense of secrecy is part of what makes tantra so titillating for the modern United States consumer. In our culture, secrets are bad. Secrecy is not good or bad by itself it is intention of the secrecy and the nature of the information that can be helpful or harmful.
Tantric knowledge has historically been disseminated through direct guru-student relationships, and cloaked in ornate metaphors and hierarchical lineages of power. The continuation of this lineage was very important for the organizational structures that supported the knowledge. Often, monasteries were seats of wealth, power, and politic that had a vested interest in controlling the lineage.
There was another reason for this secrecy: protection of the student. Practicing tantra can be very difficult, because it exposes the structures in our organisms that we have hidden from ourselves. The secrecy of direct transmission and the emphasis on the guru-student relationship in these lineages is important, because it protects the student from attempting practices that may be dangerous or harmful for them.
I practice mindfulness. In my current cultural context that I share with the people around me, I see a world of confusion and hurt. A desperate need to not pay attention, because it is all so very hurtful to look at. I know this because I see these behaviors, structures and coping mechanisms in my own behavior. In some ways, it has been very painful to examine the sources of those behaviors and skillfully destroy, sustain, or create new behaviors in their stead. Meditation causes us to look at all the parts of ourselves that we conceal, that we cover, that we shamefully tuck under the rug. It is important to have strong healthy relationships and clear guidance when navigating this path.
We live in a context that is very different from what is thought to be the typical "sources" of tantric learning. We have the old texts, the archaic structure that has been painstakingly handed down in many forms from many different cultures. It is sad because these are crumbling structures, and in looking at the old sources it is often easy to misunderstand or misinterpret the meanings and intention of the symbols. It is astonishing that any of this information has survived at all.
Tantra teaches you about being mindful of your body. You can find sources of tantric learning everywhere, but your own context will influence the symbols, experiences, and actions that your practice takes. In my life, I am coming to see it as the queen's path. For me, it is different than the hero's journey because it is behind the scenes. Following this path is like tracking something in the forest. You see a broken twig, you get a breath of wind, you narrow your eyes and you go, quietly.
My purpose in this writing is to explore the notion that the knowing of tantra is an open secret. It is difficult to capture in language because it is something that belongs to an individual body, and each person's experience of tantra will be different. Practicing tantra is like trying to describe the sky we may call it blue, we may generally agree it is above our heads, we may speculate on the rain or the shapes of clouds. The quality of our experience of the sky can differ dramatically, however, because our sensory organs and construction of the consciousness of the moment are unique.
One of the ways I can describe how I understand the practice of tantra is to use the language of Tibetan Buddhism. This is one of the acknowledged lineages in our modern context as a source of purity or clarity of the teachings. My first bodily reaction to Buddhism as a teaching was surprisingly visceral and negative, the result of bad language translation. I had been studying Taoism for several years, and my Taoism teacher was as inexperienced as I. She sure was pretty, though.
During my undergrad at Antioch College, a professor offered a survey of "Eastern" religions, and so I took the class. That semester, my relationship with my Taoism teacher was disintegrating, and I was grasping at anything to keep my head above the water. I almost quit school and climbed on a tour bus. And then my professor told me that the first noble truth was that "all life is suffering."
I think I wrote a paper about why I believed that wasn't true. I remember it made me feel hostile toward Buddhism, I so deeply and bodily disagreed with that statement. I myself was suffering tremendously every day too little sleep, too many drugs, plenty of strangers, no one who listened.
"That's not true. There's a lot of joy in life," I said. I started to wonder why I was suffering so badly. I examined my context, I thought about how I felt, and then I looked for signs. And then I made a choice not to suffer in that way any more.
Buddhism and I really met when I transferred to New College of Florida. I learned a lot. Buddhism is great for me, and Buddhism is correct for me because the heart of it teaches compassion for other sentient beings. Compassion, bodhicitta, is what helps you to remember to be human in the face of temptation. Human rebirth is so precious, so full of agility and discriminating awareness, and yet you may be tempted to use this gift for selfish unskillful gains. You may be tempted to kill yourself at an inappropriate time. You may be tempted to go live in a cave and to never re-enter the world, or you may be tempted to drown in the world and never return to your home. Bodhicitta is a lighthouse in a terrific storm.
Practicing compassion has been for me a beautiful way of finding my path to tantra. Compassion is such a unique human emotion, so subtle and complex, and it results in a tremendous spectrum of action. Righteousness and loyalty are like this, as well. Passionate love is like this as well. Sadness is like this as well. There are many shades and hues, many different levels of intensity.
Buddhism developed as a cult response to Hinduism, which had formed its own kinds of degradations of lineage in India. The historical Buddha Sakyamuni experienced disillusionment with the indulgence / asceticism of the prince / ascetic roles he had been offered in his cultural context, and so determined that wisdom was found in the middle of the path. Whatever the extremes of your existence, you will suffer least in the very middle of the path. Enlightenment is the ability to clearly recognize your context and to act skillfully regardless of your circumstances.
In Tibetan Buddhism, tantra is of the vajrayana, the diamond vehicle. The adamantine path, the sharpest and brightest and quickest and clearest and hardest. This path will wake you up, but you will be rode hard and put up wet. It will get you there and you will have a story to tell, but nothing in the world will save you if you crash this bike. If you fuck up moving this fast, it will be a long time before you're going to walk again.
You don't have to know a thing about Tibetan Buddhism to know that these teachings are serious a glance at any of the meditational deities will show you. The dakini that found me in Nepal is named Vajrayogini, and she is one terrifying woman. Her bright red body is slick in the sun, the sweat, the dust. She dances furiously, joyously on the corpse of the ignorant mind. Around her hips and ankles are strings of pearls or bones that swish and snap as she sways her hips, as she shakes her money-maker.
Her red belly has never born children, but she's known the slick of sex. Her hair flies wildly about her and her crown of fire. Her lips are curled around sharp, pointed teeth, red lipstick running. In the crook of her arm she holds a staff, her male principle, her sun king, the fear of death decapitated and impaled on the staff that bears the bone strung feathers of her inner flame. She carries a knife of cutting wisdom.
In her other hand she holds a skull cup of the elixir of life, ambrosia, blood, the water of the fountain, the stuff of dreams, the two-in-one, the wine. Her name is Vajra, the diamond, the adamantine, the lightning, the merciless, the clear, the compassionate, the precise, Yogini, the woman, the sky dancer, the veiled one, the star and night sky herself, the she. Vajrayogini.
She found me in Nepal and my life since has been to seek to embody the qualities I wish to possess. She is teaching me how to get up and dance.
the modern context
Returning again to this moment, as you are reading this collection of symbols that mean words that mean bigger symbols that are combined to create sentences that are even more complex symbols in the set of symbols that composes the entirety of this writing. You, in your body, right now. How many electrical appliances are either shining on you or making noise at you? How many are doing both?
Now that I have you back here, I wish to quote what Geshe Lhundrup Rigsel said to me when I told him I was sad and angry that I had no women teachers: "You become nun and you teach, then." Seeing my reaction and laughing at me, he said, "I worry about the nuns that go to America and don't come back. In America, Samsara is open twenty-four seven, you know? No time for practice."
It has taken me a long time to realize that Geshe-la was telling me that I needed to make time for myself to practice. If I wanted women teachers, if I wanted to be one, then I needed to make time for being one. We take the context in which Geshe-la understands Buddhism and fast forward a few thousand years and we find you and me. We're huddled around our laptop fire, me writing and you reading, and we're telling each other stories about the old days and about what it feels like to be a human being. We're feeling in this electronic dark for all of our body parts, our heart and mind together in the same place. The world is moving on, the end times are always coming these days, these times they are a-changin'. It is a soldier's war, now. Every day is a melee, and we need to be profoundly in touch with our limbs, with our ground, with our roots and with the sky. Our bodies know how to stay alive, if we just pay attention and let them.
The landscape today looks very different, however, and it changes faster and faster. No one can argue that the staggering evolution of technology has dramatically outpaced our own sense of how sensory perception shapes reality. We are gorged on stimulus. The tremendous increase in proliferation of technology through increasingly integrated media has brought a proportional decrease in the quality of information delivered.
Mainstream media continues to consolidate and measure success by the clumsy, behemoth structures whose behaviors as functioning systems are similar to those found in almost all of our "institutions": educational, medical, spiritual, and governmental. These non-dynamic delivery systems are the natural product of the behavior of such hierarchical beauraucratic structures, a topic which has long been studied by social theorists.
For such mainstream communication structures in our country, they are suffering pangs of obsolescence by virtue of their association with these archaic structures that, in order to exist, must appeal and conceal for the lowest common denominator. In response, a steady informational wave of increasing amplitude has emerged: user-created and user-driven content. This can be seen most easily on the web in sites that are not only challenging but driving the transformation of contemporary media delivery.
These sites feature user-driven content that is self-selected by the users: the quality of the content is determined by the users of the site. If a site can gather a wide enough base of users by consistently enabling the users to rate the content, the messaging of the content becomes self-fulfilling. People will gravitate toward information that reinforces belief systems with which they feel they can identify.
There are many places we can argue the relative merit of the content that most people select to reinforce in their own media consumption. What I would like to offer for consideration is this: the human brain creates consciousness in similar ways. Neural pathways that are frequented often become stronger, easier to travel, more comfortable. Over time those structures that are reinforced grow, and those that are not shut down or die off. A body creates a moment of consciousness by utilizing sensory input to either reinforce, simply use, or contradict neural pathways. Into adulthood, these pathways become more rigid and more difficult to change or compensate for in the event of injury.
Tantra is simply the study of how the body does this process. When the body is observed with a mindful attention, it is possible to identify and understand the pathways used by the brain and body in a moment of consciousness. The functioning of tantra is an open secret in which we are already engaged. Our challenge now is to disrupt harmful feedback loops of sensory perception that encourage obscure thinking and replace them instead with clear, focused, mindful, discriminating attention.
your face is a bunch of clouds shifting
what is it like when you first wake up?
that very first moment of the day, when you first feel your body. what do you feel first? is it your feet, rubbing soft warm dry sheet snake skin toe play? is it warm sunlight red rubyfruit citrus glow on the back of your eyelids? Or is it deep crackle grey tensions along your spinal column? Where is you consciousness when you first wake up in the morning? How do you wake up?
We talk all the time about how we fall asleep. We talk about letting go, descending, deepening. We talk about conking out, nodding off. It is difficult to find the land of Nod these days. Things are odd in the land of Nod these days. We have drugs that can ship you right off to Nod but without the body-case. Your luggage gets lost between here and Nod, and you sleep like a rock. Like a thing that is non-sentient. Sometimes we say sleep like a baby, and sometimes we say sleep like the dead. This pharm kind of sleep is sleep like a rock. Like a thing that can be, but does not do.
Dreams are beautiful. Follow the language and symbolism of sleep and dreams and you will drift off into a twilight, a disembodied somewhere that could also be nowhere and everywhere. Meanings shift and subtly transform based on elements that are the easiest pathway, the lowest common denominator, the water flows back to the source. Nothing is what it seems, life is but a dream within a dream.
But the sleep that is not like rock sleep. The sleep that is like being baby, like being dead. The sleep that is like the cat, constantly at attention, the sleep that has potential, or the sleep that heals. That wonderland of Nod is far too fantastic for passive sleep. If you go to Nod, you must be fresh like a baby, dumb like the Fool, or you must be like the end of the end, the nothing left to lose. If you go to Nod, if you sail away for Singapore, if you follow the white rabbit, if you open the cellar door, if you can see the threshold as you are crossing over, if you climb through the window, if you can keep a sense of the two in one, the Art, if you can tune your instrument not too tight and not too loose, if you can relax and let go, if you can stay present for every moment, well then. This is another matter entirely, and you and I should spend more time together.
I dedicate these merits so that I might quickly achieve a state of complete awakening for the benefit of all sentient beings.
Ellie Epp, Love woman
- from Eurydice's voice, with thanks to student writers included in italics
"Beautiful and hidden, her shoulders delicate and strong"
I sat on my worn couch, and stared through the iron bars on the window. I smoked cigarettes and watched as black bird after black bird took to the tree outside my window. The branches were heavy with them, huge black birds cawing and talking to one another. There was a young woman in a purple veil walking in the garden across the street. She was beautiful and hidden, her shoulders delicate and strong. She was watching the birds also.
A lot of aspects, not well sorted:
The blushing girl feeling everything around her.
Innocent instinct - raw body as in mad love, sexual dilation, getting pregnant, giving birth, falling in love with one's children. The crisis of hormonal takeover, the chemistries of being seized by instinct. What wildness means then: fear, hope, adoration, self division, instability, uncontrol. Beauty, terror, hope, joy, pain, excruciating uncertainty.
The goddess. Rapturous Aphrodite. Seduction voluntary and involuntary.
The oh so foolish one.
The longing to shamelessly adore. The catastrophic inconvenience of that longing.
The moments when we do unguardedly adore. Those moments we always want back.
The nonverbal. The silence of absorption.
Love eyes. Steeping in color.
Elfshining woman, water woman.
The senses vivid. Images, music.
Was seeing the ocean her?
The dark woman who sings with me.
Something about the interior of earth, bright and dark.
The Lady of the Beasts. The beast in the lady. The ravenous womb that feeds us kindly and then grinds us up and spits us out. The womb in us that blazes up with such ferocious intention to conceive it gets us pregnant when that's the last thing we think we want.
You see how she is a very different rhythm.
These desires for him are the most base of urges.
It is beyond reason; it is beyond the calculated values that we have so carefully crafted. It is tender, it is epic, and it is without apology. It is utterly unreasonable and unspeakably delicious.
I can barely be in a three foot radius of him without every nerve lighting on fire. I can look at these urges and say, "They are perfectly ordinary, absolutely biological. I am of child bearing age; he is the technical alpha male of our clan. These urges are no mystery, no magic. It is purely physical, absolutely explainable."
She has the terrifying possibility of getting turned on by unsafety, by violence, by strangers, by bad things.
My body responded with arousal. I got off the plane and came home to Martha and was afraid to hug her because I was afraid of my body. I never saw this connection before: I was afraid of my body.
All kinds of suppressed or undeveloped or unacknowledged knowledge.
Somehow a source of health, because she is rooted in the early and in openness.
When people get sentimental about her they may want to call her a virgin. But no. When she's preyed upon she can be too complicit. She can be royally furious, a hell-cat.
Love Woman as soul
She's like Jung's anima that he names as the soul in men:
My Guardian spirit in the shape of a soul stirring beauty.
A young woman with dark and rather disordered hair and eyes who spoke more beauty than earth inherits came up to me in a familiar way and leaning her witching face over my shoulder spoke in a witching voice and cherishing smiles, sentences that I cannot recollect. - John Clare's journal October 13, 1832
But she's our soul too. It's not surprising that this should be so, because, in early love, women are as profoundly imprinted by a woman as men are; images of love women are utterly captivating to us. In our dreams they have the same relation to feeling and instinct as in men's.
Eurydice the vanishing one, vanishing into the unconscious.
Eurydice the longed for. Eurydice the poet's muse, the lyrical.
A touchy creature, easily hurt. She flees. Beneath the mountain, beneath the sea.
Sometimes she seems to be the underworld itself.
Some deep deep root into early love, when we could need our mother without shame and drank her in with perfect satisfaction.
Isn't the desire for relationships of simplicity an innocent desire, a young desire? Don't we (also) all want that? Isn't the desire to love and be loved by a young woman a desire to be what we were when our mother was a young woman and a beautiful beneficence?
Infant innocence, "a cool palm of shadow rested a moment on cheeks warm from sleep."
A crush on a femme: early love, early fear
When I started to have sex with women in my early thirties I touched into a level of lust never imagined before. It was also a level of comprehensive danger. Women could hurt me much more than men could. Women can demolish me.
I also had a series of nightmares that Martha (my ex, my best friend) was leaving me.
I concluded that in these dreams Martha represented my open heartedness and/or the part of myself that loves me, that I felt I had almost lost and was terrified of losing for good.
The ambiguity of the femme role among lesbians and het friends: our vulnerability to that image and our anger at its power. It's primal. It's a fast chute into early love.
Back in the water, we didn't need words. It was just completely perfect with only small words back and forth. Small little touches and small little words. Sounds that weren't even words. Back and forth. The night sounds we were surrounded by; it spoke for us.
Your intensity frightens me some. In my life, there are many intensities, but there aren't many calm, quiet intensities like you. I want to nuzzle into you. Because you are always warm and your smell comforts me. You've seen me. In light not many others have.
I am writing this, and I feel like my words are small stones sinking to the bottom. Have you closed your windows? Please write and tell me you are still there. If you are.
All the things that I am drawn to in my life, I am afraid of right now. The sensation of longing - it pushes everything else off the table. There's something else too. You woke me up. I'm awake and my day to day alarms me. As if I am wearing lead boots or something. When I'm awake, I'm aware of myself wearing lead boots. Everything seems to happen in slow motion, and I get impatient.
ease into what I truly want for myself I won't be safe if I do that. I'll be alone, and I won't find my people
selfish a waste of time I'm just going to get hurt. I don't know how, and I am too tired I'll have nothing to show for it. I'll struggle.
Interested in the raw
I am uninterested in the tiny winged guiding light, I am interested in the raw.
inspiration, challenge, love, fear
The time I am interested in is dark, lush, deep crimson and mahogany, uninhibited
darkly mischievous and perversely erotic
vivid and sinister
Love Woman is worried about her mother
When we're adorable little girls and then again when we're lush adolescents we can get into powerful but covert competition with our mothers. When we're little our girlness has a loving freedom her womanness has given up. When we're adolescents we gain sexual power that is at her expense, because her star is going down as ours is rising. Freud emphasizes the root of this competition of mother and daughter in early childhood, but the competition really comes to a crisis when we get bodies that interest people.
If we start by saying somewhat neutrally that at adolescence girls begin to be anxious about their bodies (and express this anxiety in various ways, shopping, eating disorders, etc), and that this anxiety is in some unconscious way connected with their mothers, maybe we can then take a step toward the much more threatening realization of intense conflict: as women we want to triumph over our mother and as the children we continue to be we want above all to continue in her care.
It's older women who enforce clitordectomy.
Our mothers create us and then they drop us. One way or another.
There's a darkness here, powerful and confounding.
Leslie Freeman, Review of The Marrow's Telling
Eli Clare 2007 The Marrow's Telling Homofactus Press
Eli Clare's The Marrow's Telling is what Audre Lorde called bio-mythography, a poetic memoir of coming out again and again: as crippled, dyke, genderqueer, survivor of incest and ritual abuse. Each coming out threaded with images of Oregon's disappearing wilderness, of Clare's body as an artifact of that ecosystem. The poems are interspersed by a series of interludes that cast back to Clare's childhood: the tug of a favorite kite, his unselfconscious strength and connection to flight, which figures the pull of his adult search for authentic identity. Certain phrases recur, poem to poem, as he moves through stories of his birth, games of blackberry bombings shared with his brother, bombs dropped on Baghdad, a 3200-mile march for peace, and reckoning with the torture he endured at his father's and grandfather's hands. "I started work on The Marrow's Telling knowing that history and identity send echoes through our bodies I wanted to gather and weigh the echoes in the same ways that our bodies do," Clare explains. This, then, is a uniquely embodied bio-mythography, a personal poetics that locates beached whalebone and ash literally alongside menstrual blood and curving breast, hayfield against white skin, riverbed bordering cerebral palsy tremor.
The terrain of Clare's poetics is roughest at the beginning: sharp poems succeed flat ones, a single brilliant image is prised from predictable lines. The pristine "Learning to Speak" (I practiced the sounds th, sh, sl / for years, a pianist playing endless / hours of scales) and "Vow," a lyric which evokes Mary Oliver's American Primitive, must climb uphill from "Thin Silver Notes", a weak invocation of collective memory in the wake of the LA riots. "Cleaning Dead Birds," which begins in Clare's abusive father's woodshop, might have been fierce, with lines like he cut their gizzards open / to show me the dark grit inside, but gives way too soon to obvious similes.
The heart of the book - in Clare-speak, its split geode - is aptly located between interludes captioned "Reverberate" and "Reach". Here, there is no safe poetry. Rather, poems cluster around Clare's deepest personal history, each poem's form singular yet complimentary. In the spare "Blackberries" Clare yearns quietly for his brother, while observing military escalation during the First Gulf War. In "The Stories Mama Tells", he channels his mother's anguished voice, describing the births of her three children and the growth of an ovarian tumor, Clare's 'twin'. "Psych Ward In Three Voices" is riskier; Clare channels his own psychiatric breakdown after beginning to recover abuse memories. The most innovative, "Bedrock," acts as a key to Clare's personal symbolism and the painful motivations behind his passions for language and peace:
I know you read the stories, recognize the names: Pinochet, P.W. Botha, Samoza - and the places - Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib . My father learned from them, measured the blood, held me down. Which verbs might suffice? Surge, radiate, scream, pulse, jolt?
Clare's wild, varied imagination and memory compel readers to examine their own geographies.
Leslie Freeman, Dialogue on Cripple Poetics
Petra Kuppers and Neil Marcus 2008 Cripple Poetics Homofactus
Cripple Poetics, by life partners Petra Kuppers and Neil Marcus, and illustrated by the couple's friend and long-time collaborator Lisa Steichman. is a crip love story told through poems, IMs, emails, and photographs. Kuppers, an accomplished choreographer, stage director, and contact improvisational dancer, and Marcus, a Butoh dancer, playwright, and actor, blend words and images in surprising, dynamic ways. The love that dances across these pages is not only Marcus and Kuppers' love for each other, but their shared love for the dis/ability culture that brought them together.
Marcus is an especially astute, and, as Kuppers has said, an economic poet. Among his words are these:
- If there was a country called disabled
- I would be from there.
- I live disabled culture, eat disabled food,
- maked disabled love, cry disabled tears,
- climb disabled mountains and tell disabled stories.
Marcus is precise and clear, largely because he has the benefit of being dystonic. His words tend to be either considered and plotted to the syllable, or located within a specific moment of internal dialog. But Kuppers, raised in Germany and Wales, fluent and voluble in several languages, loses much through over-writing, and is more anarchic than careful with the associations she invokes.
Sometimes, Marcus's lyrical I.M.s read differently in light of Kuppers' heavy-handed poems. For example, Marcus asks in an IM about "crip" identity,
- is our history similarly known to ourselves or the public
- as african americans is known
- not yet
- then why do we borrow a nigger equivalent - is it? use
- of oppressive term for ownership of power.
This passage might read as a single moment in one dis/abled man's developing thought process. But it is contextualized - both preceded and followed - by re-readings and discussions of Kuppers' poem "Crip Language", which, Kuppers writes, "remember[s] sexual violence, and the use of the word 'crip' in gang contexts". Because of the combined effect of Marcus and Kuppers' analogies between presumably non-dis/abled African American's experiences of oppression and presumably white dis/abled people's experiences, Marcus's words, which are considerably less dense and more quotable, have become a lightening rod for discussions of racism within Disability Studies, disability communities, and crip culture.
The following are excerpts from a journal of public and private conversations between me, dis/abled genderqueer writer Eli Clare, Cripple Poetics authors Kuppers and Marcus, and dis/abled Cherokee Two Spirit poet Qwo-Li Driskill:
On July 29th, I write the following in a long letter to Eli, one in a series of long, cerebral letters from my parent's house, where my Dad is dying:
- In the context of Cripple Poetics, you mentioned the implications of "white people writing about race and ugly words." Some thoughts around/nearby that
- I've been thinking of Neil and Petra lately, and missing Neil's voice especially. The parts of Cripple Poetics that I return to are the conversations, IMs, emails between Neil and Petra. Reading such personal and spontaneous words feels like watching thought. And what's even cooler: how the play between speakers encourages their audience to riff on/with them, for example, when they explore associative meanings of sounds ("there's an upbeatness in it, the 'crip, crip, crip' " or "the wind in my cripple"). I love how naturally and lightly Neil touches on deeper issues, including issues of rhetoric and appropriation that you have raised more explicitly in your blog ("then why do we borrow a nigger equivalent is it?") even as I wish that he or Petra would dive into rather than skim the surface.
- I suspect I'm reading too generously here. Before asking that tiny, vital question ("is it?") Neil asks another question, which includes a gross assumption, "Is our history similarly known to ourselves or the public as african americans [history] is known[?]" What that question assumes: that African Americans' histories of oppression and resistance are known, acknowledged, and, to some degree, understood. It also implies that crip history is not, in part, African American history; it erases the stories of African Americans with dis/abilities. The inclusion of both of these questions, the broad assumptive question and the delicate truth-seeking question could be read as documenting a specific moment in both Neil's internal dialog and discussions happening across Disability Studies. Or, it could be read as an irresponsible choice to reinforce the perception that intersectionality of race, ethnicity, and dis/ability is merely tangential to dis/ability culture, and to crip-culture building.
- I'm concerned by Neil and Petra's choice to include Petra's remark that her poem "remember[s] the use of the word crip in gang contexts." Does she have direct experience of gang violence? How can she, affected at most indirectly, re-member the literally ghettoized (racialized, impoverished, brutal and brutalized) use - the history of gang violence? This remark reminds me of something that has long bothered me in Petra's work with the Anarcha Project, which is a tendency to narrate/perform/claim Black women's experiences as if she has not only empathized with, but literally lived through them. As a crip who has directly experienced violence, even group/ritualized/gang-rape violence, I absolutely understand and resonate to the connections that Petra now makes between her crip experiences, her experiential knowledge of pain/terror/rage - and the use of crip as a marker of gang violence. But such connections must be contextualized, probed and put in perspective by examination of her own whiteness, European as opposed to Black American heritage, etc; examination of Neil's socio-cultural markers too, since the connections are made in dialog .
- Oh there's so much to love in this book! Space travel - disabled food, disabled clothes - "bad crips" making out under the guise of dance performance - "Culture is as strong a word as there is." BUT isn't it also a gesture of love for the community and culture that Neil and Petra co-create to keep pushing, asking questions, calling one another on our shit?
- The element missing from their conversations here, from my vantage, seems to be debate. Such a missed opportunity to challenge as well as cheer on one another's ideas, to gently transgress one another's (crip) cultural assumptions as they do one another's closely guarded fears - surely part of love, too.
Later, in a response to Petra at Eli's blog:
- I think that Neil has asked the essential question: Is it [the word crip itself, this increasingly loaded dialog] divisive or unifying? I fear that the answer is both.
- So here goes:
- I want to be clear that my thoughts surrounding the use and representation of race in Cripple Poetics do not reflect my overwhelmingly positive feelings about the book as a whole. Rather, they were written in the context of conversations which had left off at the SDS conference, around Nwadiogo Ejiogu and Syrus Ware's intense, challenging paper "How Disability Studies Stays White and What Kind of White It Stays"; my own evolving perspective on the need for intersectionality in art as well as academe; and a renewed commitment to active anti-racism in my art and scholarship. My comments were addressed to Eli privately, as a friend and ally in community with the understanding that Eli is also a public commentator, with implicit permission for him to engage publicly with my ideas, with trust that he would do so respectfully. Re-reading his blog now, I continue to see my trust well-placed: He acknowledges plainly that his discussion of comparison between crip history and African American history is "single issue, narrowly focused", not comprehensive, not a book review of Cripple Poetics. I interpret Eli's blog (this entry, others too) as an invitation to pause, reflect, question, apply the insights gleaned from conversations across Disability Studies,
- Which brings me roundabout to the question of how Disability Studies interacts (and doesn't) with crip culture. My experiences of crip culture agree with yours, I think: comprised of diverse voices, bodies, identities, vibrant and dynamic, by no means a monoculture. Racism continues to function in US dis/ability communities - both to marginalize and tokenize people of color within our communities, and to isolate our communities, in which POC are overrepresented, from one another and from the mainstream. No group or community which exists within a racist state exists free of racism. But the richness and dynamism of crip culture allows crips to come together, across a spectrum of other identities, to question, learn from, connect and work toward change with one another.
- Disability Studies - a discipline which has unique potential to examine, document, and be held accountable to grassroots crip culture - does not fully or seriously represent the spectrum of human experiences which feeds and shapes crip culture, nor does it accurately map the intersections of crip culture with other cultures and social change movements. A work like Cripple Poetics, which deserves to be read and studied as a cultural text, has the power to push Disability Studies in the humanities out of the academy, out of traditionally hegemonic academic modes of discourse/power, and closer to the grassroots. If the book is taken seriously, treated seriously, it also has the power to influence whom, and which questions, the academy recognizes as legitimiate to the Disability Studies project.
- I couldn't read Cripple Poetics and not love it - love how reading IM and email conversations feels like watching thought, love how the play between you and Neil as speakers encourages your audience to riff on/with you, love how naturally and lightly Neil (yes, with those "highly economic" marks) touches on deeper issues, including issues of rhetoric and appropriation, love your courage in writing and sharing this without rigorously applying the theory/politics/aesthetics of intersection, which I believe are essential to the growth and deepening of Disability Studies.
- There are lots of provocative moments in Cripple Poetics - not only those lines by Neil which problematize naming: references to gang violence, to eugenics, to queerness. (In my original note to Eli, I focused more on your lines, Petra, than on Neil's.) I am grateful and hungry for provocation. It's true that what you offer in these pages isn't enough - doesn't consider deeply enough the histories and connotations invoked by each word and silence - but that's okay, that's right. Culture-building isn't about enough - it's about wanting more, and I do. I want more from - and more of - your voices and visions and love.
- I want to pause for a moment to consider/remind myself: Intersectionality is not only about bringing anti-racism and anti-colonialism into dis/ability politics and crip culture, nor about Disability Studies learning from Critical Race Studies. It is about cultural confluence, about awareness in analysis of (and solidarity in resistance to) interlocking systems of oppression (ablism, racism, also classism, sexism, gender essentialism, homophobia .) Intersectionality demands reciprocal acknowledgment and respect. Therefore, it is also about bringing dis/ability politics and crip culture into anti-racist and anti-colonialist art, activism, and scholarship. It is about bringing Disability Studies into Critical Race Studies, into Women's and Gender Studies, Labor Studies, Postcolonial Studies, Queer Studies. Solid, intersectional art is being created by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna Samarsihna, by Colin Kennedy Donovan and Qwo-Li Driskill, by Leroy Moore and the cast of Sins Invalid, by writers like Linda Hogan whose work is generally not recognized in a Disability Studies framework. My own sort of spirit guide through this remains the late Audre Lorde.
- The problems of analogy and appropriation that Eli has been blogging about are certainly not limited to a few passages in Cripple Poetics, nor to white dis/ability activists who have appropriated the language of the African American civil rights movement. I'm thinking of how my heart broke, reading Harriet Washington's landmark text of African American history Medical Apartheid: heroic, painful, breathtaking in so many ways, yet replete with metaphors of crippling/disfiguring/maiming, stories which reduce the experiences of Black men and women with dis/abilities to experiences of racism; and broke again, screening the anti-war film Body of War - the experiences of people with dis/abilities disappeared/passed/reduced by consciously anti-racist and anti-colonialist texts and rhetoric .
- Finally, Petra, when I wrote that it is an act of love to "call one another on our shit" I did not mean that my appreciation of you, your work, or my identification with disability/crip culture is conditional. I meant that people with dis/abilities, like every diaspora, must be vigilant, precise, and as honest as possible in naming our experiences, especially in our cultural records or we will grow more isolated, less connected. When I return - and in the past few days I've returned often - to Eli's blog, his words (and his use of mine) do not read as reproach - nor are they careless words. What I read is desire for, and willingness to work toward, connection strong enough to hold.
- We need more from Eli, too more readings close to the bone.
Stacey Ginsburg, For the chamisa
- I can barely step
- without breaking.
- It is dry. And then it is soft.
- So soft. And the waves come rolling in. Like clouds
- they pummel through time. I feel them approaching from 135 million years
- ago. Gravity like this is unbearable.
- The story is so much bigger than me.
- And then there is sky.
- And it is blue like water
- and my hands are red like blood.
- Waves like this bring me crashing to my knees.
- And then there is a crack.
- I can see where time teases me.
- Calcite lines etched like needle fish on the stones
- that know things.
- They call me home.
- I know now why 'to re-member'
- is to put pieces back together.
- Yet I continue to break like clay
- in hand wet cold with snow.
- 135-million-years-time descended.
- Just like that.
- As if it were a dreaming caterpillar and
- my pelvis an
- open invitation for wings.
- My words turn to blood.
- It is softer than a womb.
- It yellows me from the inside out. It is like fossilized coral.
- It is the one-month-left-till-spring chamisa stalks
- and I taste kelp.
- I don't understand how
- the violence of sky passes
- or the ways in which shadows dance.
- They tell different stories while the wind is still.
- And someone said that knowing too much can cause a person to feel old too
- I understand why the tree bore fruit
- and why I had to taste it on my lips
- and why this made me fall.
- I stepped into the shadows
- where the snakes hide.
- I made this round globe of mud
- wet from tears.
- I put it here and I said
- And then I said earth.
- And then it said nothing.
- I smeared on my face
- these paprika red hands.
- And the magpie laughed.
- And the bone shard taught me
- the eternity of death
- and the shell of an ancient sea
- said nothing more than circles within circles of time.
- The violence of blood spilled between my legs.
- It was nothing like what I thought.
- It came earlier with the passing eclipse of a moon.
- It was a different sort of birth.
- It carved tears out of stone.
- They melted ice.
- And life came to be
- in a dry ancient sea.
Stacey Ginsburg, navigating foam
the foam made it simple. it moved slowly.
there are several ways to see it. his name was puck. it was summer. he was chewing burdock root. he took me to maple creek. that place makes me feel true.
when navigating place it is good to have a guide. puck took me to the valley of the singing frogs. we bowed our heads through old growth trees and skinny arches. puck didn't speak. the day was common. i sneezed. the sun appeared and disappeared. the frogs began singing.
i thought of saturn and time. time with puck isn't straight-up and logical. puck makes it round. place my 98 year-old next-door neighbor told me, "i go to maple creek and first thing is i jump over the creek. i fell in once, but no matter. maple creek is my piece of heaven."
the winter teaches how a thing freezes. and how body and place make it come alive again. winter turns to spring. i discover innocence. this is why white trilliums bloom in summer.
the foam is the eye of horus. now it becomes the birth of a star.
we follow foam to boulders. our faces meet wind and waves kiss our cheeks. puck wants us to see the bearded tree. "look," he points - an eagle circles. it becomes the most ordinary thing in the world.
beyond wind is the sound of ocean. at the edge my memory goes backwards to the place where I was born, where ocean waves and shells contain sound like a mother's womb. the river makes foam. the lake makes waves. they don't say anything. the lake tosses water back and forth.
place moves memory through my belly and water through my eyes. here, streets say cerro gordo, gambia oak, and calle pelligroso. they don't say iron, gold, birch or maple. water rushes in the north and i catch my breath. here, wind does that. dry, cracked arroyos announce place. forests and deserts speak differently. the oak tree near the cholla and chamisa speaks a foreign language. my body is an archeologist.
foam moves past trees that crawl through ore-colored stones. i'm in both places simultaneously. i feel like my grandmother's geraniums. i'll grow roots wherever i am. i know the story of where i come from. i know the names of the things that grew around me and what i'm growing towards. i'm curious about what is growing towards me.
the foam is a quilt. it matures, recedes and dissolves. it is place and a black river slowing down from falls to the mouth of lake superior. it is desire and bright blue sky. it is wing and bone-white birch. it is hunger, taste, wild ramps and huckleberries. it is skipping stone, two fishermen and a speedboat. it is soft clay. it brings me here --to hard clay and arroyo and then there, to soft clay and wave.
it reminds me of the boys i went fishing with at age fifteen. they jumped off the bridge and i shrieked. we drank budweiser all day. they pissed in the river. we watched the sunset and became still. rocks, trees, clouds and words grew into me. I forgot and foam moved and reminded me.
i want to grow this way forever. these images clench my belly. i want to remember the words of foam when i am 80. i write because my words are seeds. they cling to my pant legs like burdock thistles. i carry them to dry places. their memory makes me cry. it fertilizes old stories into new patterns.
Erin Goodall, Letter
- Erin's mother, Becci, is an alum of this mag.
- kitchen dotted with wicker baskets and popsicle stick turtles
- 3 spoons
- 30 tealights
- boxed citrus thai
- what's a sieve?
- steak knives?
- pawprints zigzagged from muddy pups
- snatching jerked pork chops and spilling pumpkin soup.
- family traditions,
- wednesday night wings
- 12 days of christmas
- and chai in the mornings.
- the calmness on your face
- as you learned to start the tracker in fourth gear
- on a hill with brake pads screeching
- and two kids whining about soccer practice and Mrs. Sellers
- and the car was always in the shop
- but you replaced breakdowns with
- sheep rock hikes between
- speech writing, poetry, dissertations,
- arguments with Mrs. Gill
- so I could fight my homophobic 12 year old peers
- who didn't understand the importance of
- brunch with mimosas and vodka snacks,
- attempts to balance
- late rent and registration.
- telling the cops to come back later
- because no, you didn't pay that parking ticket
- but your paper is due in 30 minutes
- and nagengast grades tough.
- my soul cried for you
- when your love moved to thailand
- and I feel unnatural being so far away from my other half
- but I want you to know
- that there's a heart missing you in oregon,
- northwest raindrops are washing away tears from blue eyes
- and I just hope you're proud of the way I tell people
- I don't have a boyfriend
- I have 2 dogs
- and a bike that I will never stop riding.
- you will always be my miracle mama,
- my lance armstrong,
- seven different tour de troubles,
- with you on stage 6,
- standing above the crowd
- beauty radiating,
- and keeping me sane.
- (liebe du 2 2. please email me the rest of the info for my fafsa.)
Alex Hartman, The hungry body
In this age of consumerism, conservatism and counterfeit currency, our bodies can buy us love, legitimacy and life, but we can never be more than the stories our bodies betray. Our bodies shit and puke, they piss and cum. They fart and bleed, they ooze and fail. They lactate, they sweat, and most of all, they betray.
They also desire. We hide our hunger under downcast eyes, because need is more shameful than flesh. We are gluttons craving something we can press into our bodies to transform us from weak, numb animals into beasts who can truly feel. We want to taste something. Erase something. Feel we can't name. We only know it's bad.
And we want to fuck. We want to twist our body around someone else, and feel their breath on our throat. We want their hand to soothe our hurts and their cock to throb in our mouth. We want to transgress. And through it all somehow we want to be transformed.
But we don't discuss erect and flaccid penises. We don't talk about wet and bleeding vaginas. We feel shame for our cum and saliva. For fetid breath and foul smell and desire that feels stronger than we are.
Society says the body is bad. Society is the Christian church, and the American way. It's Plato, Descartes and Augustine. It's our mothers and fathers, and it's starving women as thin as sticks. It's men afraid of women, and our mothers who were afraid of men. Our culture demands good bodies, and it demands obedient bodies, and it tells us not to let our bodies transgress.
As a child, I absorbed contempt for my body and held it in my muscles and blood.
I was always hungry. Hungry for food, I hoarded sweets beneath my bed. Hungry for rescue, I created dramas starring me as the victim saved by handsome men. Hungry for company, I pressed my back against the door to prevent friends from leaving, while their mothers called them home. I writhed in shame like a penitent virgin for my gluttony, but the more I compressed, the greater my desires grew.
I was ravenous for love and food and sex and a kind hand to stroke the arc of my cheek. I wanted my mother to love me, and my father not to have died. I wanted to devour and be devoured, and feel warm skin defining my own.
Our culture is repressed and judgmental, and we see more brutalized bodies than bodies making love. We're insulted by sagging breasts and bellies stretched by babies; by imperfect flesh and signs of ill health. If you're fat or gay, or sick, or ugly we need you to hide. If you're hungry, and feel disembodied by your culture and alienated by every plastic thing, wear your mask when you're among us, because we're offended by your weakness and need.
Listen up. I am a human being with blood and skin, and I want to fuck myself with bones. I want to press my breasts against chilly glass in public. I want to shock your kids, strip the flesh from my thighs and eat it before you like rare and spicy meat.
I want to writhe and suckle, vagina dentata, the gaping wound, the hungry mouth. I want to swallow you whole. And I want you to scream from my reality. From my hungry body. My blind fury. The fury of this angry, humble woman. I want to explode.
And after I explode, I want to find balance between shame and acceptance, desire and denial, transgression and compliance. I want to allow my body to stop and breathe and simply be.
Alex Hartman, The word made flesh
- this link will take you to Alex's graduating video
Amanda Lacson, Voice
- Voice. The word begs to be heard and sustained.
- Say it.
- The "fuh" sound vibrates,
- the bottom lip enters the dark
- then rubs along the tips of my front teeth,
- bringing forth the echo, resonance from the cave of my mouth.
- The bottom lip is thrust forward, outward,
- sharing with you the bounce breath ring hum
- carried on the following vowel sound.
- My lips form into an oval
- one of the pure vowel shapes I learned from singing.
- - "Ohh"
- without closing, pinching off the vowel at the end.
- the carrier of the word,
- the main course,
- the root,
- the stem.
- I bring my internal thrum to you
- when I say it.
- Italian: voh che.
- I breathe out to you and end in a hush.
- French: vwah.
- I breathe out to you until my breath runs out,
- until the word floats away on the air.
- I bring my tone back into myself,
- I mutter behind my teeth.
- Then I leave you with a whisper,
- a continued hiss to tickle your ear,
Deidre Long, From packet 5
I have been struggling with my sobriety. I have had to constantly remind myself why I am doing it. It hit me particularly hard today while I was at work. I wanted to go home and just relax.
I had made plans to visit my kids on my way home. Initially, I felt like I was grasping for something to talk about. My eyes fell to wandering around the room and focused on a miniature armoire (12 by 9 inches) that I had bought my oldest daughter years ago when she still played with dolls. I asked her why she still had it, and she told me she keeps her little things in it. She pulled out the drawers and showed me what she had saved over the years: small photos, a thimble, a bone bead, a soda tab, a shell, and a ballerina slipper ring (among other things). What was amazing was that: 1) she had a story for each item and 2) they were not ordinary memorabilia. These were things she had saved since she was a small child that represented, not significant occasions, but everyday life. The bone bead was something she says she got at a bead fair we had gone to when she was seven years old. According to her, I had told her she could pick one bead out of the 10 cent box. I don't even remember that one.
The significance of her collection hit me when she told me that this armoire was not the only place she had filled with her treasures. She had boxes of them hidden all over her room. She tells me she was, as a child, obsessed with tiny things. The fact that she still has them convinces me that she is still obsessed. I took great delight in asking her about each item and where and why she chose to save it. (Why this shell? Why this scribble on a scrap of paper?)
What I was piecing together was that while I was changing diapers and making lunch and taking walks to the park as my kids were growing up, my oldest daughter was collecting and preserving tiny, ordinary, overlooked items that marked our days. A pinecone, a discarded scrap from an art project, a hideous plastic skull ring she won at Salisbury Beach. She had tiny books that I had made for her. I read the little stories and poems she wrote, which she had never shared with me when she was writing in them at 11 years old.
I think she changed my life today. I left completely amazed. My imagination was on fire. I could envision myself as a young harried mother of five small children trying to make it through the day without going nuts, while Angela was living in my shadow with existential wonder. She was treasuring every moment while I was looking forward to something in the future that would relieve me.
Anyway, she reminded me, without even realizing it, why I want to be sober. I don't want to miss anything, and I want to become someone who notices and takes delight in the ordinary stuff.
Deidre Long, Semester self evaluation
My original overall goal, in coming to Goddard, revolved around investigating what I interpreted as a disconnection in the society in which I lived. I had written in my semester study plan, "I want to investigate a variety of fields (which include philosophy, psychology, religion, art, and literature) that address and offer theories of what it means to be human. I am interested in the ways these fields connect, overlap, and seemingly contradict one another".
While I am still interested in these fields (with the addition of some others), I have come to realize that my interests are the result of something deeper than intellectual pursuit. For while my interests do stem from a concern for what I have experienced in external society, I have become aware that the roots lie in a sense of fragmentation within myself. As a result, I would change my overall goal to this: "To become a person who can articulate and consistently practice a way of life that presents an alternative to dualistic, patriarchal thinking for the purpose of transformation and meaningful connection with both the vast, invisible, and unconscious self and the vast, exterior, visible world. My goal is to be able to teach and inspire others to do the same".
My short-term plan for tackling my original goal was to lay some groundwork in my areas of study, with the intention of outlining some places of intersection between my chosen fields. This included drawing on philosophy, psychology, literature, and visual art. However, as fate interceded, I ended up with Ellie as my advisor. Ellie drew my attention inward. More specifically, she drew my attention to the fact that I had some personal issues that needed addressing. Even more specifically, she recognized the signs of a person in distress, and as a result, allowed me to move forward, despite a fairly vague study plan, with the single request that I deal with my alcohol dependency. Personal introspection and evaluation became the foundation of this past semester's work. I drew on all the fields and disciplines that intrigued me but with the goal and purpose of discovering and addressing the reasons for my own sense of fragmentation.
Packet 1: annotations for six books, some free-writing on topics of addiction and insecurity, and some journal entries on my struggle with my addiction. I left the residency feeling I wanted to make some major changes in my life, and discovered that it was harder that I had imagined. My habits had taken hold of me in a way that I had not anticipated. However, having made a commitment to address those issues, I also discovered a flood of emotion and energy that led to an outpouring of personal writing. Everything I read had a direct correspondence to all the stuck places within me. I wanted to get everything out as if writing would release all of the things that had been held within for so long. I had the sense that I was given an outlet without any strings attached, to explore my internal self and respond accordingly. I also submitted two pieces of artwork that are visual expressions of my internal process.
My first packet's books consisted of the following:
Gilligan, Carol. The Birth of Pleasure: a New Map of Love. New York: Vintage Books. 2002
This book opened my eyes to the implications of patriarchy: one of the primary results of dualistic thinking that only serves to separate and divide, not only women from men, but also individuals from themselves. Gilligan offers a compelling case but does not stop at the problem. Using the myth of Psyche and Cupid, she offers an alternative: The courage to see and say what is real provides the opportunity for transformation.
Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books. 1999
Introduces the philosophical error of western thinking: the separation of mind and body. The authors utilize discoveries in cognitive science to assert that our rational selves are dependent upon unconscious functions. There would be no conscious thought without bodies. They reconstruct western philosophy based on these ideas.
Moore, Thomas. Soul Mates: Honoring the Mysteries of Love and Relationship. New York: HarperPerennial. 1994
Addresses relationships as that which brings together the known and the unknown. His definition of soul intrigues me: that interface that unites and provides a holding place. Perhaps soul is another word for the body or the imagination but is useful for those who are caught in the mind-body disconnect. He speaks directly to the need for uniting or marrying the imaginal and the real in terms of relationship.
Nakken, Craig. The Addictive Personality: Understanding the Addictive Process and Compulsive Behavior. Minnesota: Hazeldon. 1996
Adresses adandonment issues, commitment to negativity, and lack of trust that are at the root of addiction. Addiction is one of the results of disassociation.
Pinkola Estes, Clarissa. Women Who Run With the Wolves. New York: Ballantine Books. 1995
This book uses mythology and stories to illustrate the points of disconnection from one's intuitive and instinctual knowing. Like Gilligan, Estes addresses the conflict of western patriarchal thinking with the deep and 'wild' emotional sense of women.
Snow, Kimberly. Writing Yourself Home: A Woman's Guided Journey of Self-Discovery. California: Conari Press. 1992
A book consisting of free-writing exercises intended to release the inner and often inaccessible feelings one has on a variety of topics.
Packet 2 consisted of even more work on stabilizing myself in my struggle with addiction. I used this period to focus intensely on the reasons and remedies for addiction. I knew that in order for me to be able to move forward, I had to honestly assess where I stood. Cynicism had become a way of life for me but at the same time, I knew that it was more a defense mechanism than a deep-seated commitment. The books I read and annotated in this packet provided me with some tools to move me away from fragmentation and get me into a place where I could begin to explore an alternative vision of life. Packet work consisted of annotations (which included journal entries) and photos of two artworks with process writing and close-ups.
Crowley, Aleister. Diary of a Drug Fiend. Boston: WeiserBooks. 2002.
A fictional story about two drug addicts who learn that recovery comes when 1) one chooses the path of love as the guiding principle for one's life and 2) discovering and committing to one's purpose.
Erickson, Carlton K. The Science of Addiction: From Neurobiology to Treatment. New York: W.W.Norton & Company. 2007.
Discusses addiction from a scientific perspective. The physiological effects of addictive substances.
Greenspan, Miriam. Healing Through the Dark Emotions. Boston: Shambhala. 2004.
Greenspan's book is essentially about what she refers to as 'emotional alchemy': The ability to transform the dark (undesirable) feelings of grief, fear, and despair into gratitude, joy, and faith. This alchemical process requires the willingness and ability to attend to, befriend, and surrender to the emotional self.
Hanh, Thich Nhat. Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life. New York: Bantam Books. 1992
Thich Nhat Hanh writes to encourage embracing everyday small moments as opportunities to nurture mindfulness and peace. The simple acts of smiling and breathing consciously can calm us and bring us to conscious awareness (and they don't cost anything!).
Packet 3: I began to feel compelled to focus more on what I want to do, somehow bringing together the visible and invisible, the imaginal and the real. My packet consisted of journal entries and annotations. It was during this packet that I began practicing yoga 2-3 times a week.
Embodiment studies web worksite.
I started looking into embodiment because it seems to be a convergent point for the fields I am interested in, as well as offering a solution to the dilemma of dualism and fragmentation.
Gendlin, Eugene. Focusing. New York: Everest House Publishers. 1978
This book is a manual, a how-to-guide, on the process of change. It does not tell what needs to be changed or why, but rather how to do it, and how to know if it is happening. It is based on paying close attention to felt senses and shifts that occur in one's body when one approaches difficult feelings with compassionate disinterest.
Hillman, James. The Dream and the Underworld. New York: Perrenial Library. 1979.
Hillman's book is not only a theory about dreams but also and more importantly a theory about psyche and its connection to death. The images within the dream belong to the underworld: that which is under the world of the conscious self. And Hillman asserts that this underworld's primary concern is death. Not literal death but death as an inversion of the trappings and limitations that the day world imposes. Death is a constant challenge to what we call life in conscious state. This is why dreams are neither benign nor pleasant. They challenge what we take for granted, what we assume as a 'given', and in doing so, turn our day world upside-down.
Hillman, James, and Margot McLean. Dream Animals. San Francisco: Chronicle Books. 1997.
This book is an incredible display of two minds meeting: one an artist whose luminous paintings of animals in a space bring together the visible and invisible, the other a psychologist who recognizes and appreciates the tension created by what is known and unknown.
Meade, Michael. Men and The Water of Life. New York: Harper SanFrancisco. 1993
This book is centered around the process of initiation and ritual. The initiations that one goes through are necessary in order to become individualized. However, trauma can cause stuck places that need to be revisited.
No More Masks: An Anthology of Twentieth-century American Women Poets. Ed. Florence Howe. New York: HarperPerreniel. 1993.
A collection of poetry written by women.
Von Franz, Marie-Louise. The Interpretation of Fairy Tales. Boston: Shambhala. 1996.
Although this is a book about interpreting fairy tales, Von Franz theorizes that these tales originated initially through dreams. The fairy tale, because it is stripped of the cultural material inherent in myths and legends, is an archetypal tale in its purest form.
Packet 4 included an outline survey of readings this semester; journal entries; and annotations. I spent a lot of time during this period summarizing what I had done so far. Mainly, to keep myself from getting overwhelmed, but I also sensed the need to contain and give form to the direction I was heading. This was a critical period for me. I did a lot of sorting and organizing in a number of different areas: sorting what I've been taught from what I know; sorting out major traumas and how I dealt with them (both pros and cons); and creating an outline of my studies on causes of fragmentation, solutions and evidences of integration, and components of an alternative.
Griffin, Susan. Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books: 1978
The domination of both woman and the natural world are placed side by side. One does not exist without the other and the devastation of the one is directly related to the destruction of the other.
Rich, Adrienne. On Lies, Secrets, and Silence. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.1979.
The book is a collection of essays which carry through them the theme of masking our true selves. Masks can be either cultural or self-imposed.
Sewell, Laura. Sight and Sensibility: the ecopsychology of perception. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam. 1999.
Sewell's book is not primarily concerned with the physiology of vision. What Sewell suggests is that vision is linked to our awareness and mindful interaction with the world. We see what we want to see. Our vision is limited by our ideas about what is really there. There is also evidence that our vision can be enlarged, broadened, deepened: both literally and metaphorically.
Packet 5 consisted of journal entries that are process notes for 6 photo/collage pieces, and reading annotations. During this last packet period, I was reading books that emulated what I believe are the essence of what I am investigating.
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Place. 1994.
This book is about how particular literal, physical places are ignited with imaginal material for reverie. Bachelard describes himself as a phenomenologist of the imagination.
Damasio, Antonio. The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. San Diego: Harcourt Inc. 1999.
Damasio makes very clear what he sees as the dual problem that he is attempting to solve: First, how "the movie-in the-brain is generated" and second "how the brain also generates the sense that there is an owner and observer of that movie." The book is his attempt to construct a plausible understanding of how consciousness operates.
Fried, Michael. Menzel's Realism: Art and Embodiment in Nineteenth-Century Berlin. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2002.
Fried presents Menzel as an example of embodied artists: those who have a sense of lived time and perspective in their work.
The approach I used in identifying sources was a combination of asking for suggestions from my advisor and peers, and following an internal and intuitive response to the material suggested. I had an initial list of books that I had compiled for my study plan. I began with a book by Carol Gilligan recommended by Ellie: The Birth of Pleasure. From there I looked for sources mentioned in the books I read or researched specific topics online, relying on websites that offered bibliographies (such as the Goddard embodiment studies website). I found that each book that inspired me led me to the next book I encountered. This method of following my intuition did not lead me off-course: I was always led to the next logical step in my progress. In approaching my research in this way, I have discovered that the goals I have set are consistent with my methods. It has strengthened my underlying conviction that one does not need a formula in place: that, in fact, pre-conceived formulas (or pre-determined paths) often lead to missing the unexpected but potentially life-changing possibilities.
The sources I found led to a variety of reporting methods: annotating specific passages that I found stimulating and, more importantly, inspiring conversations and personal reflections that I formed into journal entries and memoir pieces.
As I wrote in my study plan, "I feel confident in my basic study skills, research skills, and critical thinking skills". Although I can use improvement in all of these, continued practice is the key. Since I intend to go on in my education and ultimately teach at university level, precision in writing, research, grammar, citations, and academic integrity are indispensable skills to have. On this point, my advisor, Ellie, gave me an incredible compliment when she wrote, "I keep being amazed by how swift and clear a summary you can give of what you read", and "it wasn't until I started teaching that I discovered it is rare. Academically it is gold. I'm telling you this in case you don't already know that you have it and yes it can carry you through a PhD if you support it with the right kind of discipline and intent. What's more, it is important to get more of that voice into the academic community".
This semester has been incredible. By far the most growth I have experienced has been in the personal realm. Coming to Goddard, I had the belief that I was a perceptive, creative, and intelligent being. However, I was also a person in crisis. I sensed that I was disconnected from both myself and the world around me. I was disillusioned by what I saw as failures in my society and extremely cynical about any possibility of change. By following The line of my love" (as Stan Brakhage puts it), I have discovered that there is an alternative to the fragmented life that we in the West are taught to accept as normal. The ideas that I have been exposed to have been life-altering in the way that I approach every day. I have been given tools that are practical and accessible: focusing, yoga, mindful breathing, dream journaling have become part of my repertoire of daily activities that I draw upon. I have utilized a variety of writing styles including journaling, memoir, free-writing, and critical analysis. I have also created and submitted artwork, which for me is a way of visually processing my personal progress. My goal of someday teaching at university level has been furthered simply because I have committed to becoming the kind of person who is not merely a spokesperson for a vision that holds promise for the future, but one who lives it consistently. I have worked hard at maintaining sobriety, revisiting past trauma, and reconnecting to my own being.
Deidre Long, Outline
Kri Schlafer, Note to the reader
- - from her thesis, Living sanctuary: a journey into embodied peacemaking
What follows in these pages is an exploration. It is an exploration of something that, for lack of a better name, I am calling embodied peacemaking. I begin this exploration because I want peace. I want a peace that is able to address and engage the whole of my body, the whole of my being. And I want a peace that is strong enough, clear enough, palpable enough to meet the need in the world around me.
I have spent years, in one form or another, as an educator and a caretaker of children. During this time, I have had a growing urge to attend to issues of peacemaking. I have felt an increasing sense of discord as I've witnessed the ways teachers and caretakers-myself included-commonly address conflict. In a classroom, in a group of children, I hear sudden shouting, squealing, squabbling. I walk over and intervene. It is my job to contain and quiet the ruckus, to figure out what happened and what must happen next. It is my job to speak and to get the children to speak. What's going on here? Who did what, and why? Whose fault is it? What are the consequences? How do we put this difficulty to rest? On a good day, I keep my patience. I figure it out as best I can, and hand down the verdict. Or I try to help the children talk it out themselves. As often as not though, even when the disturbance is quelled, I walk away with an indistinct and uneasy dissonance. Something here is not quite right. I feel the life of the difficulty as a river running mostly underground, one we've barely skimmed with all our words. Again and again I have the niggling sense that I'm missing something here, something important.
Meanwhile, in these same years, I take up three practices: mindfulness, aikido and Original Play. I exercise myself-body, breath, attention-in ways I never have before. Over time, these practices animate me. I am surprised by unfamiliar capacities opening and by the startling awareness of many ways in which I have long been closed. As I practice, I sense that there is something coming alive in the fibers of my body, and that this something-coming-alive speaks somehow to missing elements of peace and peacemaking for which I have been longing. Although I do not at once find easy words to describe my experience, I have the sense that the manner in which I move and breathe and attend to my body contributes directly to my capacity to live peacefully in myself and with others. I set out to understand this experiential sense more clearly.
I begin my exploration thinking to lay the groundwork for a study and practice of a kinesthetic peacemaking. Upon examination, however, I discover that what I am experiencing involves more than kinesthetic intelligence and skills; my experiences involve many layers of bodily knowing of which I have been ignorant or which I have neglected. Over time I begin to parse flavors, names, forms, functions in these layers of knowing. In the course of my exploration, these unplanned questions arise: what is it to bring the resources of my entire body to the work of making peace? What is it to bring peace and peacemaking into the experience and action of my whole body?
Given the nature of these questions and the path by which I come to them, I find I cannot engage merely in theoretical discourse; rather, it seems to me that a discussion of embodied peacemaking must necessarily include material both about and from the midst of lived bodily experience. And so, when time comes to compile the documentation of my studies in a thesis, I choose to write in the form of autoethnography, also called scholarly personal narrative. According to Ellis and Bochner (2000), autoethnography is a qualitative approach that "make[s] the researcher's own experience a topic of investigation in its own right" (p. 733); it is "an autobiographical genre of writing that displays multiple layers of consciousness, connecting the personal to the cultural" (p. 739). This approach, this form, resonates with me at once. I want to delve into my own experience and harvest the wisdom that is there. I want to find how this experience does and does not intersect with current scholarship. And I want to listen for the ways in which the words of my own personal tale might name or shed light on a broader human story.
Writing of those who are drawn to create what he calls scholarly personal narrative, Robert Nash says they want to "construct stories that might heal the rifts that exist between their personal and professional lives. They want congruence. They seek wholeness. They are tired of compartmentalization" (2004, pp. 99-100). This certainly describes my own longing. I hunger for fresh connections and holistic integration. I am intrigued by the inclusion in this form of sound scholarship, storytelling and literary aesthetics; I am captivated by the possibility of bringing together both logical and lyrical truth.
Because autoethnography, scholarly narrative, seems perfectly suited to my intentions, when I begin to write I do not at first fully appreciate the difficulties implied in this relatively recently-evolving form. It is not long, though, before I run into some trouble. I entered graduate school well-practiced in both critical and creative writing, in both intellectual and experiential endeavor, but I had never attempted a comprehensive academic integration of the two approaches. Attempting such integration in this project, I bump constantly into my own biases, my own sense of appropriate boundaries. How is truth assessed and presented? What constitutes rigorous work? How do I build a stable and satisfactory framework? What kinds of voices surface? Which of these voices get privilege, have power, wield authority? What kinds of conversations unfold? I realize that I am accustomed to answering these questions quite differently, depending on which of the two approaches-critical or creative, intellectual or experiential-I am using.
This custom of separation between approaches is not mine alone. In academic circles, there is talk of objective/third-person and subjective/first-person approaches. Generally speaking, scholars who take the objective/third-person approach value truth as found by the observation and measurement of material data, external to the observer and illuminated by intellectual thought. Scholars who take the subjective/first-person approach value truth as found by the observation and measurement of less obviously material data, internal to the observer and illuminated by qualities of sensation, emotion and personal meaning. Academic tradition has long housed these two approaches in separate camps, and the scholarly communities in both camps have sought to establish and maintain rigorous methods of investigation, according to the distinct terms of their engagement.
This academic separation makes a certain kind of sense. By way of these two approaches, scholars observe different types of data, and go about gathering and interpreting this data in different ways. Clearly defined frames of reference and focused methods can help keep research manageable, understandable and accountable within learning communities. Means appropriate to one approach may be inappropriate or unhelpful in the context of the other. Furthermore, there is some dispute between the two camps as to the validity of their respective truth claims; in each camp there are those who criticize the other's approach. Some in the objective/third-person camp argue for example that, in order to determine truth, one must set aside personal opinions, emotions and beliefs, all of which could sway or corrupt one's faculties of reason. Some in the subjective/first-person camp argue that one can never truly set personal bias and participation aside, and that there are ways and times in which those who ignore their internal, non-rational experience may miss vital information about the phenomena in question. By some accounts, these two approaches rest on opposite sides of an insurmountable divide.
Perhaps it should not surprise me, then, that in seeking to integrate both approaches I have sometimes felt at a loss-at a loss for familiar reference points, at a loss for a clear sense of orientation, at a loss for a sense of solid and justifiable ground as a scholar, a writer, a storyteller. I have been trained in Western academic traditions, and I recognize that there are ways in which I have taken these traditional frameworks very much to heart. I have taken them too much to heart, perhaps. For I have split myself. Faculties of reason on one side, faculties of intuition on the other. Analytical observation on one side, sensing-feeling observation on another. What could serve as distinct, potentially useful learning strategies have, I realize, become powerful stricture-structures within me. Although I have practiced both approaches, I have had little freedom of motion, little fluency between them. How to bridge this divide?
How can I bring the resources of my entire body to the work of making peace? How can I bring peace and peacemaking into the experience and action of my whole body? These key questions surface in my project and become questions of both content and process. I listen in to these questions and I find I cannot answer them by cloistering myself in one camp or another. By their very nature, I notice, these questions will not sit still on one side or the other of the divide. I need somehow to make the home-ground wider.
How do I engage in research if I do not want to split myself? How do I approach questions if I value both objective and subjective perspectives, both outer-stories and inner-stories, both reason and resonance? These questions also arise unexpectedly, coursing underground and surfacing time and again throughout the life of this project. What does it mean to be an integrated scholar, to engage meaningful questions rigorously and as a whole person? What would it be like to learn with a full range of human faculties enlivened and co-contributing?
By some lights, such an integrated scholarship may seem like a radical proposition. However, while some assert that first-person and third-person approaches cannot and should not mix, others believe the two approaches are not irreconcilable. In his book The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality (2005), the Dalai Lama addresses the issue. He writes, "In order for the study of consciousness to be complete, we need a methodology that would account not only for what is occurring at the neurological and biochemical levels but also for the subjective experience of consciousness itself" (p. 141). While he is writing here specifically of consciousness studies, my own sense is that the same basic principle applies to other studies as well. It seems to me that both objective/third-person and subjective/third-person approaches contribute valuable information and contain inherent limitations. In a study of aggression, for example, objective observation provided by brain scan studies could provide certain information about what is happening when aggression is activated. A trained self-observer could provide nuanced subjective information about the experience of aggression, activated in herself. Each perspective, in isolation, would provide a partial picture, at best. If brought together, however, they may provide a richer understanding. Writing of such a collaborative approach, the Dalai Lama continues:
If our purpose is to incorporate first-person perspectives into the scientific method [w]hat is needed is some degree of combination of the two techniques Disciplined training is the key. A physicist needs to go through training which includes skills such as mathematics, the ability to use various instruments, the critical faculty to know whether an experiment is correctly designed and whether the results support the hypothesis, as well as the expertise to interpret the results of past experiments. These skills can be acquired and developed only over a long period. Someone who wishes to learn the skills of the first-person method needs to devote a comparable amount of time and effort. (p. 156)
The Dalai Lama clearly honors both approaches, and recognizes that both require disciplined attention. He believes it is possible, though time-intensive, to cultivate and integrate skill in both approaches. Due to my own subject matter-embodied, whole-person peacemaking-I have become increasingly curious about the ways in which a collaborative approach like this might provide a more complete view.
The topic of integral scholarship is, I believe, an important one; one that merits in-depth consideration in its own right. While this topic surfaces in my work and interplays with my central questions, I do not treat it fully here. Nor have I accomplished the sort of thorough and comprehensive approach the Dalai Lama suggests, in the study I present. I did not begin to see some of the requisite structures, considerations and questions for such a thing until I neared the end of my writing. And, indeed, while I have cultivated discipline in both objective and subjective scholarship I am still quite a ways from fulfilling the sophisticated and time-ripened capacities the Dalai Lama recommends for a rigorously integrated methodology.
Nonetheless, I have approached this work with a fierce intention to include information from both objective and subjective perspectives. While I deem both approaches essential to a carefully considered view, I have given the base-ground here to my own subjective experience, using narrative as a framework in which to investigate critical and theoretical sources about embodiment studies, aggression and play. I acknowledge that, in giving primary observation-ground to my own experience in this way, I have not given as much time and space as I might otherwise to the many pertinent layers of scientific study that inform my area of interest. This project, then, is not intended as an exhaustive summary or evaluation of embodiment studies, aggression, play or peacemaking; instead, I seek to mark certain intersections, to trace potent connection-lines amongst these fields and between these fields and my own experiential practices. In the process, I have meant to make clear the pathways of my thinking, and to make clear the shifts between more objective and more subjective information.
It has mattered greatly to me to address my subject matter not only by way of content, but also in process and form; that is, I wanted both the manner and structure of the writing to enact that of which I write. I wanted to show how peacemaking happens in me as I read, write, and bring many ways of bodily knowing into active conversation. Simply put, I wanted in this thesis not only to talk about embodied peacemaking, but to do it, to show it, to be somehow a living example.
This intention for integrity has brought me into challenging and sometimes edgy territory, on various levels. On one level, there is the matter of integrating the objective and the subjective. Time and again, I returned to these questions: how can I create and maintain a solid framework which adequately contains both the scholarship and the transparency of personal story for which this work calls? How can I incorporate both intellectual and experiential perspectives in best service to my questions? On another level, there is the matter of bringing many ways of bodily knowing into coherent conversation with each other. Textual knowing, for example, activates word-language whereas kinesthetic knowing operates in the language of bodily motion; speed, balance, posture, and dexterity are its verbs, nouns, adverbs and adjectives. Felt-sensed knowing, for its part, may recruit words, images or gestures, but it works primarily by way of sensation to express the information it carries. How do these and other ways of bodily knowing communicate lucidly together? In my experience, the languages of different ways of knowing don't always interface easily or directly with one another. To what degree is this a symptom of my own fragmentation? To what degree is this a symptom of a larger cultural fragmentation? To what degree is this a function of the limits and structures of the various ways of knowing themselves? I grapple with these questions. Despite my sense that there are powerful connections between the scholarship I'm reading and my own lived experience, I have sometimes had a hard time finding clear words for the layers of sensing, thinking and knowing sparked inside me.
Opening myself up to whole-person engagement, I have sometimes felt overwhelmed by the mixing-moving mash of it all; I have struggled with creating communication pathways amongst my different ways of knowing and engaging. I am a novice in this business of integration. I have moaned in frustration as I noticed I could not read scholarly texts while simultaneously attending to basic sensation in my body. I have paced, restless, listening for a way to bring what I have learned by way of bodily movement into analytical-verbal terms, empty of words hour after hour. I have noted the irony of discussing the dynamics of embodied peacemaking while sitting late into the night, fixed and unmoving, before a buzzing computer screen. I have wrestled with bringing what comes to me as round, experiential, multi-modal insight into written words, flat on the page. This insight that comes out of the middle of embodied experience may come very gradually over time, oblivious to deadlines, or it may come very thickly and suddenly-as a cluster or a network, as a sudden flash of multi-layered interconnections. How to work with this? How to communicate clearly? How does one take a spherical spider web, intricately woven, and lay it out in two-dimensional linear form without destroying the many inter-linking strands? Engaging in scholarly discourse as a whole, integrated human being has often felt impossible.
Gradually, however, in and through the work of reading, writing and practicing, I began to see some fruits of my efforts. Occasionally I'd tap into my felt-sense, and fresh and steady words would come rolling forth in academic prose. Or I'd practice mindfulness and an experience arising within this practice would immediately spark a connection with something I'd read in a text shortly ago. Or I'd read or write an analytical passage and feel a strong sensation arising that, when I stopped to inquire into it, would add some new dimension to what I was considering. These spontaneous interconnections were, and continue to be, awe-filled celebration moments. Little by little, my project took form.
The resulting narrative interweaves critical reading and writing, personal stories and reflections, notes from experiential practice journals, and images of artwork created along the way. I bring literary as well as scholarly craft into play; consequently, though the thesis has its own logos, this narrative is not strictly linear. Layers of story and scholarship overlap in places, and refrains rise and fall. In opening out old forms and welcoming in often-silent body-perspectives, I mean to make space for new possibilities.
What follows in these pages is an exploration, an investigation, a journey; a mosaic, a mandala, a traveling-song. What follows is scholarship-in-story. This story is about coming awake, about noticing, about seeking truth in many ways of knowing. This story is about listening down into the heart of things, into the breath and bones and body of what is happening. This story is about discovering peace where I most hoped and least expected to find it.
I write in order to know and understand my own journey more clearly. I write to learn the ways in which my story intersects with the many-voiced stories of others. I write in order to invite shared attention, curiosity and widening circles of conversation. I write to bring patterns of peace more fully alive in me and in the world. May it be so. May this exploration, these words, these pictures, this story-making be of service.
Kri Schlafer, Integration
- - from her thesis, Living sanctuary: a journey into embodied peacemaking
Somehow, I am needing to learn to pay attention. Somehow, I am needing to learn to see clearly. Now, inhabiting my body more fully, I find myself enlivened by experience-based questions. My appetite for word-consideration, for intellectual food, for exploration of academic study, awakens again. I am drawn to graduate school. Time to bring body and mind together, I think. I begin.
Almost immediately, a sense of crash. Turbulence. Years of intellectual sharpening, with much of the non-mental body-life disconnected. Then, years of turning the volume down on theoretical chatter; years of sensing-body-in-motion practice. I have developed some solid skills both in word-based academic pursuit and in non-textual body-knowing; however, I've developed them in relative functional isolation from each other. For some reason, I imagined that bringing these skills together would be a simple matter, akin to adding 1 + 1. In fact, this is not my experience. In my mindfulness practice journal, I write:
I'm amazed-impressed, really-at how the constellation of ways-of-being associated with my schooling in the first part of my life arises, apparently fully intact after 12 years mostly in hibernation, despite years of returning-to-body practice...
It comes to me like that-what feels at first like encapsulated bubbles of "old conceptual study-mind" and "embodied practice." One voice (conceptual?) saying come on, let's get going-there's so much out there I want to learn, so much to learn. How to get to it all, to get through it all, to get to mastery? What do we need to do to track down the concepts, to do the work, to be successful in the program? Where are the experts? Find the rubrics... Along with the conceptual-activity-habit, I sense beliefs intertwined: I must to do it all, I can't do it all! This gives rise to a mild panic. Another voice (embodied practice?) wailing: no, if we race along like that, we'll miss the heart of it, the bringing it into the body; we'll miss taking time to reflect, to steep in it. I don't want to be a smart, disconnected automaton-slow down! Giving rise, in turn, to a mild panic. The first voice howling in answer: no, if we take the time to do that, we'll never be able to get done what needs to get done! There's not enough time, we're already behind!
Confusion. Unrest. Sometimes a sense of opposing sides not able to meet, as in trying to place together the same poles of two magnets. Other times, an overlay of realities, like a double exposure of film. Blurry vision, blurry sense of direction, blurry sense of conflict. Neither side will yield, and time keeps moving. What to do? I keep reading. I keep breathing.
Later, I ask: what's missing? What's not working well?
Answer: What about art? Time for easeful reflection? Steep in this, and let something creative unfold. I'm here in this student-designed program because I want to do more than just be a learning machine; I want more than the Western, modern, industrial-technological machine-mode: import information, correlate, make a report. Sources must be scanned. Only thorough, accurate, scientifically proven data shall be admitted. Test it, prove it, put it forward. All ducks neatly in a row.
Question: And the other way of knowing that's wanting to come forward?
Answer: She has no particular interest in deadlines, time boundaries. Integrity is measured by the time taken to fully attend to what is read, what is written, what arises in the reading and writing. Taking in words like poetry, listening in to the spaces between the words; sitting, quiet. Walking along the river; sitting, quiet, some more. Ingesting new information easefully, without force-feeding; bringing it alive in simple presence with friends, with people I meet each day. There is no rush to put forward evidence of progress. The progress happens itself along and will yield the ground to each new unfolding. Nothing needs to be held fast. There is affinity with those indigenous tribal cultures in which people value listening for an answer-and waiting to hear it inside them-before speaking it, however long it takes.
Question: What is the way to bring these two knowings together?
Answer: I do not want to force an answer. I can feel there is some sort of blind spot here. I don't know what it is. I believe that the conceptual mind can serve as an amazing tool. And I've had a number of experiences where body, mind, and spirit are harmonized and working together, without panic, complaint or confusion. I am, it seems, in that time of putting things together; of new integration wherein my experience is of awkwardness, feeling clumsy, not having the true names for things. The answer must come in the living-out of more time and practice...
I continue with my reading, writing and practicing. Weeks later, I am still struggling. I read Zen and the Brain (1999), by James Austin. As a neuroscientist, Austin is trying to name and understand his years of experience with meditation, in terms of the language and framework of his profession. I bring his thoughts into conversation with my own, in my journal.
Reading James Austin's words helps lift the fog from my own, to bring the matter to simple ground: Zen retreats before the intellect. This is what I've been trying to say, trying to explain, trying to get at. Austin finds this same disconnect I'm feeling. Mindfulness practice and discursive thought don't share space. What am I doing? School and embodied practice, combined? I have been wrestling with this since I started back in August. I didn't foresee this particular struggle. I had a sense that it was time to welcome back in intellect, to join it with the body of mindfulness practice, of aikido, of Play to which I have given myself over the past years. I didn't anticipate the choque, as they say in Spanish, the crash, the experience of collision in the coming together of these two worlds. Chaos-whose rules are we playing by here??
This reminds me of the time I took my kayak into the delta of a small river emptying out into the ocean. Big Water lures me, but as I paddle out, I'm waylaid in this incredible water-scape. Wind and chop. Rocks, around. My body braced inside my boat, partly below the water line, I can feel the energy of the water, and it's like nothing I've experienced before. River current flowing out into the ocean, tidal ocean current flowing in at the same time. Reverb from water striking the rocks. The meeting of these currents gives rise to fluid energy-moving-everywhere-all-at-once and my perceptions are boggled, scrambled; or perhaps they run true, but are following all the energy movements at once going everywhere and I am moving forward backward sideward, all now, powerfully; turbo-movements, macro-movements, micro-movements, buffeted also by wind, and, at the same time, suddenly- Open. Quiet. All standard internal operating systems flummoxed, gone, dropped out. One thing left: stunned awe. It takes breath away. The grin that comes, comes from full wide deep. I can tolerate this potent immediacy only so long, and direct myself out of the mash. Back in. Back out. In. Out. Then to the shore feeling rather like I've wrestled with some angel, spirit-worked and body-sore...
So, yes, that of which Austin speaks: present-moment presence isn't interested in comparing points of view, or arguing semantics. Really. Austin presents this as a koan, and I find it in my own work. Zen retreats from the intellect. I am here to do a masters program in mindful peacemaking. It is impossible, it seems, to practice presence and engage in intellectual pursuit.
Is it? Really, is it? I know that it's impossible; I've felt how my bodily-sensed knowing shrinks away as I rev up intellectual consideration. I've felt how intellectual consideration drops out when I bring my attention fully present in the middle of a visceral moment. Yet, also, I've seen with my own eyes, many times, Thich Nhat Hanh going to the white board, walking slowly. Picking up the marker. Taking. off the cap. Beginning. to. write. He lets it take the full time it takes, attending. He lets it take the full time it takes to write what he has in mind to tell us. He writes it in English. Then some in Vietnamese. And a few words in French. A bit of Pali, Sanskrit. A word or two in Chinese. He does not talk and write at the same time. Stops to talk, then writes some more. Slowly, over time, he covers the face of the board, has to erase to make more room. He elucidates the concepts: words, diagrams, pictures. Scholar, Zen monk, poet, peacemaker. Impossible?
A koan. Despite encountering the apparent gap between Eastern and Western knowing-practice, Austin continues to do his best to make sense of it all, straddling the two worlds. As do I. Acknowledging the gap helps. And I find that the very conceptualization of this struggle of mine as a koan shifts the ground, eases something a bit. Koans put apparent contradictions, nonsense, impossibilities into word-shells and hold them. Koans are not supposed to be easy or straightforward. They are not supposed to make sense. Not common daily-life sense, anyway. Yet somewhere in there is an underlying wholeness, a hidden understanding...
Discomfort is awakened by my intention for integration of body and mind. Discomfort like a wringing of hands, over and over again. Discomfort at the not-mixing, at the oil and water of me-as-I-am-in-school-mode and me-as-I-am-in-body-alive-mode. If I were truly to take this on as a koan, I'd sit right here in the middle of this discomfort and allow it.
As best I can, I stay with the discomfort as it rises. I work the currents of my unrest as I continue to read, write, and practice. I continue to notice how difficult I often find it to keep bodily sensation alive as I read academic texts. I notice how difficult I can find it to focus on words on the printed page before me when bodily sensation or emotion is activated. And I notice how difficult I sometimes find it to bring words to non-textual bodily experience, to bring words to my practice of mindfulness. The journal, again:
How to record mindfulness practice? I consider taking notes, like a court stenographer, of my morning sitting sessions, and can't close on it. How would a court stenographer record a river? Or an ocean and its surrounding sky? I don't know that it's impossible, but even the idea of it has me spinning. When I pay attention, there are so many layers to experience; beneath or beside each layer, another. Body sensations moving, shifting, pulsing like light on water, rising and focusing sometimes into emotion; thoughts playing their scales up and down as on a piano, sometimes meandering, sometimes wild or in cycling repetitions, sometimes clear, calm, strong, simple, distilling. I could not catch it all, to record. Could be an endless snake-chasing-her-tail; always more, always more, always missing something. Is this the point? I'm not sure it would serve me. It seems I do better simply returning to breathing-in, breathing-out when I can remember, and let the attention be soft-focused, overhearing content and sensation gently as I am able, letting it work its way down like compost into dirt, letting the insights and bursts of clarity come like green sprouts when they come, from underneath, without too much poking and prodding. I cannot catch it all. I do not want to try.
Months later, I'm reading the book What the Body Wants by Cynthia Winton-Henry (2004), and I come upon these words:
Body wisdom is based on noticing the little things in our experience over time. If you find that you cannot write, or if you resist it, that is normal. People have not been trained to integrate their word selves and their moving, singing, being selves. You may need relief from words. Take it. It takes time to get our parts to easily interplay. (p. 13)
Reading this quote, I feel an immediate sense of relief, a sense of connectedness, a sense of something blurry coming clear. Yes. I do wish sometimes to let the nonverbal knowing remain nonverbal; to put it forth in gesture, to put it forth in art, or simply to sit still with it. The disturbance, the dissonance I've been carrying in me with my studies comes now sharply into focus. My attention gathers on-point as I read Winton-Henry's further acknowledgment: "Reweaving our various gifts of thinking, feeling, and action in to one symphonic way of being can feel awkward and clumsy" (p. 14). Yes, indeed.
Reweaving our various gifts in to one way of being. Integrating our word selves and our moving, singing, being selves. Taking time to get our parts to easily interplay. Ah-yes, yes. In my culture, we aren't taught how to do this. We don't practice this. We separate and corral our knowings in different fields; some knowings more valued than others. Integrated being, doing and word-making; integrated scholarship: I don't know how to do it, haven't been knowing how, because I haven't yet learned how to do it. I am now doing the work to learn.
A simple intention to bring body and mind together. A crash, a mash, a surprise, a turbulence. Attending to dissonance, unrest, a howling hunger. The further I go in my studies, the clearer it becomes-bodily integration forms a central element in the work I must do here. Kinesthetic peacemaking asks for whole-body attention; whole-body attention reveals disconnections; internal disconnections seek integration. So, yes, invite words, invite the intellect. Let non-textual knowing in all its shades and flavors also come. Let the knowings touch, mingle, begin to converse, reconcile. Saying this is one thing; actually doing it, another. Practice, practice. Cross the gap, weave a bridge.
Kri Schlafer, Coherence
- - excerpt from the Coherence chapter of Living sanctuary: a journey into embodied peacemaking
Another day I get together with my Focusing partner, David. When it is my turn to Focus, I tune in. I feel a sense of fullness, a restlessness-a subtle sense of urgency I have met before. As before, I want to skitter away. I stay. An image comes: a little kid in a dark space, wild. Wild-angry, wild-scared at the same time. Wanting to smash against the edges. Wanting to find with the body where the edges are, wanting to push against them, throw body against them, over and over: where are the edges? where is the holding? where is the safe-ground? A little kid in a dark space, wild with not-knowing. Wanting to feel solid holding, solid containment for the body-crashing so the energy can move free, can feel itself; so the wild-fear-anger can speak itself, can find home.
The wildness that rises in the image is alive in my body-it is edgy. I need ground. I move from sitting cross-legged into yoga Child's Pose-knees bent, kneeling, sitting on my heels, then leaning forward until my forehead meets the ground, hands under my forehead, palms up. I find enough ground to stay and feel, but not enough ground to contain and hold the child-wild energy inside me, to let it crash as it wants. I stay, I breathe. The wild-ragged energy touches me, opens a tender vulnerable place in me. I alternate between feeling my breathing, feeling my head on the floor and feeling the wildness wanting-to-crash. When my turn is over, it takes me a while to sit up, to come away. I'm a little disoriented, a little fuzzy, a little slow, a little top-heavy: the encounter has awakened dissociation. In response to the invitation to thank what has shown up, to say to myself I will come back again, I find I am not ready to do either.
A week later, Focusing time again. For some reason, today, I have mountain-energy. I have attention-traction. My turn comes, and I am ready to sit. I sit strong and awake, deeply grounded. I am ready to hold whatever arises. This ready rock-steady energy is its own thick felt sense and, staying with it, words come straightaway, speaking themselves in me: "Here I am." They come in English and in ancient Hebrew, hinneni-the word spoken in answer to being called. Here I am. I sit, strong, my body-eyes awake and clear. I wait, listen, feel.
What comes is stillness. A distinct nothing-arising. I listen. I sense that a certain something is very distinctly saying nothing. And that it wants me to wait as long as it takes for it to speak, for it to show itself. It wants me to be willing to stay and wait as long as it takes, maybe even forever. I say this out loud, and David speaks it back to me: Something wants you to stay for as long as it takes. Maybe even forever. Hearing these words given back, a resonance starts to hum throughout my whole body. The resonance grows, and something begins to melt in me. The strong mountain-energy in me remains solid, steady, present. I am here fully, attending: the melting, an old sadness edged along with an utter loneliness, mixed through with a sense of not-knowing-why. I stay. I hold ground and let the felt-sense of this in my body be exactly what it is, let it touch me. I don't know how much time passes.
Then the anger comes. Deep-down body-fierce, wanting to smash and crash against anything, everything, without having to control itself, maybe forever. Mountain-energy does not waver. Mountain-energy watches. Mountain-energy feels. Mountain-energy holds. To this would-be forever-crashing-body in me, mountain-energy says, simply, "Ok."
How to name the joining of the wild-body-anger with this solid true quiet clear-seeing body-grounded welcome-? Met. Fully and well met. Wild-body-anger-fear-thrashing gets to be there. Gets to move as it will. Is held. There is an open moment. With this meeting, with this greeting, old-wild-body-crashing-wailing is fully itself. I feel this energy, this old anger-fear-voltage runs through my arms and legs, sparking and churning in my shoulder joints, in my hip joints. So it is, so it is, so it is. I do not force it to move. I do not try to keep it still. I hold steady and let be.
Then at once, a happening. Comes by surprise. My current-day aikido-knowing body comes alive, comes present. Shares space in my body with this old angry terrified girl-child energy. It is like a photographic double-exposure, only here it is a felt-sensed, kinesthetic, time-space double exposure. New aikido-knowing body and old wild burnt girl-child body are both alive and present in the same space and time in my now-body. They meet. They touch. They intermingle. They are each themselves, they are now, they are the same body, and mountain-attention holds aikido-wisdom tells little-girl-fear-anger listens directly by sensation, without any words: I can move now. I am beginning to know how to take care. I am learning how to move, to take action, to protect. I am getting stronger now. I am getting clearer now. I know more now what to do, if someone comes to hurt or to hold me down. I can move to keep safe. The electricity in my joints, in arms and legs, shifts from frozen static-fear-anger to a supple ready-to-move, ready-to-do-what-needs-to-be-done. Now. Freshness, crackling. Activated. Opened. Powerful. Grounded. Ready. Able. Eyes-open. A long slow timeless gentle full-body-attending flash and in this moment everything, everything is rearranging. That is all.
Body simplified. Blur-coming-into-focus. Things hanging off center find their balance in my core. Re-membering. Reconciliation. A split mending. Integration. I am steady, I am calm, I am still, I am body-humming-happily. I am at the same time utterly out of frame, out beyond all habitual reference points. Out of frame and carried forward of a sudden, unexpected, into new frame and full of grounded not-knowing. I am not the same body I was.
Anne Smith, In Maine
- excerpts from Cultivation, Anne's graduation project
When I first drove into Maine, first moved to Maine, never having seen it before, I felt like I had come home. As I drove along the highway, deeply wooded on each side, as I smiled at the large moose crossing signs, as I felt the humid air on my face, as I smelled the seaside fog for the first time, and as I felt the ocean with every part of me, standing on the rocks by the waves for the first time, some part of me fell into place. Some part of who I am adjusted itself, standing firm and strong, as if a chiropractor had just given me an adjustment on my identity. I think I even said to someone at the time, "I feel like I've finally come home, even though I've never been here before." But these were only words, I was only 19, and it wasn't my home. I was, indeed, home-less. I hadn't arranged an apartment or home beforehand and was sacking out in a motel. So what was this feeling, what was this connection, and how had it been missing from my home-town, or the home that I was from?
The human mind is an amazing thing, and our capacity for thinking and imagining is astounding. But sometimes I think myself up into the sky and out toward oblivion. There I find myself lost, with no direction. Maybe that's why I felt so grounded, so protected in that place, that little trailer, that was almost my home, because once you got there, there was no more road to go on, no more directions to get lost in. My little trailer was on a plot of land owned my someone else, at the end of a long dirt driveway, at the end of a narrow, paved, wooded road, several miles outside of town. I've lived in 4 states, moved across country three times, moved 34 times total, and among all these driven on a lot of roads. Maybe I felt at home in my little nearly home because once I got there, there was literally no place else to go.
After I had to leave I was homesick for a home I'd never really had. I lived in a home for the first time ever. I lived on land I owned for the first time ever. But I was heartbroken, heartsick and mind sore from missing that little end of the road home I never really had, a place I never really owned, and a connection to it as mysterious as it was, and remains, strong.
At one point I lived in an apartment with a balcony out back. I don't remember which apartment it was, and I don't remember how old I was. But I remember watching the clouds from that balcony. The apartment was high enough to look out over trees and roofs, and not into other buildings. But it was low enough to have a few floors of balconies above it, blocking some of the wind, sun and rain. From this sort of sheltered brick and iron enclave I would watch the storms come in. There were thunderstorms nearly every afternoon in the summer. You could smell them even before you saw a change in the clouds. The air somehow smelled sharper, damper, cleaner. Suddenly it would smell like sunrise, at 3 in the afternoon. I would go out to the patio, sometimes with a book to read, and wait for it to come. The hair on my arms would stand up and I'd sometimes get goose bumps. Either feeling the electricity in the air or willing it to come, I don't know.
The sky would get deep and dark, and somehow the clouds just got more. There were more of them, they had more strength, more depth, more power, even before they turned dark grey and blue and green. Usually I could see the rain coming. Finally a darker cloud would begin moving with the others, moving towards me, moving across this city-prairie in front of the mountains. Then these beige sharp drops of rain would cover everything, washing it all as huge cracks of lightening and earthquake rolls of thunder moved through everything, right through my very body as if the thunder beat a rhythm with my heart for just a moment. Then 10 minutes later the rain and grey cloud would keep moving, opening up lighter sky around me.
Sometimes, though, after the thunderous rain small drops would continue to fall and the clouds would look more angry, simmering like they were stuck in traffic. They would get greener and darker, and the bottoms would form into piles of balls, looking like the bottom of an egg carton. Sometimes I could hear the tornado sirens go off. I don't think anyone did anything when the bell sounded, it happened too often for people to notice. I wasn't afraid of the clouds or the tornadoes that may form. I didn't hate them, I didn't love them. I didn't always go inside and I didn't always wait outside to see what happened. But my secret was that I almost always wanted something to happen. I wanted that sky that I looked at from the balcony to come down to my level. I wanted to feel the force of the wind. I wanted the wind to insist that I feel it. I wanted the passion, the power, the truth of an elemental impact between me and that sky, this city and that sky. I guess I wanted the sky to prove itself stronger, more real than the city underneath it. I wanted an impact.
The little motel room I stayed at when I first moved to Maine didn't have a phone, so sometimes I would wake up and drive into town to call people before everyone went to work. I would wake up, get in the car and drive through the fog down the damp road with hardly any other traffic. On the main street across from the Rite-Aid, which the town had made them build in clapboard cottage style, was a little phone booth. It had a blue and red metal frame with glass walls, and when someone was inside it looked like a roadside jewelry case with a person for sale. When I walked inside it and talked to people from home I looked around and it felt like I was calling from another time. The distance seemed too great for geography to explain. As I stood there to call people and give my "I'll still alive" updates, the traffic in town would speed up, more lights would turn on, more doors would start opening. Sometimes I had a hard time listening or understanding what the person on the phone was saying to me, for the longer I stood there the more I realized that even with the activity on the street picking up, the deep, thick, sea fog that hovered around everything was still louder. I could still hear it and feel it in my ears better than I could the phone I held in my hand. I could still feel it, even through my thick sweatshirt. I could still smell it and taste it before I could smell the fries the diner down the road was making. It was everywhere, consuming my body so that I was closer to it than I ever could be to anything else.
A baby's hand grasps onto a finger in a way different from the way it will ever grasp again. There is no force. There is no desperation. There is no timidity. There is strength and assurance, instinct and knowledge, knowledge deeper than just thinking. Knowing. There is a connection with deep history within the body, within the cells, within the history of that life. I walked through town, drove up and down the coast, stared at the ocean, gazed at the far off island and walked every foot I could to know this new place, to claim this new place, to become familiar with this new place. I was trying to grasp it with my feet like a baby grasps a hand. My walk was different, my strides took a different rhythm. Other places I'd lived I was told I had a "New York" walk, before I ever lived in New York. I was a quick walker. I loved the strength I got from a long stride, even though my legs were short. I felt assertive when I walked, moving across the earth, physically moving toward whatever might happen next. But in Maine I found my feet sinking deeper into the soles of my shoes. I could feel the pavement, even through thick tennis shoes. But somehow they didn't feel as heavy either. Where before I was moving the earth behind me, moving my body toward something new, now I was feeling the earth below me as my body moved itself. While I walked here I was aware of the moisture on my face, the breeze through the trees, the sound of fog horns in the distance. As I walked over these many miles, driving through these many towns, I was holding this place in my sight. I was staring at it with my breath, taking the sounds into my lungs, touching the sights I saw with the palms of my hands.
Something was shifting. My desire to stay unstuck was disappearing as I traveled the same routes. My need to keep moving diminished for every mile I passed. While I never consciously decided I wanted to stay, I also stopped thinking about leaving. For the first time I didn't have a plan on where I would go from here. For the first time I didn't dream about far-away jobs or schools in other countries or other regions.
Rebecca S, The beginning of the journey
- from her thesis, Divinely human: my journey to the mystical
My husband's voices began to command him to kill us. He planned our deaths audibly in detail. Meanwhile, I was vigilant each night in the children's room, with a butcher knife hidden beneath the covers. I had decided, if God wouldn't kill him and he was determined to kill us, I would not let him hurt the children. I would strike the blow when he came in for us. This went on every night for more than a week.
Meanwhile, I was trying to get the kids and myself out of the house. One morning, my husband demanded that I drive with him to work. He drove for more than an hour, out of his way, on back roads. I wondered if I should jump from the car. But, finally he went to work, gave me the keys to the van, and told me that he would be home for lunch. He said, "We are going out to the woods to finish this." I knew what he meant. I immediately got a restraining order. I returned to the house, boarded up all the windows, created a safe room, changed all the locks, and added dead bolts. There was no room at the shelter for a pregnant Amish-Mennonite woman with six kids. The church had many times over proven to me that I could get no help there. In fact, if I left my husband, I would be shunned by the church and damned by God.
I took the kids to the store and then the park - hoping to relieve some of the stress they must surely be feeling. As we were driving, my husband found us. He drove his van into our van forcing us off the road and into a ditch. He broke open a window with his fist, and proceeded to carry out instructions as given to him by internal voices. Sarah was crying, glass was all over her. David, our youngest son at the time, pulled out a pocket knife and threatened his father. Joe took the knife and threw it down. Melissa shook her lollipop at him saying, "Leave Mommy alone." Her father's look caused her to sink back down into her seat.
Thankfully, a man walking on the road saw what was happening. Hearing our screams, another van came to a stop to see what was happening. Joe, realizing there were now witnesses, fled the scene. Police picked him up later that day. The police put us up in a home for a couple of days. Two days later, we were allowed to return to the house, where I found electrical wires and phone lines torn out of walls, garbage dumped on the floor, a marriage certificate torn and thrown onto the pile, and tormented messages scribbled across walls in crayon.
We spent that December of 1997 in a women's shelter in Lancaster. It was decided that it would be unwise for us to remain in Pennsylvania. After being passed around from shelter to shelter, from Pennsylvania, to Massachusetts, and arriving in Maine, we were all to be given new names and social security numbers. Joe's trial was conducted without our presence.
We lived at H.O.M.E. Co-op at St. Francis Farm in what was called the Hut House for about a year. I found solace in being in a community of down-and-outers, misfits, homeless men, illegal immigrants, and women in hiding. We spent that first year living without any legal name or identity, as we waited for the legal wheels to finish the process of changing our identities.
While there, I gave birth to Samuel. As we began to shake off the events that led to our being in Maine, I decided to make some goals for myself. They included purchasing some land in the mountains, getting a college degree, walking with God, and somehow finishing raising my kids.
I enjoyed occasionally attending Sunday service at the little Jesuit chapel located on the Co-op's property. The priest would ring the bell as we all gathered into the small room heated with wood. I especially enjoyed the days when the animals were brought in by the community's children to be blessed.
I managed to locate a hundred acres in northern Maine, bought a cheap mobile home, and moved my family out to the woods. We spent the first week living in a tent as we awaited the delivery of what was to become our house. We had no water at all for a while. But soon enough the well was drilled and an old hand pump provided for that need. We had no electricity. Our shower consisted of standing outside in the rain with a bar of soap. We took baths as we had in Pennsylvania, by heating water on the old Majestic wood stove. I relied on food stamps and my daughter Melanie's SSI check to provide for our needs for a long time.
In some ways, I think I forced my kids to grow up too fast. I sat the children down and was very honest with them, deciding that I would not hide them from the harsh reality that faced us. I told them plainly that if we had any hope to stay together as a family, then we would need to work as a team. I made sure that the older kids all learned how to survive. This included basic first aid, how to use a gun and a bow, and how to disappear and take on new identities, and I encouraged them to play long in the woods.
My son John had to design an outhouse and build it. He also planned and built with his siblings' help a chicken coop and a double-layer fence around the garden. He and David were responsible for using a hatchet to cut the wood the children gathered into smaller pieces for the cook stove. John was about ten and David was about eight. Once I began college and later started working, Melanie was responsible for watching over the little kids, which was a huge responsibility, since there were so many of them and Samuel was still a toddler. She made the meals and baked the bread. Even the little ones had to help gather wood and do small chores suited to their ability. Melissa, during this period of her life, spent most of her time in college. I think I put a lot of pressure on her, telling her that it was her responsibility to take care of the kids when she finished college by seeing to it that her siblings all had a chance to go to college. All that said, I know the children had a lot of fun there in the woods of Maine. More than once they have expressed that they wish we would have stayed on the hundred acres.
I had a garden, some fruit trees, blueberries, a patch of potatoes, and chickens to supplement our meals. I built an addition to the trailer, where I set up the cook stove and several barrels where I stored water in case the pump froze. I had also stashed enough dry goods in there to last our family for a year. I got a kerosene heater to heat the trailer and filled two fifty gallon barrels with kerosene. In the winter, we all slept together in the living room on the biggest bed I could find.
Knowing I would need to return to work, I moved one of the men from H.O.M.E. into a small camper I bought. I figured he would be around in case there was an emergency and could help with the wood and watching the fire while I was gone. Other than that, once I started college and working, the kids pretty much ran the place. I was quite confident in their abilities and common sense. And the kids lived up to my expectations of them.
Eventually, I decided to begin leaving the simple ways behind. I bought a generator, a small television and video player, and a wind-up radio. It became our habit to have family night once a week. This involved a pizza party with videos, plenty of talk, and sometimes games. On a different night we would all gather around the radio and listen to Irish music and we greatly enjoyed Prairie Home Companion. It was quite some time before I gave up covering my head. Even now, I occasionally don a scarf, no longer because of a religious requirement, but out of honoring the divine all around me. It is my way of saying, "I take this moment to cover my glory and acknowledge the wonder of being alive."
There in the mountains, at least for a while, I was able to spend my time in communion with God. My choice to go into the woods was inspired by a need to hide from the memories of my past, hide from the world and its temptations, and be with God. It was a time when I felt close to God, as though I had the freedom to not only praise my Lord, but speak candidly to Him. When it later appeared to me that God had left me, I was driven to a desperate search. What was real? Who am I? Where is God? How can I be whole - normal? I had entered the dark night of my soul. It was this sense of being separated from God that led to my decision to study psychology and consciousness.
I decided that I would take courses in college that might help me to understand myself, answer the questions I had, and maybe in the process provide a vocation I could use to help others and generate income. I began by taking classes in psychology, sociology, women and the law, and crisis intervention. Eventually I found it necessary to find a job, so gradually my time in the woods began to decrease. By the time I decided to leave Maine for Texas, I was working full-time as a cook, carrying a full-course load at college, and had finished a certification course in Windows 2K Server.
We spent about a year in Texas, where I was privileged to teach some children at an ADHD therapeutic school. There I was in charge of maintaining the computer lab, teaching computer skills and phonics. During the same period, I also taught chess, science, and math at the local Y in exchange for karate classes for my kids. All the while, I was doing a lot of internal searching. Who was I?
One day I decided that it was time to leave Texas. Melissa was contributing her income to the family andshe and I pulled together about $500. The seven kids packed up the van and I set out for Maine, having no place to go except back to H.O.M.E. Co-op. Our run-down van had an iffy engine. However, whether one gives honor to God or to luck, the van load of us arrived safely, minus the air filter, a spark plug and wire, fan belt, and coolant. Amazingly the van still sold for what it cost to get us up there - $500. My kids still talk about that miracle that saved them from the exploits of their crazy mom.
I decided to get us a place in Millinocket and later Bangor. I had completed two years of college, during which time I had gone on to study more psychology, social deviance, Maine law, computers, communication techniques, and domestic violence. In 2002, feeling somewhat dissatisfied with the offerings that remained available to me at the local college, I decided to enroll in Vermont College located in Montpelier. My first advisor, Sarah Bowen, played a pivotal and supportive role in my quest.
That semester, recalling my own childhood, I chose to study children. I was given access and permission to observe and photograph the children and teens at two Montessori schools and a vocational high school. That semester I read every book Robert Coles wrote. I studied curriculum design and theories of learning. I also acted as a ghost writer for a safety curriculum for Maine vocational schools. Gradually, Sarah got me to read the theories of Carl Jung. She insisted that I maintain a journal that included creative expressions.
The internal battle
It is true that visions such as I was experiencing could be an indicator of a mental disorder. Both the visions and my sense of confusion had me convinced that I did indeed have a problem, regardless of what my doctor said. But I tried to accept that I was merely experiencing a change or awakening, along with a good heaping dose of post-traumatic PTSD.
At one point during my first semester at Vermont College, I wondered whether if I allowed, or even forced, myself to fully experience and explore the images that arose before my mind's eye, I could understand what caused them. If I could understand them, maybe I could destroy that cause. I believed that if I did not succeed, I would lose all connection with reality. I feared that I was on the verge of total mental breakdown.
Having been encouraged by my professor, I eventually chose to allow the visions to overtake me. As she put it, if I believed I was going mad, why not allow myself to go fully mad and see what happened. She introduced me to expressive journaling and encouraged me to express the visions I had creatively. And, oh how I hated art. At first, my renderings were very dark. I recalled reading that hallucinations could occur during meditation. With encouragement from a college friend, I decided to meditate.
I looked to meditation as a possible escape from my own thinking - my questioning of God and reality, and also as a way to confront the visions. This decision to meditate was not an easy one to make. It went against everything I had been taught by the church. But I could see no other viable options. I would go into the dark.
I was not at all certain what meditation was. As a teenager, I had played with TM, but other than that, I knew very little about the practice. As I thought about the possibility of meditating, it occurred to me that I had been convinced by preachers that meditation was a tool of Satan. It still appeared to me that meditation may be a practice that caused one to drop one's guard and allow demons to enter. Nor did I gain any useful information that would help me undertake a meditation practice. But gradually I pulled together some understanding of how meditation worked.
I discovered that I did not need to know any particular meditation technique. As Smith points out, meditation techniques vary greatly. The commonly held picture of meditation involves an individual sitting in lotus position. However, my use and study of meditation was to become more about the state one enters and the carry-over of that experience into one's normal conscious state rather than focusing on any particular technique.
My first few tries were complete failures, primarily because I found sitting crossed legged on the floor was extremely uncomfortable. Eventually I gave up trying to follow any specific technique and decided to try meditating in a comfortable way.
After I would meditate, I would scribble, draw, paint, use clay, etc . This activity was both a requirement of my college professor and a way for me to get more in touch with myself. As I completed each image that had been informed by what I saw during meditation, I would look critically at the piece and see ugliness and the work of an untrained hand.
Eventually, as a result of my exploration of the unconscious using various trance-inducing techniques, artistic expression, and reflection, I began to discover an acceptance of who and what I am. I found peace in simply beginning to know, understand, and accept myself.
I gradually found myself being transformed by my encounters with the unconscious. I had found a way to overcome the negative visions that had previously overwhelmed me physically and psychically.
I began a period of intense daily meditation. It became common for me to spend hours at a time meditating. It was while we were living in Bangor, Maine, at the beginning of my second semester at Vermont College. I was engaged in a study of Jung and transpersonal psychology. I had decided to use chant overtones as a spring board into meditating, which I had been doing for some days. I was lying on the couch, my eyes were closed, and the kids were in bed. I used the images that arose before my closed eyes as a focal point. At the time, I did not know what to call the swirling forms, and just figured they were related to my nervous system responding to a lack of stimulation during meditation. Usually, I would spend the entire session watching the formations.
During a prolonged meditation session, I noticed that I started feeling warmth moving up through my body at about the same time I took notice of what I came to call the great blue. This inner light was brilliant. To be honest, I was so absorbed by the blue light that I cannot claim to be certain of any specific details.
I do know that when it ended and I left meditation, I became aware of a heat in my body that seemed to become more intense. By morning, the force of the sensation was so great that it had become quite painful. I found myself unable to eat, sleep, or focus on anything for any length of time. In desperation, I called a friend from college who had suggested meditation to me. However, her words confused me and made me fear that I had been damned. I tried to pray, but the effort was too great. The only thing that I could do with any semblance of success was to meditate, which I did ever more. Even in meditation the burning sensation followed me, but it seemed to be easier to bear.
It was about a week later that relief from the burning pain came. I was meditating, as this had become nearly a full-time occupation. I had just begun reading Muktananda's autobiography, which the friend I had called mailed to me. I recall how the blue light seemed to taunt me before finally allowing me to come close and enter into its brilliance. I had merged with the light. I recall opening my eyes for a moment and finding everywhere the great blue before resigning myself to the light. And then the blue disappeared. I disappeared. All that remained was silence - nothing.
After meditating I came back to a body no longer racked with pain. The fire had left me and been replaced with peace. I felt as though I had been recreated, in a way that was different from the new birth experience I had known as a Christian. I had a sense that I had been with God and that I was god in some mysterious way.
Along with the transformation came a gift - a love for my creative aspect. First I began to use digital art to create abstract geometric forms meant to represent the understanding I was slowly gaining from the unconscious, that I am an infinite being contained within a finite space, as well as a finite being unable to contain the infinite. Creative expressions of my inner landscape appeared upon my digital canvas, seeming to arise almost of their own accord.
About six months later, I re-entered what I now know is a mystical state. This timeless moment was profound. I cannot say that my transformation was a onetime event. I have come to regard the transformative process as a lifetime process of change. Sometimes it occurs as small incremental changes and other times the change is dramatic.
The remainder of my time at Vermont College was spent learning as much as I could about transpersonal psychology, archetypes, and transformation. During my last semester, I explored that edge I had previously walked along - that divine madness that arises with the onset of a transformational journey.
There is a light
In that first encounter with the mystical, I had entered the blue - became one with it. The blue disappeared - all thought and sensation was gone. I was fully awake and yet, there was nothing but 'being.' There, within the mystical state, there was no paradox. After having a second mystical experience, it was as though I brought a piece of the mystical with me into my normal state. I remember walking and sensing that the whole world obeyed and bowed before me. I reached out my hand, holding it parallel to the earth, and felt the life in what I had always previously believed was a dead ball of dirt. But this was a short lived thing and soon, while the memory of the mystical remained along with much personal growth, I returned to life as normal.
After having had a mystical experience, I find that I no longer need to seek an escape from the visions. By emptying myself through meditation, I became aware of myself as everything and nothing. That awareness allows me to live life as both the experiencer and the observer. Now I feel free to explore the greater part of who I am. I no longer hold the world in contempt or as something to be avoided. The world is not a place of sinfulness that needs to be cast off. My world-view has been totally altered. My view of the divine has evolved.
In those first two mystical experiences, I had been introduced to my Self, a divine individual. Jung defined the Self as "the union of conscious and unconscious. It stands for the psychic totality. So formulated, it is a psychological concept. Empirically, however, the self appears spontaneously in the shape of specific symbols" (as cited by Raff, 2000, p. 7). I have begun what I hope will be a lifetime of personal exploration, learning, and evolving as I return to the mystical state and bring back to conscious awareness what I discover.
Rebecca S, Three photographs
- Belle /// Dan /// John
Lise Weil, Homecoming
- from In Search of pure lustHomesick for myself, for her - as, after the heatwave breaks, the clear tones of the world manifest: cloud, bough, wall, insect, the very soul of light ...-Adrienne Rich, The dream of a common language
During the two years I lived in the apartment on Main Street, I was almost always tired. The Montague church bells tolled every hour on the hour; and mostly, it seemed, I was awake to hear them. In desperation I would lie in bed in the deep hours of the night listening to the hours of my life being ticked off one by one. Some of my sleeplessness during this time was due to Trivia, which more and more I was editing alone, and which had fallen way behind schedule. But most of it, during the first year, could be traced back to Grace -her long withdrawals, my panicked fears, our occasional phone calls, her accusations. And no sooner did that let up than I began losing sleep over Lena. I would wake up when it was still pitch black outside simmering with rage, or lust. I'd stir myself a vodka and grapefruit juice, sit myself down at the kitchen table and wait for sleep to take hold of me again, which it rarely did before the sky was full of light.
I decided I wanted to live in a house again - a house full of women. As it happened, a friend of mine was looking for renters for an old colonial house she'd just bought at the edge of town. It would be perfect for me, but I'd have to find a housemate. I began postering and putting ads in bookstores, laundromats, The Valley Womens' Voice. Interviewing candidates was not all fun and games as I'd imagined. It was stressful trying to imagine intimacy with a series of strangers, each with her own history and agenda. Usually I knew right off when it wasn't going to work, though I got less picky as the September deadline approached. Twice I thought I'd found the housemate of my dreams but both times she backed out. At night - when I wasn't in torment over Lena - the faces and histories of the women I'd interviewed, their histories, their hairdos, their handbags and satchels, would swirl around in my head. It was beginning to feel like a continuation of my love history.
In the middle of August, I broke off from my search and from stripping in corrections to the fifth issue of Trivia to sit a Zen sesshin at a retreat center just down the road. I had never had any truck with Eastern religions, unless you counted a brief flirtation with TM in New York which came to an end when the guy who invited himself over to give me my mantra put his hand suggestively on my thigh. But this retreat was to be led by a woman roshi, one of the only ones in the world, and Alice had insisted it was an opportunity not to be missed. Which is how I ended up at the lodge at 6:45AM on a Saturday morning after only a few hours of sleep, having been up late the night before bent over the light table. To me a country retreat meant outdoor activities. The Roshi's name, "Maurine Freedgood," seemed a nod in this direction. I wore shorts and a T-shirt.
The Roshi made her grand entrance at 7:00 AM sharp. She was stately, elegant, austere. She wore several layers of long flowing robes in shades of black and white and her voluminous gray hair was done up Japanese-style in a bun. She carried herself like a queen. My first thought was: I've worn the wrong clothes. We all seated ourselves on two long rows of black cushions on the floor; my bare legs, the only ones in the room, were painfully conspicuous. Maurine - she asked us to call her by her first name - took her seat at the head of the rows and said a few words about posture: the importance of keeping the butt supported, the spine straight, the gaze steady. Then she rang the bell beside her three times. There followed a half hour of silence broken by the sound of the bell again, at which point everyone rose and bowed to their cushion. Maurine gave a sharp strike with a pair of wooden clappers, announed "kinhin," wheeled to her right, and led us all single file in a brisk circles around our cushions. After ten minutes the clappers sounded again and we all took our places, bowed again, first to each other, then to our cushions, and seated ourselves. The whole morning passed that way, with alternating periods of sitting and walking around the room, broken only by chanting and a tea service.
The silence at the beginning of each sitting period, once the bell stopped resonating, was deep and seductive. I wanted to abandon myself to it, as all the others seemed to be doing, but my body, which was still racing against the clock as it had been doing now for several days, seemed to be tugging me in the other direction. The issue I'd torn myself away from was to have gone off to the printer two weeks ago. I wanted to be back home, finishing it up. As if to underscore that wish, fiery blades of pain began shooting through my shoulders and neck. Rubbing them or changing position would have helped but you weren't allowed to move, let alone get up and go out for a stretch. During the rare moments when the pain let up or even disappeared I was unable to feel anything but dread of its imminent return. The latter half of each sitting period I was consumed with longing for it to end; my ears strained to hear the sound of Maurine's robes rustling as her hand reached for the bell. I knew almost nothing about Buddhism except that it had to do with learning to stay in the present moment and on this basis I concluded I was failing miserably. Whatever had possessed me to sign myself up for this hell? Especially when my work was waiting for me back home, together with my comfortable couch.
The walking-around-in-circles struck me as especially absurd and I could not chase away images of Madeleine and her little French schoolmates following their strict teacher Miss Clavell down the Paris sidewalks, bodies at a slant, imitating her very purposeful walk. The difference being our bodies were upright and this walking had no purpose at all. The others seemed to take this kinhin business in stride, but then I noticed as we circled around that quite a few of them were wearing black robes. When we began chanting in Japanese before tea, most of them seemed to know the words. Obviously this was some sort of sect I'd wandered into. I'd expected Alice to be here and wondered why she wasn't, and if she had any idea what she'd gotten me into. I was stranded, alone, with these robed people going around in circles and chanting strange Japanese syllables over and over-Kanzeon namu butsu yo butsu u en. "If they could see me now," I kept thinking. My sisters, my friends in high school, Lena or anyone who ever knew me at all. Thinking of Lena I could feel my mouth puckering into a half-smirk.
Then, towards the end of the first sitting of the afternoon, Maurine touched me. She'd been circling around us as we sat, the whoosh of her robes faintly audible behind us; I guessed she was checking on our posture. She pressed her knuckles against my back and ran her hands over my shoulders. Almost instantly something released in there. I dropped down and found myself HERE, in my body, breathing. I never knew just breathing could feel so good. But after maybe ten minutes of this I was just as suddenly hit by what felt like a huge wave and then I was weeping, hard, and it seemed if I tried to put words to the tears I would sob even more convulsively and might never stop. All I knew was that I had to get outside into the woods, which I did as soon as the bell rang. There I knelt down in the bushes and delivered myself of my sorrow.
When I returned to my cushion afterwards it was as if a switch had been turned. I was suddenly very eager to sit. Amazingly, I actually felt comfortable in the sitting posture. In fact, there was at this moment nowhere else on earth I wanted to be. This cushion right here on this wooden floor in these woods was now home. Only the next day when Maurine gave her talk was I able to begin to put words to what I felt, sitting there, enjoying my breath. "You will have heard that we sit to get rid of our ego. In one sense, this is true. However it is also true that when you choose to sit in this way, to stay firmly on your cushion hour after hour after hour, you are granting to yourself the greatest possible importance. You are saying 'I matter.'" That was it. That was the reason for my tears. All these years I had thought of myself as an important person in every other way - someone whose voice mattered, whose thoughts mattered, whose ideas mattered. But in some other deeper more fundamental way I had not ever mattered. Not to myself. Until today.
That afternoon I felt the energy of the trees surrounding us and revelled in the deliciousness of the breezes through the windows. I began to appreciate the pale gray wood of the lodge, the old maple tree trunks thrusting up through the floorboards, and the purple flowers in the window box I spied every time I rounded the south bend. I stole glances at Maurine's face during kinhin - how she walked at the head of the line, her bearing absolutely upright, face lifted slightly forward. Fierce concentration was written on that face, but just beneath it, I was sure I could read something like thrill. As if each time the firm padded foot met the ground it was for the first time. I was beginning to think that for all its rigours and demands, what this practice was really about was pleasure, or at least something akin to it, something bigger than pleasure towards which that word merely gestured.
This was confirmed on Sunday when Maurine ended the day's lesson - she called it a "dharma talk" - by reading to us from The Color Purple. The passage she chose happened to have been my favorite part of the book when I'd read it two years before: the part where Shug tries to get Celie to see that God is not the punitive old white man she's been praying to all these years, but "everything that is or ever was or ever will be," and that this God is a lover of pleasure and fun. "Oh, she say," Maurine read, taking on Celie's dialect, "God love all them feelings. That some of the best stuff God did. And when you know God loves 'em you enjoys 'em a lot more." Maurine was not especially convincing as a poor Southern Black woman. She had skipped over the part that left no doubt these lines referred to lesbian sex and I wondered if she had any idea they did. But none of that mattered; Shug was obviously talking about something erotic, and they were still some of the most subversive lines I'd ever heard. I now knew something about Maurine: that deep down she too was a lover of "all them feelings." Maybe there wasn't such a great gap between this world and the feminist world I'd left behind.
I remember emerging from the lodge at the end of the retreat that Sunday into the humid August afternoon feeling deeply rested and happy. The gray sky brought out the colors in the woods: the tropical green of the leaves, splashes of ruby red and orange. My drive down the steep dirt road to the bottom of the hill seemed to take forever; every bush and tree had a story to tell, and I kept stopping to listen. How longingly I had thought the day before of my couch, my books and phoning my friends. Now I was in no rush to get home.
I began sitting every morning at home, in the Trivia room, facing the big maple tree in back. At first it was to keep the feeling of those two days, the way you try and keep a summer tan through the fall. As time went on it required more and more discipline but I kept doing it. It made me happier, and calmer. And I noticed that the more I sat, the more my life seemed to organize itself. I started getting rid of junk that had been sitting around for a long time. Problems and entanglements that had been weighing me down had a way of working themselves out. And when a "For Sale" sign appeared on a little house right down the street not a week after the retreat, it seemed to have materialized out of my morning meditations.