A Death

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As I was waking up, I was thinking that he was dead. He had died before Christmas, and he had died alone in Queens, in a home. I wondered why there had been no funeral, why I had no memory of one. I thought of his friends and wondered why I couldn’t remember any of their familiar faces and see them dressed up in their dark suits for him.

 

I wondered where our family things that he had placed in storage, were. I wondered whether his landlord had had to clear out his apartment. I knew I hadn’t done it; I’d never seen his apartment.

 

I lay there for a few minutes, turned on my side toward the windows and looked at the growing light through the blinds. I blinked several times. I thought about the winter holidays and I didn’t remember anything about his presence during them.

 

And after a few minutes, I realized that he was not dead. He was still alive and whatever dream I’d had was so powerful that my reality had shifted to a time after his death that had not even happened.

 

I’ve been reflecting on this dream off and on today and I’ve come to the conclusion that the dream was not about my brother, but about a system that persists in making him disappear, and from making me disappear as well. This system perpetuates dismissal, disrespect, silencing, demonization, and marginalization. It makes repeated attempts to make people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ people, women and the disabled small and insignificant. It has at its roots the desire to make people disappear through repeated attempts to limit their lives and to silence them.

 

I have lived in this system for six decades, and I have come to learn and understand that its survival has depended on my beliefs that I am not worthy and I will never have an opportunity to rest until I am dead. Its survival depends upon the belief that I will always have to push against the downward pressure of this system that was not designed with my living freely and breathing fully in mind. Three fifths of a white man did not include the descendants of enslaved men and women.

 

It is difficult to live within a system that exists because it regularly satisfies its urges to oppress. Those who are oppressed have to work consistently hard to free their minds, bodies and souls. As Bob Marley wrote “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery/None but our self can free our minds/ Won’t you help to sing these songs of freedom?/Cause all I ever had/ Redemption songs ” (Redemption Song). Singing is breathing; it is inspiration, and expiration. One of the Freedom Singers said that even if people working during the civil rights movement couldn’t talk together, they could breathe together through singing together. We need to keep singing together and we need to keep writing together.

 

An intuitive and gifted massage therapist, with whom I have worked for several years, recently told me that I haven’t been getting enough oxygen. She encouraged me to pay attention to my breathing and make sure that I exhale completely.

 

I have witnessed my mother’s death, the result of a long illness, over the past year. I cared for my mom for nearly a decade and her decline and death have been enough to take my breath away. Being a caregiver and care manager altered my breathing, I’m sure.

 

I’m also sure that the high profile deaths and videos of so many Black people, such as Rolando Castile, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin and the many other children, women and men killed in connection with law enforcement haven’t helped me to breathe fully, either. Systematic killing and incarceration of Black bodies is an American practice that is not new. What is new is the technology that allows us to view what is disturbing, needs to be brought to light, and historic.

I have witnessed the 2016 U. S. presidential election and its aftermath, which continues to and beyond this moment. The events of the past 48 hours have been breathtaking, to say the least. Oppression is relentless, sometimes subtle, at other times blatant and always pervasive. Many individuals persist with their work toward freedom despite this. Many writers persist in their work toward freedom despite this. Every idea birthed and every word written is an act of resistance, an act of freedom, an act of bravery, and an act of uncovering something valuable for emancipation from an oppressive system.

 

Lately, I have been listening to the soundtrack from the play “Hamilton.” I hear layers of meaning in the lyrics that go a lot deeper for me than I originally thought. “Why do you write like you’re running out of time, why do you fight like you’re running out of time, like you’re running out of time, like you’re running out of time,” sing sisters Eliza Hamilton and Angelica Schuyler and other characters throughout the play.

 

Apparently the founding father who had been born a bastard, who became a penniless orphan, an immigrant, and who was a driven man who feverishly and fervently worked toward the revolution that eventually birthed what is now called America. He was a white man who created the roots of the financial system we now live with and he married into wealth in order to secure his status as he had a low status as a poor immigrant bastard. He had a keen mind and writing skills that were sharp. And he was driven I am most interested in his tendency to write like he was running out of time. I feel as if I am running out of time, like we are all running out of time.

 

My brother is not dead and I am not dead, but the systems that have been constructed to diminish, marginalize and extinguish our humanity have been unearthed and are in full view and the entire world is watching. Every breath I take and every word I write pushes back against this hurtful, hateful, corrupt and bankrupt system and leads to its dissolution. I must get on with it.

 

But I can’t do this alone. I need my allies to work with me. We must all get on with the work of singing the chains off and singing freedom into being.

 

 

 

 

Pose

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It came up again in yoga class this morning. There it was, the thought that I couldn’t do the next pose, which was Warrior III. After all, I was old enough to pass on this pose. The fear that my knee wouldn’t hold out, that the clicking I hear and feel when bending it these days means I should stop trying and what the hell did I think I was doing anyway? I knew I had arthritis in one of my knees, so what did I expect? My age popped into my head in the form of a voice much louder than those thoughts, yelled the number 63 at me, placed its hands on its hips and then stated quite clearly and indignantly “Really.”

I am very fortunate to study with a very skilled, kind, experienced, flexible and understanding Yoga teacher. She doesn’t let us slide, and she pushes us to grow; yet she does so in some very ingenious and stealthy ways. She reminds us about the adjustments needed to work with physical challenges, about using props to support us in the poses and the importance of alignment that is fundamental to Iyengar Yoga. It is not a beginner’s class and I’m not a beginner. She could see my distress today as everything tends to show on my face and she gently reminded us that we could stop at different points in accessing the pose. Perhaps using the blocks was as far as we might want to go. Or, we could go further into the pose with no props. I opted for the blocks, but I was disappointed in myself. I still surprise myself by the level of attachment I have to doing something “right.” It is difficult for me to recognize myself if I don’t move fully, If I don’t do something all the way. I realize now that this reveals an imbalance in my approach to life, which in turn is reflected back to me through my practice.

The freedom of dancing and moving has always been home for me. I first began taking Yoga classes in my mid twenties when I still lived in New York. I went to Integral Yoga Center on 72nd Street in Manhattan after work and on weekends. At the time I lived and worked in Manhattan. I loved the physical and spiritual union that the practice opened up for me. As a long time dancer and dance student, this was another way to incorporate movement in my life and there was an even deeper experience that brought me much joy.

I returned to Yoga here and there during graduate school after moving to the West Coast, but I was deeply involved in my course work and also working two jobs to support myself. I immersed myself in movement practices that combined martial arts, dance and psychology during that time. I also began to study T’ai Chi, which deepened my experience of movement and grounded me in a way I had not known before. T’ai Chi practice taught me what it was like to let life unfold for me and not push myself through life. Towards the end of my degree program, I was able to return to Congolese dance and this brought me great joy. I had missed the drums and the movement they inspired.

In my early 40’s I was introduced to Afro-Cuban dance, music and culture. Eventually I was asked to perform by two of my teachers. One of my teachers asked me to substitute teach for her when she had each of her two children. I was honored. I was at home in an even deeper way through the spiritual rhythms and songs and the secular dance styles. I recognized a part of my ancestry in an embodied way and this was a joyful reunion.

In my late 40’s and early 50’s I was involved in several accidents and my mobility was limited for varying amounts of time in the aftermath. This was only the second time in my life that I was unable to access my usually flexible range of motion and it was a challenging lesson for me. I worked hard at physical therapy, worked with a chiropractor and continued to study and practice T’ai Chi.

Nine years ago, I returned to Yoga through a Restorative class and home practice. I continued to take class and practice at home and my strength gradually returned so that I could begin to take more active classes. Parallel to this road has been my entrance into my sixth decade and with it, a reckoning with physical limitation and a focus on sustaining and strengthening what I can and letting go of what I am called to. This is yet another rite of passage through which I have entered into the interstitial spaces between surrender, giving up on myself then feeling bad about it, and navigating the lure of ambition that would have me push myself beyond my limits. I have to admit to looking around the room every now and then and envying a younger body, a flat stomach or even a young, pregnant woman.

My teacher’s gentleness with me when I can’t be gentle with myself is what helps me to find my way back to myself again. I’ve talked to her about my internal challenges brought about by my expectations of myself and feelings of defeat that are all tied up with ideas about aging, some of which are mine and some of which are imposed on me through the youth obsessed culture that I live in. And there is always another way to enter a pose that doesn’t compromise the health of my knees and allows me to practice my balance, which is generally pretty poor. At my teacher’s suggestion, I’ve been working on my feet, with toes that tend to grip the floor or the soles of my shoes habitually. This helps me to not take everything in my knees. I alternate slowly rolling a tennis ball under each foot, back to front, side to side over the entire sole. This is done in order to help my toes to let go of the gripping and to help my feet to come out of their habit of contracting muscles and relax. I tried this at work one day recently and I involuntarily started to yawn. This gave my co-workers and me a good laugh at the sound of one yawn after another.

Today Warrior III called me to meet myself through my limitations. The limitations were balance, and my attitude toward the trouble I had getting into and maintaining the pose without props. I surrendered and used the blocks. Then, when a different entry to the pose was introduced to the class, I tried it and was able to access and hold the pose for a few fleeting minutes. When I had to come down from the pose and back to standing, I was disappointed in myself for not being able to hold it longer and then I became disappointed at my less than charitable attitude toward myself.

I hope I will make peace with myself and with Warrior III one day. I have no idea how that will happen or what it will look like. There will always be another pose that will present me with my human, limited, beautiful self, instead of the lofty self I think I should be, the façade with perfect balance whose body never ages and I hope one day to have a non wavering acceptance of myself no matter what. Perhaps that’s why a few months ago I chose these lyrics of Leonard Cohen’s song “Anthem” to place on my desk “Ring the bells you still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” At least once a day my eyes wander to these words and I remind myself that I am doing the best I can at ringing the bells and taking one step forward in kindness.

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Sense Delay

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Here is this week’s essay for the #52Essays2017 Challenge started by Vanessa Martir . Happy to be alive and writing this week!

I often don’t know when I am afraid. What I mean is that the fear doesn’t register consciously or at least in any thinking that becomes conscious in my awareness.

This might make me dangerous if I were to handle a gun. Right now I am writing on a computer. Before that, I was writing on a pad with a pencil.

This essay is not about guns, shootings, people who have been shot in the back as they were running away; it is not about dead children, or children who are now motherless, grandmother-less, grandfather-less, or fatherless. It is not about runaway slaves who got caught and what was done to them when they were caught. It is not about lynching. It is not about slave revolts. It is not about blankets infected with smallpox. It is not about assault rifles, tanks, riot gear, tanks, batons, tear gas canisters, sawed off shotguns, handguns, AK-47’s, M-15’s, rocks, bottles, car bombs, cars aflame, smashed windows, looting, marches, rallies, reporters, cameras, videos. It is not about any of these things.

Fear can paralyze. Fear can fan the flames of anger. Fear can make anxiety a constant companion. Fear can provoke numbness. Fear can help the brain to create a cloak that goes over the skin and coats it with touch repellant. Once the cloak is on and someone touches me I don’t feel a thing. Fear can extend that cloak to my sense of hearing.

Sometimes I can hear a compliment or an acknowledgement and it sounds muted or as if the person saying it is speaking from a distance. There is a delay until I can really hear the voice and the words being spoken. I sense that they are positive words and then recognize that the words are those of praise or acknowledgment. The voice and the words awaken me from a meaning and felt sense slumber and surprise me. Sometimes the same thing happens when someone is speaking mean and hateful words to me. I ask myself whether I’m really hearing them correctly; once I can discern my answer, I know. And then I can become present once again to pleasure, warmth, confusion, pain, anger, or hurt.

If I can’t feel someone’s touch on my skin and the words that are spoken to me don’t register at times, then those are the times that I am numb. Those are the instances when my senses have been dampened in some way, but I don’t know that the dampening is in effect immediately. I don’t really know it on a conscious level. It can take awhile for me to ride out the muted reception, process the touch or the words, allow an internal response to arise. Then I can become present once again.

I often can’t tell when I am afraid, but I have learned that sometimes when I am afraid, touch feels as if it coming from far away. And a voice can seem as if it is speaking to me from far away. A cloak covers me. And for a little while, I am safe in not knowing whether the touch or the voice is friendly.

 

Well-RED at Works/San Jose

 

On Tuesday January 10th I will be featured at Well-RED,  a monthly reading series in San Jose, which is a collaboration between Poetry Center San Jose and Works/San Jose. Works/San Jose is a gallery space, and I very  much look forward to be surrounded by art!

I will be reading with the fine writer Dane Cervine. Poet and writer Robert Pesich is the curator and host. Here is more information:

Works/San Jose

365 South Market Street
downtown San José

on the Market Street edge of
the San José Convention Center

 

Doors open at 6:30pm and performance begins at 7:00pm.
Affordable wine, beer and soda.
Open mic will follow the performance.

Admission: $2 Suggested Donation; No one turned away.

We hope to see you there!