Monthly Archives: February 2010

A Rose is a Rose is a

I live with a dog named Chulo. Chulo is a master because he is always, all-ways, present, and his presence draws me into that dimension, at least when I allow it to, which I am happy to say, is more and more often.

It changes me. One thing that I notice is that I want very simple things like clean sheets, the satisfying crunch of  a well-stocked pepper mill. I’ve become chatty with neighbors. I want to read or just be at home with my family. I want quiet. Nothing tempts me from this. Adventure returns while fantasies dwindle, dissolve, like aged dandelions.

It is deeply physical, sensual. You literally fall into your body. The breath remembers pathways throughout the  solar plexus down to the pubic bone. Eyes awaken, focus, scan the area. You take in sights, smells, sounds, like a dog, like a child. The wind stirs the air, bouncing, as though playfully, from pocket-to-pocket.

This is just my experience.

Being present is an act of faith. A teacher of mine, Ken Ludden, described faith as acting in a way that you know is right, in your heart, even though the outcome is uncertain. I like that description of faith. It places responsibility on oneself. It’s grown-up. It doesn’t deny the existence of God, whatever that Is, because placing something in God’s hands is something that you do.

Faith only truly expresses itself with action. So, we have to be willing to take a leap of faith into the present moment. It means we have to sacrifice the story in our head, which is something we control, because we have come to acknowledge the supreme importance of the present moment. It is nothing less than a form of worship. The only one that has ever made any sense to me.

Being present is the easiest thing in the world and the more I do it, fall, the easier life gets. And of course, we have to learn how to do it without the pills or  the tool of an activity, such as rock climbing or dancing that forces you into the present. If you can do that regularly, congratulations. You have advanced to the next level. It will not win you fame, but the good news is, it won’t really matter.

Whatever the next level of consciousness is: salvation, samadhi,  enlightenment, etc. don’t worry about what it’s called, or need it to be acknowledged by some guru or other. A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet. A rose is a rose is a rose. In other words, don’t get caught up in the names. Besides, we have to at some point consider the validity of our own experience without comparison. It is, after all, all we have. Your happiness is your measure. That is not to say that other’s experiences shouldn’t inspire and guide us. Inspiration and guidance are needed and I think, sacred. Just don’t let other’s experiences and/or guidance trap you. Kill the Buddha, etc.

So don’t get caught up in names, or the experiences of others. Don’t get caught up in the trap of technique either. (And if you have, don’t worry. It’s just part of the process. Worry is another trap). Our culture is so obsessed with technique, but technique is just a story of the past that we’ve glamorized with memory. It implies the consistent recreation of an experience we enjoyed, but every experience, every pirouette and port de bras and tendu must be lived in the moment. Must be allowed to be mysterious. To grow and change. What exists is this moment, this step, this 40 year old arabesque. I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy an inspired triple piroutte every now and then. Marianela Nunez, hello? Technique can be fun, and in her case, sublime. We just have to be careful and not give it more importance than it deserves.

There is no technique to be danced or lived. No golden key. No way, that once we’re on, leads us to eternal salvation. It is a myth. There ain’t no guarantees, sucka. Read the small-print.

No technique. Only practice.

Being present means letting go of expectation. Expectation is a burden that squashes life. Good luck with that one ;).

Being present is the art of life.

Being present is sexy.

Very very sexy, and who doesn’t want that?

And most of all, and I know it’s the thing I need to remember, Being Present plays.

Invisible Girl

As a child, I was confused about race. Words like “black” and “white” hovered about adult conversations like ominous clouds. What made someone black or white? My maternal grandfather, the shade of dark-roast coffee beans, must surely be black, but what about cousin Nikki: fair-skinned with curly, not kinky hair and asian eyes? Was black or white determined purely by color or did it include other things? What was I?

My maternal uncle married a woman from Australia. I thought she might be “white,” but I couldn’t be sure because she wore a wig and hair seemed to be something of a determining factor. At any rate, assuming she was white, their relationship told me it was ok for black and white people to love each other. But why did I detect such anger in the adult’s voices whenever the subject of race arose?

I was scared to ask my mother about it. As a child I expected to be misunderstood by adults, but she could be really tough: a highly educated politico, daughter-of-the-revolution, yeah-I-dated-a-black-panther woman, complete with afro and black-power pick in the colors of Africa. I am lighter than my mother, and suspected that my absent father had something to do with that, but we didn’t speak about him. At about age five or six, I knew enough to know that I didn’t want to open a can of worms.

It was tricky, but I’d finally stumbled upon an idea. One day I summoned the courage to ask my mother if Carol Burnett, my favorite comedienne, was white. She laughed derisively, but answered yes. Ding! Light-bulb moment! THAT was white. I got it, or so I thought. If Carol Burnett was what white was, what could be the problem?

Several years later, about age nine, I auditioned and was accepted to the School of American Ballet, a prestigious school that was the training ground for the New York City Ballet. My mother was apprehensive about this. I vaguely wondered why but dare not bring it up, fearing she’d change her mind about letting me attend.

We lived in a black neighborhood in Queens, NY, South Jamaica, around where 50 cent got shot. I had seen white people before, my uncle’s wife, for example, plus Carol Burnett and Jaques Costeau and etc. But that was really different from being in a room, or a whole school where you were one of a handful of black people. I felt different. The other girls rarely spoke to me. My mother waited outside the studio alone and seperate from the other mothers, many of whom were dressed quite expensively.

Thankfully at this point, I was not treated any differently by my teachers. I especially liked the late Elise Reimann. She was an elegant lady with severe bunions and a sparkle in her eyes. She had a dry humor and sharp comic timing and would make quick use of it if you were slow to learn. Her opinion seemed to be the one that mattered most, so I didn’t worry too much about the other girls. She acknowledged me and I knew I was one of the best in my class. Plus, I was naturally quiet, shy and a bit intense. I was used to being…odd…in any group. Even amongst my friends at home, the Sunshine Girls, I was the moody one: Sunset.

Anyway, one day in the fall, auditions were held for the children’s roles in the Nutcracker. All of the kids were very excited. The buzz was that the choice role for someone of my age, level, and height (because you had to fit into the costumes) was to be in the party scene. I learned, with dismay, that the girls had to wear their hair down in the party scene. I desperately wanted to be in the party scene, but I had the kind of hair that went out, not down. And this was before fancy hair products. We didn’t even have conditioner. Oh, the horror!

I begged my mother to straighten my hair. After days of relentless badgering, she acquiesced, performing the job with a hot-comb, a metal comb that is heated with flames from the stove. My hair was long, thick and rebellious, but at last softened under the intense heat. By the time she was done, my hair smelled like a mess of fried pork rinds. I bathed, careful not to get it wet as any amount of moisture would cause it to kink back up on me with a vengence.

The next morning, my mother arranged my hair in a loose bun for class, hoping the straightness would hold for the audition afterwards, but lo and behold, I sweated so hard in class that by the time we got to the audition, I had turned back into a pumpkin. My hair swelled back to its original poofiness. I felt woefully inadequate. I felt like a fake and I felt deeply ashamed of my blackness.

Nevertheless, I walked into that audition with my kinky head held high and danced my best. After all the buildup about the audition from the previous weeks, I was shocked by how fast it was over. I think my group did one combination of jumping echappes. I remember that in the audition, unlike how we’d done them in class, we didn’t change feet on the echappes, and I thought myself very clever for recognizing and quickly adapting to this new version, even under such intense pressure. La di dah.

I sat very straight as I waited for the other groups to go. Finally, the man running the audition selected the boy and girl who would play the lead children’s roles: Marie and Fritz. After that he chose the party scene. Then he chose each role in diminishing importance. Still, I sat with my back held and my chin set. Finally, before dismissing us, as an aside, an after thought it seemed, he waved his hand over my group and said we were the soldiers. He did not grace us with his attention as he had the others. His attitude told me that, like a soldier, I was expendable.

My head hung low as I walked back to the dressing room. My mother intercepted me and I told her what happened. She said that I should be happy that I was chosen at all. I was not, though it was true that not everyone in my class got to participate. I felt deflated. I was placed in the last row of soldiers. I was the last of the last.

Entering the dressing room ahead of me was the perky, strawberry blonde who was chosen to play Marie. I hadn’t paid attention to her at the audition, too caught up, as I was, in my own predicament. But up close, she did not seem to possess special powers. Did not radiate sunshine. No halos or divine benedictions. I expected to feel jealous, but was not. She was just a little girl, like me, and a bit pudgy at that.

And suddenly I got it, like a million balloons bursting, blam! blam! blam! Fireworks in my joints, nearly causing my knees to buckle with the force of the realization. I understood why my mother was tense every time we came here. I saw the thing that she was trying to protect me from. And what I saw with piercing clarity was that the person casting the Nutcracker would never see me as Marie or as a party-scene girl. He could not see past my blackness, could not see me as just a little girl, no special powers, no benedictions, no halos, that wanted to dance on stage in a pretty dress like every other little white girl. He could not see me as he saw her. He could not see me.

And believe it or not, I didn’t hate him for that. He didn’t know what he was doing. He was just a product of his time and even as a child, though I could not have articulated this, I understood. If I had not been chosen to play Marie because he thought I was a bad dancer, well, that would have pissed me the fuck off because I knew I wasn’t no back-line troll. But because I wasn’t Strawberry Shortcake? How could I be hurt by that?

Though I did not get what I wanted that day, I got something infinitely greater. I got to see through someone else’s eyes. I got to see the enemy’s weapon: unconsciousness. And the enemy was not white, not black. The enemy was the insidiousness of racism that holds all of our minds hostage in sneaky, if not overt ways.

And what did I do with that knowledge?

I wish I could say that I rocked an afro and waved my fist in the air, but I did not.

I endured. I endured feeling different, talked about, ignored, unwelcomed. I endured my confusion and shame about my identity. I later endured the indifference of certain less-than enlightened teachers, always wondering if I was in the back line because I couldn’t dance or because I was black.

But there was something else I did with the knowledge I gained that day. I did the thing I knew. The thing I was trained to do. The thing that I had to do to breathe. Wanted with all my heart and soul.

I danced.

Techno revo/evo Lution

This morning, I found myself scrolling through my phone’s contacts to find a number. I’ve had this friend for a long time. I still remember her phone number from when we were growing up, but I can’t for the life of me remember her current one. I’ve memorized my boyfriend’s number, and that’s about it. Now, what exactly is all of this freed mental space being used for? TV?

I don’t hate technology, per se. I hate the mindless, heartless, greedy, self-ish use of it and what that does to us. Like not being able to remember phone numbers anymore. I’ve allowed myself to have a dependence on the cell phone. I am dependent on it, but I don’t love it. It’s like a bad relationship. Call me crazy, but I can’t love those things. I just can’t.

There are no victims here. I’ve played my passive part in the technology revo/evo lution. Yes, we are all responsible for iPhones and such. But here’s the thing: it seems that technology is evolving faster than consciousness. When I say “consciousness” I am talking about things like compassion, forgiveness, peacefulness, contemplativeness, and things of that nature.

Technology can do amazing things, like give someone a new heart. Having a second chance at life often nudges people towards personal growth. But on the other hand, that ability to transplant a heart has not helped us deal with our serious taboo against death. So people will exploit this taboo and turn technology into a use for making profit.

Technology is like a runaway train. And we don’t even see it happening. For instance, I was so busy being caught up in the wonders of cell phones, until one day, bam! I realized that they’ve sucked out my memory chip. It doesn’t seem like a big deal at first, to not know a number that you call all the time, but then you have to wonder: is there something else I’ve forgotten?

(Wait. I’m having a little fantasy, now, of myself as a superhero, dressed in loving-pink tights, standing with one hand on my hip, the other thrust purposefully forward. The technology train screeches to a walking pace.)

I don’t want to eliminate technology. I’m saying that, in this age of technology, let’s not throw out the baby with the bath-water. There are some great things that our ancestors taught us. I just think that maybe we need to slow down. To take a moment to digest what we’ve eaten. To ask ourselves, honestly, what it is we really need. Is it a new iPhone? Greater convenience? More distraction? More websites that tell us the appropriate time to take a pee break during a movie?

How can we measure the good technology does vs. the bad? I don’t think there can be any absolute measure. I’m just saying, isn’t it off that a lot of students have laptops and text until their thumbs bleed but have trouble writing a coherent sentence? When they can multi-task, but can’t explore any one thing in depth? When they struggle to internalize and coordinate movement? Of course, that’s a huge generalization…

In the bible, you know, where it says that the meek shall inherit the earth?…I wonder if Jesus was referring to those vanishing cultures who don’t have iPhones. Who are not on Facebook. Who still know how to make a fire without matches or a lighter. Who can still remember shit. They will inherit the earth because they’re the only ones who will know how to survive here without technology after the Great Earth changes. Was Jesus talking about them?

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