Monthly Archives: June 2011

Into the Woods

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Henry David Thoreau 

Me neither!

So tell me, Henry, if I may, how did you take those first steps into the woods? Was it hard? Did you have a back-up plan in case things got all 127 Hours on you? Were you scared?

I have often wondered what it would feel like to possess that illusive quality of confidence that some people like Obama and Oprah seem to exude with such casual grace. How can I get me some of that, especially in those precipitous moments of life’s transitions?

As a professional dancer, I suffered such terrible stage fright, it’s a wonder I ever made it out of the wings. That narrow transition between the wings and the stage always managed to evoke death itself. I still have nightmares about it. Once, when making a debut, I stood listening to a violin solo of indescribable frailty and beauty that set the stage for my entrance. I felt completely humbled and unworthy of its other-worldliness. A wave of terror flooded me that literally made my knees knock together, cartoon-like. I briefly considered running away, out the stage door and down 57th Street in my bird-like feathered tutu and make-up.

While I am no longer afraid of violins–

“That’s a step,” says Mr. Octopus.

other things scare me and hold me back.

“Like what? I am a mean angry cello and I’m coming to get you!”

Well…like change.

Sure, it’s easy to feel confident when I’m doing the status quo, but when change comes upon me, eek, I start crying like a little girl. That is, until recently.

“Do tell.”

It all started with a sneaky dis-ease around the area of my work. I was grateful to have work teaching in this struggling economy, but for several months felt unhappy. On the surface there was nothing wrong. Yes, I had problems with the public school system that I’d been outspoken about, but I am naturally rebellious, so that’s nothing new. I was not mistreated. I liked and respected the other teachers in the department. The students were sometimes challenging but very lovable. Nor did I expect to be happy at work all the time. It was just that I felt like my time at the high-school, one of several schools I teach at, was up. Expired, like a drug. I felt a need to grow in new ways, ways I knew were not accessible through that system, at least from what I could tell.

As the semester drew to a close, I spent a lot of time praying and meditating on whether or not to stay. I did not have another job lined up. I thought of an earlier time in my life when I was at a similar cross-roads. How, back then, decisions were made for me because I had my head too far up my ass to make them for myself. I was not able to take root on the new path because there was just so much I didn’t know about myself. I was distracted by a bad relationship. I had so much to learn. So much to learn.

As I sat on the couch reflecting on all this, I started listing out loud all the things I had experienced since then: humility, gratitude, service, love…I got myself on a roll listing all this great stuff and was just about to pat myself on the back, when I heard inwardly that there was still something I hadn’t learned: faith. The realization of this hit me hard, like a punch in the stomach.

In fact, in many ways, what I learned at that school prepared me to make my leap of faith. Teaching at a public high-school put some man-hair on my balls, that’s for sure. It helped me to find my voice, take responsibility and lead in ways I never had before. But the big leap I had to make was not so much about whether or not to leave my job, which I did with as much love and grace as I could muster. That was the surface issue. The deeper issue was about trusting myself. Trusting and following my inner voice even in the face of the unknown. So, while I did not have another job lined up, I did hear what my inner voice was saying. I trusted my need to change without placing an expectation on it. I could see from the past that whenever I had this feeling to change and didn’t trust it, I suffered. The more I resisted, the worse the pain got. The symptoms that resulted from a resistance to change could be anything from depression to illness to major injury. Then I would have to deal with that pain on top of what I needed to change. This time, I thought, maybe I’ll just skip that part.

This trust thing was not about making a right versus wrong decision either. I could let go of the pressure to be right. It was about a willingness to be true to myself wherever that led me. And suddenly, the possibility occurred to me that I would be fine. No doomsday scenarios. No dramas. No meanings, please. No righteousness. No arrogance. Lord knows, I made a lot of mistakes without trusting myself. Now I can make some mistakes (and successes) with the support of myself, that is to say, in full alignment with myself. Let’s see how that goes.

And then, I was like, aha! So that’s it! Confidence is simply trusting yourself and then acting on that trust. So sweet. I didn’t expect it to taste like that.

Someone once said great dancing is in the transitions. So too perhaps is a life well lived. The transitions are life.

…and off she marched, into the woods, singing her African song to the earth with scarcely a backward glance.

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Tilly

As a small child, I made a frequent habit of rifling through my mother’s personal belongings in search of adoption papers. Though I could barely read, I was sure I’d recognize said documents once obtained. While I loved my mother deeply, revered her even, I was under the vague suspicion that I was from another galaxy and somehow my transition to earth was the unfortunate mistake of some new guy at the helm of the transporter who botched my coordinates during the beaming down process, whereupon I arrived in the outskirts of Queens near the neighborhood where 50 Cent got shot.

I once confronted my mother on the issue. Did I or did I not arrive in a basket from an alien ship? Though I was quite serious, she laughed and told me to look in the mirror. Although I had my mother’s teeth, hands and black-booty genes I remained skeptical regarding my origins. Sure, I looked human enough. I just didn’t really get them. The humans. They seemed to take everything for granted, even important things like…the ringlets that flutter outward from a stone dropped in a lake. Did they go on forever, those rings? Am I like that? Why is it scary to think about that? Hello! Anybody home? Stupid humans.

My grandmother, Tilly, a quiet, chain-smoking devourer of science fiction novels, seemed like the closest to my species and I naturally gravitated towards her. I’ve heard Native Americans refer to tobacco as “the witness” and Tilly, like me, seemed to have that quality of one who watched. Once-in-a-while, I smoke a cigarette in her honor. Back then, we watched a lot of Star Trek re-runs. Her kitchen always smelled good. There was ice-cream in the freezer and ginger ale in the fridge, always. She didn’t bug me about my homework or discipline me. She didn’t feel the need to do anything to me, to shape me. She let me be who I was and that was a great relief. She never chastised me for sucking my thumb or later, for picking my lips. She saved me from my grandfather’s merciless tickling. She let me jump on the bed. Gave me candy. Made homemade pickles and preserves. I don’t remember any conversations between my grandmother and I. We didn’t speak in words. I was content in her presence.

Nowadays, I see her mostly in the shadows of dancing leaves or in the slanted sideways light of early evening. When I say I “see” her, I don’t mean that literally. It’s more like I sense the essence that she shares with nature through a half-forgotten sense beyond sight. A few times a year, though less and less lately, I revisit her presence at the old house in dreams. It is my shimmery place. My leave-taking of that world is always met with a profound sadness that lingers like an aftertaste upon waking. I’ve often wondered if this is why I can’t have greater, more consistent contact with the shimmery place for which Grandma’s house was a decoy: because the emotional cost of returning “here” is too great to my system. It must therefore remain a special, rare and cherished event. My grandmother, you see, was not like other people. She was the portal, the gate-keeper, to my true home.

In the traditional Dagara culture of Burkina Faso, elders and children have a special relationship. They share something important in common: their proximity to the other world (Healing Wisdom of Africa, p. 124). In traditional cultures, elders are cherished. They hold the greatest responsibility in the community. Indeed, the health and well-being of the entire village depends upon their counsel. A rare few Western elders may attain a sort of eldership status by achieving notoriety through the wisdom expressed in writing books or producing art for instance, but that wisdom is impersonal. It’s not the same as going to grandma’s house. A book can’t make you feel safe. A book can’t understand your specific needs. Can’t listen. Most modern elders are sequestered, unrecognized, rendered useless. It is no surprise that we’re afraid to age. Why should we let go of the illusion of the infinite possibility of youth for a diminished role in society, one that doesn’t honor our hard-earned wisdom?

For women, especially, this shows up as a fear of no longer being sexually desirable. We are taught from a young age that our power resides in our physical attractiveness. But indigenous culture teaches us that there is something special waiting for us after we pass into old age. Nature abhors a vacuum. With the loss of our physical powers a new power may be cultivated but there has to be a sacrifice. One must let go of certain things for that kind of power. Spiritual power.

I guess this is all coming up for me now because I’m at a cross-roads, in need of the guidance of my elders. I want to grow and I don’t know how.

“Can I make a suggestion?” asks Mr. Octopus.

“Sure.”

“Why don’t you try talking to Tilly? Maybe she’s not as farrr away as you think.”


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