Monthly Archives: December 2011

Tai’s Room Part II: Daughter of Africa

Before I enter the museum, I have to breathe. I have to take long breaths and consciously let go. I can’t just walk in off the street with all that worldly smut clinging to me. Even just getting there and circling the Fenway for twenty minutes looking for parking is stressful. So I have to let go. Drop the pace. Find the moon. Tune.

Then I enter and let myself be guided. Getting lost is rather the point, though it is impractical when one has to pee and can’t find a bathroom. Plus I’m shy and afraid to ask the guards for directions. They look mean. Especially that big one on loan from Spofford. So, off I go, hunting for those universal bathroom signs with the triangle lady/rectangle man and their floaty round heads, when I  instead find myself not in the bathroom at all, but in the room of African artifacts. Goddamnit.

Oh, this is a clever trick of my unconscious (or something else) indeed, because I’ve been avoiding this room. This room is not like other “art” to me, to be viewed from my own, comfortable, self-indulgent perspective, basking in the reflected shimmer of oil paints or whatever.

I was unsure of how to approach it, but it was too late to turn back. They saw me. They’ve seen me every time I’ve come. What was I waiting for? With all due respect, little sister, you should have come to us first. Showing up in this room felt like being put on the spot to give a speech at a wedding. I was afraid of what to say, what I could possibly say, having nothing to say. I don’t know why I felt this way, but I did.

“You know exactly why,” says Mr. Octopus.

I received my little glass of the thick, dark liquid and drank. The ayahuasca worked its way through my system, taking a reading of me from the inside out. In a while, my solar plexus felt charged, on fire. I heard some African music (Ali Farka Toure’s “In the Heart of the Moon”) coming from the speakers on the other side of the room. I had to be near that music. It seemed to be calling me. I couldn’t stand, so I crawled to where the sound emanated. I wanted with all my being to touch this music. Oh, please, if I can just touch you, so beautiful.

Once I settled in by the speakers,  I felt a sudden unexpected rush of emotion. A kind of summary of slavery and colonialism tore through me. It was not like reading about these things from a textbook. It was like having pain rip through you, entering your back and out through your guts like a horde of hungry poltergeists. I was left drowning and screaming and crying on the floor, eviscerated. 

Then, through this music, I heard, with my inner ear, the warmest, kindest male voice “speaking” to me. I grew up without my father and have never known a father’s love until I heard this voice that I recognized as Father. With a love I cannot describe in earthly language, he said, “You are a daughter of Africa. Come home.” And I laid down in the amnion of my father’s music for a long, long time.

A classical music concert just started nearby. Late-comers rushed through the African room on their way in. I waited for the foot traffic to die down. Alone, finally, I spoke out loud to all the sacred vessels and to the spirits they served: I am sorry. I am sorry I didn’t come here first during previous visits to the museum. I sometimes don’t know what to do with all the love I have for you. You remind me of my spiritual longing and it hurts. I am sorry that you were taken and neutralized behind glass, treated as dead artifacts instead of the sacred conduits for beings that are very much alive. I hope that someday you will be returned home.

I felt inwardly that my apology was received and that I was now free to move about the room. I found a photograph of a Fon altar dating from the mid 19th to early 20th century. The description of the photograph describes a central figure with a top hat and pipe and goes on to say, “The figure probably represents Yovogan, a special minister named by King Guezo (ruled 1818-1858) to oversee foreigners and trading houses in Ouidah.”

My inner-knowing perked its little head up like a hot turkey timer. I looked more closely. Hmmm. Very suspicious. I don’t think that’s a politician sitting up on that altar. I could be wrong, but in the top hat and pipe I recognize deities: Elegua to the Fon and Papa Legba to Haitians. It’s possible that Yovogan channeled Elegua in ritual, or even imitated his dress in public, but in any event, I’m convinced that the writers of this placard did not do their homework. So I write a little sign of my own (hee hee hee) that says “I am not Yovogan,” and affix it above the photograph with a piece of chewing gum. (Hee hee hee).

Next, I move to the Nigerian carved stone head, chewing gum at the ready. The placard reads that “this piece was perhaps intended to memorialize the dead.” From what I understand, traditional Africans would not memorialize their dead like we do here in the west. For them, the dead are not reduced to memory. They are alive in another realm and very much involved with us who are still embodied. So, I write another sign that says, “I am not a memorial” and stick it to the glass.

At this point, a guard enters the room with his walkie-talkie, talking. He sits down. Are they on to me? I flat-out ask him, harumph, if he’s watching me, curious as to why I’ve suddenly become so bold when a few minutes ago I was too shy to ask directions to the bathroom. Caught off guard, literally, he stumbles with his words and finally manages to confess that he’s just trying to get away from his boss! Hee hee hee.

Anyway, now under surveillance, I have to quit my chewing-gum shenanigans. I wander as unsuspiciously as possible back over to the cases. I wonder what it would be like to dance behind a ritual mask, to channel those spirits.

There is a Chokwe mask used to honor female ancestors. Do the Chokwe want their mask back? And the Makonde? Do they want their mask back? And the Dan and the Fang and the Vai? Who are these people? I have heard of the Goths, the Vikings, the Celts, the Basques, the Bretons and many other European groups, but these names are all new to me.

Hello. I hope to meet you someday soon.

I never did find that bathroom.


Tai’s Room

I dreamt it was a clear day. There was something moving in the sky, transparent yet luminous, holding its own changing shape. I wondered what it was, but no amount of wondering could bring it closer to me or me to it. My thoughts were like a barrier keeping us apart. So, I expressed my longing for this thing, and the simple openness of my desire brought us together, before the words had even escaped my lips.

Since I stopped dancing full-time about four years ago, I have searched for a new place for myself. Teaching and choreographing have been invaluable experiences and have provided me with an income, but something’s missing there. Even when I danced, I had this awful “something missing” feeling constantly gnawing away at me. It’s just that being a professional dancer is so all-consuming that I was able to push that feeling to the back burner for a while. For years, actually.

But now that I am past that phase of my life, the gnawing has returned in full force. What is my purpose and where do I belong? I know this is a common enough question. I look around me and it seems that I am not alone. Many people feel unfulfilled on that level. But then, every once in a while, I encounter someone who is in their glow. In their dharma. And it shows. You see, I do believe we come here with an intention. This intention, this purpose, may have nothing to do with one’s career, but I have this notion that for me at least, my spirituality and my outward work want to align.

“Yes. It’s called a mid-life crrrisis,” says Mr. Octopus.

When searching for our purpose, great teachers like Malidoma Some and Joseph Campbell tell us to follow what we are naturally drawn to, or as Campbell puts it to “follow your bliss.” Well, see that’s the trouble. I spent so many years focusing on nothing but dancing, that I didn’t make room to do things I liked. And sadly, for many of those years, I didn’t even like dancing. I felt bound to it, but that is not the same as love. It was fueled with ambition, but that’s not love either.

I guess I loved it in a way, but it didn’t make me happy as it once did. There is a part of me hoping that I will one day rediscover my love for dancing and that thought brings tears to my eyes. When did it stop being my passion? I think it was the moment I stopped loving myself. I thought I had to sacrifice myself for it, but dancing never asked that of me. So, anyway, that’s all to say, I never had a hobby. I like to read, but that doesn’t really count. Or if it does, it’s not enough.

It sort of feels like when you break up from one of those terrible relationships with a domineering partner. After the relationship is over you go shopping by yourself and you keep asking what would so-and-so like? Then you realize that so-and-so’s opinion doesn’t matter anymore, but you don’t know what dress to pick because everything you’ve done for the past thirty years has been to please him!

“I am going to smack you,” says Mr. Octopus.

“No, no. I’m fine.”

“Then why are you crying? There, therrre, bups…you know, you may be deluded with all this destiny stuff, but I have to say, I admire your conviction. You just keep holding onto your little light.”

A very cool older gentleman that I met on retreat recently had an idea. He suggested I find a room of my own. A place where I can go, away from the distractions of home to just be. Just be with my stuff. Just listen. I took this request to my ancestor altar and followed up by asking several artist friends about renting studio space. I even asked a neighbor if I could rent out a room in her empty apartment until she found tenants. None of these leads worked out and truth be told, I cannot afford another two hundred bucks a month for a listening space.

I was just about to give up on my search when my future in-laws showed up for a visit. We all went to the Museum of Fine Arts here in Boston. Now, Mr. Conan-future-husband is an artist himself and when he goes to the museum, he goes with an agenda. Also, as a natural pack leader, he is not open to me staying behind and catching up with everyone later. The pack has to stay together. Fine. It’s his thing.

Actually, his attitude was a gift. While being dragged through the modern art wing by my retinas, I made mental notes to myself of all the things I wanted to look at more closely during another visit. I imagined that I would return alone and just wander around and that’s exactly what I did.

The museum is open several nights a week until 9:45 pm. Except for the occasional tours, which are easily avoided, or the couple out on a date, it is easy to get lost in galleries and have long quiet moments to myself. Also, check it out, Mr. Conan works as an installer at several museums throughout the city so I can go as often as I want for free!

So I go. I roam for hours. I take my shoes off and sit down and let myself be washed with beauty. And I suddenly realize, I have found my listening room. I remember as a child, I would sit and pour over my mother’s art books for hours like this. I would place myself inside the painting. Sometimes I do that (John Singer Sergeant “A Capriote” 1878). Or sometimes I really get into the story (Winslow Homer “The Fog Warning” 1885: A lone fisherman in a tiny rowboat in rough waters. Will he make it home? He’s looking over his shoulder at the fog rolling in. He must be a strong fella. Two big fish in his boat, probably cod, etc.).

I don’t know if being the crazy lady at the museum is my destiny, but I found something to love, and that’s enough for now.


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