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Inner Highway

Last night, for some reason, I thought I should cancel the Tuesday morning ballet class I teach. It was just a gnawing feeling I had. I almost called in, but then I stopped myself. What was I going to say? I’m not coming in tomorrow. Bad juju.

Most people, no matter how nice, are not receptive to someone canceling work or even a social engagement just because something that they can’t explain feels off. In my case, I’m afraid that others will take it personally, or think I’m flakey.

“I’d think you’d be used to that by now,” says Mr. Octopus.

“Ouch.”

“You could have just lied.”

Worse yet, let’s say I had cancelled the class and the bad thing didn’t happen. All went smoothly. I might not have had any outward confirmation that staying home was indeed the right thing. And would I feel good about my decision in the absence of proof? Would I have been able to trust myself? Of course not. I’d be wracked with guilt.

In the previous entry, I wrote about different kinds of thoughts, those that are received as opposed to grasped. What I’m referring to here is distinguishing between our intuitive voice and the ramblings of our overstimulated modern minds. As stated previously, literal thought creates a stumbling block for our intuition. Another pothole on the inner-highway is guilt.

“Well, what happened?” asks Mr. Octopus.

“You know what happened!”

“Rrrelax. Of course I know what happened. You haven’t ceased blubbering about it all day. I’m asking our of rrrespect for your readers. It’s a writing device. Do get over it.”

Well, all last night, as I said, I had this feeling, this intuition to cancel class, but I didn’t. I actually lost sleep over it. In the morning, on my way in, I slipped down the stairs, landing hard on my bum. It hurt, but I didn’t injure myself. It really felt like something was telling me to turn around and go back inside but I didn’t. I taught the class. All seemed fine, but afterwards I went into the parking lot to discover that my car had been towed. As a result, I was late to my next class, and things just went downhill from there.

“All-in-all, that’s not so bad, as things go,” says Mr. Octopus.

“No, not so bad. Worse things do happen. It’s just that, I think I should know better by now, damn it!”

A few years ago, I remember pondering this whole intuition business. Believe it or not given my current spiritual leanings, at that time, I was a bit skeptical. I remembered as a child, just knowing things. Little things for the most part, and I felt, as an adult, a desire to re-acquaint myself with that knowing. But I didn’t know how. Intuition was a gift reserved for certain people, like Scatman Carothers in The Shining, and look at what happened to him.

Anyway, I was driving along on an empty highway one evening around 3am, completely sober and present. I thought to test myself. I thought, hmm, I want to follow my intuition more. And, I swear, I heard inwardly,

“Why don’t you start now?”

“Right now?”

“Yes, right now. Pull over.”

“Huh?”

“Pull over.”

I looked behind me. There was not a car in sight, but I played along and pulled over into the outer right lane. Seconds later, in a flash, two cars came drag racing down the center lanes, seemingly out of nowhere.

“Ok,” I thought. “That really just happened.”

“Yes. That was real. Remember that.”

But last night, in the din of thought, I forgot. I forgot to listen inwardly.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself. Listening takes practice. A lot of prrractice,” says Mr. Octopus.

“Wait. How many are in there talking right now? This is getting confusing.”

Exactly. There’s a lot of stuff going on in there. It takes a lot of practice to first of all, recognize your intuition, to then act on it, and finally, to not feel guilty about it and to free yourself from judgement! Perhaps there are times when guilt is useful, like when a criminal, fueled by real remorse, changes his life to help others.

But for most of us, our guilt is imagined and useless. If I had cancelled class today, or maybe just switched days with another teacher, it would have been no biggie. Furthermore, it would have been in flow.

Can you imagine getting to a point where we actually make room to really listen and support that listening in ourselves and others without judgement or fear? I think we’re afraid to because, in addition to fearing judgement, we’re afraid the inner-listening will be abused. Maybe we’ll all get lazy just sittin’ around, not doin’ stuff because we got the vibe to stay home.

But I think maybe the opposite will happen. Maybe we’ll all start doing the stuff we are really called to do and avoid the stuff that doesn’t serve. It sounds so easy, but I guess it’s not.

“The next time you feel guilty for following your intuition, just remember, you have my permission,” says the O.

“Thanks.”


Rock Ghosts Memory

A few months ago, I attended a ritual right in my neighborhood at Malcolm X park. The ritual was to give thanks to the earth. At its conclusion, a friend picked up a piece of glossy, charcoalish, volcanic rock and held it in her hand as she walked about giving additional offerings to her spirits. A few minutes later she returned with the rock and gave it to me saying simply, “I think this is for you.”

I thanked her and took the rock home, curious. Not knowing what to do with it, I placed it on the mantle over the fireplace. Sometime later I had the idea to place it on my ancestor shrine.

Actually, it was more like I received the idea to put the rock there. Whenever I receive an idea, as oppose to grasp at it, I try to just do it, the received idea, without question. Learning to tell the difference between the two kinds of thoughts has taken me a long time and I often still mess it up.

My teacher, Ken, gave me a tool to help sift through ideas that he got from another student. He said that if you’re not sure about an idea, throw it back in the river. If it comes back to the surface three times, then do it. And no, he doesn’t mean that literally.

Getting past literal-ness is another hurdle when it comes to sifting ideas from those that are fearfully grasped at to those that are received. Our minds are really caught up in duality, things being black and white, things being exactly the word that represents them. It’s hard in our modern world to drop that because, well, literal thinking is like a rampant virus that has bitten us all in a delicate, secret place.

Literal thinking shows up a lot in my dance classes. What I mean is that, more and more, students want a very direct answer for how to get from point A to point B. They imagine their improvement to simply be a matter of following the correct steps. They imagine dancing to be another commodity that they can acquire. It’s hard for them to embrace mystery. They also tend to expect immediate results.

I see this as a result of us being able to access information instantaneously. So when the young people encounter something, such as ballet, that they can’t “click” on, they don’t know what to do. For example, I might get a question like, how do you lift your leg up higher? Then, I will go into a story about how I “found” my extension, a story that spans years of work and includes a lot of stretching and pain. But talking about a process that took years of dedication sounds like a myth to them, whereas when I was their age, I never would have asked such a question in the first place. It was understood that no one was going to find it for you. It was understood that the ones who could already lift their legs very high did not have a formula or a blueprint that they could sell or teach. That is not to say that there aren’t certain practical steps one can take to achieving such things. There are. But those things, those exercises are not a guarantee. They are just exercises, not the thing itself.

What makes someone commit to something long enough to achieve a real transformation is not something that can be bought or easily transferred in any way. Getting modern young people to understand that in our economically, literally driven society is often a challenge I face.

How do I meet that challenge? Well, I try to meet it by telling them stories. By giving them full answers instead of direct ones. I try to provide a place where literal and poetic thought can play together. I encourage them to use their imaginations and to visualize. I try to let them know that the blueprint they are seeking is already inside them and to encourage them to follow their inner knowing, especially when what they know or see does not correspond to what they are taught to want. I try to encourage them to nurture their inner knowing instead of forcing it to emerge as they want it to, which often leads to extreme unhappiness. I know this from my own life.

So, today, I took a bath with my rock on the ledge beside me. The rock was ready to “speak” to me. It opened up my memory. I “met” my maternal great-grandparents: Blanche, after whom my mother is named and Wilfred. I also “met” my Chinese ancestors and my paternal Spanish grandparents: Felica and Jesus. My African ancestors, I’d met earlier, on another occasion. I was led to them by the music of Ali Farka Toure’s In the Heart of the Moon.

They were all tearful reunions. I was able to recognize some of my ghosts. In many indigenous cultures, ancestors that have not been properly mourned with rivers of tears cannot journey to the realm of the ancestors, their rightful place after death. Their lost souls greatly affect the lives of those they’ve left behind. Pain gets handed down from generation to generation until the relationship between the living and the dead is healed. You can probably see evidence of inherited pain in your own life through such things as illness, depression, anger, alcoholism and sexual abuse.

The sexual problems are a real no-no for our culture. We don’t know how to talk about them. We drag those ghosts around and lay them on our children. But by remembering our ancestors, we initiate tremendous healing. In my own case, with the help of the rock, I was able to see my ghosts, my inherited pain, and the light of my awareness brought compassion to that energy, which is deeply healing.

I can imagine some of you reading this and thinking I’ve lost my mind. Others, for whom this resonates might get into their literal head and wonder how does one do this? Don’t worry. I won’t try to sell you anything. Why should I sell you something you already have?

So I will tell you a short story: in the beginning, I approached my ancestors literally, because literacy was the only tool I thought I had. I just started talking, but I tried to feel into them with my heart. Did I feel stupid talking to a mound of dirt (my ancestor shrine)? You betcha. But I tried to let my heart speak through my feelings of inadequacy and doubt.

Start where you are. Connect with others that are supportive of your intentions and similarly driven. Open up to the idea that you can love yourself. Don’t be afraid to sing. Start where you are.


Equal Parts Love and Creativity

A late-morning talk-show hostess gives away a new car to a struggling young couple. On the same show, another woman, also in financial straits, enters a see-through closet structure that has dollar bills blowing around inside. Her task is to grasp as many as she can before the time runs out. She works desperately. The studio audience goes wild.

Eek.

I would like a fistful of money. I would like a new car (no offense to the Grey Pearl, my beloved 1999 Mazda Protege, held together by strips of hot-pink gaffers tape) but, in spite of the cheering crowds, something doesn’t sit right with me in these TV stunts.

I am reminded of a symbol that often arose in my brief study of Hungarian mysticism with teacher Ken: seeing someone in a vision or a dream driving a car. It seems like a common enough sight, but in the spiritual symbology of Hungarian mysticism, this vision indicates someone who is moving forward on their path without actually being connected to it. In other words, the person is doing something that gives them the feeling or illusion of advancement, such as buying a new car, without anything in their life having to change. It is a superficial gesture that does not move them any closer to the fulfillment of their true purpose.

Seeing these talk-show antics reminded me of the car symbol. They feel superficial and exploitative. The receiver walks away with some stuff and the hostess pats herself on the back for a job well done. Everyone resumes life-as-usual, going through the same drive-thru on their way home from work except that now, they’re in a shiny new car!

All these give-aways made me reflect on what it means to perform acts of real service. Again, I’m going to refer to an experience I had with Ken, who is a full-body channel. This means that he is able to leave his body in order to channel your spirit guide who is then able to speak to you directly. I’m sorry if this is too way out there for some readers. All I can say is try to let go of the means of delivery and just hear the message.

I was told (through my spirit guide) that the highest creation or service combines equal parts love and creativity. The example I was given is that you have to find someone or some people who need a mountain range and then build it. I like the example of a mountain range, as opposed to, I don’t know, a strip mall, because it implies the vastness of our potential and combines the element of nature. You can substitute anything that works for you: Find out who needs a school and then build it. Find out who needs a new mythology and write it. Find out who needs a dance piece and then choreograph it, etc. True service always brings transformation to all involved.

The tv giveaways are lacking in the important elements of service; though they meet a need, they lack love and creativity, unless you count someone hysterically groping for money in a wind-booth as creative. It took some imagination to come up with that, sure. But I wonder, the person who envisioned that contraption, where was their heart? Where was their consciousness? Where was their intention? How would they like to see their own mother grovelling on her hands and knees with her support hose showing?

It’s hard for us to be meticulous about our intentions, especially when so much of what we see in popular culture seems to want to exploit humanity, rather than uplift it. We take the cheap shot and are rewarded for it with money and fame.

Sometimes, it’s hard for us to be mindful of our intentions, simply because we have been taught to do things out of a sense of obligation. We are taught to be “professional.” We are afraid that if we honor our own truth, we will disappoint others, or be judged.

Maybe the above mentioned talk-show host plays the game of the free give-aways with her viewers to satisfy intentions that are not her own so that she can have a show at all in which she addresses other issues that are meaningful to her. For all I know, she may be up to her elbows in acts of true altruism, but there’s no evidence of it here. My point is not to judge her. We have all compromised our integrity to play somebody else’s game.

I wonder what my life would look like if I practiced living from my inner-knowing all the time…what our world would look like…oh, the mountain ranges we could make!

“Maybe you should stop watching so much tv,” contributes Mr. Octopus.

“Ok, except for RuPaul’s Drag Race. I love me some drag!”

“Though you know I don’t support the competitive aspect, I’ll allow that. You need a little fun in your life, Donnie Darko.”

“Thanks.”

“By the way, how do I look in this wig?”

“Fabulous, Diva! You betta work!”


More Better than Money

I often read about the spiritual experiences of others. I find these stories to be a source of inspiration, a way to stay connected with my own desire to nurture that non-physical part of myself, especially when I feel tugged down by the every day blues. I especially like stories about death, near-death, psychics, aliens, gurus, fairies, angels, saints, masters of every sort, Atlantis, Egypt, dreams, out-of-body experiences, and shamans. Ordinary stories about just noticing shit really turn me on too. I love to talk about the sunshine, the moon, the lake, the trees, prayer, beauty, meditation, art, music, lyrics, poetry and flowery language of every sort.

Eloquence is an important part of indigenous culture. Words have the power to bring things to life. Speaking beautifully is one of the sacred things we’ve sacrificed for the sake of crappy technology. Some would argue that language has merely changed because of technology. That it is always evolving. I think we should worry a little more about sustaining things instead of evolving. We abuse that word so. Evolve. Maybe we are devolving. I’m sorry but OMG does not feed the soul. It does not acknowledge the soul because OMG doesn’t have a soul–

“Are you done?” asks Mr. Octopus.

“What? I was just saying–”

“I believe you are rrranting. Do you have a point?”

“Oh, yeah, there was something I wanted to say. Something’s got me all worked up!”

“Let’s pause for a second.”

“Good idea.”

[PAUSE PAUSE PAUSE PAUSE PAUSE]

“Betterrr?”

“Yeah. I think it worked.”

In the spring, the students I teach at the public arts high school here in Boston have a concert. At the end of this show, we have a tradition where the students call all of the five teachers from the dance department onto the stage and present us with flowers. It is very touching.

Last year, as I was presented with a bouquet, one of my students thanked me for helping them to get in touch with their spiritual side. In that moment, I realized they got me! They heard me! It was a very affirming moment.

By “following my bliss,” as Joseph Campbell says, towards all things spiritual, a little of that magic, that wisdom, found its way to my students. Hurray!  I want to make it clear that I do not see myself as a font of spiritual wisdom and authority of any sort. A lover of spirit, yes, and a fool. But spirit can sometimes usurp even a fool’s tongue. My student’s comment was a little victory for the Luke Skywalker inside us all.

The more I work in education, however, the more I see how it is increasingly driven by a business model rather than a spiritual one. (Well, most of our spiritual models have become bankrupted, which is perhaps the subject of another entry). This rotten, business, soul-sucking way of living through getting more, more, more has seeped its poison into education.

Of course, this unexamined business model showing up in education is not the conscious intention of dedicated educators and parents. Many have fought and are fighting against it. But this seepage is happening while most are all too caught up in the hardship of daily survival to notice. It is slinking into our classrooms under such glossy titles as No Child Left Behind.

In school, as in business, we have become obsessed about showing growth through data. Influenced by business, we made the erroneous leap in logic that assumes that an increase in test scores is somehow a measure of the growth of a human being. Well, I’m sorry, but just because a teacher has managed to shove some information down a student’s throat, through cleverness, intimidation, manipulation and force (usually because the teachers themselves are being forced) does not mean that that student, that person, has somehow grown.

And what do we want them to grow into? Better human beings? Naaah. We are teaching them to become people who will fit in unquestioningly to this modern system ruled by greed, power and fear. We send them to college where most become initiated to a life of debt. The rich just want to make sure they keep getting richer and they need our young people, body and soul, to do that.

We teach them to line up and play the game. Bliss? Shmiss! Get a job! We are so good at teaching them to get a job, that is, when there are jobs to be gotten, that the majority of people who graduate from college end up with a job that had nothing to do with their major. Now that’s success! Furthermore, we teach them the importance of “good communication skills” when it comes to getting that all-important job, but we don’t teach them how to connect deeply with whom or what they are communicating.

OMG.

We boast that we are teaching them how to be of “service,” but what we are really teaching them is how to go out and get what they want under the guise of serving a good cause in order to satisfy a selfish agenda. It’s based on business, based on colonialism. Everyone looks good on the surface, masking a hollowness, an inauthenticity. In a recent school meeting, I heard some teachers speak proudly of how they had taught students to make cold-calls. Really? This is how we do things now? We take. We take. We take. And since we’ve convinced ourselves that we are taking for a good cause, that makes it alright.

It is not alright. Respect and authenticity matter. True service, giving one’s gifts to those who have expressed a need, matters. These things actually make life better. More better than money. What good is a bunch of money if we are spiritually poor? Rich people who are spiritually poor have proven themselves to be disastrous to all life. If we start focusing on teaching our kids how to live, instead of how to pass a test, how to get over, then maybe we can restore some beauty to this world.

I’m so fed up with the business machine and its insidious nature of taking the most while giving the least, or giving nothing at all. Shamelessly it corrupts even our most sacred traditions and institutions. I am against the lie that money makes the world go ’round. It does not. It never has.

When I was dancing, I didn’t make a lot of money, but I felt rich. Nothing I could buy could give me the good vibes I got after a great, hot, sweaty class. Writing this blog and the people who read it make me feel rich. Nature makes me feel rich. Being in ritual makes me feel rich. Spirit makes me feel rich. My boyfriend makes me feel rich, rich, rich. My family and friends make me feel rich. My students make me feel rich (sometimes).

“What am I? Chopped liverrr?” asks Mr. Octopus.

“Oh, sorry! And Mr. Octopus makes me feel rich!”


The Quiet Party

In the silence, things are revealed.

Things that cannot be heard in the noise of modern life.

For the most part, our culture fears silence because of its revelatory power, both good and bad. We do have so many secrets.

Usually, the first thing us humans encounter in the silence is our thoughts. So we fear the silence because, we fear our own thoughts. And wouldn’t you know it? The pesky ones we try so hard to push away are usually the first to surface.

That’s a drag, so instead we block out the silence. We come home, we go to the fridge and we turn on the tv. We push our consciousness through a kind of predictable tunnel. And the tunnel has a weight, a momentum that is hard to break.

It takes a big experience like falling in love or the loss of a loved one to crack open the tunnel. But the thing is, no matter how life altering the experience, we have an uncanny way of eventually finding our way back to the tunnel where things are safe, warm and pretty doggone mediocre. Well, lately, mediocrity is even giving the tunnel too much credit. We’ve sunk somewhere below mediocrity into absurdity.

The silence, however, is a challenge to the tunnel. Like love and loss, silence also opens us up. It allows us to become present with our boredom, our emptiness. Thoughts, as I’ve said, crowd in, deafening. But over time, one learns how to sift through those thoughts. You put the defeating ones on a shelf, or maybe you surrender to them with tears, but not for too long. You put the habitual ones on another shelf, and just try to keep a friendly distance from those. You put the thoughts of others on yet another shelf for further inspection. (But be careful. The sifting of thoughts can become a tunnel of its own.)

Then every once-in-awhile, in the silence you recognize an exciting thought that leads you down the rabbit hole. It stirs something within you, like the memory of a distant voice. Maybe it is hardly a voice at all and more like a feeling. It stirs you to action. Maybe you write it down. Maybe you make a collage. Maybe you fix something. Maybe you share your idea with another. Maybe you make the bed.

Or maybe you just shut up and listen. And then respond. Listen. Respond. You begin to have a conversation with what is. In the silence, our senses unfurl, like tendrils. We hear the wind. Bird. We smell the air, and perhaps notice that when the sun comes out for a moment from behind the clouds on a grayish day, the grass responds to the sun by releasing a stronger scent. Smell the greeting of the grass and the sun.

Wow.

It is all so alive.

In the silence, one can slip into the role of the third person who watches. From that perspective, when someone, let’s say, cuts you off in traffic, you become frustrated for a moment, sure. You are yanked back down to a lower consciousness. But if you’ve been practicing as the watcher, you are more easily able to slip back into higher consciousness.

I don’t mean to imply that the higher consciousness is a way to avoid emotion. You feel the anger but in the silence, you more easily and quickly move to another place, like finding shade on a hot day. Why stay hot when the shade is right next to you?

Maybe to be enlightened means that you live in that higher consciousness all the time, or, I don’t know, 90% of the time. Those people, from what I’ve heard, have had some kind of major divine intervention. For most of us poor schmucks it’s just something we have to practice. It’s hard for a beginner like me and very time consuming, but also cleansing, like a good poop.

“And one should never underestimate the satisfaction of a good poop, I always say,” says Mr. Octopus, who is, pretty much, enlightened.

It’s called higher consciousness because it lifts you higher. Duh! Sort of like being high, but with better side affects.

And I suspect there’s more to the silence than even all of that. It’s exciting. But for now, this is as far as I’ve gotten.

So, what the hell? Turn off that tv once-in-awhile. Turn off that radio. Let the emptiness emerge and let the quiet part begin! Whoop whoop! The secrets are not as bad as we think. The truth is always better, even though its emergence is sometimes painful.

“Like a poop,” says Mr. Octopus.

“Yes, just like a hard poop,” I agree.

In silence we can hear the truth of ourselves, and, well, it’s not all bad! Geesh!


Infinite Yumminess

My boyfriend broke his neck when he was 19. Before he went under the knife, he was asked to sign a do-not-resuscitate order in case the operation failed. He was not religious. For him, like many, God was a tainted word. In that moment, pen in hand, facing his own death, he recalled some music by the Grateful Dead. He felt peace when he remembered that music and put his faith in that. Then he signed.

The story of my boyfriend’s accident is devastating to me, all except that part. That moment when he was able to accept his death peacefully. To this day, he does not fear death. That is a great gift.

I, on the other hand, worry about my impending death and the death of my loved ones all the time. Over the years, I have managed to work myself into quite the tizzy. Sometimes I wonder how I will make it through the day, assaulted as I am by images of everything from car accidents to spontaneous combustion.

I have read books about death and meditated on death a lot. Indeed, my spiritual searching was often fueled by a fear of death. Death meditations and inspirational literature provided some measure of comfort, but then, three years ago, I had the dream and it’s been down hill ever since.

“Tell them about the drrream…” says Mr. Octopus.

Ok. First, I want to say that my dear teacher and friend, Ken, says that there are three types of dream. The first and most common is a dream that is a normal processing of life’s daily events. For instance, my car is dying, speaking of death, and I dreamt the other night that I was driving upside down and couldn’t get the car to right itself. That’s an example of the first kind of dream.

The second kind of dream is a message from spirit. I have these dreams less frequently and recognize them by their powerful emotional impact. For instance, in one of these dreams I may connect with the spirit of a loved one who has passed.

The third kind of dream is a premonition.

“Have you had one of those?” asks Mr. Octopus.

“Ay, there’s the rub.”

Three years ago, I had a dream that I was being told that I would die at the age of 50 from stomach cancer and that it would be very painful. Ever since then, it’s like my fear of death has mounted me. I can’t really shake it with any amount of meditation. It wakes me up sometimes in the middle of the night. Now, I have always suspected that great emotions, if you are able to allow yourself to have them, to really sit with them, leave a gift behind. At least that has been my experience and my way of working with things like sorrow, jealousy and anger, but this fear of death thing was unshakeable.

Nevertheless, I tried my best not to run away when it came up and yesterday it came up. And what do you know? I had a little break-through.

“Do tell.”

Well, I was taking a shower and the panic came up accompanied by a sense of defeat. I was just so tired of always being afraid. You see, I’d always imagined that death would be agonizing, like every cell in your body exploding, like being burned alive, a great force that moved through your whole being and shattered you in a flash of ultimate and exquisite pain.

“Rough.”

Yeah. So there I was in the shower with the usual death-fear blossoming in my chest, imagining every cell exploding, brains on the carpet, eye balls poppin’ out, when I had a thought. A new thought. A small voice spoke.

“What did it say?”

It was so small and clear. I don’t know where it came from and I don’t know why I couldn’t have heard it until now. Couldn’t have accepted it until now. I’d spent so much time considering every possible gruesome way to die, for my loved ones to die. But after I heard this new thing, something changed. I thought that maybe death wasn’t to be consumed by pain. It was to be consumed by, by, how can I say it, infinite yumminess. A light, a love, so wondrous as to be unnameable. I know that’s not a new idea. It was just new for me.

“What did the voice say?”

I was suddenly delighted standing there in the shower. Every thing now seemed possible. Love seemed possible. Pain seemed possible. Even death. Why hadn’t I ever considered that before? Sure, I still didn’t know what death was, but somehow, that new thought, that quiet voice, felt more right than any fear I’d ever had.

“WHAT THE FUCK DID IT SAY?” shouts Mr. Octopus. He rarely ever shouts.

“You rarely ever shout,” I say, somewhat stunned out of my reverie.

“Tell me what it said or I will sit on your head.”

“No. I can’t say it. You won’t understand.”

“Herrre I come.”

“Ok! OK! Get off my fucking head!”

“Tell me what it said first!”

“Stop strangling me!”

“Tell me!”

“OK! Alright!”

It said, so simply,

God loves you.

Imagine my surprise.

Especially considering that the part of me that receives love was broken some time ago. Do-not-resuscitate. Well, I guess not completely broken. This voice, so simple, so quiet. I heard it clear. In my heart. And the accompanying thought of death-as-infinite-yumminess was not like an intellectualization. It was something that I felt, I heard, also in my heart.

“Fine. Just don’t ring my doorbell on Sunday mornings, talking about God.”

“Funny. That’s the thing. I hardly ever use that word.”

“Well. Happy Thanksgiving.”


Ballet Body, Ballet Spirit

At it’s finest, ballet evokes grace, beauty, dignity, elegance, assiduousness, refinement, humility, respect and spiritual purity in an individual who is willing to endure its demands in a course of serious study. I’m not saying it will make you a saint. I’m saying that it will reveal these qualities within you in moments. And these moments, if consciously recognized and embraced may bleed into other areas of your life. In this way, like a rock transforming into a crystal, the art of ballet may be used as a tool for transformation.

Ballet is not the only way to embody these qualities. It is just one way and it may or may not suit any particular person’s style. However, I’ve suspected that people get turned off of ballet because when they see it on stage, it often appears that these  qualities are reserved for a particular race, economic status and body type and leave many feeling excluded.

My first experience of ballet was in a poor little studio above a liquor store with a bloated linoleum floor and no mirrors. We danced to the musical strains of a scratchy old record player. My first teacher was black. The other students were of all races. There was no sense of elitism or prestige. Nevertheless, authentic beauty and spirit reigned in Miss Joan’s little classroom and I loved her.

As the 21st century world seems, at least according to the tv commercials, to be more inclusive of race, body type, sexual preference and, you know, all those things that outwardly make us different, the world of ballet seems to be, like the fashion world, tightening its grip and promoting exclusion in the area of body type: only the thinnest, finest facilities need apply.

At a recent concert, I was appalled to hear a ballet school director lean over and whisper with regret that one particular girl, though talented, had a poor body. I couldn’t for the life of me see what he was talking about. The young dancer’s body was fine, in fact better than fine to my standards. I nodded kindly to the director’s comment as one would to a child’s ramblings or a crazy bum on the street.

Beautiful bodies have always been prized in ballet. But what is desired now takes things to a whole different extreme. Women should have the proportions and flexibility of a rhythmic gymnast. Certain stars of the ballet world have made this look fashionable at the expense of other kinds of bodies that are perfectly able to dance ballet and have other strengths. It seems to me that there used to be room for variations in body type as different types were designated for different roles. Not everyone plays the princess. But it seems nowadays, to get your toe in the door, it has to fit within a narrower and narrower aesthetic range.

I remember a young woman who I trained with who had, even for that time, a difficult body for ballet. Nevertheless, she was an extraordinary talent. You simply could not deny her. She went on to become a soloist with a reputable company. But in today’s world, I just don’t think she would have a chance. That is so, so sad to me. Do I really want to teach in and represent a world that would not allow her to dance? Honestly, I am starting to hate it. I think the ballet world is literally starving itself to death.

I want to make it clear that I am not against a beautiful, easy body. I just think that the ballet world has strayed from what ballet is actually about. It is not about the body itself. The body is just a tool, like a hammer. We fools are all sitting around admiring the beautiful hammer instead of the beautiful house it could make. And the thing is, the more houses you make, the prettier your tools get.

For any body that approaches ballet, easy or challenging, the task is the same: to go through the body in order to transcend the body. I have noticed that often those with easy facilities get stuck at the physical level. Because the physical level is easy, they never encounter the struggle, the pain of the spirit breaking free. But the struggle is in fact there for anyone who attempts ballet. If you have not found it because you have an easy body, it just means that you are not digging deeply enough. Those with more challenging bodies encounter the struggle to transcendence immediately and recognize that struggle as essential. In other words, when you are in so much pain, in order to continue  your practice, you have to connect with something else. Something higher, spiritual, energetic, whatever you want to call it.

That is the goal in the practice of ballet. You are not the picture. You are merely the frame that houses the picture, whether you have a pretty frame or a mediocre frame. Either way, the frame must be transformed in the process of training so that it has the strength and stamina to house the picture. (That is what teaching and mentoring is about. I wonder if this emphasis on body type is partly a result of lazy teaching).

And the picture that you are framing…well, that’s the light. Your body is from that light. It is beautiful and worthy in the eyes of that light and that light loves to flow through you.


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.


Crystal Baby

(No, not crystal meth).

I am often teased about my metaphysical interests in astrology, tarot, crystals, q-links, channeling and the like. It’s fine. I even laugh at myself with regards to it all. I don’t pretend to understand any of it. Nor do I  feel the need to convince anyone of the efficacy of various modalities. It just makes sense to me that everything is energy and for certain things to work, like crystals for example, you have to interact with them. You have to build a relationship with them. Work is the wrong word really. In my experience, the crystal doesn’t perform a specific function (shazzam!) like a printer or a coffee maker. Let’s just say that if you’re in its field of resonance and are open to it, it may stimulate something within you, be it healing, creativity, a hard-on, or whatever.

I wasn’t always so open though. Several years ago, I went to see an acupuncturist. I had just rejoined Dance Theatre of Harlem after a few years’ hiatus. I was not in the best shape and was extremely sore and overwhelmed. My system was a wreck after over a decade of struggling with eating disorders. Anyway, the therapist started putting the needles in and I felt wave upon wave of energy passing through me, quite forcibly, as meridians opened.  I became light-headed and asked her to slow down. After a short rest, she resumed poking and for a horrible moment, I felt as if every cell in my body would explode. I managed a feeble, “Whoa Nelly!” before passing out.

I’d gone into needle shock which is very rare. I don’t want to scare anyone who’s considering acupuncture. Now that my system is a lot stronger, I get acupunctured and love it. But back then, I freaked out.  I didn’t blame the therapist who was experienced and highly recommended. I blamed myself for being such a hot mess. She recommended more treatments because my system was so weakened, but this was out of the question. I came close to crapping myself and didn’t want to experience that again. (Oh, the shame!) So, she left me with this parting piece of advice: to meditate with a rose quartz crystal in my left hand.

She was intelligent and successful. Nothing about her screamed “freak”  so I figured, what the hell. I had nothing to lose and I desperately needed some healing. I dizzily wandered down to St. Marks Place in New York City and found a rose quartz orb that fit nicely in the palm of my hand. I was not a very experienced meditator at this point and kinda just sat there waiting for something to happen. Nothing did. Bupkaz. Feeling gipped, I forgot about it, but not quite…

We had unfinished business, the crystal and me. Even though I moved a dozen times since then, the rose quartz was never left behind with the salvaged coffee table and the chipped plates. Gradually, I developed a meditation practice. One day while sitting, my inner voice chimed in and informed me that I had to interact with the crystal. I had to have a relationship with it. Duh. The therapist told me this, but I didn’t really get it until then. Maybe I had only just become ready for it.

Now, like most people, I am stuck in my head a lot of the time. But there is something unsatisfying about those endless rounds of thoughts, like a carrot perpetually dangling in front of your nose that you can never… quite…get at.  This is another thing I am sometimes teased about. The way I want to know things that I cannot know but never cease searching for, as if the answer lies hidden in the crevices of my mind ready to spring out when the right note is sounded, like a secrets to the universe Jack-in-the-Box. He’s a petty thief of a deity, really, that Jack. Jack Ass in the box of my mind.  It’s really annoying.

My early meditations with the rose quartz were mostly cathartic, but today, I sat with it and realized that the path, for me, through all this life I have to live, through all the questions about the nature of existence and of consciousness, must be lived in the heart, not in the mind. I realized that the mind is never going to deliver what I hope it will. The heart’s truth is the way. The questions themselves are not to be understood, or the answers known. The questions are to be felt in the heart. The task is to feel into the question itself, not to avoid the feeling with the mind’s knowing. It’s like I’ve been looking in the wrong place all this time. It makes sense, though, to avoid the heart, because it’s awesome. How much the heart can hold. How much pain.

You may wonder, after such a revelation, if the crystal had anything to do with it. And, well, the answer is, I don’t know.

And that’s the point.


Harvard vs. the Unknown

IMG_0602When I was about eight or nine, my dance teacher at the time, Miss Joan, looked at me hard and asked me if I wanted to be a dancer. Looking down, afraid to meet the intensity of her gaze, I meekly shook my head yes. I had never uttered the words, “I want to be a dancer” out loud. Some things are too close to be spoken.

For a long time I thought everyone was like this. Everyone knew the blueprint of their becoming. I recognized my dancerness early on as a mere fact of my birth like my sex and the color of my eyes. Miss Joan’s question surprised me.  I didn’t think I had a choice.

In my single-minded pursuit of  dancing, I quit high school at seventeen, got a GED, and joined a company. At that time, I didn’t give much thought to going to college. Now, at 39, I have what amounts to roughly three years of college credits that I acquired from three different universities in a higgliddy-piggliddy sort of fashion, going to school here and there during lay-offs or periods of injury when I didn’t know what else to do with my life. I always managed to learn something that brought me to greater self-understanding, although it was an expensive way to learn about oneself. This year, I finally paid off my student loans, bringing my credit score back up to positive numbers. Thank god for the two universities that actually employ me!  I will probably finish my degree at some point because I hate to leave loose ends. It messes with my need for simplicity.

But I don’t want to get into the positives and negatives of today’s colleges. That’s a worthy topic for another blog. What I do want to talk about is what to do if you’re a dancer who has to choose between college and joining a company.

First of all, let me say that it doesn’t have to be either/or. There are many programs now that will allow you to work gradually towards a degree at night, on-line, or whatever. But ballet, more than modern or other dance forms, emphasizes youth. Especially important is the time between ages seventeen to about twenty one when you are expected to join a company.

Many parents of prospective freshman approach me to ask what I think is the best route. They are torn between the seeming security of a college diploma and the uncertainty of dancing for one’s dinner. They want to lay out a clearly cut path for their children that leads to a safe and beautiful place. They are afraid that their child will fail.

But failure, I mean the crying-on-the-bathroom-floor kind, is an inevitable part of any life. So is risk. What terrifies me more than failure is that someone will not fulfill their talent, their blueprint. That someone will have to face death not having delivered their light into the world. We will all die, but will we dance our dance? On some days, it’s because I have a garbage can full of failures that I dance.

My advice to the parent is that they allow their child to follow their own heart, at which point  the parent usually says, yes, but shouldn’t they get their degree first? Now, I am a sort of put-all-your-eggs-in-one-basket-kamikaze-kind-of-girl, so I say, well, that might make you feel better (to the parent) but, in ballet, as I’ve said, time is of the essence. The having-something-to-fall-back-on approach won’t necessarily help your child in this situation. I emphasize that  it’s important for the young artist to spend several years focusing on their art and to realize that each person’s path is unique. Just because it is not well trod doesn’t make it bad. It just makes it yours and yours alone.

For some, college after high school is best. For others, it is not, and if you or your child falls into the latter group, know that you are not alone. Believe me, Harvard will be there, and if it isn’t, then the world will probably have changed drastically to one in which Harvard and the like will have been rendered unnecessary.

I like college. I just don’t think it’s the promised land. I don’t believe in a promised land at all, which is just another way of saying that nothing is guaranteed. I do believe that there is a wisdom inside each heart that is far superior to any external authority, and that we should spend more time teaching our children to put faith in that.


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