Tag Archives: Malidoma Some

Artist Challenge Part I

I am honored to be nominated for the Facebook five-day artist challenge by the beautiful Christina Johnson. I first saw Christina dancing Third Theme from Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments. She had one of the most exquisite lines I’d ever seen. It was back in the day when ballet line was still in proportion. What I mean is that with the advent of dancers like Sylvie Guillem, the idea of line has gone beyond the human scale which I sometimes find grotesque. It’s like the CGI of ballet. It’s like ballet porn.

While I was at the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Glen Tetley came to choreograph an original ballet loosely based on the I Ching. It was called Dialogues. Christina Johnson and Donald Williams were the first cast of the opening movement, scherzo something or other. I was the second cast with Eddie Shellman. Glen utilized Christina’s line beautifully. I started stretching like a maniac because I felt a daunting task lay ahead of me. It took me a few years to grow into that role. It was one of the most challenging experiences I had as a dancer. My middle name was back spasm.

Later, Christina left DTH to dance in Switzerland. Her dancing transformed at the age of forty, when most other dancers are retired. She finally found the right teacher, the right environment and the balance of strength and surrender within to blossom even further. Thank you, Christina, for all you gave and continue to give.

***

Dancing is a lot of things. It’s an exercise of the imagination. It’s a conversation. It’s a way both sides of the duality play with each other. It is to make love to the Is-ness that is everywhere.

My mother told me that from a very young age, I danced. It was as natural to me as breathing. I danced so often that friends and relatives repeatedly advised her to put me in a dance school, but she resisted fearing I was too young. Finally, one afternoon, in our building’s basement laundromat, an old Russian woman saw me twirling around the washers and dryers and would not let the matter rest. She insisted that my Grandmother, who was watching me at the time, promise to enroll me in a dance school, and so, the matter was settled.

I remember my first ballet class, at around age six. The teacher placed me behind another girl who’d already been attending classes so that I might follow her. We placed our heels together with the toes facing out in first position. We slowly extended our legs to the front, pointing our feet at the end, and brushed the foot to close back to first. We repeated the movement to the side, maintaining a turned-out stance throughout, and again to the back. The girl, for no reason it seemed, turned her extended leg in to the back and crunched her toes under. I decided that couldn’t be right. Why would we turn out in all of the other directions except the back? I turned my leg out to the back and ignored her for the rest of class.

After the barre, we went into the center of the room. We made a gesture as though picking up a bunch of flowers in our arms and throwing them away. I played along but thought condescendingly, this class was for babies.

Shortly afterwards, I was taken to another dance school run by Joan Millen Mesh, an African American dancer and Julliard graduate. I adored Miss Joan and worshipped her daughter, Sharrell Mesh from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, who sometimes taught our class when she wasn’t away on tour.

At Miss Joan’s we learned modern dance and ballet basics, all in one class. There were no mirrors in the studio. My earliest experiences of dance grew from the inside out, as a pure emotional expression as opposed to trying to achieve an external aesthetic. I danced my feelings.

Miss Joan took me to audition for the School of American Ballet when I was 9 years old. At SAB, I came to see that dance could be a career, a way of life. I got to observe very advanced dancers and had some wonderful teachers, but I mostly remember my time at SAB with sorrow. I was one of very few African Americans in attendance. I felt different. I was not accepted socially. I felt as though ballet had become a sort of exclusive club to which I would never be admitted, no matter how well I danced.

After four years at SAB, at the age of fourteen, I left in defeat. My mother had heard about a well-respected teacher who ran her own studio named Madame Gabriella Darvash. We all called her Madame.

Madame was highly intelligent with a sharp wit. She was deeply nurturing in a tough-love sort of way. She’d been trained as a dancer and choreographer in Russia but rethought the entire Russian training, especially with regards to the placement of the body.

Madame insisted that if I stayed in her school, I would have to start from scratch. I would have to undo all of the affectations I’d picked up at SAB and change my placement. More importantly, Madame could see that my self-esteem was wounded. She made me stop hiding in the back of the studio and stand in front. I hated it. I cried all the time, but somehow, I didn’t give up and neither did she. It was a grueling task for both of us.

My mother also didn’t give up. As a first-generation Trinidadian-American, having a daughter that wanted to be a dancer was not part of the plan. She was a single mother who always had three jobs to keep her two children afloat. She drove me or took the New York City buses and subways the three-hour journey from Jamaica, Queens to Manhattan and back again for years so that I could pursue my dream. I don’t know how she endured it. Her sacrifice, in part, kept me going in my lowest moments.

By the time I was sixteen, I was training about 4 ½ hours a day, six days a week. Madame gave me a scholarship and my mother did her best to keep me in pointe shoes. Sometimes New York City Ballet Principal, Judith Fugate, who was a Madame devotee, would bring me company pointe shoe rejects. Also, at that time, we would re-harden worn pointe shoes by dipping them in floor wax and baking them in a warmed oven over night.

Included in that training time were my studies at the Fiorello Laguardia High School, where I also took ballet and really fell in love with modern dance. However, I was worn out. The three hours a day on public transportation, training and academic demands were becoming too much. I hated school. It felt like a prison. We actually had to pass through metal detectors to get in. I started to cut school so I could take more classes with Madame. She knew what I was up to, and while she didn’t condone it outright, a part of her was victorious to have me at the studio more.

After one really ugly battle with Madame, I decided to put down my gloves and gave in. I told myself I would do everything her way, exactly as she prescribed for a year. If something didn’t happen after a year, I would quit.

Something happened. I got better. I broke through some kind of barrier and was really becoming a dancer. Ronald Alexander, a retired dancer with Stuttgart ballet who often attended Madame’s class saw me and set up an audition for the Dance Theatre of Harlem. I was accepted into the Workshop Ensemble, which was like a junior apprentice company, and then into the main company the following year.

I remember the first time I met DTH’s Artistic Director and co-founder, Arthur Mitchell. I was still in the Ensemble. We were done for the day but I hung around to watch the main company in rehearsal. Mr. Mitchell was seething. He stormed into the hallway where I was quietly sitting and shouted loud enough for everyone to hear, “Oh, you’re the one from Madame Darvash!” Like that wasn’t a good thing and marched into his office before I could reply.

I quit high school in order to dance full-time. My commute from Queens to Harlem was even longer than before. I got a contract with the main company and moved into an apartment a block away from the studio on 151 St. between Amsterdam and St. Nicholas. I went on tour with the company and made a great friend with another new dancer, Francesca Harper.

Life as an aspiring dancer was hard, but company life was difficult on a whole new level. I was outside of Madame’s tough love and motherly approach. This new environment was meanly competitive. And though most of the other dancers were also people of color, there was an undercurrent of internalized racism running through the organization. As a light-skinned black person, I felt stuck between a rock and a hard place: I was too black to fit into the white dance world and too white to be down.

Even though Mr. Mitchell often told us about the racism he’d experienced, I don’t remember any of us having that conversation with each other while we were there. I think that would have been healing, to hear each others’ stories. We need to tell our stories so the village can help us carry the burden.

My old issues with self-esteem and authority crept back to the surface in this insecure new world. I heard through the grapevine that Mr. Mitchell was withholding roles from me because I insisted on doing things my own way. This confused me. Didn’t he want me to have my own artistic voice?

I set about a strategy of becoming so good that he couldn’t deny me. In my mind, this included becoming thin, or I should say thinner, because at 5’6” and 108 pounds, I was already pretty thin. I developed an eating disorder.

One night, my mother heard me vomiting in the bathroom and insisted I go to therapy. Therapy became a way that I lied to myself. I told myself I was working on my problems because I was going to therapy, but I was doing nothing of the sort.

After several years of this life, I achieved the coveted position of Principal Dancer. It’s what I always wanted, but I was broken mentally, physically and spiritually. I quit for a year, took my GED and attended City College. At the end of the year, I was offered a full scholarship with a stipend, but I turned it down and asked Mr. Mitchell for my job back.

I knew I needed to change. My inner voice was telling me to take a different path, but I was scared. I didn’t know who I was without dancing. The fact that I’d done well at school was not an anchor. I was too afraid of facing myself, my ordinary self. I was afraid of not being the star in the eyes of others.

I continued with therapy, but my heart wasn’t in it. One day, I heard inwardly that my problems were spiritual and that I needed to find my answers there. I didn’t know what that meant. My therapist introduced me to Carlos Castaneda and at first I just started reading that and other spiritual texts.

I don’t remember much about that early reading, just that it spoke to me. Some of the dancers were exploring yoga and I tried that. During the first class, I just cried and cried. I shaved my head and became a spiritual seeker. Mr. Mitchell made fun of my new look, but things had become better between us. Part of the outgrowth of my spiritual search was that I came to realize he was a person and that I could take the initiative to work on our relationship instead of expecting him to come to me. We’d come a long way and I hold him in my heart.

In my late twenties, I took another break from the company during which I pursued commercial aspects of dance including a role on Broadway. I played Ivy Smith in the Broadway revival of On the Town directed by George C. Wolfe. In many ways, in that role and in the commercial world, I was in over my head. I was no great revelation to that stage or in the small screen roles I had, but it was a time of artistic expansion. I started singing and acting. I danced in the subway. On the street. Wherever the goddess deigned to possess me.

My circle of friends included artists from various disciplines. In fact, I owe a great debt to my artistic community at that time: I loved their company so much that I finally parted ways with my disordered eating. Unknowingly, they literally pulled me out of the drowning waters I was in.

I thought, with this newfound acceptance, I would try company dancing again. Maybe I could be healthy this time. And it was better this time around, at least, while it lasted. Dance Theatre of Harlem went on a prolonged hiatus in 2004. I was without a job.

I free-lanced around for a while and finally accepted a position of Principal Dancer with Boston Ballet in 2006. I was 35, late in the game to start over. My inner voice told me in many ways that I still needed to find a new path, but I thought it foolish to turn down such an opportunity.

I am ashamed now to admit there was a somewhat hidden temptation to see myself dance with a white ballet company, as though that was the final evidence I needed to affirm my rightful place in that exclusive ballet society to which I had been previously denied, but I found to my dismay that although I’d built a solid armor around that wound, I had not healed it. I still didn’t know or love myself.

I was so overwhelmed with nerves that my time at Boston Ballet dissolved in failure. Once there, I got romantically involved with the company’s Artistic Director, Mikko Nissinen. He told me that I didn’t believe in myself, that my latest string of injuries were psychological. I knew he was right. Even though I’d healed some things, I was far from healthy. Healing was not a one-time event.

In his novel Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides writes, “Despair always wins in the end. It has to. It’s the only way we let go.” I have that shit memorized.

Anyway, I retired from dancing full-time. For a year I floundered around, alone in my cold Boston apartment. I returned to my spiritual interests, taking up yoga in earnest and going on lots of retreats.

During one retreat in the Costa Rican jungle where we danced around the sacred fire all night, I met some people who were interested in Shamanism. They invited me to an Ayahuasca ceremony, which I found to be a revelation. I was “told” many things on my journey, but one thing in particular was that “I was a child of Africa. Come home.”

I didn’t know what to make of that information. Was I to go to Africa? How? With whom? I put those questions on the shelf until I came across a book written by Malidoma Some, Of Water and the Spirit. Malidoma was a Shaman from Burkina Faso who was sent to the west by his elders to teach the Dagara tradition. I read the entire book through a gush of tears. No spiritual text had ever touched me so deeply. I googled him and found that he would be speaking in a town near Boston in just a few days. I attended the talk and started to go on retreats with him, including a two-year training. We learned about the basic Dagara cosmology, performed rituals, made sacred medicine and did other wonderful things.

Also, during this time, I started teaching ballet. I’d never thought seriously about teaching, but found that I’d unconsciously been preparing for it all along. I used to dissect other teachers’ classes, analyzing what worked, what didn’t. I would give class to myself a lot. Madame’s teaching was a big influence, but there were others as well: Jodi Fugate, Jan Miller, David Howard, Ken Ludden, Michael Vernon, Nancy Shaffenberg and of course, Mr. Mitchell.

I realized that I felt more in my power as a teacher than I ever had as a dancer. I strove to make everyone feel seen and valued, not just as a dancer, but as a person.

My classes started to take on a spiritual element. Yogic breathing found its way into the ballet class as well as my growing ancient indigenous understanding as taught by Malidoma and others.

At times, I would veer completely off the charted course of a typical ballet class, incorporating hip-hop music, vocalization, acting exercises, improvisation, conversation, meditation, visualization and relaxation. During these off-road explorations, I felt more fully in my purpose than I had in the ballet realm and I was having a lot of fun.

Shortly after I began teaching, I met my future husband, artist Cyrille Conan, at the Sadhana yoga studio here in Boston. Now, I could usually read people’s energy, but there was something different about him that I just couldn’t put my finger on. By the way, he can cook his ass off. It’s some kind of divine irony that after so many years of struggling with food and body image I am now eating like a champ. I gave birth to our baby girl, Colibri Aurelie Jimenez-Conan in 2013.


Back to School

Last night I had a recurring anxiety dream: that I was back in high-school taking a math test.

Upon waking, I wondered why that dream was resurfacing now, and admitted to myself that I was having some anxiety about the start of the Spring semester in a few days. I’m sure this anxiety is common for teachers just as much as students.

Bashar tells us that anxiety occurs when excitement gets obscured by a negative belief. I wondered what belief I held that soured my excitement about returning to the classroom and found that it was this: the fear of not being good enough. We meet again, old friend. I suddenly felt with compassion towards the students who often struggle with that same fear.

When confronted with a fear, I do my best to just sit with it. Invite it in. Say hello. As fear and I looked at each other over our cups of tea, I remembered something Malidoma Some said: that Spirit often works better with the part of us that doesn’t know.

And what is the fear of not being good enough but the fear of the unknown? Realizing that, my grasp on that fear softened. I didn’t have to conquer my fear. I didn’t have to transcend it. I could instead honor it as a necessary element to the inner opening I sought through my teaching.

In a sense, I could place my trust in fear. I could trust in the unknown. We can trust in the unknown.

And if you’re a student reading this, let me clarify that trusting the unknown is not an excuse to not do one’s work. It’s just a different kind of work, wink, wink.

 


Initiation

As a dancer, there were certain things I had naturally and other things I had to work at. I expected there to be a certain amount of pain. While working to develop my flexibility for example, pain became a sort of daily ritual meditation.

At times, I was overwhelmed by the level of sacrifice the art demanded, but I knew I wanted to go all the way, where ever that was, where ever that led. That journey was stressful, terrifying, confusing, ecstatic, spiritual and devastating, not necessarily in that order, and sometimes all those things before lunch.

I think my failures outnumbered my successes, which made the successes more meaningful.

Now I can look back on that journey and see it as a kind of initiation process towards becoming an artist. Certain things in life can’t be gotten at without going through the door of transformation, no matter how gifted you are, and it usually doesn’t feel good when it’s happening. The struggle of the butterfly to emerge from its cocoon is what strengthens its wings and enables it to fly. The struggle is inseparable, and, as Malidoma Some suggests, equal to the gift that awaits you.

In our culture, we are taught to lead with ego, to always look cool and to avoid vulnerability because it equates with weakness, but Some also teaches that Spirit can only work with us when we are in a vulnerable state. He says, “Sometimes your not-knowing cooperates better with a process than your knowing.” These are hard words for modern people to embrace, we who want to know the outcome of every step before we take it, we who have invented insurance for our insurance, we of the homogenized beauty, of the entitled, we in the “Yes, we can,” demanding change under the guise of security.

Security is an inside joke; you can’t find it on the outside, get it? Hahaha.

Ah, what can I say? My brother is the comedienne of the family. Anyway, now that I’ve hung up my pointe shoes, another initiation is on the horizon: parenthood.

So far, so good: the little tea-pot is kicking and appears healthy. I am quite comfy in my maternity jeans and enjoy food in an almost orgasmic way. I’m talkin’ peanut butter and butter and jelly. I have boobs for the first time in my life; I have to lift to get up under there and wash. Ladies, y’all know what I’m talkin’ ’bout. And I feel a kind of immunity from the cares of the world, like I’ve just won a challenge on Project Runway and cannot be eliminated for the next round. There’s a sort of energy of respite that confused me at first, but that I now wallow in quite contentedly.

Mostly, when people find out that I am pregnant, and at six months it’s hard to miss, they are sincerely congratulatory, but then there are those others, the rainers-on-the paraders, who take the opportunity to unleash their cynicism about parenthood under the pretext of giving me a head’s up. Thanks. They complain about how unhappy they are, stopping just short of out-right blame towards their kids followed by an insincere chuckle and an awkward silence.

Maybe I caught them at a bad moment but it seems…maybe they’re missing the point? They cannot see the bigger picture and place their experience within the context of initiation. They cannot see the hope of unconditional love.

I’m not saying that there’s not an appropriate place and time to express one’s heart-ache over parenting. Of course there is. But I suspect our above mentioned cynics also lack a context for expressing grief. Maybe we don’t have to choose between the image of the new-agey, bullshit, eternally cheery positive thinker and the cynic.  Maybe we can let ourselves off the hook by honestly accepting how we feel, without resistance, without labels. By resisting our humanness, we become trapped in a prison of expectation, a maze with no center, no exit and no reward. And I only know about the maze because I’ve been there. I guess getting lost is sometimes part of it. We forget that it’s not who we are.

I often look upon the Spiritual journey, of which parenting may play a big part for those who choose it, not as a process of gaining special psychic powers or existing in some perpetually blissful state, but as a process of becoming fully human. And don’t worry. If you don’t choose parenting, initiation will find you some other way.

And then there are those, many of whom are quite accomplished in other areas of their lives, who say, without doubt or hesitation, that parenting is the best, the greatest thing they’ve ever done.

Ashe.

Here we come to welcome you, Little Big One.


Down the Rabbit-Hole

I belong to an on-line google group that discusses spirituality. It is an extension of a group that meets up periodically for retreats and serves to maintain communications when we’ve returned from the retreat back into our everyday lives.

Recently, one of our members went on a rant: she was frustrated with the community, with the lack of tangible progress, feeling unsupported and lost on her path. I got it. At times, I’ve felt a similar longing and despair.

It got me to asking the question of why we pursue this thing called spirituality and what we hope to get out of it.

I think what started me on my own spiritual quest was a deep unshakable feeling that something was missing. I’d accomplished a lot externally but felt empty inside and unknown to myself. Nothing in the modern world could fill that void. In a way, it’s fair to say I didn’t know what I was longing for, but something about the spiritual texts I came across at the time gave me hope. Also, I had a paralyzing fear of death that…was like…a…wall…to…living?

When I use the word spiritual, I am not only referring to elevated disembodied beings, but to an essential human part of ourselves. It is the non-physical part of us that is associated with light. So, for example, thought can be spiritual or not, but love is and all its subsidiaries: forgiveness, compassion, kindness, truth, etc.

Being spiritual, opening to spirit, doesn’t necessarily give you an immediate answer to the problems of your life. For most of us, the initial opening is more like a can of worms. The light of the opening can illuminate all of the ways we have not loved and then we have to take a long hard look at our crap. Malidoma Some likens the spiritual path to the fall of Alice down the rabbit-hole. The landings are usually hard.

I’ve been falling for some time now. Gradually, your eyes adjust. The real trick is adjusting your spiritual vision during the fwifs and fwams of ordinary life and to eventually maintain a sort of dual vision, for without the dual vision of the mundane and spiritual, you are only seeing half the picture.

The spiritual aspect allows you to see what happens in physical life from a much broader perspective. In my travels, I’ve met people who have extraordinary gifts. They can actually see beings, guides, kontomble and the like. They can travel to other dimensions. They can converse with the dead. You may or may not possess those kinds of gifts, but even without them, one can cultivate spiritual vision by paying attention to how one feels. When you have a bad feeling, you find a moment to stop. Hold onto the feeling and follow the thread to its source. The thread will most likely take you to something you don’t want to look at about yourself, but the moment you see the jealousy, self-hatred, fear, is the moment the door to compassion and then forgiveness can open.

I think we can all do this sort of detective work with ourselves but a lot of us are a little rusty. It’s like a muscle that’s softened with disuse. Plus, we’re afraid to stop, to put our frickin’ phones down.

One of the ways we can strengthen this muscle is through story-telling. Story-telling helps us to practice the art of perspective which is essential to developing the dance between the mundane vision (what appears to be happening) with the spiritual vision (what’s really happening). To tell a story, one must rise above the story itself. There are no bad stories. Just unpracticed story-tellers.

I did a divination for someone recently. I could see that he’d had some kind of early childhood trauma. He was unable to speak about it or to cry. In being unable to tell the story, he was still beneath it, burdened by it, and the water he was unable to release through tears was causing toxicity. I suggested he begin by writing or speaking his story, to let the flow of words assist the flow of water so that he could begin the cleansing process.

And if healing is a process, grieving is a practice. We in modern culture are all looking for a way to cure (end) the hurt, but some things can’t be cured forever. It just needs to be cleaned out periodically. Over time, the hurt comes up less and less, but will still come up until maybe it doesn’t have to any more, but by that time we will have accumulated another hurt. And the practice is that when it comes up, we clean it out with tears, with our story. Most of us don’t need a drug. We need a practice. Without the practice, we are not really living.

The other day a friend of mine sent me a link to a YouTube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OIuWY5PInFs. In it a woman is courageously and honestly talking about her ballet career before she is about to give her last performance. I was a mess. I hadn’t grieved my own retirement in a long while. But this time was different. I didn’t get stuck in my head. I didn’t feel regret or the need to question my choices. It was almost like I was grieving for someone else, like watching a movie. I could see a much larger picture. The confusion and fear were replaced by compassion.

And then I ate lunch.


Divination

“The health of the eye depends on a horizon.”–Emerson

For as long as I can remember, I have been drawn to the mystical branches of spirituality. As part of my search, I occasionally sought divinations including I-ching, tarot, palm readings, astrology (both Western and Vedic), channelling, past-life regression, Michael charts, numerology, Ifa readings and most recently, the shell divination of the Dagara tradition of Burkina Faso as taught and practiced by Malidoma Some.

I go to see a diviner when I need help from the other side. The strength of a diviner seems to be based on the extent to which they are able to become a vessel for a disembodied being: an ancestor, a spirit guide or angel, a kontomble (the little people in Dagara cosmology), etc.

I consider divination to be a kind of art. Finding a good diviner is sort of like finding a good massage therapist. Everyone has a different style. You just have to find the one that works for you.

Skeptics argue that diviners are charlatans who are only after money, but such charlatans exist in every field. These skeptics also argue that diviners say such general things that may be true of just about everyone, but so do most doctors. Even as a ballet teacher, I find myself saying the same things over and over again to different students because people tend to make the same mistakes.

I go with the understanding that even the shabbiest diviner can extract a kernel of truth from the cards, bones, shells or what have you, and it is then up to me as to what I do with that message. Of course, one should practice discernment when going to see a diviner. When you hear the truth, you feel a kind of resonance with it and it’s ok to trust that. If you don’t feel resonance, go to someone else.

Getting a divination from a skillful diviner is like being served a large meal. You can’t eat everything on the plate, but you do the best you can. Some of the things you may not initially understand and you find that the message unfolds mysteriously in layers as you become better able to digest it.

For example, one of the things Malidoma told me in a divination was that I had a weakness in nature. A weakness in nature, now what could that possibly mean? It’s true, as I said in the previous post, that I have a thing for trees. Is that what he meant? Or does the weakness have something to do with my own nature? What is my nature?

During the divination, you are free to ask questions, but at the time, I was so busy trying to grasp other things that I let the weakness in nature issue go until several months later another diviner of the same tradition told me the same thing. And yet a third Dagara diviner looked at my numerology and verified this weakness in nature yet again.

But what does that mean? I decided to start spending more time in nature. Perhaps I would find my answers there. My husband and I started taking almost daily hikes in the Blue Hills reserve, not far from where I live in Boston.

No matter how reluctant we are to make the twenty-minute drive, we are always grateful that we made the effort. We notice that every time we walk through the woods, whatever stress we are carrying is magically cleansed and there is always a gift: a tiny bird’s nest, six hawks that swooped close by, a gentle rain, a horizon, a new path. And we notice too, that the rest of the day seems to flow more sweetly after the time spent in nature.

As I started to become nourished by nature, further understanding of my divination began to unfold when my husband and I took a trip to Manhattan to look at museums and galleries. The streets were crowded. It was a nice weekend but the more we walked through the chic lower West side, the more I started to wither inside myself. Feelings of alienation and inferiority began to overwhelm me. Everyone and everything was so fabulous. I felt like a dandelion struggling through a crack in the cement, surrounded by rare and exotic flowers.

I grew up in New York City and the place holds a lot of memories for me. At night, I was assaulted by dreams of experiences in which I was made to feel small. In those moments, when I felt weak in the presence of others, I could see how my lack of strength in my own nature caused me to cower. Sometimes this energy was intentionally inflicted but other times not. I was just too easily intimidated because I was un-rooted, not at home inside myself, and easily blown off-balance, like a shallowly rooted tree in a hurricane.

Aha! So this is how the weakness in nature manifests itself in me. I could see how I built up an armor around this wound without having healed it and how the recent initial healing in nature was allowing me to see this issue more clearly in myself.

I could see how my nature is tied to the big nature of the world. And at last, I could feel some compassion for myself. Finally, I could unclasp the heavy armor encasing my heart, and reveal it without shame, naked and bleeding, because in my embrace of nature, I have begun to take root.

Malidoma says that a weakness in nature is common for modern people. During my recent visit to NY, I could see evidence of that. In a city, we are constantly told how to be, what to think and do. Walk, don’t walk. Buy this. Eat here. Don’t stop. Keep moving. Faster. Upgrade. I think even if you are strong in your nature, everyone is influenced by city persuasion to some extent.

And I’m not saying that those things are inherently bad. I like sushi and a fancy pair of shoes. I’m just saying that it’s easy to lose yourself by being swept up in a tide of fabulousness that has nothing to do with who you really are. To know nature is to know yourself. And to know yourself is fucking fabulous.


Ancestor Medicine

“The lessons we avoid in life will only come back with interest and the interest is pain.”–Ken Ludden

“As an artist, you can only ever express who you are.”–Qasim Naqvi

*****

“Is Tilly, my maternal mother the one I am supposed to ancestralize?” I ask.

The shells are tossed and answer an emphatic yes. I am not surprised. She is the one on the other side I carry closest. 

It is believed in most traditional cultures that the relationship between the living and the dead is sacred and symbiotic, because essentially we are them. I’ve heard one woman say that we are simply ancestors in the flesh. Birth and death are two sides of the same coin: when we are born here, we die someplace else and vice versa (Malidoma Some). Just as there are people here, hopefully, waiting to receive us, there are those on the other side, hopefully, who mourn our loss. The tears we shed are like amnion for the dead.

The efforts of the living and the dead are essential to the success of a birth/death. Both side have responsibilities. One of ours is to help them transition to the ancestral realm, as they help us to transition during birth. I think it was in Malidoma’s biography Of Water and the Spirit where I read about how a child is born into the Dagara culture of Burkina Faso. Prior to the birth, a diviner consults the ancestor-waiting-to-be-born in order to determine its purpose in incarnating.

Now, many of us in modern culture are lost, searching for our purpose, melancholic and weighted down with the burden of our undelivered gifts. Can you imagine coming here and already knowing why you came? Can you imagine being named for your purpose so that you can’t forget it? Can you imagine that your community also understands your purpose and helps you fulfill it? To the western mind, this might feel like too much pressure and a lack of personal freedom, but traditional cultures are built on community. Your life is not simply yours alone and your purpose has to do with the well-being of all.

When the mother is ready to deliver, all of the children in the village gather around. As the baby’s head appears, the children start shrieking with delight and praise. Since children’s voices are the closest to the baby’s, this is a signal to the baby that they’ve arrived in the right place. It is hard for most westerners, born into cold, sterile hospitals, to imagine such a warm, beautiful, welcome. Reading this made me weep with a profound sense of loss.

Conversely, If one is not aided by the living in their death transition, well, things don’t go so good. Since modern culture has lost touch with the true essence of ritual and grief, the kind of grief “that,” as Martin Prechtel says, “makes you look bad when you’re done,”  the dead struggle, lost, purposeless on the other side. Outside of their rightful seat among the other ancestors, they are rendered powerless to help those they’ve left behind.

As above, so below. So, as a result of the improper send off of our loved-ones, well, their world and our world, which is one world, is in a creepy place. Maybe you’ve noticed. From an indigenous perspective, we cannot begin to heal the wounds of this world until we heal the connection with our ancestors. As Malidoma says, “anything we do here without the sanction of our ancestors will bear little fruit at an unbearable cost.”

All day and night, forty or so of us perform an elaborate ritual to help our deceased loved-ones cross over into the realm of the ancestors. As part of the ritual, we keep an all night vigil. Some of us gifted with sight can see their ghosts gathering around the fire as far as the eye can see. There are so many needing help. They have waited so long. At around 3am we consult the shells again to see if the ones the shells designated have made it.

“Has Tilly made it?”

“No.”

Is there something else I need to do?

Yes.”

Does she want to see me dance?”

Yes.”

Great. This is the last thing I want to do. I am cold and tired, but I can’t say no to Tilly. We have come this far. I approach the fire and dance around jerkily. My mind is racing the whole time.  I’m sure this is the worst dance I’ve ever done and it’s in front of all these people. I want to give Tilly something beautiful and I’m sure I’ve failed.

The shells are consulted again. Has she made it? Yes. Well, at least my efforts were enough to get her there. Mission accomplished, but I cannot forgive myself for that awful galumphing gorilla dance. Suddenly I hear something inwardly that carries a jolt and I know I am plugged in:

THE PROBLEM IS NOT WITH DANCING. IT NEVER HAS BEEN. THE PROBLEM IS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH YOURSELF.

Damn. Those ancestors are not wasting any time. I better hold onto my seatbelt: shattering of illusions straight ahead! The words take a minute to settle into my stomach. It’s so obvious now, so clear, I almost want to laugh. It’s one of those things that you can see in someone else, but can’t recognize from the inside.

I think back to the many years I suffered a contentious relationship with my dancing. It’s true that I often used dancing to punish myself. And then I turned around and blamed dancing and everyone in it, but it never hurt me. I hurt myself and tended to attract the energy of victimization.

Now I understand why I’ve been so blocked in renewing my life after retiring from dance: even though a new career or relationship might give me the illusion of moving forward, without this new understanding it would just be the same shit, new package. In order to move forward I would have to bring all parts of myself.

Of course this understanding, though hard, comes with a gift. Now, I can peel away another layer of healing. (I suspect this goes on forever).

“Besides, the whole tortured artist thing is so last century,” says Mr. Octopus.

Yeah. This is the age of enlightenment. You gotta get your shit together.


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