Tag Archives: spirituality

The Red Shoes

At tender age of twenty-four
I stood at the crossroads obscure.
The rightly path in front of me
lay thickets bare and thornily.
I could not muster courage strong
for that path so I chose the wrong.
I took the dead-end path instead
and danced and danced on feet that bled
until at last I came around.
Inside myself a new path found.
Through letting go in present tense
uncoded psychic dissonance.
This time I heeded inner call
walking without a fear to fall.
Darkness no longer terrifies
when clarity and truth belies.

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The Wizard of Wonderland

Alice and Dorothy
go on a journey
where nothing is good
though that it should.

One emerald,
one red,
they fall out of bed.

They want to go home.
They want to wake up.
They drink from the cup
that fucks they shit up.

They deal with dimensions
of shape and of size
not too easily defied.

Stumbling,
confused with desperation,
what they need is meditation.

At last they say
to those who hear:
surrender all to your home inside
that palace of wondrous fanta-sci-fy.

There is nothing else.
No here nor there
that once imagined
disappears.


Jelly or Jam?

Teacher: Are you a jelly person or a jam person?

Student: Neither.

Teacher: But if you had to pick between jelly or jam, which would it be?

Student: I rarely eat sweets of any kind. Sugar is–

Teacher: Ok, let’s imagine you’re lost in the desert for three days without food. Only water. You’re exhausted from fear, hunger and drastic changes in temperature. In the distance, there is a jam oasis to the east and a jelly oasis to the west. Which would it be?

Student: (thinks…) Jam?

Teacher: (playing for real) Oh, me too! I’m a jam person myself.

Student: (smiles)

Teacher: Did you see what you just did? You felt affirmed by my being a jam person. You attached your identity to the thing. If I’d said I was a jelly person, you may have felt a twinge of separation. You might attach suspicion to my jelly-ness. In this simple way, we are ravenously attaching our identities to every little thing, jelly or jam, feeling inflated by the things that are like us, and building a separation between ourselves and things that we deem, from a limited perspective, to be unlike ourselves. We do this instead of cultivating being-ness from within.

Your being does not exist only in opposites: jelly or jam, this or that. Your being has always known this. It rides the currents of choice, itself. In many however, being becomes dimmed or swallowed by all the noisy shoulds of the modern world.

With intention, being can be uncovered, mended. Become aware of your breath, your bodies, the wind and her sisters. Imagine. A conscious, loving touch is the stuff of being. Touch a tree. The earth. Let go of most of that which does not serve you. Start small. Ask for help when you need it. Do what’s right in front of you with as much compassion and creativity as you can muster. On occasion, dip into the unknown. Form a foundation, a family, of some intimate design.

When being is allowed to shine from within, “you” develops a lightness. Landings soften. Flow gets fluid. Fear diminishes. You can listen to your girlfriend’s favorite pop song without judgement. You no longer need to affirm your superiority through what’s on your frickin’ iPod. You might even find beauty in that pop song you once derided, if only because it reminds you of her.

When “being shines through form,” as Eckhart Tolle calls it, what once grasped now opens. What notices, gives. What loves, receives, and in all the vice versas.

When being shines through form, “you” are left with the knowing that you are it. You knew this as a child.

So,

jelly or jam?


A Serious Poem about Butter

Remember when butter
came wrapped in quarters
with an expiration date
a year and a half,
a full Year and a Half!
from its date of its purchase?

Imagine that–
good butter
from July to the January after next,
and things even more wondrous than that:
water melons at Halloween,
people whose only job it was to deliver couches,
ice cream for dogs
and factories whose only job,
whose only job!
it was to make tiny, tiny, tiny
plastic toys.

Oh, you should have seen the toys!
Rainbows on every surface,
lights so bright you could spend a lifetime
never knowing a star
and music that you could swallow and swallow and swallow,
and never feel full.

Do not cast blame when it comes.
We all ate of that easy butter
like it was nothing.


Poem of Awakening

Oh Boston!
You are my lost city of sorrow,
lost city of light,
of illuminated minds,
illuminate our hearts.
Calling all cars: hear ye! Hear ye!
You make movies of mobsters
with whom we’ve fallen in love
because we see ourselves in them:
We are the underdogs of life.

Oh Boston,
You teach me to look down
when passersby pass,
to pretend we are invisible,
but I see your hidden heart in parks,
in the corridor of London Planes that line the Charles in witness of
your sad soil, your grit and insistence, armies of wasps,
your tribalism and no-nonsense attitude.

Today I was awakened at the Fort
beneath Rapunzel’s tower,
listening to the Grandmother-wisdom of willows.
I witnessed my own mobster movie of rebellion unfolding
from within.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

I never thought I could love you,
your fields of broken glass
where things still grow.
Four years ago
I saw a woodcock
undulating in the shade of the
massive puddingstone of Thwing Street.
Our eyes met for a second and
I thought I saw the gaze of my teacher.
The keys, hidden in plain sight.


Abject of Beauty

…and the beauty of the leaf was not lost on him.—from Blood Meridian

Little children have a capacity for pure joy because they don’t yet know that everything is fleeting, mortal. They are still reverberating with the pulse of the other world. You can see it on their skin and on their eyelashes, like dew, and in the perfect, clear whites of their eyes.

As we grow, we inevitably come to realize the fact of death, and it forever shadows our experience of joy; true beauty has an element of sadness because we know it will not last.

I wonder if this is the reason why, in our modern culture, we have fabricated a sort of fake, superficial, soulless standard of beauty with our Kim Kardashians, our shopping malls, our manicured lawns, our home theaters and botox parties. It’s an attempt to experience beauty without its aftertaste of loss.

Of course it doesn’t work. But we will keep pretending.

It’s no wonder that art is a constant threat to a culture that cannot grieve.

The latest thing in Boston is that everyone is perpetually in exercise clothes. Customized sneakers and Lulu Lemons have replaced boat shoes and khakis. People are running along the Charles with a possessed gleam in their eyes. I suppose they are slimming down for their Match.com photos. They are polishing their armor with each stride.

I don’t get it. I walk slowly in the midst of things. In the mist. So I don’t miss. Things. The Is-ness that is everywhere. And my footprints become caked with the blood from my bleeding heart while knowing, damn well, it is the nature of a heart to bleed. It means you’re alive.

I look at my little one with awe. She is two. Her beauty has a translucent, shimmery quality. At times it seems that she is made of magic. While watching an episode of surprise eggs on youtube, she said with perfect articulation and fake exasperation, “It’s so boring. I want a cup of tea.”

I felt that familiar twinge between laughter and tears that only the coyote can speak. So, I texted our daughter’s words to my husband but something of the miracle of her budding language buds was lost in the writing of it which was probably for the best. My husband is at work and work is not a place where you can get all verklempt about such things.


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.


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