Friday, February 8, 2019

Not being broken

The other day, my husband and I could not remember which level we parked on, and then Terry McAuliffe got on the office building elevator with us. I have encountered the former governor during different political incarnations of his, starting with an internship I had at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee while a freshman in college. At that time, he was the Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and would come to meetings and events at our temporary office space near Capitol Hill (a new headquarters was under construction). He would meet with my then-boss Peter Waldheim, and speak alongside the late Congressman Robert Matsui (our DCCC boss at the time) and then-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (our big boss at the time). I can feel my Republican family members cringing.

Serendipitously I showed the governor the book I was holding, which was an advanced copy written and gifted to me by Lester Hyman (out soon - title: JFK, The Kennedys and Me - I'll actually be hosting a book signing dinner for him at the Arts Club of Washington on March 22nd). I reminded Terry that the last time we had crossed paths was at a restaurant in Georgetown while Lester and I were lunching. Terry had walked in and we couldn't help notice his jubilant arrival and the conspicuous presence of gubernatorial security guards. It was 2016, the eve of one or more major primary elections between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Both Terry and Lester have known each other a long time, both were friends and backers of Hillary, and I remember this being discussed.

Seeing Terry made me remember interning for the DCCC, and that I was only weeks into recovery from a major surgery which to this day offers a lot of challenges. It was done the summer after graduating high school. The surgeon broke my upper pallet in several places, and then put it back together, securing it with actual screws. Afterwards, my upper and lower jaws were wired together, so that my mouth was fixed shut well into my first semester at American University.

This meant that for my internship, I had to apply, be interviewed, and begin without being able to speak. It also meant for an interesting way of starting college.

Terry no longer has the gubernatorial security, but he was as jovial as ever. Politics is tough. So is life. He might run for president. I like him and liked seeing him, but am currently an early supporter of Marianne Williamson's campaign.

I am now once again in recovery, this time from the unexpected passing of my father towards the end of last year. Today I woke up before dawn to drive to his house to meet the tow truck driver who would take his/my old mustang convertible out of his driveway. When it runs, it runs rickety, and my brother and I decided to donate it to Cars Helping Veterans.

It was the car that we (my father, brother and I) would drive down to Alabama in when we visited family each year, stopping at caverns and other sites along the way. It was the car I learned to drive in. My father would stop it on a hill, push in the parking brake, put the clutch in neutral and tell me to get behind the wheel, shift into first and drive forward without stalling out. It was a process, but I learned to drive. It then became mine for two years until I left for college, and returned it back to him, allowing for a healthy amount of hi jinx in the interim.

A month after receiving my license to drive legally, the Mustang (and teenage me) was in a major accident - which, according to Kelley's Bluebook, totaled the car. But we still had it fixed. My father didn't keep collision insurance coverage so that meant we had to fix it out of pocket. The passenger door never again closed completely, but it was forest green with a tan top and a gold racing stripe and I loved that car. It took 20 minutes of jumpstarting the battery this morning to be able to back it out of the driveway, and its engine belt howled until it was fixed to the tow truck and turned off.

I have found myself reflecting on the concept of brokenness.

My parents divorced when I was six, so the term might be applied - by some - to elements of my and my brother's childhood. My mother remarried a good and kind man and together they brought my sister into being, who I love and learn from. Every break allows for growth. Appreciating that dance seems correct.

Our politics is broken, but we now have an opportunity to begin transforming our nation in ways that are truly revolutionary, which I believe involves a spiritual awakening as much as a new social contract.

We all have traumas. As individuals, families, communities and societies. We can try and share them or explain them but ultimately they are not healed from doing this. They are never healed. They do however expand our consciousness, making room for more awareness, and they therefore pave the way to more love, more compassion, and more joy.

We can heal our Selves not by getting 'over' anything, but by growing through and beyond obstacles...by acknowledging realities - of Self, of politics, of nature - and letting awareness guide our choices.

Having just returned from India, where I did a monthlong yoga teacher training at a rural ashram outside the city of Mysore, and also having recently openly committed myself to a spiritual journey, I have been asked whether I feel transformed. Sure. Of course. I have found myself saying that I am 'still processing' the India experience. But in reality, we are always processing, and constantly transforming. This gives me inspiration and hope, because within this process, we can never be broken.


Wednesday, January 2, 2019

An Ace at the Gate


After arriving at Bangalore Airport, I paced outside until I finally hopped into a cab and told the driver that I wasn’t sure exactly where I was going, but I that I needed a hotel near the bus station. As it was already dark, I would head south to Mysuru in the morning. Per the emailed recommendations from the ashram, I would take the Skybus. My American sensibilities were suddenly rattled from the realization that not planning ahead spawns moments of uncertainty. The taxi driver seemed helpful, despite us only understanding perhaps half of what the other was saying at any given time. 

Until he told me he hadn’t slept in 2 days. 

“You need to take a break then, and rest.” 

“No break.”

Okay. 

We drove - or rather sat - through over an hour of traffic to get into the city, and once there it was clear he was trying to take me to a hotel owned or run by a friend of his. Or at least someone who gives ‘commision’. Understandable, but I was not yet willing to relinquish my Western mindset or middle class standards and I wanted a place with a private shower...and in a neighborhood amenable to sleep. I got the former. The first hotel he pulled up to was full. Glory be. The second one overcharged for what it was, but after 24 hours of transit, and my haggling inclinations never being particularly keen, I didn’t feel like talking with the manager any longer than required to receive a room key. 

The next morning I took a taxi the three hours south to Mysuru. It was fortunate because I was able to pick up a yoga mat (of all the things to forget) along the way. 

Here at the ashram we are amidst seven days of abolsute silence, imposed by the guru and started on December 31st. This is waived during lectures and classes so that we may ask questions, and during Kirtan - an evening ritual where we sing mantras and other songs together before bed. Someone sang Auld Lang Syne that last night of 2018. 

We are not technically supposed to leave the ashram, which is laid out on a number of hectares of vegetable fields, sprinkled and surrounded with tall coconut trees and brush. It is on the outskirts of a small, country village - itself on the outskirts of the city of Mysuru. It is composed of several concrete buildings that serve as male and female dorms, a kitchen hut, the main hall where we meditate and have class, and what looks to be the original farmhouse, now serving as the masters’ ‘dorm’. 

But with limited space, diverse personalities, egos and energies, all in different stages of spiritual awakening, one needs to take a walk occasionally. There is a shrine built around a large tree up the road, in the middle of a three-way intersection. It is the perfect place to walk to after First Meal (one of two vegan meals daily, plus fruit and herbal tea - no caffeine - in the morning and after lectures). The setting becomes more magical with each day. However even though an occasional walk off grounds may go intentionally unnoticed, it is important that we steer clear of the village. 

When we arrived two weeks ago, the ashram was still being built around us. They had moved from their former location in Mysuru (Mysore) just before this current session began, and the feeling is a special one - seeing something new literally rise from the earth, with the purpose of teaching something ancient. 

The villagers are mostly very friendly and smile when you see them on the road or on the ashram grounds, as they come in to farm or do other things. But they have specific ways of doing things within their community, and disruption to that can cause problems. Westerners with good intentions can be blamed for anything that might go awry weeks or months after they’ve left. Not to mention the propensity for unintentional cultural insensitivity. So we were told - rightly - to stay out, especially since the village leadership has significant sway over the ashram’s land lease. 

We all have our daily Karma Yoga here, which is our assigned chore. I clean the toilets and showers in our dormitory. Admittedly, when our Karmas were announced at orientation, bewilderment was followed by hope that this was a rotating assignment...before I gulped acceptance. 

“Do you like cleaning toilets?” my co-Karma’d newfriend Cicero half-jokingly asked me the first day we were in the bathroom together, brushing porcelain holes in the ground with blue cleaner. (These are the original Squatty Potties.) “It’s not my favorite thing,” I replied. “Well, I like it,” he said. When I looked at him quizzically, he added, “I like when toilets are clean, don’t you?” Wow. Fair enough. 

With new perspectives come new questions. When we discipline the mind not to seek every answer, but to await them, we evolve. Of course some questions are worth seeking answers for. But the concept of Self-exploration and internal work has never been so clear as it has become here, as well as the fact that the first requisite for any change to occur is the desire for it. 

“Wake up! It’s a brand new dayyyy!” plays abruptly from across the open-aired dormitory at 4:30 every morning because it is the smartphone alarm of the toughguy Yogi who is both our asana demonstrator and ‘Resident Director’. The singsongy tune makes me laugh despite my tiredness. 

Washing our food trays, utensils and cups after every meal inspires trust among the group: trust that you wash diligently after your use to ensure the clean and pleasant future use by an other; and that an other has washed sufficiently before your own next use. 

The guru is a long-practicing medical doctor (whose 3D computer internal body images enhance lectures on  anatomy and movement, if not also induce occasional squirms), Yoga PhD, and the disciple of Swami Krishnananda Saraswati, who was a disciple of Sivananda Saraswati (those unfamiliar can Google both). The asana teacher is a national and international gold metal-earning former competitor, and Hatha Yoga teacher for over ten years. As we strengthen our bodies and minds, tune our wills, address our fears and deepen our knowledge reservoir, we are in good hands for an integrated, Integral Yoga education here, and I am thankful for that. 

Oh, and the name of this blog post? The day after Christmas, I needed a sign from the universe, although I didn’t know it. My emotions and ego were driving the chariot of the Self and I needed to retake the reigns. The day after my birthday was the winter solstice as usual, as well as one month’s time since my father’s sudden departure from his earthly body the night before Thanksgiving. The next day was a full moon, the first since he died. Christmas Eve and Day had come and gone with little fanfare here, which was perfect. But I was unconsciously waiting for something while walking down the dirt driveway toward the ashram gates. 

My father liked playing cards. All the card games I know he taught me - including Solitaire. All the card tricks that I know he taught me. We used to play together with his siblings-my uncles and aunts, their kids-my cousins, and his mother-my grandmother while at the family ranch down in Alabama every year. It was often a good prescription after swimming in the lake or four-wheeling all day. He would give my brother and I a new deck of cards in our Christmas stockings every year. 

As I approached the gate, slowing to decide whether to pass through onto the road for a short walk, something caught my eye. 

An ace of diamonds on the ground. 

As I passed beyond the gate, I saw that there were different playing cards all along the road - a queen of diamonds, two of clubs, jack of hearts, eight of hearts, king of spades...as if someone had strewn a deck along the road outside the ashram. I heard a pair of other straggling students say in English (the common language of everyone here) to each other as they passed me on their covert reentry: “Weird how there are playing cards all over the place.” 

In the game of life there are many cards to play. Some are given, some are found, and all the plays are our choices made. 

As it happens, today is my little (now taller) brother’s birthday. Happy birthday, Little Bro. In this life, I’ll always have a higher number of years. 




Friday, December 14, 2018

Serendipity

Flying over the Persian Gulf towards the sunrise, I feel contemplative. I will land in Dubai shortly to switch planes. 


Last night, I saw “We choose to go to the moon”, a dance created by my husband Dana and premiered at the Kennedy Center in 2015 after the passing of his father the Autumn prior. It was a collaboration with NASA, who supplied incredible visuals and access to space scientists, as well as astronaut Bruce McCandless, the first man ever to be untethered in space. The sound score includes American classics interspersed with clips from interviews Dana conducted with McCandless, the space scientists and other experts, as well as a New Mexico medicine woman whose father worked on the Apollo missions. It is being reprised at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery for three nights as a joint presentation with the Air and Space Museum. The work explores humanity’s connection to and fascination with the planets, stars and universe, as well as the character and culture in America leading up to the moon landing. 


My father, who passed on the eve of Thanksgiving three weeks ago, loved this dance. From the stage last night, my husband dedicated the performance to him. 


Serendipity is many things, including the connection between possibility and reality. It is also the allowance of the Divine to manifest in our lives. 


“We choose to go the moon” came to be starting with a flight en route to my husband’s hometown of Santa Fe, New Mexico to visit his parents. 


Dana somehow acquired a small, stuffed ‘Elroy’ character (from The Jetsons cartoon series), and found it funny to bring him with us to photograph at various locations - from airport bar to yoga studio. Elroy served as both a travel companion and a mini avatar for me. We are weird. In any event, the first leg of our Westward trip was to Houston from DC, and the third seat in our row was empty...so Elroy was sitting in it, with seatbelt fastened. That was until a lovely lady approached and requested to sit in the seat she had purchased. 





She turned out to be Barbara Zelon, communications manager for the Orion Spacecraft at NASA. We talked most of the flight - about dance (both her daughters danced and one is a choreographer in New York) and space (of course), and as we debarked, I invited her (and her daughters) to come to see Dana’s dance company at the Kennedy Center in a few months time. They did. By the following year, when Dana’s space dance premiered she had been instrumental in making the NASA connections that helped supply the dance with incredible space imagery, as well as the introductions for some of the interviews that were featured in the sound score. It was an amazing collaboration between art and science. 


My father, a sailer who loved the sciences and the stars, closed one eye and held up his thumb to blot out the earth during the last scene of the dance, which features a character who represents John F. Kennedy with his back to the audience, facing the world and waving as it shrinks into the distance, giving us the sense of floating away into space. 


The name Dana chose for the work is from a famous speech by JFK given at Rice University. 

But why, some say, the Moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?
We choose to go to the Moon! We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.

At the time I don’t remember feeling the added serendipity that Rice is my father’s alma mater. 


I guess I’m thinking about my father lately. 


I’m now sitting in the Dubai airport before my flight to Bangalore, India. From there, I will head south to Mysore, and then to an ashram just outside of the city where I will stay through mid-January meditating, learning and training in yoga. I booked the trip months ago, before my father’s passing. Before all of this. 


It feels like serendipity. 

Friday, November 30, 2018

The Gotcha Game

Jerry Saltz and Charlotte Burns at the Hirshhorn's Ring Auditorium, Nov. 29, 2018

The collective sense of truth - or perhaps the increasing sensitivity to it...and its absence - entangles those that act rashly. Not all falsehoods, spoken or practiced, are rooted in deceit - sometimes lying is a reaction to not being in a calm state of mind. Sometimes it is a reflection of insecurity or fear. Certainly, one's character has a big part to play also.

When political pundits catch a politician in a contradiction of words or reality, the 'gotcha' is almost gleeful. And the lying is expected.

When we see art that seems like fraud, we can have strong reactions as well, and the lambasting of the artist can be euphoric. Better disgust than disdain (at least for the artist, passion is better than ambivalence), but whatever it may be - when art is not created from a genuine place it feels void of meaning - and therefore a lie, and we can sometimes relish the calling out of its creator.

There are some people who are easier to be truthful with, for whom there need not be enhancement or fabrication in order to genuinely connect. This has to do with your own frequency as much as theirs, but ultimately you can only adjust your own - and that is done through action and choice. In art and in politics, one opens themselves to others beyond their social choosing, and the value of meaningfulness currency is significantly higher than during your conversations at happy hour.

We should not feel glee when we catch an other telling a falsehood. Truth should be expected. Gotchas should be disappointing. We should respect artists all the more when they meet such a high expectation, given their strange choices and challenges. Perhaps less so for politics, where truth is less evasive.

We should also not be afraid to be quiet when we don't have anything to say.

I attended an interview with art critic and recent Pulitzer Prize-winner Jerry Saltz by podcast host Charlotte Burns last night at the Hirshhorn Museum. His reinforcing of honesty and true-to-selfhood resonated with me...for application in art, politics and life. 

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Thanksgiving and My Father’s Passing

Today is a good day for gratitude. Our father made the universe wiser last night when he joined back with The Divine Source...or, whatchamacallit. He is with us, I know, because we are of him always, but I miss him so much anyway. I am so thankful he is my father. He always will be. He taught us countless things, but one of the most important was how to know - maybe ‘feel’ is more accurate - Truth. To comprehend those moments when feeling is more true than knowing. To trust your gut sometimes, I guess. Ironic for a scientific mind. But then, he was an interesting man. Truly. He knew everything was just a theory. I miss him so much. I also plan to live so much. To truly taste, feel and do with curiosity, openness and gratitude. To give, forgive, receive and be forgiven. To love freely. To be free to be true. If you knew James Shepherd Freeman III (Skip, Uncle Skip, Papa Freeman, The Professor, The Sailer, The Wise Man) then I feel your sadness. To know him was to love him.

This message was posted above my father’s door the day before his passing. We asked the nurses who put it there, and no one seemed to know, although it’s clearly something the hospital does. The quote is unattributed. Apropos.

My brother and I looked at the moon a lot last night. His moon.

I miss my father, and I am so thankful for the people in my life. I miss my father, and I am getting better as a Self. I miss my father, and I have so much gratitude for living right now. Happy Thanksgiving and Love. Truly.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Core

I was amazed at how weak my core was this morning. Yoga activates and utilizes our body's muscles, which strengthens us, but I clearly have not done sit-ups in a very long time. It was like my mind could not activate the muscles of my abdomen. My neck, chest, legs, arms...face were all tense, but while remembering and trying to follow the instructions for sit-ups ("squeeze with your belly, not your body"), I was mostly immobile. Everything could squeeze around it, but my core was asleep...or at least not listening.

Yesterday evening was an okay yoga practice. We opened with a prayer because of all the violence in the world. A woman interrupted the class to say she did not like how I was demonstrating because I practice along with everyone rather than showing all the poses beforehand, and requested that I redo a 'routine'. Another woman approached me after class to ask for some advice and a man said how good he felt. I missed the supercool party celebrating my husband's dance company at the residence of the Ambassador of Switzerland and his wife, which featured a performance of their recent piece “For Giulia”, inspired by a Ferdinand Hodler painting. So, you know: okay.

Ego is tough. It is difficult to ignore in one's self and in others. It shares a lot and often. It's funny and cute and interesting until it's not. We do not exist alone, so the ego has value when it informs us about our individuality. That in oneness we are many, and in many we are one. A nation is as good an example as any of collective identity composed of...multitudes. There is a lot to a Self, whether it be You or your country.

My husband, Dana, choreographed a dance some years ago called "Hyphen" (performed at Lisner Auditorium and the National Portrait Gallery in DC; as well as Skirball Center in NYC) which was about hyphenated identity - specifically Asian-American identity. He was given access to the archives of famed Korean American artist Nam June Paik, whose video work was projected and incorporated into the performance. The sound score includes the spoken line:
Does the hyphen connect or separate our hybrid identities?
All of us struggle with belonging, some more profoundly than others. Belonging means more to some than others. This is a consistent theme in Dana's work.

When we think of our core...what is it exactly? Our core is our body's center. Core values are often considered fundamental beliefs. Gut feelings should not be ignored but we should also know how to listen to them.

Maybe core values should be practices, not beliefs. I can believe anything, but I cannot practice anything. The limitation is a good and useful one. I can believe someone is bad, but I cannot practice attacking them physically - the conscience and the law forbid it; and I should not practice attacking them verbally or otherwise. So the value of 'not attacking others' or 'letting others be' is something I can follow, or practice. Believing that all others are good and decent is more challenging, no matter how much yoga I do. It's a process.

What are American values - our country's 'core values'? Whatever they are, they should be practiceable by any one. They should be apolitical. They should be practiced for our common good, not simply believed. I suppose then that we must believe in a Common Good.

The Refugee Center discusses each of the following on its page about American values, designed to inform those new to American society:
  • Independence
  • Privacy
  • Directness
  • Equality
  • Time and Efficiency
  • Work Ethic
(The list also includes Informality, Competition and Materialism as American values, but I like the above six best.) Practicing could be something like:

Independence: be free to be your self - whoever that is at this moment; you should not attack or be attacked for it 
Privacy: honor yours and others' sovereignty; we do not have to live nakedly
Directness: be honest and expect honesty
Equality: treat others as you would like to be treated (seriously)
Time and Efficiency: do not get stuck; move forward the best you can 
Work Ethic: when you can contribute talent, time or resources, be giving with your efforts

It's challenging when we only want news/information/analysis/advice from those we think we already agree with, because doing so limits perception and dialogue. For many, the source is more important than the message, but how can we say we believe something simply because of who said it? The message should be examined with its own merit. We are a nation of conformity and diversity. We all have hyphens. But we are all inidividuals - we are all You. 

I pray that we listen to our core more often. Instead of others and instead of words. Our collective American consciousness is scattered right now. We need to be quieter. And I need to do sit-ups once in a while.


A clip from "Hyphen" by Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company, 2008

Friday, September 28, 2018

Sovereignty, Om

This morning as I was driving, The Beatles' "Across the Universe" came on the speaker as a random play mode consequence. The words "nothing is going to change my world..." - ones that had previously signified an apathetic if not negative outlook on life - triggered something in me. For the first time, I understood the song in a near-reverse way. The words are beautiful.

What is your world? Is it the planet Earth which provides all living materials, nourishment, and life to life? That is certainly a thing to cherish and care for.

"Jai Guru Dev, Om" is the refrain, a mantra intended to bring higher consciousness to the mind. The Sanskrit literally translates to 'glory to the shining remover of darkness'. But, in modern context, because The Maharashi - whom The Beatles famously visited and practiced Transcendental Meditation with - spoke it in reverence to his spiritual teacher, it translates to "all glory to the divine teacher" or "all glory to Guru Dev".

"Nothing is going to change my world."

If we consider our world as our reality, conscious experience, waking life - it may be a thing that we do want to change. This is not the reality I currently want - I can barely get through the day - how awful to think that nothing will change it!

"Jai Guru Dev, Om"

We know there are diverse elements to life. Good, Evil, Brightness, Darkness, Ease, Challenge. But what if our World was our sense of Self? Our sovereignty.

Across philosophies and religions, histories and cultures, there is a concept of some thing that approximates what English vernacular would call 'Enlightenment' - whether this is self-realization or a merging with The Divine can be interpreted individually. Certain yoga traditions describe it as The Absolute, and a number of New Age (and Old Age) thinkers practice 'moving beyond' or 'letting go of' the Self, or Ego (which are arguably not the same thing, or at least not one and the same thing). Nearly all religious belief includes a concept of prayer. Thank God. We need it now.

I pray sometimes, and it is great. But, right now the one thing every one has no matter their circumstances? Their Self. Beyond what the mind sees and the heart feels, there is still more. Call it the inner light which perceives reality, a connection with Spirit, Divine Spark, Soul - it is your sovereignty as a conscious being. It is your world. And to know nothing is going to change that? That is beautiful.

Jai Guru Dev, Om.

Om.