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. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

A yoga-related missive on what the fuck is going on

"Every person you meet should be regarded as one of the walking wounded. We have never seen a man or woman not slightly deranged by either anxiety or grief. We have never seen a totally sane human being."
- Robert Anton Wilson


Yoga's populatrity in America has exploded. A 2016 survey found approximately 37 million Americans practice (some form or derivative of) yoga on at least a semi-regular basis. That number increased from 20 million just three years prior. Statista estimates this number will reach 55 million in 2020. Whether it's for strength and flexibility, injury recovery or physical therapy, stress management or spiritual reasons, the number of citizens participating in something that encourages awareness of the mind-body connection has been a major growth trend.

The other day, my brother mentioned to me the uniquely long and enduring pervasiveness of self-improvement books in America, an industry once contained on a single bookstore shelf is now "wholly transformed from a disreputable publishing category to a category killer, having remade most of nonfiction in its own inspirational image along the way". Yoga is perhaps one of the oldest philosophies promoting self-improvement, benefited by thousands of years of input and experimentation. We clearly want to be better.

When my mother certified as a holistic healer some years ago following a career in finance, she would occasionally share various pearls of wisdom from Traditional Chinese Medicine and The Five Elements philosophy with my siblings and I. One that sticks with me is: Listen to the body, for the body is wise. You ignore it at your peril.

It has been said many times how Donald Trump is clearly a symptom - or the manifestation - of a societal illness that the United States has been quietly suffering for many years. But the illness is not new to America nor new to the world at large. It has had such deep and consistent impact to our collective reality for so long, that describing it is difficult. 'Evil' isn't quite right - at least in its oversimplification - as much as some of my progressive brethren may disagree.

Something is wrong. The majority of our body politic seems alert to this malignancy within it. More and more, this awareness brings spontaneous action. From shaming officials at restaurants to marching in the streets. But are we just fighting the symptoms without addressing the cause?

"Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured."
- B.K.S. Iyengar


When my friend Bonnie and I took part in the March 24th "March For Our Lives" in DC, we met Eric Holder, former U.S. Attorney General and pariah of conservatives and right wing conspiracy circles. He was waiting for a bar order at a crowded restaurant, as we were, tired and hungry after presumably demonstrating earlier with his two daughters.

Bonnie asked him whether he thought our country would get through this - this bizarre time of extreme division, nationalist rage and general uncertainty. He said that yes, he did...

"But I think it'll get worse before it gets better."


How can this all be happening - the attempted undoing of the global order, the disfiguring of America's face to the world, the villainizing and abuse of desperate people, the quarantining of children sundered from their parents, the promotion of base values, the translucent lack of honor, the acceptance of narcissism with nuclear weapons - at the same time there seems to be increased spiritual exploration? An expanding, collective pursuit of goodness and equality en masse coinciding with the apparent rising of our darkest human natures?

But of course this makes sense. Duality permeates our reality. The evolutionary cycles of our collective consciousness have corresponding periods of light and darkness. The Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries was preceded by what many call the Dark Ages, and followed by what some scholars refer to as the Counter-Enlightenment, a rejection of rationalist ideas that arose in the later 18th and early 19th centuries. The abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, and desegregation were met with fierce opposition despite their ultimate justness. We would do well to remember that true justice is justness, not law.

Theodore Parker, a unitarian minister and prominent American Transcendentalist said the following in 1853, predicting the eventual success of the abolitionist movement:

"Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble."

- From “Of Justice and the Conscience”, third sermon in Ten Sermons of Religion.


His words presaged the American Civil War, which broke out eight years later.

Martin Luther King, Jr. paraphrased Parker in 1956 following the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, eight years before the passing of the American Civil Rights Act of 1964. King used the phrase in several speeches, as well as in his final sermon before his assassination in 1968.

I have worried that Donald Trump may not be the precipitating downfall of our nation, but the downfall of our species. I think the disease of which he is a symptom is not just evil, but neglect. I think Trump is a manifestation of the neglected Self. And the neglected Self is as dangerous as it is common. 

"Yoga is invigoration in relaxation. Freedom in routine. Confidence through self-control. Energy within and energy without."
- Ymber Delecto


I want to be a better person. Part of that process for me has been yoga. In recent months, as I try for daily practice, yoga and meditation has helped me improve my awareness. Awareness of my own weaknesses and unmet needs. Aware of a sense of truth and good and bad that is easily pacified. Aware that I have not been the most attentive friend; that I haven’t been the most loving partner; that I haven’t been developing as an artist. Aware that I haven’t been taking the best care of my Self; more aware of what holistic health truly means.

There is more to do, not less. And the frustration within has been rooted in the sense that I am not ensuring my ability to grow, and thus be present and most aware, that I am not challenging what is transpiring...that I am letting others deal with it. Hoping that others deal with it. That I am distracted by petty matters of ego and immediate needs.

Yoga teaches many things, including that the ego can lead us astray. President Trump is a marked manifestation of the emotional self out of control; the ego raging to remain affirmed in its role as sacred-deluder. What he displays is within us all if we neglect ourselves. Perhaps it is not expressed by condemning immigrants and equating torture to 'toughness', but when we do not address the parts of our physiological and emotional selves that need maintenance, healing and rejuvenation, we cannot be our best. Animus starts from within before it is dispensed to others.

It makes sense that in the many dualities of our time, the rise of yoga and self-improvement comes alongside the public resurfacing of racism, nationalism and counter-progressive rhetoric.

Besides praying for Vishnu to bless Robert Mueller with protection and strength to counter balance the destruction Kali brought in the form of Trump (as Vera de Chalambert described after election night in 2016), it is important for citizens to voice themselves and protest against bad things their government does. It is also important to put effort into Self betterment. It is vital. So I will march. And I will vote. But this push to save our nation starts from within. Nourishing the Self arms us with tools to improve the world, including clear judgement and commitment to good character.

So, yoga and meditation seems to work for me. It drives me to want to make certain commitments to my Self - not only to be healthier, wiser, a better friend, husband, brother and son - but to be a better citizen. In thinking about MLK's words "Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice," I really like what Mychal Denzel Smith said in relation to our present times:

"The dawn of the age of President Donald Trump has restored to that quote some of the meaning lost in Obama’s repeated use. We say it to ourselves now because we need to believe, even as all visible signs of progress are eroded, that the world we seek lies waiting for us, just on the other side of this hellscape. It is not going to show up tomorrow, but knowing that it will show up someday should help fortify us for the fight ahead.

This use of the quotation, though, carries the risk of magical thinking. After all, if the arc of the moral universe will inevitably bend toward justice, then there is no reason for us to work toward that justice, as it’s preordained. If it is only a matter of cosmic influence, if there is no human role, then we are off the hook. This isn’t how King meant it, as evidenced by the work to which he dedicated his own life."
- Mychal Denzel Smith


With your Self and your society, the time for betterment is not tomorrow. The time to form and nurture and preserve progress made and goodness coveted is now. Now.

The best maintenance of our communal space requires the maintenance and continued growth of the Self. Our communal space is diverse in composition: spiritual, as well as temporal, physical, psychological, and political. Our individual sense of justness and ethics impacts the ethos and mores of our community - from our group of friends, to our towns and cities, to our countries. We share what we reap and we reap what we sow. 

"For those wounded by civilization, yoga is the most healing salve."
- T. Guillemets