Friday, July 18, 2014

Dirty Summer

The air is wet like breathing underwater, as pregnant and expectant as a new mother long overdue. I never knew water to be so heavy yet so immune to gravity's pull. How can it hang so still there in the air? The tension reaches a climax as window panes tremor with the low rumble of war drums, lightening splits the sky, and rain spills out hot and thick until you are drenched through.

This is my tropical urban jungle, everything sticky and sticking to everything else. Sticky, warm, bare skin sticking to plastic subway seats. Sticky, damp clothing sticking to skin. The riot of sights and smells and sounds sticking and sinking deep into my subconscious, playing back in the late night/early morning when we finally dance home after having all the fun. This is my paradise and I am home.

The shaman of our over sized village is covered in tattoos, only his faced spared the bore of needle and ink. He leads us deep into meditation, reminding us that we ride the wave of our breath even in the middle of the sea of concrete. Our bodies can be sanctuary if we learn to make peace with the mind, to welcome every thought and memory with equanimity. In his presence, we cultivate a balanced awareness that can accommodate all the sensations. Everything experienced as one.

Teeming and trembling with life, the city hums all hours of the day and night. The trains groan and screech, winding through the tunneled earth. A two man band enjoys the echoed acoustics beneath the ornate underside of a rusty park bridge. Neighbors shout salutations and jibes from stoops. A berimbau keeps time for the rhythmic, graceful dance of a capoeira battle. The tinkle of the Mister Softee truck is ever present and mingled with children's joyful shouts. Air conditioners and fans never stop, a whirring white noise in the background of every household keeping cool.

We live here together, millions upon millions on top of and all around each other, everyone with a love so deep for this place that the call to come is undeniable. Every human heart here carries a story and a dream that brought them to this electric heart of the world, to what some call the greatest city on earth. We are running side by side, to catch a train transfer or a lucky break, to forge a path for ourselves through this wilderness of asphalt and stone and metal.

Even in this place so swift and wild, there are blips when time stops...with the exchange of genuine smiles and neighborly greetings, with the light that falls just right through the leaves overhead, with a magic moment that could only happen here. There is magic to be found anywhere but in this place it overflows. It is the city where dreams come true and anything is possible. Everything is happening here and I am home.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

All In

Summer 2011
In the spirit of radical honesty and transparency, I have a confession: I have been making fear-based decisions. For the sake of time, I'll avoid avoiding what I've been avoiding and tell you straight up that I've been avoiding vulnerability. While it's been healthy and helpful to be single and celibate, and I really am happy alone, this is not the whole story. I had the chance to be in the presence of my teacher in LA recently and he gave a talk on receiving what we've worked for in which he said, "Your desires will be ridiculous as long as you believe you can't fulfill them." While I have been going through the motions of romantic relating for years, claiming that what I wanted was real, lasting love, my actions spoke otherwise. There has been a part of me which does not believe in the viability of this desire; indeed, not only is it impossible but it is unsafe. The inner, subconscious script goes something like, "No one will ever love me like I want to be loved, and even if they did, I would just end up getting hurt, so I'm not going to even go there."

While I'm being honest, I have to admit that there are a lot of ways in which I've been living with one foot out. I limited the scope of my life and choices by refusing to get my drivers license until a few years ago. I've given up on passions as soon as the demand to excel pushes me beyond where I'm comfortable because of a deep fear of failure. When you completely invest and immerse yourself in something, it is obvious to anyone how much you care, and in my mind that caring can be a source of weakness, a chink in the armor that can be exploited. If you happen to not succeed, then everyone will know. They will see you fail. This is a crippling idea if you're like me and failure is (admittedly, illogically) a source of terrible shame. Rather than risk this pain, I have consistently chosen to shrink away from challenge and play small.

In theory, I actually love failure. I've been reading about the benefits of failure for years and watching inspirational speeches from the likes of Oprah and Steve Jobs, who both failed only to go on to not burst into flames but to succeed spectacularly in other ways. Zen Buddhism teaches me not to get too attached to the way anything is ever because it's all going to change. What is a disappointment now will transform into a sparkling blessing later. What I'm celebrating now will flicker and fade, or present unforeseen challenges in the future. We simply don't know what It Is yet, so don't get too excited. Just receive it, say "Yes, thank you!" no matter what it looks like, and keep moving. Someday I might really take this in. For now, the instinctual reaction is to have my parachute on hand, ready to bail at the first sign of trouble.

Peeling back another layer, the more frightening possibility is that I might actually succeed. Imagine! Imagine being a big, bright, wild success! Oh lawd! Then what? Then the failures become bigger and more visible. The more successful people become, the more the general public seems to relish their failure. The $3 billion celebrity gossip industry stands as proof of the public's rabid, voyeuristic interest in watching other people struggle. Scanning the comment section of pretty much anything on the internet (which isn't advisable) reveals how much cruelty people are capable of unleashing on each other. It can be a mean world out there.

Years ago I had happenstance meetings with two different psychics while on a trip to Washington DC. They both sized me up incisively, concluding that I was hiding who I was...which was true. It took a long time to admit, because admitting it meant confronting the shame which had kept me hiding away. When you carry a story of  shame and unworthiness, of course you don't want anyone to see you. I spent much of my life feeling like an ugly duckling bad girl misfit alien. Despite this, though, I was a performer from a very early age. The need to be seen clearly and honestly was always there, fighting the shame for dominance and demanding attention. This is a very human condition- it's the reason why theatre departments are so often filled with ugly duckling bad girl/boy misfit aliens. We feel the fear of vulnerability but we put it all out there anyway because our humanity demands visibility. Here I am. Do you see me?

A month ago, I decided that I would move to New York and threw a bit of energy in that direction just to see what would happen. To my delight and total terror, I experienced an opening like I haven't in a very long time. Yogi Bhajan has a bit about manifesting that has been resonating so much lately: "The Raj Yogi's presence performs her miracle. Others have to act and perform and do all kinds of things. But this is the path of the Queen. It is not the path of the slave. Just feel your presence is acting; therefore you have not to act." I did extend my will in a easterly direction, but just barely compared to how much effort I've exerted trying to make other things happen. And yet, like a long overdue exhale, my life began to move very naturally and obviously by the hand of God and there was nothing to do but buy the one way ticket and go for it.

This was a highly vulnerable, bold commitment for me to make, a sign of a turn in the tide of my life. As I approached my 30th birthday, I began to feel the straining limitation of allowing so many important choices to be guided by fear. I had already grappled with my mortality, but had not considered that I might actually live for a very long time and that I had better think about what I might want the rest of my life to contain. The conclusion? No matter what I choose, there is no way forward unless I learn to go all in. No holding back. No parachute. No hiding. I want it to be okay for me to be seen caring enough about something to pursue it far beyond where I'm comfortable, to the point of failure, or even wild success. I want you to know how important this life is to me, how much I really do care. I want to live with both feet in, boldly committed to every moment.

Spring 2014
Believe me, I understand how terrifying this is, but I urge you...
Feel the fear and do it anyway. Never regret your boldness. It is better to have bought the one way ticket to a new life and limped home a failure than to not go and always wonder...

Don't wonder.

Buy the ticket. Take or quit the job. Fail or succeed. Have the baby. Say I Love You. Ask the question. Speak the truth. Allow yourself to be seen.

Give expression to whatever desire stirs within you and believe in your ability to fulfill it. We are here to fulfill the desires of our sacred hearts. We are worthy of this. In fact, it is our one and only job here.

Let's get to work.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Happy. Alone.

Root deep and grow your branches
There is a strength, steadiness and comfort in aloneness that you cannot know until you are immersed in it. From the outside, all anyone sees is a tree standing naked on its own in the middle of the field. In their perception, this is a vulnerable, weak position. They don't see the roots reaching deep into an intimate connectedness with the earth. They don't feel the solidness at the core of the ancient, sturdy trunk. They don't know how full and satisfying it feels to be empty.

If I ever marry, I want the world to exclaim, "My goodness, what a man it must've been to finally tame such a wild heart!" Women of a certain age are far too often painted as tragic things that are saved from ruin when some savior man rescues them from a lifetime of destitute spinsterhood. Apparently some people are living in a Jane Austin novel in their minds. Women are supposed to aspire to marriage and family above all else, so of course if one has not achieved that or is not on that trajectory, there must be something wrong.

This weekend I was at a nightclub with my mother and grandmother (long story...). I got up for a moment and my grandma asked my mom, "She's so beautiful and such a wonderful woman. How has no one scooped her up yet?" My grandma is a strong, smart woman who enjoyed a long career as a drug and alcohol psych nurse at the VA. She has always been independent and traveled adventurously. When my grandpa died 11 years ago, she was deeply saddened, but didn't shrivel up and die. She has carried on living her life in a big way. However, she is the product of a time when getting married was just what you did. Had she been born in another era, she might've waited longer to marry or perhaps not done so at all.

The short answer, grandma, is that I have no interest in getting married as something to give my life a sense of structure, stability or meaning. My life is structured to my liking, and feels both meaningful and stable without the presence of a husband or children. I'm not a china doll in a shop of precious things, just waiting forlornly for someone to come along and take me home. The only way that I will consent to being in any sort of romantic partnership again is for the opportunity to share time and space with a truly remarkable man with much to offer. When I meet a man who compels me on a deep level to brave the possible heartache of love, then and only then will I consider giving up the glorious ease, grace and joy of flying solo.

If you are perpetually romantically entangled and have been bypassing being single, the concept of comfortable, happy aloneness may be entirely foreign or frightening. Being single can be lonely at times, but it reveals a wondrous richness after wading through the initial discomfort. You learn how to self-soothe and self-approve, building an emotional independence that gives you the power to feel okay no matter where you go and who surrounds you. You can move about the world confidently and free from the need to consider or compromise with anyone else. It's an experience I recommend for anyone, especially before deciding to marry. If you're unhappy on your own, being in a relationship will not make you happy. We owe it to ourselves and our partners to enter relationships offering the riches of our fullness, not begging from our brokenness and need. Our partners are not there to hold us up everyday. We must be able to stand on our own.

This is something I wrote about almost a year ago. Since then nothing has changed but the yearning I expressed at that time for my beloved. I spent some time considering everything my life could be and contain outside of the traditional, marriage and family path, and found that the limitless possibilities were exciting enough to assuage any longing for a partner. Out beyond sex and romantic desire, marriage and children, is an oft unappreciated world of freedom and experience.

We suffer from this terrible FOMO, though, which ropes some into walking the traditional path because they are afraid to be haunted by a lifelong case of the What Ifs. What if I never have children? What if I regret it later? I am honestly more afraid of what I will miss, or what will become difficult or impossible to experience or obtain if I do. Parenting is the world's most important and difficult job. I think I would be a marvelous mother, but taking on that role would (appropriately) change my life in ways I am unprepared to accept. If you have even the slightest real understanding of the demanding sacrifice of being a parent, you would take a long pause before diving in.

Perhaps "the right guy" at "the right time" would change it all. Yes, perhaps. For the time being, though, I am doing the impossible. I am a(n almost) 30 year old woman. I have been celibate for a year and single for even longer. I am not dating, nor do I have any plans in my future for marriage or children. Yet, I am happy and alone. Fulfilled and alone. Confident and alone. Having said all this, I will undoubtedly be married before year's end. However, for now...

No, I'm no one's wife, but, oh, I love my life.

You can keep your societal standards. I'm good on my own.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Weekly Tithe: It's Fun to Stay at the YMCA!

This week in The Weekly Tithe, I give a big shout out to the summer camp that raised me.

YMCA Camp Loma Mar
One of the ideas behind tithing is to give back to an organization which helped to form your faith. While I have passed through countless houses of worship in my life, few affected me as deeply as the sacred, magic woods of YMCA Camp Loma Mar. The YMCA has become largely secular over the years, but every morning we would bundle up against the coastal fog of the Santa Cruz Mountains and troop to the outdoor chapel for Inspiration. I've never been much of a morning person, but raucous, joyful clapping and signing about Noah and the ark, and feeling happy, healthy and terrific was an always enjoyable start the day.

When I was older, I took on the challenge of participating in the Ragger Program, which played a huge part in forming the woman I would become. The story goes that in 1914 the Program Director of Loma Mar, Thomas "King" Caldwell, was faced with a dilemma: at the end of the boys sports camp, everyone was being given awards for their performance, but one boy was left out because he was disabled and had been unable to participate in most of the activities. However, he had a wonderful attitude, standing by and cheering on everyone else. Caldwell wanted to honor the boy's tremendous character, so he went to the store and found a blue bandanna. After all the awards were handed out, the boy was called onstage and everyone cheered as Caldwell explained that the boy was being recognized for his rich generosity of spirit and positive attitude.

The Ragger Program developed over the years for goal setting and personal growth. There are seven rags, each representing a different theme and demanding an increasing amount of sacrifice with each step. I don't remember a point in my life when I wasn't interested in personal growth, but the Ragger Program definitely helped me to refine my focus in goal setting and self-study. I had the benefit of wonderful mentors for each rag I received whose wisdom and guidance I still refer to years later (a favorite tidbit: "Assumptions make an ass out of you and me"). I also became a member of a worldwide family of conscious humans of character, and the program introduced me to the first ever mantra I would repeat daily, The Ragger's Creed:

I would be true for there are those who trust me
I would be pure for there are those who care
I would be strong for there is much to suffer
I would be brave for there is much to dare

I would be friend to all, the foe, the friendless
I would be giving and forget the gift
I would be humble for I know my weakness
I would look up and laugh and love and lift

The Ragger's Creed, the teachings within the program and the sacred rag ceremonies, and the incredible friends who I shared this journey with all guided my choices as I navigated the rocky terrain of adolescence, and served as a powerful, clear touchstone when I fell out of alignment. I can honestly say that I would not have turned out as well as I did without this invaluable experience. For that reason, this week I tithe to YMCA Camp Loma Mar, who taught me what it really means to be a follower of Christ and kept my eyes on God when I was an angry young feminist raging against organized religion.

Summer 2000

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Weekly Tithe: Space and Freedom Behind Bars

This week in The Weekly Tithe, we celebrate the practice of mindfulness in the least likely of places: prison.

Photo credit: the great Robert Sturman
Prison Yoga Project
I first learned about PYP in December 2011 while seeking to expand public perception about what yoga is, who it belongs to and what it looks like. I had seen the incredible documentary, The Dhamma Brothers, a couple of years earlier and was aware of the application of alternative healing methods within the prison system but had yet to learn how widespread or effective yoga had become in this context. The project was started by James Fox, who began bringing yoga to at-risk populations when he received his certification in 2000. Some struggle to understand why prisoners should be taught yoga, something that's come to be considered a luxury. I will share PYP's statement on this, which was offered on their Facebook page today:

"Some people can’t understand why we teach yoga in prison. “Why cut a prisoner any slack at all? They’re getting what they deserve. Do the crime, do the time.” Or, “I’m against spending any taxpayer money on coddling criminals.”

The fact is, most released prisoners come right out into the community where they originally committed their crimes. Thanks to scant rehabilitative help in prison, more than 60% re-offend. Our work offers an inexpensive way to improve prisoner health with the possibility of reducing the rate of re-offense.

Most prisoners suffer from Complex Trauma -- chronic interpersonal trauma often experienced as children, such as abandonment, hunger, homelessness, domestic violence, neighborhood violence, sexual abuse, bullying, discrimination, drug and alcohol abuse, and witnessing crime; including murder. Sometimes horrors so unimaginable they don’t have a name. We call this “original pain.” These experiences, imprinted by the terrifying emotions that accompany them, are held deeply in the mind, and perhaps more importantly, in the body, with the dissociative effects of impulsive/reactive behavior, and tendencies toward drug and alcohol addiction, as well as violence. Carrying unresolved trauma into their lives impacts everything they do, often landing them in jail, where they experience even more trauma.

Traditionally, cognitive behavioral therapists have helped people process unresolved trauma, but more recently psychiatrists, psychologists, clinical social workers -- many working with US military veterans -- acknowledge that embodiment practices such as yoga, enriched with mindfulness practices, can have more impact in alleviating the symptoms that lead to both reactive behaviors and stress related disease.

The Prison Yoga Project was founded in the belief that yoga, taught specifically as a mindfulness practice, is very effective in releasing deeply held, unresolved trauma, allowing us to address the resultant behavioral issues. We've learned from 12 years of experience in San Quentin and many other correctional institutions that a yoga and mindfulness practice can help offenders change trauma-driven unconscious behavioral patterns…usually the behavior that put them in prison.

We ask, “upon release, what kind of former prisoner do you want to bump into at the grocery store, on the playground, or when you’re fixing a flat tire on the side of the road? Do you want the guy stuck in his cell for 15 years? Or the one who has received some rehabilitative care?” We live with the results of their imprisonment, don’t we? Prisons are a dumping ground for people with addictions, trauma and mental illness. So we focus on impulse control, mood disorders, violence control, depression, despair, addiction and PTSD.

There’s a major breakdown in the criminal justice system in this country. The system is retributive -- mostly punishment -- do the crime, do the time. At PYP we believe in restorative justice. We believe in victim-offender education and we provide prisoners with tools for self rehabilitation. We've helped thousands of prisoners by instilling self-control and fostering accountability, addressing the damage they've caused to their victims and themselves."

If you believe in the healing effects of yoga and want to help bring them to men and women as a way to better all of society, please consider donating to Prison Yoga Project. If you're a yoga teacher or committed practitioner, you can train with PYP to bring yoga to at-risk, highly traumatized populations. I believe that yoga belongs to everyone, that it is good for every body and that at its best, it can make miracles. As always...

Give good, do good, feel good!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Uncommon Woman

For any woman who’s ever been told she’s too much:
You, who broke out of the mold before they even cracked it off you. 
You, who came out inventing your own how-to-scale-a-wall with only vowels. 
You, who fireflash in the eye of so many midnights, so many men who want to taste your hem, 
who dream of being desired by an Uncommon Woman, if only because
their dressers are empty of anything but brand name cologne and predictable portrait. 
Let them call you different. 
Let them bait the minnows of you heart. 
Show them your heart is a school of fish, a solar system of all moons. 
When asked, say, "My heart is always causing the mating season." 
When they call you full of yourself, say, “Yes.” 
Breathe in their scorn and breathe out Atlantis. 
Let them come with their saw blade smiles. 
Let them come with their saw blade hands.
Let them come to see if you slice small enough to replace their handkerchiefs, 
the ones they’ll loan to who they’ll call easier girls. 
Let them choose easier girls.
When he tells you he is tossing your broken root out his open window,
and holds up to the glass a more common woman, surrender. 
Gracefully surrender the pretend olive branch of his matrimony. 
The pretend complete protein he slipped onto your third finger while you stood
in shoes that were always too small for you. 
When he says she is easier to handle, live with, attach to, fuck, I want you to remember your neck.
The way it ascends space, and always has, above the rest. 
You were brought here for so much more than walking two by two up a ship plank. 
Anyone common enough to go coward at the depth of his love for you, wasn't meant to walk beside you.
So go live in the liquid bowl of gold you were handed for a skin.
Uncommon Woman, let the easier girls pick up the socks.
Embrace your splendid singularity.
And look to the rest of us Uncommon Women standing in the centers,
holding up the tents of our skirts, we call them cities. 
Love should not have us stoop to fit a portrait.
Love should have us elevate our infinity.
So, Uncommon Woman, don’t settle for less.
Instead, stride towards the ever shedding horizon.
Take her example of renewal. 
Wear your grief like a party dress!
Remember, the sun’s only lover is not the Earth.
She’s got moons on every planet.
-Tara Hardy

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Weekly Tithe: Growing Community, and my charity:water birthday

Oy ve, so much for weekly. I've had a whole lot of life happening lately and haven't been grounded for long enough to keep up on regular writing. This week we return to The Weekly Tithe with a profile on Acta Non Verba: Youth Urban Farm Project.

Deeds Not Words
My amazing friend Kelly started Acta Non Verba (ANV) in response to the gaping inequalities present in East Oakland in the areas of access to nutritious food, health education and extra-curricular activities for children and teens in the area. ANV uses the garden as a classroom to not only teach kids about where their food comes from, how to grow it and prepare it healthfully, but also leadership skills and community building. My favorite part of the program, though, is the seed fund. The garden sells fresh produce to the community, which is considered a "food desert," and puts the proceeds into college funds for the kids and teens in the program. This supports and encourages young people to aim not only to graduate from high school in an area with an almost 40% drop out rate, but to pursue higher education. Their time and effort working in the garden is rewarded not only in building invaluable life skills, but in actual monetary support for their future education. I don't know about you, but this makes me insanely happy.

There are lots of ways to support ANV! If you're local, you can volunteer in the garden planting or building, either on a regular basis or on periodic farm work days. You can also taste the fruits (and vegetables) of the kids' labor and purchase a CSA box or visit the farm stand- because who doesn't love locally and organically grown produce? If you don't have a talent for gardening or already have a veggie source, you can also send some money ANV's way to nourish their good work for years to come. Like ANV on Facebook to keep up with the goings on around the farm!

In other news, this year I have pledged my birthday to charity:water. They do amazing work building wells and bringing clean water to communities where lack of or difficulty in access mean high mortality rates among children under 5 and overall suffering for all people. I love their work and hope to raise $3000 for my campaign. That's only 100, $30 donations and at the time of this writing, I have already received 3, so it's only 97 more to go! Please help make my 30th birthday the best yet by contributing to my campaign and joining me in this truly life saving effort.

Tomorrow is Tax Day 2014, and it's the perfect time to begin thinking about Tax Day 2015 and the tax deductible donations you can make this year in order to lessen the tax sting next year. Donations to both Acta Non Verba and charity:water are 100% tax deductible, so you know what to do...

Give good, do good, feel good!