Monday, April 26, 2010

The Next New Thing at Airport Security: Palms Up

The two men in blue gloves, sort of kindly jocular but serious too, pull me off the line and say, “excuse me, ma’am, we have to check your hands.” “This is new,” I say, curious but there can’t be any joking, not even an evident curiosity, not even the slightest question, so I quickly divert my eyes and fix my face not to reveal itself, its interest in the notion of putting my hands out, palms up, to strangers. I think about how I think I look – clearly a 60-year-old woman, with gray hair at the roots, my hair pulled back; I’m wearing my black tunic with rainbow embroidery on it and my black yoga pants underneath; I’ve dressed for comfort in coach, but I’ve also picked my clothes to feel like “me,” like this woman who travels, who’s kind of interesting. I’ve got my favorite California necklace on, a circle of reassuring polished stones, with earrings to match, and I feel earthy and seasoned. Anyway, they make me reach my hands out, palms up, and one of the men brushes a brush over the soft pads at the base of the fingers, the crease of my lifeline, a brush attached to a tube attached to a machine. For just a moment there’s a weird intimacy, the palms of my hands, the two men, the machine – and I stand there and they turn their back and look at the machine. “It just takes seven seconds,” they say, like when you get a mammogram, like when the kind woman ducks off out of the room to avoid the radiation and you have to hold your breath and you wonder if there’s something dark and scary inside your most beloved part, the part that never got to suckle a child but that your husband loves and says so often, and then the machine stops and she says, okay, and comes back in and takes off the plates to see what’s there, to see if you moved and your breast left its mark or if you maybe moved and there’s the slightest blur, the blur of your body saying, no, no, don’t know this thing about me. Anyway, the seven seconds go by and I’m standing there with my arms still raised, my palms still up, and I'm balancing on my whole feet, the way I practice in yoga, feeling my toe mounds and my heels solid against the floor, grounding themselves and my chi or whatever you call it right down into the earth's core, and then the men say, "Okay, you’re okay," and I put my palms down, wondering what it would be like to have a bitter explosive on my skin, sabotaging crystals, instead of just the anxious pink airport soap and the knowing epidermis of my whole beloved life of touching and holding things and I head to Gate 2 and my next short-term escape.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Here's the Thing

Art is not nice. This is a place to be angry. Tonight, while we were trying to have an "open mic" poetry reading at Churchhill's, a drunk guy barged in, loudly asking where was his "wagon." Then he slurringly demanded a cigarette from one of the young women there, who gave one to him, and then he begged money off of her, which she gave him. It was an annoying and frightening moment. After he finally left, having disrupted most of a performance by one of the hardy readers, a Flint cop showed up and sat down among us, in full uniform. It was reassuring, especially in these tight budget times. If cops are stretched thin in Flint, it was nice that one of them was devoted to us, the Saturday night poets of downtown.

And art is not nice. There are times when we need to be angry, rude, intrusive...noisy.

Charred Remains

Feeling somewhat violent myself, I took Ted on a small tour today of some of the burned out hulks. I wanted to capture one of the signs that said "Do Not Burn Down." Here is what we found:

Oak Street

Oak Street, next to the "Do Not Burn Down" house

W. Court Street

Stockton Street

MLive reports today there were nine more fires last night -- only one actually sounded like an "abandoned house" M.O., but that one actually had been on the city's demolition list. Having just come from a writing conference at L.C.C., my mind and heart are full of this material, and I feel myself drawn into these charred remains.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Wrath and Headstands for Surviving Life in Flint

Here's my April column for East Village Magazine. I'll be reading with Grayce Scholt and Kelsey Ronan at 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 13 at Flint's Longway Planetarium in the final "Poetry Under the Stars" reading, and then with four other EVM writers -- Grayce, Kelsey, Alan Mathews and Nic Custer -- at Buckham Gallery on Saturday night, May 22.

This morning, as an experiment, I said the word “wrath” out loud to my reflection in the bathroom mirror. It’s an interesting word. I noticed how in saying it, the mouth has to open, pushing out to the left and right, and the teeth show. “Wrath” on a face looks primitive and a bit scary.

And primitive, indeed, is the flavor of the arsonists who are torching houses in downtown Flint as I write this. And primitive indeed are the people yelling “baby killer” at Bart Stupak , and primitive indeed are those yelling “faggot” and “n***r” at supporters of the health care reform bill.

I’ve been considering anger a lot lately, having recently experienced a personal tsunami of this most fiery of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Lately, in a discussion about legalizing pot, Bill Maher said something like, “This is a tense world. It’s stressful to be alive. We need something to mellow us out once in awhile.”

Aside from Maher’s specific campaign, I found his comments touching and true. It’s tough being a human being. And the price of mounting tension seems to be wrath and more wrath, increasingly less modulated, increasingly mean.

I must admit that things don’t seem as clear-cut to me now as they once did.

Wrath, for instance, isn’t always purely primitive. There’s a mature kind of anger, the result of real injustice, that demands action, as in the abuse of children, women and animals, and the visceral energies of rage help us carry out what needs to be done, the way people in Carriage Town have united to try to stop the house-burnings.

For me, though, the hardest kind of anger to manage is the “helpless” kind, when I experience the results of something that seem outside of my control. A body in the throes of that kind of wrath, untended and misunderstood, causes so much havoc.
That’s how I’ve been feeling some of the time lately, and I have been exploring what to do. Obviously, some things that make me angry are so big that I don’t know where to start. But within the life of my individual body, I’m finding some intelligence, and a few surprises.

For example, almost every day since last fall, I’ve been standing on my head.

As often as possible, I roll out a blue mat, take off my rings, pile a soft pillow against the wall, cradle my head in my entwined fingers, and kick up my legs.

It’s part of my relatively new life as a yoga student, and I’m immensely grateful. Things look different when I’m upside down.
I’ve brought the headstand home from my yoga class at the UM – Flint, where with about ten other people I show up twice a week, seeking deep relaxation and meditation.

It starts at the moment of arrival, when we leave our shoes on a mat outside a nondescript door.

Inside, in a windowless room with bright murals of green trees, sky and water painted on the concrete block wall, it’s so quiet. And quieting. It’s a gentle and respectful group, everybody sensitive to others’ space as we adjust from whatever happened that day. Some people lie on their mats, legs up against the wall, eyes closed, arms relaxed at their sides. Others sit cross-legged, backs straight, breathing. When our teacher, Rachelle, comes in, we settle down, facing her as she begins in her melodic voice.

She says “sit tall,” suggesting that we unfocus our eyes, close our lids, and bring our palms together at our hearts. We inhale. We exhale. We chant slowly, beginning with a full-throated trio of “ommms.”

I love the chants. I don’t know what the words mean, and to be honest, I don’t always get them right, so I just mumble along. I’ve thought of asking Rachelle for translation. Since I’m a writer and college teacher, you’d think I’d need to know what everything means.

But yoga class is a place outside the analytic brain, and my body, which isn’t so much of an intellectual, gets what it needs. My body likes rhythms and the humming voices of others in the room, a lovely vibration, a loving energy.

Yoga is a Sanskrit word for “union” – combining breathing, stretching, balancing, and meditating as an integration of mind, body and spirit.

The poses are often hard and sometimes hurt. My hamstrings are a mess: tight and feisty. I get cramps. I fall over almost every time I try to do a shoulder stand. Rachelle says instead of calling it pain, we might say, “that’s interesting” and just keep breathing. She’s re-introduced me to my feet, their clever metatarsals and their horseshoe heels – all meant to anchor me solidly in the world.

Sometimes, at the end of the class when we lie recovering in the darkened room, I feel tears of relief well up.
It’s all quite un-Protestant, and I like that. In my anxiously fundamentalist childhood, the body was, of course, described as the “Temple of God,” but I didn’t get much help on how to make it so. The adults in my life were ill at ease with their own bodies, startled and discomfited when the body’s instincts – lust, let’s say, or especially wrath – outed them as actual humans, earthlings to the core.

To be human back then was to struggle with the body, an exhausting wrestling match with guilt, shame and defeat. To love the body, then, was to sin.

It is a lifelong journey, of course, to learn another way – to know that loving one’s whole self is in fact a key to getting through this bumpy life. I am grateful for practices such as yoga which ground and soothe me, open me to others and help me face adversity. I am grateful to Rachelle and my gentle yoga classmates.

If I am to survive in this raggedy world, in short, I need to learn to unite my disparate parts. Among other gifts, that helps me with my wrath, which really serves a purpose. It is not in fact, a deadly sin, unless it curdles into something unexpressed, misdirected and stuck in fear. I’ve come to respect my wrath and even welcome its abundant energies.
So now, to the wall, to upend myself into love and energy once again.

Easter Sunday

My father died many years ago, but every Easter Sunday, I remember the one that prompted this poem below.

And the Scilla are Blooming Today, Too

Easter Sunday

“Crocus” is just another one
of the words my father can no longer
remember. He asks my mother,
“What are the colors of those
little flowers by the house?”
He is bald from surgery;
seven metal clamps shine
at the back of his skull. My
mother says seven is the number
of perfection Every time
he whispers we lean in,
hoping for grace. Once he says,
“cranberries.” He whispers,
“I am glad I have two grandmas.”
He whispers, “It is good to be in
out of the cold.” He is given
communion at his hospital bed,
the paster remarking on my father’s
strong grip as he takes his hand
for the benediction.

The scilla are blooming on the
hillside. At my desk, I order
sage and tarragon for another
summer. It is the first night
of daylight savings and the
sunset is rampant. “Who is
this happening to?” he asked me
today. “Is it happening to you?”
“No, it is happening to you,”
I answered gently. He patted
his hand to his chest and said
knowingly, “It is happening to you.”

I seal the envelope to the seed company,
stamp it, prop it on my old bronze
lamp for mailing. Then the cry comes:
Recognize me, Father,
Call me by my name.