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.

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