Experiencing My Heart’s Healing Through My Body

I’ve been having the most fascinating relationship with my body these last three months. (I assume, though I’ve never specifically surveyed my friends, that everyone has a mixed relationship with their body–mine does some things with great grace and a lovely capacity for enjoyment, and the ability to deeply drink in my environment, and it does some things really poorly, with difficulty and discomfort, like running half a block and experiencing Panda Asthma.)

I’ve started doing craniosacral massage (a little scientific backing) and having a very intense and healing response to the experiences. I’m so grateful to my healer for her ability to stay attuned, present, and give me support through a wide variety of physical and emotional reactions to our work. In some ways I feel I’ve been in rehearsal for this moment my entire life.

In their spiritual journeys, both my parents were ordained Zen Buddhist monks, and part of their training was in massage. As a family, we used massage to relax and take care of each other. I know this idea might be uncomfortable to body-shaming Americans, but it was one of the nicer aspects of my childhood–having my parents rub my shoulders and stomach when I was anxious. The adult mutation of this early conditioning is that I love bodywork–whenever I am in a new country, I sample the local version of a massage. I also use bodywork to improve the quality of my life and manage stress: massage, reflexology, body scrubs, acupuncture, restorative and yin yoga. I’m a friend to all body-based approaches. I’m also really attuned to the different types of touch, professional touch doesn’t feel erotic to me. (Intimate touch with my lover is what’s erotic to me.)

As I’ve been using mindfulness with my clients and myself, I’ve grown more and more comfortable using deep conscious breathing to help regulate my nervous system. I’ve also been experimenting with talking about feeling states and their places in the body with my clients and checking in with myself about this too throughout the day.

I didn’t have much of an understanding of what craniosacral therapy would feel like when I decided to give it a try. I understood the touch would be much lighter than regular massage therapies. I didn’t expect it to do much, but thought it was worth paying for one session and checking it out.

My first session was overwhelming. I found myself sobbing hysterically and hyperventilating about 45 minutes in. This was in response to having the back of my head very lightly touched. My healer took care of me very gently while I calmed down, which felt incredibly generous. Even though the experience was difficult–I hadn’t had such an extreme emotional and physical experience in years, as soon as I calmed down, I realized that I knew something beneficial had happened to me, despite the challenges of the experience. My impression is that my first sentence, as soon as I regained the power of speech, was: When can I do this again?

Every session has been extremely different. I’m learning more and more how I respond both emotionally and physically and what I can tolerate–what will challenge me within my acceptable zone of tolerance.

I’ve done four sessions so far. I’ve decided to titrate the pacing–I visit with Julia once every three weeks or so, just because I learn so much about myself each time, and it leads me to a lot of contemplation and integration of my life’s experiences. I feel more self-compassionate and self-aware overall.

Humble brag–apparently I’m really good at tolerating my own distress, remaining present through discomfort and relaxation, using my breath, and continually monitoring my ever shifting internal states.

Emotion is in the body. I knew it before, but it’s undeniable now. Memory is in the body too. Remaining attuned to my body sensations, both positive and negative, has helped me re-process some 30 year old memories I hadn’t given a thought to in decades. Of course, all this is also shaping my interests as a psychotherapist.

(As a therapist, I’m often aware of the limitations of language-based, brain-in therapy in offering healing. Human bodies and human brains need all kinds of healing experiences. I believe there are many paths to healing–some are found in speech and reflection, some are emotional, some are spiritual, and many are in our bodies.)

Balancing Identities: Writer and Therapist

Ferns unfurling

Ferns unfurling

I’m finally able to call myself a psychotherapist. I earned my License in Clinical Social Work, and I am starting a private practice. It’s an exciting, nerve-wracking time, full of potential and joy. But one of the pieces I’m still wrangling with in my mind is how to make a life as both a therapist and a writer. Which piece do I prioritize when, and why. How do I create balance? How do I set aside time for both pieces of my identity?

I don’t have any good answers right now, but I’m going to try to create a process that might lead to some answers. Because sometimes process must precede understanding in order to lead to knowledge. My goal is to get up every morning and write. Or at least make time in the evening to think and write. I always feel more grounded and purposeful when I actually think with my hands and type. I love the unfolding of my mind: the way I touch parts of my experience that have remained wordless within my body when I finally sit and write on a keyboard. I like that sense of mental chaos falling into place — words shaping the mind’s process, the mind’s processes clinging to language and settling down so I can contemplate my mind’s life, my heart’s life, my body’s experience.

I find myself writing this post in part to acknowledge that before I knew I wanted to be a therapist (age 12) I knew I wanted to be a writer (age 6?). That both bring great meaning and satisfaction and surges of joy and terror into my life, and both are worthwhile. If I knew how to draw, I might draw a picture of myself with a pen in one hand and a mandala in the other. (I was trying to pick which representation of the human experience I should hold in my hand, and of course I considered holding a brain, but then I wanted to hold a brain and a heart, and then I wanted to hold the thinker, and then it got abstract and complicated, so I thought perhaps an abstract symbol of unity and integration would be the best option.) It gets complicated. But maybe these layers of complication are the richness of life. The delight of the unknown.

Surviving Intact

In periods of difficulty, when I achieve a little distance from that difficulty, I start thinking in more hopeful terms. I start thinking about joy and humor and hope, and how they are magnificent stars that can keep me oriented towards the things I wish for in life.

So I’ve been thinking about moving towards, as opposed to moving against. And I’ve been thinking about what grounds me, moves me and inspires me. And this is my little blog tribute to some of the forces (or google searches) for beauty and joy in my life. Because keeping your sense of humor is the best revenge. And keeping my hope intact (from time to time) is one of the more challenging aspects of adult life.

As Jodie Foster put it so beautifully: “Often people think of strength as surviving. But I think it’s surviving intact, and there’s a big distinction.”

So here are a few of my sources of joy, humor, beauty (wholeness and strength will have to wait for their own blog post):

Beauty:

NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD)

See Explanation. Clicking on the picture will download the highest resolution version available.

http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap161023.html

Music videos with awesome dancing. Here’s Sia’s Chandelier.

In less dazzling news, I’m a sucker for a beautiful gown. Throw in some celebrity gawking and I’m a little obsessed. Google image searches for the Met Gala always pay off. But let’s get you started with some Vogue Magazine coverage of the 2016 gala.

Humor:

Hyperbole and a Half has my favorite comic for bad days: The Sneaky Hate Spiral.

David Thorne is a hilariously cruel and witty person. Missy Missing is my favorite of his blogs. But there’s also the Ten Formal Complaints filed by his coworker in six months, which makes me really glad I never shared an office with this gentleman.

The Oatmeal, for example this post about the mantis shrimp, or ten words you need to stop misspelling. Or this terrifying and informative bit about cats. Here’s a small taste of his coverage of fear of missing out (fomo):

JOMO

Celebrities reading mean tweets, always a good youtube search. Here are movie celebrities reading mean tweets.

Some other fun blogs:

  • http://www.passiveaggressivenotes.com/ (self explanatory)
  • http://thebloggess.com/ (funny lady blog)
  • http://iwilbloom.tumblr.com/ (blog written by an angry and intellectual baby)

(This post is really making me ponder what I find funny after a day of reigning in my sharp wit.)

I’d love to hear what media keeps you going, please share in the comments below.

Resistance

Resistance, according to the Oxford English Dictionary: “The refusal to accept or comply with something; the attempt to prevent something by action or argument.”

(I wrote this draft several weeks ago, but it took until today to feel ready to post.)

I’ve been thinking about injustice a lot. About violence and fear. About grief and pain. How daily life is steeped in horror at times. How I get overwhelmed. How I can take care of myself. How I can take care of others. How change is made. How I can participate in that change: Money, votes, activism, professionalism. In times of trouble, I often reflect on my profession as social worker and psychotherapist. My roles, my skills, my contributions. As a therapist and social worker, I want to work with artists, entrepreneurs, and activists. I want to be an ally in the struggle. I want to work towards a more just world. I want to help sustain world changers.

I also want to engage in direct action, but I am still formulating what that will look like for me. I want to bring multiple pieces of myself to bear. I want art, and activism and community. One of the groups I am thinking of engaging with: The League of Creative Interventionists.

I’ve been thinking about the privilege that my grief and fear embody. How I have been aware of injustice, but more often than not, don’t worry about getting out the door and managing aggressions to my soul, heart and body. I lucked out in my society: a cis white woman married to a cis white man living in the US. I think about how friends and clients of mine are subject to multiple isms and sometimes live in fear and worry moment to moment, day after day.

I have been thinking about how to nourish myself so I can struggle for justice, weep, laugh, find community. How to remain an activist throughout my life. How not to become complacent. How not to be demolished by grief, fear, worry. I want to nourish my hope. The troubles we are going through are not new. The solution will not be tomorrow. Endurance and joy, as well as consciousness and accountability, must be nurtured within me.

One small step forward: Reading quotes about resistance. Here are a few that are resonating with me today.

“Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.”
― Steven Pressfield

“It is necessary to remember, as we think critically about domination, that we all have the capacity to act in ways that oppress, dominate, wound (whether or not that power is institutionalized). It is necessary to remember that it is first the potential oppressor within that we must resist – the potential victim within that we must rescue – otherwise we cannot hope for an end to domination, for liberation.”
― Bell Hooks, Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black

“We must learn that passively to accept an unjust system is to cooperate with that system, and thereby to become a participant in its evil.”
― Martin Luther King Jr.

“The likelihood that your acts of resistance cannot stop the injustice does not exempt you from acting in what you sincerely and reflectively hold to be the best interests of your community.”
― Susan Sontag, At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches

“The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions that I wish it to be always kept alive.”
―Thomas Jefferson

“When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”
―Audre Lorde

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
― James Baldwin

To be cool

I met someone unbearably cool on Thursday night. She had dyed silver hair with purple streaks framing her lovely face. She was middle aged, perfect smile wrinkles around her eyes. She had a bass guitar strapped to her back. She oversaw a software development team and she knew my friend because she also plays ice hockey. She was in an adult rock band.

In my twenties, I deliberately cultivated certain skills that I believed were critical to becoming the kind of person I wanted to be as an adult. These skills included kissing, playing pool well, drinking whiskey on the rocks, cooking, writing, fearlessly (and indulgently) following my heart, working on the craft of repartee and generally doing things I had a sense women weren’t supposed to do (like driving taxis). Many of these skills have stayed with me, some have dropped away. I now suck at playing pool: I used to carry a roll of quarters in my purse. For a moment I could, from time to time, put sexist presumptuous persons in their places. At least with cue in hand.

In my thirties, I decided that making lists and having top tens was a bit silly. Life was nuanced and complex. I was satisfied with whom I had become. (Perhaps I grew complacent, or smug, or just plain happy.) I had certain goals in mind, but they were focused on scholarship, writing, and my romantic life. They were not about the craft of becoming. I know what I look like and how I present, and I suspect what people think when they behold me. “A very nice, conservative lady” as one of my former clients put it.

On Thursday, Purple Streaks reminded me that there are choices to be made. I am faced with the becoming of middle age. And questions about coolness. Hipness is out of reach (and, honestly, not exactly desirable). I have some culture. I have opinions of taste. I have a sense of being worldly. I don’t want to be cool to others, but I wouldn’t mind being cool to myself. That’s a kind of cool worth working toward, and my reach needs exceed my grasp if I wish to keep growing. Plots and lists are to be made.

Return to Fallingwater

FWFallsI went back to Fallingwater, as I had promised myself, but this time I took my sweetie. I had the same reaction as the first time, I was moved by all of its beauty–a feeling of profound wellbeing settled in. Fallingwater feels like home. Home. Looking through Merriam Webster’s definitions, the snippets that resonate with me are about being “at home”: “relaxed and comfortable: at ease,” “in harmony with the surroundings,” and “on familiar ground.” This is actually a big deal for me–over the course of my family’s migrations through space and time, all my childhood places, all the spaces where I felt “at home,” have been shed. I cannot go back. I cannot go home. Imagine my surprise, delight and relief, stumbling into Fallingwater and feeling like I have found my place in the world, one more time. Could Frank Lloyd Wright hear my future yearning across the decades? (Yes, this notion is a touch pompous, but emotionally very real.)

FWLivingOr perhaps my yearning is a common one. A yearning for a well-organized, well thought-out space–a space in communion with nature, a space that lets you live among the trees and streams, with seamless movement between the inside and the outside of the home. In some sense, Fallingwater reminds me of my french grandmother Nicole who recently passed. Fallingwater was designed with an appreciation for its setting, with a love of the woods. Fallingwater creates a state of rest. It’s majestic, but it invites relaxation. It would be a great space for a nap. There is both a great amount of light and real privacy. I love the colors, the materials, the shape, the spaces at Fallingwater.

FWHearthI think what continues to surprise me about this house is that it is so special and beautiful both as viewed from the outside, and as viewed from the inside. I knew I loved the exterior long before my first visit, but I did not expect to be so enchanted with its interior. For that, I owe a great debt to the Kauffman family, for having the foresight to gift the home intact to the Conservancy–as a visitor, I can experience the house as a home–with all its art, furnishings and fabrics. All the period books. I can easily imagine spending a whole day in the house. And my honey was there too. What more could I ask for?

FWSweeties

How to Balance

Over our decades, my body and I have had many long conversations about our perceived shortcomings, and in particular about my resentment around my inability to balance on one foot. I’m the yoga practitioner who goes over to the wall and still manages to tip over whenever we try to hold a one-legged pose for a few seconds. Since this has been going on for four decades, I’m pretty convinced that I have no balance.

Here’s what happened at the gym last month. My trainer looked at me and said, “You always fall the same way.” I agreed. I already knew that my feet supinate–they roll outward at the edges–the insides of my soles don’t touch the earth much. He then said, “Why don’t you overcompensate by putting more weight on the inside of your foot?” I did. Voila! Balance. I can balance.

The Culprits

The Culprits

Four decades on these feet. For at least thirty years I knew that my feet leaned out. For thirty years I tipped outward and fell over exactly the same way, over and over again. One thirty-second conversation later and I could solve my own problem. It seems so obvious now, it’s totally infuriating.

It turns out, even when you are conscious of the solution, miracles are exceedingly demanding. If I want to stay balanced on one leg and do my warmup exercises, I systematically do the following every single step of the way:

1. Concentrate, but just enough. Too much concentration will doom me to failure.
2. Keep abs tight.
2. Bend knee slightly.
3. Think about my stance: Try to keep weight evenly distributed between inside and outside of my foot.
4. Have my planted leg more or less in the middle below me.
5. If balance is compromised, over-adjust toward the inner edge of foot, but not too much (because now I’m having the entirely novel experience of tipping the other way and falling inward).
6. Repeat.

Addendum: Keep trying despite typical start-of-exercise hopeless flailing. Get to the middle point of reps–from 1/8 done to 6/8 done and maintain good form. For 7/8 and 8/8 done, manage exhaustion and track form.

There are lithe and balanced gym ladies and men running around doing amazing tricks while jumping and twisting on one leg. I’m just beginning to understand the standing one leg part. I’m so proud (and so very tired of concentrating).

Art & Nourishment: Frank Lloyd Wright

It’s been an exquisite banquet of stress in graduate student land of late, as I wrap up the eighth and final consecutive semester of my part-time MSW program. (Starting in September 2011, I’ve had classes in Fall, Spring, Summer, Fall, Spring, Summer, Fall and now Spring. The experience, drawn out, exhausting, was chosen by me, and I am glad to reach the terminus of this particular leg and start off on new pursuits in new directions.) Enough with the whining.

And now, a refreshing serving of good news. I had a rather vivifying, soul-searing encounter with the work of Mr. Frank Lloyd Wright (FLW) two weekends ago.

FallingwaterVisiting FallingWater in Mill Run, PA, did great soothing and inspiring things for my soul, my mind and my heart. When those aspects of me are basking in the comforting presence of beauty and vision, my body tends to do rather well also.

Art! Great art. It’s practical magic (for me).

The snippets of stories about FLW reveal a complicated egomaniac with impeccable taste and a pretty amazing imagination and understanding of light, space, materials, human function, the need for beauty, functional design, community, and communion with nature. Neat.

I also visited Kentuck Knob, so I had two homes, designed two decades apart by my new friend FLW, to give me a sense of his trajectory as an architect and designer. There are bones to pick with some of his choices. He was a man’s man in a man’s world. His family rooms and incorporation of outdoor spaces are awesome, but he (seriously) neglected bedrooms as spaces (his are quite small), but more gravely, his bathrooms and kitchens are really tiny–my interpretation is that he did not take that aspect of the human experience into much consideration. In FallingWater, the whole house is oriented to the outdoors, and this is clear in his design, every room has a large terrace–you are constantly being ushered out and closer to the stream and cliffs.

I had wanted for years to see FallingWater. When I first learned of its existence, it sounded like an improbable miracle. How could a building be ushered into being out of my dream? Maybe wanting to live directly over a stream in the woods is a secret ancestral dream, a common hidden human notion? In any case, the concept resonated and I was terribly excited to go there in person and measure my immense hope to the physical space.

I knew I would respond to the experience, but I did not expect to be so moved. His intent is everywhere. His taste is pretty much flawless. I love his fabrics, his furniture. The whole world should live like this.

FallingWater is right out of the future and it was designed in the 1930s.

And then there’s the very homey Kentuck Knob, which had an interesting coziness and warm darkness to it. It has an understated front and a proud prow of a living room, jutting out into the hill below.

kentuckKnobThat was two weeks ago, a bit before Spring sprang into its fullness, and now, before the tender baby green leaves peek out, we are showered in an outrageous fullness of flowers. I thank thee Cherry Blossoms–cheerful hopefulness embodied.

SpringFlowers

Food Is So Freaking Good

I made some ratatouille last night. My secret ingredient was the expired wine in the back of the fridge. I have a purple veggie stew and it tastes absolutely delicious. I thought it was just my biased opinion, but a friend came over and confirmed my suspicions. When I get the time and gumption to cook, the end result is usually pretty tasty. This is my downfall. I love what I make. Last night I had two heaping servings of these veggies. My tummy was all stretched out, ratatouille-iffic. I could barely move off the couch to go lie in bed, read and wait for digestion to occur. I justified the second serving because I was eating veggies. Impeccable logic, clearly.

I love food. I’m not sure what food’s feelings about me are, but it really doesn’t matter, this one-way crush is going nowhere.

I keep trying to change our relationship. I ping pong between health-seeking solutions and the total satisfaction of eating a very good, juicy medium rare hamburger with blue cheese and bacon, and plenty of ketchup. Sometimes I double down on fruits, nuts and vegetables. I try to meet my deliciousness quotient sideways. I distract myself with a large volume of berries, and organic heirloom grape tomatoes. Stuffed full of baby carrots doesn’t count. I’m sure of it.

(I wonder what it is about feeling really full that makes me feel so happy. It’s like the world is bountiful and I am now a vessel of that bounty. I am full of nature’s boundless generosity.)

My fruit-stacular evasive maneuvers work sometimes, but not all the time. After my veggie burger lunch, I’ll have an evening cheddar snack, a salad for dinner, and a heaping serving of chocolate and a shot of calvados later in the night. Maybe it’s my tapas-inclined personality. I thrive on flavor variety. I am bored by repetition. I cannot cook two dishes for the week and alternate between them. It would suck the joy out of my food fun. Basically, I need to keep my mouth entertained. It’s a demanding organ with a short attention span. It’s not me, it’s my mouth, it has its own agenda.

In the summer, when there are plenty of good things that come out of the ground, my good intentions get ground to dust by the smell of charred meat. The flavor of crisp, burnt animal fat is amazing. If you don’t believe me, buy a fruit pie made with a lard crust and see if you notice the difference.

Sometimes I fantasize about becoming a vegetarian. It’s a solid move, morally. But my taste buds would just mope around in my mouth. I would gripe about lentils and chickpeas. I try to imagine some halfway measures that might be sustainable for the long term, like eating seafood, bacon, and fruits and vegetables. Who am I kidding. Instead I eat a lot of tofu, flip-flopping between carnivorous and well-meaning.

My current efforts are focused on increasing my exercise to give me a bit more leeway in pursuing my one-way food crush. I’ll provide some updates as this initiative continues. For now I bid you a fond good evening, from the couch, where I have indulged in three salt free spelt squares as an alternative to delicious fondant maples sugar candies. Compromises.

Awake, Dreaming the Taj Mahal

DreamTajThe Taj is a waking dream. It is a building on the shores of a river, in a specific town, but I think it functions better as an apparition and a dream. I couldn’t really enter the Taj (technically, yes, I visited its obscure heart, but it didn’t help me make sense of the experience), I could only see and relate to the Taj from a distance, from the outside. There are so many pictures of the Taj Mahal, it was steeped in my mind long before I went in person. Up close, it no longer made sense: I lost all perspective, all sense of scale; it swallowed me in its vastness. To encompass its beauty is to keep it far away, inapproachable, in that sense it is a great flirt, you want to come closer, but can’t. The real payoff is in the longing for the Taj, glimpsing it from afar. Maybe that’s why I particularly loved seeing the Taj Mahal from the vantage point of Agra’s Red Fort—the Taj beams beautifully in the distance, changing color with the light.

SideTajI don’t want to discourage Taj visitors. Going in person to see the Taj Mahal first thing in the morning is a great way to start the day because it keeps the night’s dreams alive. Seeing the Taj Mahal shapes the day into a silent dreaming space.  I had a delectable nap after my visit. I slept contented, filled with beauty and grand plans.

The Taj Mahal Quest

I have spent six weeks in India over two visits. I have never seen the Taj Mahal. In November 2011, I came to New Delhi and spent a week. The only day I had off from the conference I was running was a Friday. The only day of the week the Taj Mahal is closed is Friday. I spent my last day in India touring Delhi and saw many marvels.

No Taj Mahal, however. I came all the way to India and I did not see its most famous site (which was only a few hours away). Many of the attendees who came to my conference did see the Taj. I tried not to be bitter. I tried to tell myself this was fine. This was okay. I didn’t have to see the Taj Mahal just because I was in India. I’m sure lots of tourists who have been to Delhi haven’t seen the Taj Mahal. Right?

In the last two years, I have not met a single person who has seen the Taj Mahal who thinks it was anything less than amazing.  (I keep asking because I’m still trying to rationalize my prior failure.) I’m happy to say that my time has come.

I’m in India. In terms of Taj touring, I’m somewhat inconveniently situated in Kolkata. The monsoon is getting underway.  This weekend I will take a taxi to the airport at the pre-dawn crack, then take a plane, then a taxi to a train, then a taxi to the Taj or my hotel, depending. I will see the Taj Mahal. I hope to see it at sunset and again at sunrise.

When I went to buy my New Delhi to Agra train ticket at the Kokata Foreign Tourist Counter, I waited 1.5 hours on a sofa chair. I made friends with an Iranian scientist and has a speed round geopolitics chat. When number 43 was called out and I finally got to speak with the train booking gentlemen, they spent 20 minutes trying to convince me that I really wanted to take a bus (they did not sell bus tickets) instead of the train. I held firm. I wanted a ticket that said Agra. I wanted a ticket that guaranteed I would get to my target town on Saturday afternoon. I had to argue and plead. They disagreed with me repeatedly. I held firm. They finally gave in. I have a one way second-class train ticket! They would not sell me a ticket back to Delhi. They insisted I should take a bus–that buses were common and easy to find; that a bus would be more convenient. This remains to be sorted out. I don’t know if I can get back to Delhi and then Kolkata on Sunday (despite my plane ticket). But I do know I will see the Taj Mahal. Or at least I’m as moderately confident about it as I am about any other aspect of my life in India. Further updates to come. Wish me luck.

Acts of Communication

Ever since I got to Kolkata, I have been trying desperately to communicate with my fellow humans. It’s an attempt because it’s very hard to ascertain how much is truly understood in this environment–there’s a lot of nodding, engine starting, plunging forward, with uncertain results on the line. It’s also desperate, because I dearly wish to share information, or a common purpose, or an agreed upon destination. There is often the appearance of agreement, or a measure of understanding, but results will vary. And when results vary, there is the kindness of strangers, or at least my persistence in seeking out information in the dark, in the rain, in New Alipore, engaging one auto rickshaw driver and his clients in conversation at a time, trying to ascertain my distance from my destination.

In the last four weeks in my search for mutual comprehension, I have employed miming skills, the handing over of currency, body posture, hand gestures, eye movements, lots of wide smiles or concerned looks. I will show written text. I say the words haltingly. I repeat the words, hoping for a different answer or a different head nod. I pray. Once I’ve raised my voice to respond to volume with volume when I was being spoken to stridently in Bengali (and couldn’t understand) knowing that my English would also not be understood. I’ve ascertained that occasional volume is an acceptable form of communication. Conversations here are quite animated, with multiple people expressing their views simultaneously. I am in admiration of the translator who facilitates our research for her vocabulary, quickness of mind, and prodigious memory for long streaks of expression.

I know maybe five Bengali phrases. And most people here know a few English phrases, but it’s exceedingly subtle work trying to assess overall language comprehension on either side in any conversation. The most enthusiastic are the young children and teenagers in the street who will call out a phrase after my passing. Today it was “Nice umbrella!” which I gratefully registered.  Many are shy to reveal their English skills. Some will only start speaking English when I am befuddled by a situation and they are embarrassed on my behalf with my uselessness and general ignorance. Many understand more than they can speak. Some can read better than they can process spoken words (with my American accent), and others make a show of nodding, but it is eventually revealed that we have each failed to make the other understand. In turn I stumble over the rhythms, intonations and the phrasings, there are quite a few British-isms, and many other interesting uses of language: a man mentioned molestation last night, and I think he meant masturbation. I could be wrong. Many people speak to me in Bengali when they get frustrated with the situation, and I too find myself using more English to explain what I would so dearly like. Amidst the surprises, the challenges, there are many triumphs, big and small, all day long. I am getting where I want. I am traveling, purchasing, bartering, speaking, hugging, smiling back, all the time. It’s a miracle. Should I thank the British or curse them for the spread of English? Of course I feel guilty being the benefactor of imperialism, but post-colonialism bites back, humorously again and again.Sylviepond It is a great lesson in the many ways I can communicate, and the many ways I will fail to do so.

Details and Weaknesses

My written french is abysmal, so when I wrote to my french grandma that Kolkata was pretty interesting, she chided me that I needed to try harder to convey the experience. The fact is that it’s very hard to explain what makes the city so captivating, so exhausting, so worthwhile, so magical, so frustrating, and so bittersweet. My time in India is complicated, layered meanings for each banal, charming and/or brutal experience. The details of the every day are impossible to recount, there’s just too much happening, too much observed, too much forgotten: There’s the way the taxi swerves to evade the brightly colored trucks, the nonchalant dogs in the middle of the road, the irrational confidence of the pedestrians putting their palms out to stop cars, the god statues and pictures and flowers in the altars found on the dashboards of the taxis and auto rickshaws, the altars on the side of the street, the small dishes made of leaves used to eat chickpea curries at roadside stalls.

Everyday I experience how internally inconsistent I am, all the tensions between wanting to be open to others and wanting to preserve myself. This is in parallel to the multiple contradictions of my external environments–are strangers being kind, are they in need, are they ignoring me or swindling me, or reaching out in friendship? Will my toes hit another brick in the uneven sidewalk in that tiny moment I am distracted? I navigate small pleasures and small displeasures through always changing, chaotic, stop and start, tempos. The pace is a rush, the pace is a crawl: the moment will stretch and I will feel old, but then soon it will be evening and I will be young again. Time cannot be tracked. Was it morning yesterday? I’m a bit dizzy with the array of surging and ebbing flows: the lifeforms, signs of their passing, signs of their decay (my own).

I’ve had frequent bouts of feeling suddenly overwhelmed by smells. The smells aren’t offensive, just strong: today it was the smell of baking cookies. Previous days, it’s been the smell of curries, beauty products, garbage, or flowers. Any of these might suddenly make me feel out of control, and just as quickly, if I remove myself, five minutes later I’m utterly fine. It’s the unpredictability that frightens me.

Equally mysterious are my range of reactions to the heat. Yesterday, I was immobile. I was wedded to my air conditioning. The thought of full sun made me fearful.  Today, in the sun, I was almost fine. I didn’t become drenched in sweat until evening came and I had been sitting still for hours. Sometimes there is nothing left of me. I am a shell crawling to the comforts of a cold shower.  Sometimes I am abundant, and resilient. It’s my repertory of weaknesses, blooming in Kolkata. The city abounds. I cannot keep up. I can only be, a little bit at a time, and then a lot, quickly. And then I sleep. Blessed sleep before the web of life absorbs me again in its colors.

Minor Miracles

I don’t expect whatever spiritual energy there is (call it god or the force, or gumby, I’m not really sure and I’m unattached to the particulars) to act or intervene in my favor in practical ways. But my faith has been tested (perhaps strengthened) recently, with a series of minor, but delightful surprises. I’m feeling, let’s say, the presence of angels at work in my life, in silly, but nice ways. Makes me feel grateful and a bit ungracious for not praying/meditating more. At least I have the presence of mind to take note of these moments of beauty.  Here goes, my gentle thanks to the great unknown for my relentless luck of late. Some agents of fate, as a matter of fact all agents of fate, have kindly faces and are mere mortals.

1. Two today: 1. Right after I realized I had a headache, one of the wonderful Post-Docs dropped off a gift for me: special combs from China that are supposed to stimulate the scalp, improving cranial blood flow, and averting headaches. 2. I broke off a chunk of molar/filling in the UK and was walking around with a giant groovy cavern in my back tooth. I went to the dentist today, steeling myself for a gory Novocain plus drool and blood extravaganza, but no! Nothing.  A little white filling and some lights was all. No numbing at all. No drooling sips on water for hours afterwards. Just walk in, walk out, all smiles.

2. One yesterday: All trains to Heathrow from Green Park tube were stopped at Hammersmith. We were warned there were no trains to the airport. We stayed on the tube, feeling worried and hopeful that the kindly tube staff would concoct a solution for our dilemma at terminus. They had! Many staff members were on hand to inform the confused commuters and get them safely to their flights. There were even gracious staff porters for managing the steps. Walk to train to bus to train to airport, but still, it all worked out, slowly but methodically. And the security checkpoint at Heathrow was a breeze, even though I was randomly checked at boarding and my boyfriend laughed as he walked past, saying something like “you look like a menace.”

3. The New Year’s Eve Miracle. We bought, for better or worse, tickets to a Thames Fireworks River Cruise on New Year’s Eve (a three-hour cruise!). I have done NYE in many locales and been roundly disappointed by the evening about 90% of the time. I mean, NYE and Valentine’s day are inherently doomed, aren’t they? Anyhoo. When we set off for our cruise at 8:30pm for a boat departure of 10pm, we were not prepared for the rolling shutdown of the tube stops around the river. We were not prepared for the barricades shutting down whole streets to pedestrian traffic. We were not prepared for the near-violent intensity of the mob scene on the river banks. We were not prepared for boozed up British hostility –those who had decided to hold their ground in the heart of the mob. We were also not prepared for the lack of signage along the river banks. We knew roughly to go to Embankment Pier, but weren’t sure where the heck it was despite the google maps. I tried with most profuse and abject apologizing along the route to all the kindly folk we shoved aside, explaining over and over again that we were sorry but were trying to get to a boat, the crowd looking at me as if I had lost my mind. We held hands and pushed on to the last river barricade, and finally found the entrance to the pier.  We walked onto the gangway plank to the applause of the crowd that I had struggled past. We got to the boarding dock. We saw a boat. I kept expecting someone to tell me that I had gone to the wrong pier, that my reservation paper was for another boat, somewhere else. But no, we were in the right place in the nick of time (against all odds, it felt) and there was our boat. We asked, “Is this our boat?”And the friendly staff affirmed “yes, this is your boat” and we looked at the boat, trying to decipher the boarding spot, and the boat sailed away. We three on the pier cried out in unison frustration. And the kindly staff said, “please have a seat, we’ll see what we can do.” And twenty minutes later, the boat came back for us. And we got our second round of applause from total strangers as we boarded. That was a good night.  The crowd on the boat was dizzy with relief at having found the boat and very friendly. The bar was modest and the selection limited, but we were so pleased to be on the boat, everyone was in a good, playful mood. The Thames was beautiful, the lights glamorous, and the fireworks fun.

Thank you great unknown, and kindly strangers, for taking such good care of me in the first week of 2013. It might be a surprisingly lucky year.

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Gifts

I have some singular gifts, for example, my ability to do very little, for several consecutive days, during vacations. I really luxuriate in stillness. I seem to have two main modes–running around and inert. Being unchained from my to-do list gives rise to the inner dreamer. The contrast is interesting, I feel most philosophical at the peak of the gift giving season.

Here’s my vacation self, which I adore, but am a little embarrassed by: This Sylvie-shaped sloth excels at napping, sleeping, drowsing off, half dreaming, being warm, having something sweet on the tongue, taking salty breaks from the sweetness, eating rich meats, and eating seafood. Not to mention the holiday beverages. My winter holiday self indulges in a rich (and languorous) sensory buffet.

My drowsy late December self also ponders the meaning of gifts–those I developed, those I found, those that were innate, and those that appeared by luck.  Tis the season for giving and receiving, but also a time for assessing the “wealth” in my life. My most treasured assets are my human relationships, be it the solace and humor of friends, or random conversations with strangers, or encounters with wisdom through books.

I am gifted with the love in my life. Then there are all the fun trappings of the holidays, cherries on the sundae of solstice indulgence: melted cheeses, hot meats, old music, new music, blues and jazz, wrapped packages in bright paper and ribbon. I like to wear glitter on my eyes, add light to the darkness and warmth. I make it a practice to be thankful for love and kindness each day, but it’s also fun to be thankful for ephemeral material surprises. Gathered with family and friends, I see all that we hold, all that we share, all that we own, all that we gift.  It’s a joyful time.

The End of the World

I’m a day late. The world has ended, and inconveniently, but maybe joyfully, it seems to be going on for me. The end of the world looked pretty much like any holiday Friday in my experience, except for the amassed police and their brusk ways and the impossible traffic, impatient drivers honking. (That business, which threw my end of the world skepticism for a loop during my ten minute walk to the El, turned out to be a response to the overnight flooding–so some of my expectations were satisfied, the neighborhood had a bit of a watery calamity on its hands.)

I was glad it was the end of the world. After all, it was also my last work day for this calendar year and I was ready for a long break after a demanding semester in grad school. I couldn’t wait for the day (and the world) to end, because I was pretty sure that whatever came after would be really good for me. I was right.

I’m settling into a luxurious Saturday on my couch, listening to American Routes, drinking coffee out of the porcelain mug on the end table, instead of slurping out of a travel mug on the El. I haven’t been home on my couch on a Saturday in four months. It feels ridiculously good not to be rushing off to my internship. I have a long to do list, but none of the items have real consequence–my multiple bosses and teachers expect nothing from me right now, so that’s a lovely lightness. And now I’m listening to Elvis’s Blue Christmas, which is one of my favorite holiday songs, so after-the-end-of-the-world time feels decadent and sounds pretty groovy and Hawaiian.  Not too bad, this afterlife.

 

Regeneration, Care of the BBC

Since I was a little girl, I’ve enjoyed the BBC show Dr. Who, particularly the Tom Baker Dr. Who when I was little, and now all the new reboot Doctors. I especially love the re-generation story lines when the doctor seems to die and is immediately reincarnated into a totally different person, who sounds different and generally speaks and dresses differently and has other kinds of charm and energy, but somehow embodies the same philosophy and all the same knowledge. This metaphor seemed particularly apt to me yesterday as I was sitting on the trolley, thinking about my current transition between skill sets, populations, peers, and focus. I was trying to mentally sketch the person I am becoming but also considering the multiple past selves I already contain that are totally invisible to the casual observer–it’s not only the good Doctor who does this: in some sense, each human life is a story of countless regenerations. Hair cut to hair cut, lover to lover, bell bottoms to jeggings. Older people are icebergs–so much floats beneath the surface: forty years of flirtations, seductions, griefs and small triumphs, career changes, jobs and hobbies taken up and discarded, tie-dye tshirts made on the kitchen stove–it’s all there, past knowledge, past hope just waiting to be recalled, reactivated. I too forget, when faced with an older woman, how she must have danced and blushed at other points.

Open Spaces

I have four delicious days with no urgent deadlines or projects. I’d get this kind of satisfaction from traveling to Tahiti, receiving two daily massages for a week, or… being able to metabolize meals made of nothing but red wine, bacon and dark chocolate with no impact on my weight.

I honestly don’t know what to do with myself (well, besides the floors, I should be mopping the floors). I’m experiencing a rare breed of mental restlessness: somewhere between itch and cottony feeling.  I’m a bit dizzy with the temporary freedom. My dizziness will blog.

I’m valuing several kinds of space this week. Mental space for one.

The road is another. I love motion. I always feel full of potential when I’m covering vast distances. As we prepare to travel to this year’s thanksgiving destination, there will be asphalt space, wheels turning, speed, and the fast of the road will be overwritten by the fullness of a home.

There is also the space of identity, of personal reinvention. I’m enjoying my training in social work, though it certainly is daunting, the array of listening and speaking skills: the mastery of thoughtful, kind inward gaze and outward being. If I consider the array of choices I’ve made, few feel as momentous or as close to my heart’s desire as working toward this professional degree.

I can honestly say I want few things out of life. (I mean, I want vast experiences, and physical comfort, always.) My goals, however, are few: I want to adorn my life with friends; I want to commit to my partner; I want to write; and I want to become a therapist.

Everything else that is dear to me is pleasure and luxury. The right to determine what to do with my time, I’ll admit, is the ultimate luxury.

 

Humbled by my Humanity

Now that my time is parsed, sectioned, subdivided, and carefully annotated to account for every one of my multiple (and seemingly endless) obligations–I have to confront the obvious, which I love to pretend doesn’t apply to me: I’m human.

If I can reconcile myself with what might seem like an obvious proposition, then, what does being human require of me? What are my human obligations, rights and responsibilities?

And importantly, why do I shy away from being human?

Also, if I think I’m not human. What Do I think I am?

1) Requirements (inherited in silence, sometimes found in science or faith): Humor, Love, Passion, a dose of patience, a notion of hope, a heaping ladle of curiosity, a kind center, a practical turn, a Glass (neither full nor empty- realism tempered with thoughtful optimism).

2) Rights/Responsibilities: ecstatic moments; a longing for intimacy-sometimes beautifully fulfilled by forest, friends or lovers; the quiet solitude of pain; the quiet peace of reflection; knowing moments of perfect sun or rain. Long dimness in fogs-bodily, intellectual, heart generated, or atmospheric.

3) The shying away–I shy away because the weight and wonder are troubling to encompass.

4) What do I think I am? I do not know, but I enjoy it.

Human–a term I sometimes equate with great failure, and yet a term that trembles with generous potential.

I don’t feel sufficient for my humanity.

And yet.

As another human helped me see: So it goes.

Final question: is this a poem?

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The Charm Offensive

I’ve been trying to get better at tuning in and connecting in some small way with every person I exchange words with today. It’s a fun project-makes me feel very vaguely like the Dalai Lama’s neighbor–like after a lifetime of watching someone else be gracious and wise, it’s my turn. It’s also interesting how ambivalent I feel about extending care outward–after all, aren’t these my private goodwill reserves? How strong is my emotional muscle? Will I run out of charm? Will I permanently exhaust the supply, leaving me a bitter-pinched-dour wreck for the next few decades?

Is love a renewable personal resource? I mean, we’re told to be brave and fearless in loving others–religion, mentors, family: all espouse the notion–but how many living examples are left to model this practice? I mean: Mother Theresa is dead. Loving may have been her superpower, but she remained mortal.

Well, for today at least, I’m going to keep going until I fry my battery. We’ll see what tomorrow brings.