Author: Meg Artley

Utterly lost and occasionally found yoga teacher, artist, writer and big-picture thinker. Not necessarily in that order.

Small Stillness

It was strange to drive a long distance again in my old Nissan. In this pandemic, Tom and I have driven short distances, usually for coffee and a walk in the woods. But the Friday before Easter, I drove to the Eastern Shore to see my father and his wife. To pass the time, I listened to one of the recent episodes on Radio Lab, about the elements of the periodic table.

At Dad’s, we discussed what lies beyond. Beyond this pandemic, this post-democratic world, beyond the mundanity of our aging bodies. Each of us faces an edge we need to cross. We are born, we learn to walk, to talk, we graduate from school, get promoted, buy the house…all the while we think: what is next? And in this question, we also glimpse a reality of who we are. It seems even the universe has an edge beyond which scientists speculate about, an edge that contains a truth we don’t yet know. They call it dark matter, an apt description for anyone facing the “what’s next?” question.

What I found compelling about the Radio Lab podcast on dark matter was how quiet it must be to find it, to get to the edge. There are are scientists working in a place miles below the surface of the earth, trying to hear the whispers of dark matter as it passes through Xenon, the 54th element of the periodic table. This struck me:

It’s Isiah’s call, you know. He’s lying on his mat and he hears the whisper because…that’s for me alone. That call is for me alone, and that’s that sense that this experiment gives to me is that here the universe has been shouting, and shouting, and shouting at us and we’ve gathered all this scientific knowledge out of the shout, out of the clapping, out of the cheers. Now where we’re at in the 21st century is we’re going down to what’s it saying in the whisper, and those whispers go clear back to conception. They go clear back to birth. If we understand these whispers, we’re very close to understanding gestation. 

Radio Lab, “Elements,” March 25, 2021

These were the ideas that swirled in my head as I got a bit of time in the studio last week. I started teaching Yoga and Art at All Soul’s Church Unitarian in Washington, DC the Monday after my visit to Dad’s. It is a zoom class with 8 dedicated and courageous souls who want to explore the realms of their creative spirit. The first assignment I gave them was to create something small — no bigger than 4″ x 4″ or more than 500 words. We shared our creations this week, in a supportive and spirited discussion after a gentle flow focused on the balancing and purifying of energy within.

I began my creation with the cosmic egg. Technically, I wanted to see if I could carve shapes and designs into its edge, to balance it on this spiral, to cup it in dark matter. I worked only with things that I had at my disposal in the studio — a Chemistry textbook from the 1940s, given to me by Marie, and the forms I made of bee hives used in my rubbings last year, the inside of an AirPod box, wire. Tacky glue holds it together, mod podge gives the “sink” its shine.

Big answers come in small, quiet packages. Informal mindfulness practices like art-making and formal practices like meditation lead to a profound quiet, where we can hear the whisper that is the moment of conception, feel the energy that holds us and animates us. Like a top whirling, we appear to be motionless, but we are pure energy, the centripetal force of the things that are outside rooting us to the center.

Verticality

We were sold on this house the moment we saw the old oak tree that had gracefully welcomed the house to be planted around it.  It had bubbled up from the ground more than 60 years ago, and the roots still roiled the soil around the massive base of the trunk.  It tapered slightly to the right, giving it the appearance of a much taller tree. The canopy spread as far as the boundary of our yard. All manner of suburban wildlife lived in the tree, and now in our quiet life, Tom and I delighted in our outdoor classroom —  squirrels on the prowl for mates, the mockingbird ‘s officious patrols; the rabbits and their new families; the mangy doe and her twin fawns in the early mornings when the acorns are plenty. A fox and a hawk circled occasionally, looking for baby bunnies and chipmunks.

The tree’s roots became soft and a hole grew at the very base, large enough for small animals to burrow in. We  weren’t worried knowing that the tree generously made space for so many living things, including our children and our funny little dog, and also for inanimate things like swings and Christmas lights. Finally that hole caused branches to die, giving themselves over to insects, which in turn became food for the woodpeckers, the brightly colored ghouls.

Had the tree fallen in a storm, it would have destroyed the back of our neighbor’s house and the evergreens along her fence. We made a painful decision to have it removed. I wonder if it was painful because of our older age, or because of these strange times we now live in. Would I have mourned the tree when I was a 35 year old mother of young children who could finally use the yard for pick-up softball games? I didn’t have the time for quiet watching back then. Now I have solitude and the daily lesson of impermanence. I am so thankful for the sustenance and protection this tree gave me and my family.

Seems cruel to mourn a tree when there is so much human suffering now. Perhaps my grief is displaced. Looking at the arbor of our communal life, I see vulnerability for the first time.  I wonder if we can count on the harvest of goodwill, common good or democracy.

I’m working with verticality in my teaching practice this week. Stand tall, witness from the root of your being. Rise to give sustenance, protection, especially in a storm. Live for others. Think long term, like the trees.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Truth Moves

This is a detail of my teaching manifesto, done at the request of the yoga teacher training program at Tranquil Space in 2012. Kevin asked all of us to think about why we were called to teach and I felt inspired to do this piece with found objects — a ribbon container, beads, wire, fabric, old foam core, paint, a slide of one of my paintings.

I keep it on my desk to remind me that everybody has a story, every BODY has a story, that my calling is to listen for these stories, breathe with these bodies, connect with my fellow earth travellers in and out of the classroom and share the joy of this practice. (My thought process and my new understandings of this piece are below.)*

That’s why I’m so excited that I have a chance to work with some people who use their bodies as the impetus for creativity in a workshop called Truth Moves at The Lion’s Den this coming Sunday, June 14 from 1 – 2:30.

The Lion’s Den is a community organization providing dance/art/movement/fitness as vehicles of expression where people will feel valued and see real results while being part of an inclusive and welcoming community. She has asked me to come and bring the template of the chakras to their work, as another way into the truth in their moves, their vehicle for communication and creativity in the world. Their work, their lives are vitally important to this creation. I’m  thrilled to help in this very small way.

Dancers know that body movement can communicate, connect and heal. Ever wonder why? Is there some deeper truth to the movement of the legs, pelvis, torso, arms or head that we all share? Come learn about the ancient wisdom of the chakras and experiment with this body/mind philosophy in movement and sound.

I’ve designed this workshop for anyone who has ever felt embodied (not just dancers!). If you have ever felt the embrace of of sun on your skin on a chilly day, the relaxation into a hug with someone you love, the way you could dance all night in god-awful shoes at the club;  if you’ve ever felt something is just not right in the pit of your stomach; or fought a lump in your throat as you struggle to hear or tell the truth, or the prickle of happy tears…I welcome you on this journey.  I’m sure we’ll all learn something from one another. We’ll be doing some movement (and dancers will be free to expound, expand and use these movements towards their own creative ends) but these movements will be gentle and designed for every body and every purpose in mind.

Lauren graduated from the Refresh Yoga Center Teacher Training program (where I am a lead trainer) after she was already an accomplished dancer and dance teacher, barre instructor, entrepreneur and lion-hearted risk-taker. Students and teachers alike were grateful for her authenticity and honesty, the joy she radiated, her infectious laugh and her ability to bring a room of people together in love and some serious asana practice. Even if this workshop doesn’t sound like something you would do, please learn more about Lauren and her organization. I am so happy to work with her in this small way, as she brings her vision to the world.

Some notes about this sculpture, my calling as a teacher, and the TRUTH MOVES that we are all experiencing in our lives thanks to the live saving work of BLACK LIVES MATTER:

*My thought process on this sculpture: the foam core was cut in strips and glued to the outside rim of the large ribbon spool, representing the bones, the silky transparent fabric on the outside of the spool, skin. I liked how the slide of my painting was only visible when you put it up to the light, how the reflections, though distorted, light the dark shiny walls of the tube. For me this was a symbol of the goal of our yoga practice — finding the truth of Self, abiding there — and I wanted to demonstrate that this takes work. In this interactive piece, you have to physically move beads out of the way to see the image. These beads represent the kleshas — ignorance, egoism, attachment, aversion and the fear of death/clinging to life — the causes of suffering.

Here is the original painting: 

How I feel about my manifesto now: I recognize my embrace of the root of racism — making the white body as the supreme standard — all this pink on the outside of this sculpture! Even in the painting, which was modelled on me, I choose to ignore my own darker skin tone for pink and white. I am ashamed of this implicit bias, now glaringly apparent, and thankful that I am beginning to see the light, interestingly just like the body in this painting sees the light on the horizon. This painting was done after the death of my mother, a time when I felt such profound grief, but also the most amazing connection with creation having lived through her death. I feel the same way now — grief, connection, hope. 

Of the several “aha moments” in the past few weeks, the most important for me as a yoga teacher was the interview of Resmaa Menakem by Krista Tippett. I have so much more work to do to understand the way white supremacy shows up in me and in my classes, and that the work of anti-racism begins in the body for all of us. I have missed living into the vast potential of my calling, but as a yogi, I’ve learned that this all is practice — all of this life. We go back and forth between ability and inability to do, see, move, breathe, be. 

Just keep practicing truth. Step into it, desire it, act on it, love it, speak it, see it, abide in it.    

 

Lost Your Pride

My grandmother had a saying that she used when the piteous “bless her heart,” was too mild a sting. “She’s lost her pride,” indicated a slip down the human food chain to the level of under-rock dweller.

Let me unpack this saying just a bit for those who are unfamiliar with Appalachian people from Eastern Kentucky, which was where I was schooled by my Nanny every summer of my childhood. Pride was all some folks could claim as their own. You might make the wrong assumption, as you whizzed by on Route 25 from Johnson City into the dark hollers of Harlan, that a family with that many broken appliances in the front yard had no pride to begin with. But that was all they had – pride of family legacy, pride in their ability to scrape by, proud of their kids, proud of the little bit they owned, though it may be washed away in the creek in the next flood.

So saying “she’s lost her pride,” was a warning, a prayer for sanity offered silently for a friend or neighbor who was experiencing slippage of dignity. Generally, this option was reserved for older people who were making a spectacle of themselves –women who were using too much makeup or showing too much cleavage. Men who had taken up with a much younger woman, or were drunk in public. Younger women got a pass, somewhat. “Two cats fighting in a bag,” was something I heard Nanny chuckle under her breath as the beautiful girls passed the porch in their cut-offs, long hair rhythmically grazing their butts. Seeing me dazzled by their effortless sexiness she would remind, “Pretty is as pretty does.” Let your inner dignity shine forth. My first yoga guru in some sense – don’t be fooled by the surface, since it is here today and gone tomorrow. Concentrate on the interior, and the hard work knowing who you are.

My initiation into Southern womanhood was conducted as Mom and Nanny canned beans in mid-August, the kitchen windows opened, but no help against the Amazonian humidity created by Ball jars boiling on the stove. As a child, I was spared these working conditions – but I hung out in the kitchen anyway, watching them move from stove to kitchen table for breaks of iced tea and Kent cigarettes. Both wore housecoats with snap buttons up the front, sweetened their tea with Sweet n’ low and traded advice, funny stories, hard feelings, compliments and resentments, recipes and suggestions — the teeming, seething perfumed ecstasy of mother-daughter relationships.

After the morning of work and a hearty lunch, we all bathed and dressed up for a walk to downtown Harlan to the dress store that my grandmother worked in when they were poorer. Horton’s was the best dress store in town. My grandmother, voted the most beautiful woman in Harlan Kentucky in the early 60s, kept up with fashion and beauty, but it was always reflective of her inner decorum — modest, elegant. By the 1970s, when she was in her 50s, fashion for her was polyester pantsuits. As she grew older, her beauty shined through though her beautiful legs were hidden in two ply poly.

Mom and Nanny both died in their mid-sixties, at the height of their older woman beauty, where a lifetime of hard and joyful work and love for family and neighbor burnished their inner dignity to a rare shine. I am now 56. My hair is gray and it is long enough now to wear in pigtails, which I do when I need to wear my bike helmet. I live in yoga pants and now have a YouTube channel. Sometimes I worry I’m making a spectacle of myself. I wonder what they would say about their legacy. Have I lost my pride?

I feel their gaze from the front porch of the hereafter. There they snap their beans from MacDaddy’s garden into the newspaper on their laps, iced tea glasses sweating in the first glimmer of sun that burns off the fog in the holler. They wouldn’t want me getting a big head, so they aren’t going to give me complete blanket assurance, especially on the social media front. And they want me to buy tops that cover up my boobs and that butt of mine. Dangerously close to two cats in a bag.

-o-

Epilogue: This story started out from a place of truth — I could heard Nanny say “you’ve lost your pride” as I was braiding my hair. It made me smile at myself in the mirror. But like all writers of memoir, I’ve found that in the putting words around my experience, the truth gets further away from me. There are empty spaces in memory that we fill up with imagination or we insert short hand place holders, like the still pictures we use on Zoom calls. This has meant that every time I conjure up my grandmother, I experience the same day. It is always August, always bean shelling and canning day, and always ends with the trip to Horton’s Dress Shoppe. I wear terrycloth shorts and white sandals, my long hair in a ponytail, my pre-adolescent belly straining at my sleeveless white cotton blouse. I can smell the garden, feel the heat from the carport and the cool of the coal house as I played Starship Enterprise with Ed, Feller, Kathy and Mac. But the soundtrack is off. I hear the rustle of the newspaper, the pop of the beans, doors opening and closing, the Ball jars clinking the in the pot, the mumbles of adult speech, the heavy footfalls of children running but these sounds are not synched with the action..  

In our backward glances, we lose a bit of present-moment truth, so we embellish, sometimes for ourselves, sometimes to entertain ourselves and others, like I’ve done here. Our lives are stories with beginnings, middles and ends, meant to be told and heard — consumed. Like these quarantine doodles of my Nanny, nothing can quite capture her spirit, her beauty, that time, my family, that love.