Creative Process

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.

Jesus and the Wheel

There was a boy who looked like Jesus who was very good at the potter’s wheel in my high school ceramics class. He was lanky and quiet and had eyelashes that were thick and mournful. He was strong enough to set the wheel in motion, and strong enough to focus on the vessel that was becoming in his hands.

I admired Jesus from afar as I worked my clay at the table, making my coil and slab constructions. Arlene Ferris, our teacher, was equal parts hippy and Harley rider with a perpetual unlit Marlboro in her lips. She didn’t speak much to me or Jesus since she had troublemakers and jokers in her classes who soaked up her time. She was the teacher of last resort for so many of us.

I wished I could work the wheel like Jesus. As I sat at the table creating with clay like I was patterning a dress or making a cake, he would work quietly, meticulously centering the clay.  Kick, kick, kick, KICK, KICK.  Water cupped and dripped on the mound.  Hands shaping into balance — pulling up and then working down and wide.  Again kicks for momentum, again with water and motion.  All the while, the clay was becoming centered, strong, ready for creation.

In January, I used “centering” as my theme in my yoga classes.  I remember when I first started practicing, how odd but how inviting it was to hurry up and get to class only to take a seat and spend some time in stillness and the quiet. Like clay on the wheel, we need to become affixed first in body, breath and mind. Around and around reality goes but we find the sweet spot of the now, where the wobbling stops.  We will be pushed up and down, in and out; the momentum of our practice starts and stops in the grip of the center. The goal, as it is for a potter centering at the wheel, is to become strong and resilient on the molecular level so that we are ready for shaping, for creation.

Since my word of the new year is “surprise”, I made my way to Marie Pavlicek-Wehrli’s studio to learn printmaking a few weeks ago. I have always had a mental block when it came to the printing press — perhaps it is a machine like the wheel that I don’t feel I can tame. Marie reminds me of Jesus at the wheel.  She is disciplined and meticulous yet open to the grace of the moment and gentle with what arises, letting her creations have the space to breathe and be and take shape. In other words, she is centered and was as encouraging and wonderful as she has always been. I came away with prints and didn’t give in to the “I can’t do this” mode. Getting home, looking through the prints, I knew what I wanted to do. I picked up my exacto and my shears and found myself once again patterning dresses and icing cakes. I’m not exactly done yet — still discovering in the rubbing, the gluing and the template making.  Momentum, yes, but moving from the center.

All Saints Arrived Early This Year

Mom and me

As I’ve recovered from surgery, I’ve found my way back to teaching art to my beloved friends at Thomas Circle Retirement Community. I decided to teach the technique of assemblage. So I set out to make a piece as an example and document the thinking and the process I took along the way.

I didn’t intend it to be personal. I must have forgotten that art is healing and healing is always personal.

I’d asked participants to bring a photo of themselves in their youth and a box to the first class. In the example that I started to create for them, I chose a picture of myself and my mother taken in 1967 that I’ve always loved.  The flash above my head, the light that creates bars across our bodies, the iridescence of the shiny pattern in the old couch — such a beautifully bad photo my father took one morning in Baltimore.  The flash above my head, the light bands across our bodies and the reflective fabric details initially brought to my mind the miracle of genetic code that is inherited from our parents.

A chemistry textbook written in 1941 and downloaded genetic sequences took way too much of my time as I tried hard to make a statement about my inheritance.  I rejected the result as too heavy-handed. I also spent a long time with micro twinkle lights that made the piece a gimmick. I was relaying the surface, the concept, but not the real meaty stuff of legacy.

When I paused in frustration and concentrated on the few things I can remember about this time in my life, the year before my brother was born, I had a breakthrough.  There was an old chest with tall Queen Anne legs,  the bottoms of which were claw and ball.  Mom had painted it a cheery yellow. The two doors of the cabinet had brass lion pulls — the rings were in their mouths.  Perhaps these were memorable because they were right at shoulder level for me.  When opened, the cabinet revealed a red velvet flocked wallpaper — shocking even to a 4 year old in its ironic juxtaposition of school-bus paint and musty Victorian interior.  On many occasions I bent into the cabinet, my belly on the nubby paper and the smell of chemical glue in my nose.

Top of boxThis memory led to my choice to use the box top painted bright yellow to involve the viewer in the reveal of cool darkness inside. I have an old circle pin with Mom’s married initials on it that I’ve attached to the brass pull — making this more of a memorial to her in my mind.

 

Inside of boxThe inside of the box top is part of an old housecoat (I guess I got this from her  –I can’t imagine who else would have given me a housecoat!) memorializing a time and place that embraced the aesthetic of monogrammed circle pins, this piece of furniture, avocado colored kitchens, sculptured wall to wall carpets, bouffant hair dos and brightly colored housecoats.

As I worked with this piece, I laid down, once again, in that cool dark interior and allowed my vision to adjust, something I couldn’t allow myself to do this summer as I went through surgery for stage 1 breast cancer. I couldn’t add another heartbreak to my losses. There in the darkness I remembered a conversation I had with Mom in the Weinberg Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins after her surgery for pancreatic cancer. She took my hand, squeezed it and thanked me for coming every day to see her. I love you mom, I said. “If it were you in this bed, I’d sleep on the floor,” was her reply. The love she had for her family was so bright it still shines on me; it was so bright it was captured in the flash above my head in 1967.

Inside of box 2Her parents loved her as fiercely as she loved my brother and me. As people who were born, raised and are buried in the Appalachian mountains of Eastern Kentucky, they are most likely responsible for the lyrics of the old Carter Family song that came to me as I painted and glued the final parts of the box:

Well, there’s a dark and a troubled side of life,/There’s a bright and a sunny side too…/Keep on the sunny-side, always on the sunny-side/Keep on the sunny-side of life…

The song brought me back to summer mornings in the kitchen in Harlan, KY listening to my Mom and her mother talk and laugh as they put up vegetables from the garden for the winter in their brightly colored housecoats.

My intention was to demonstrate a process of collecting, assembling and evoking a memory, dream or concept for my class. The universe reminded me of my legacy, the darkness and salty taste of grief, and the comfort and warmth of the light of love.  I am so grateful for the healing that comes from the yoga of art-making.

 

 

 

Heart Dagger

 

Sternum

Consistently walking is the best thing for my healing. (10,000 steps a day most days this past week!) Another important practice for me right now is living on our screened-in porch from breakfast to past dinner — eating, reading, art-making, and doing sudoku puzzles. The weather this past week has been another amazing gift.

Planting myself in the green has allowed my energy to flow up and around my heart center. I feel joy and gratitude which flows out in my “hellos” and “good mornings” to people I encounter on my walk. Surprisingly, a few have frowned and turned their gaze down after my interaction. And I think, how crusty does a heart have to be impenetrable to this day, this velvet green? Then I remember something my teacher Todd said as I was just beginning my yoga practice. As he cued a heart opener he made an observation that these particular asanas place us in a vulnerable place — where  we aren’t protecting our heart. I try to remember to open, to give, to practice gratitude and compassion, regardless of what I encounter along the way.

Happy girl and her sternumThis is a picture of me when I was in the recovery room. I don’t remember a thing about this part of my surgery, but Tom has told me about it. First, that I insisted that he take this picture (!) Also that I told him that I could feel my sternum so many times it made him and some of the nurses chuckle. Each time the nurses would explain something to me about this feeling I was having. But after hearing this story, I think it was a habit of my mind.

Anyone who has been in my class, knows that I like to cue heart-openers with  an awareness to the sternum. Lots of us with a bit more give in our backs will focus on the curling (and usually dumping) in the spine. But if in preparation, we instead bring our awareness to the strength of the abdominals and the lift of the sternum, we lengthen the back body and our heart lifts up and out rather than down or in.

The sternum protects the heart and the lungs. It is shaped like a dagger. Its three parts– the manubrium, gladiolus and xiphoid process — are Latin words for handle, sword and “sword shaped.”  When we are young, the low tip, the xiphoid process, is soft cartilage.  By the time we are 40, this part of the sternum has ossified into bone.  Perhaps this process is a reason why someone would frown when a stranger smiles and says “morning!”  It is hard to unsheathe the dagger to expose and offer the soft heart underneath.

As I heal from bilateral mastectomy and get ready for the final phase of my reconstruction, I can’t place my body in shapes that open the heart for a while. But no matter. I can place my attention and awareness on my heart and how it shows up in the world. I can choose to remove the dagger. And so on my walks I look at someone, smile, say good morning and mean it.

Grace Comes in a Surgical Vest

Flak Jacket

My new uniform for a few weeks

At the beginning of this week, I explained to my classes that I was going on medical leave. I kept it as La Di Da as I could.

In each class, there was a person who waited until all the other students left so that he or she could ask about my diagnosis. I was honest about breast cancer and my need for a bilateral mastectomy. The reason I didn’t announce this diagnosis and treatment as I sent around the healing stone at those final classes is that I didn’t want to trigger someone with my news. So many women have had breast cancer. Someone in my class has either had a scare, had it, or had a close relative or friend who had it or died from it. In my classes over the years, I have had students who have shown up in their compression sleeves having conquered it or in their head scarves as they lived with its treatment. Soon, I’ll join their ranks as I return to community practice.  (Can’t wait!)

La Di Da doesn’t mean repressing hard feelings. Getting to this surgery wasn’t a breeze. I grieved by painting watercolor portraits of my breasts (yup, never sharing). As I painted the line, the form, the shape I allowed myself to reminisce about how I felt about them as a early teen, how they served me well as I fed my infant children, or of beautiful garments that showed them off. I thought about the meaning of breasts in our culture and in others, about sexuality and objectification. As I finished the last painting I thought about how much space I had created for healing by honoring and packing these old breasts away.

Today, as the grace of healing is just pouring down on me, I’m glad I made some room for it through grief. I have been treated by excellent doctors and compassionate nurses. I have a family and a community of people who call, write, text, and show their love and support in so many ways. Tom has emptied my drains, kept up with my meds and has been a constant companion through all of the prep for the surgery and will be there as we await a call about the pathology, next treatment steps and final surgery to complete reconstruction.

UrsulaI’m even grateful for this white surgical vest with its exaggerated cups and industrial zipper — it looks like something Madonna wore on the “Virgin” tour — and my handy-dandy drain belt in matching white Velcro. The first time I undressed in front of a mirror, I said, “Hey!  Don’t I look like Ursula Andress in that Bond movie?”  And Tom, because he is a beautiful soul, agreed enthusiastically as he prepared my shower.

 

 

Healing Stone

Stone

This is my healing stone, given to me by friends and Iona, who invited me to a lunch last month.  As we parted, Deb invited each person to share healing energy with me by holding the stone in their hands for a brief moment. This past week, I’ve told my students that I’ll be on medical leave for at least four weeks.  This is the longest I’ve been away in 7 and 1/2 years.  I’ve brought this healing stone with me and have had students share their energy with me after a juicy practice.  I will ask Tom to bring it to the hospital room with him when I am in recovery mode so that I can feel the love and light of my friends in the palm of my hand.

This past three weeks, I’ve taught from Yoga Sutra II:16:  Prevent the suffering that is yet to come. How? Find equanimity.  We can use our bodies to find balance. Working to step on the earth in such a way that there is equal weight in each foot. Shaping the breath in equal inhales and exhales. Using the body and breath to step back from your thoughts and be the witness rather than the participant. From this place of equanimity the present moment holds peace, spaciousness, joy. In the beginning of our practice, the glimpse of this space is so fleeting, but with time it grows big enough to hold our suffering and to know that suffering will end.

This is grace.  We’ve got all the  we gifts we need to receive it: body, breath, mind, heart and spirit.

Thank you for your healing thoughts and prayers.

 

 

Awake Curious

Sober Curious
I’ve read two articles about being “sober curious” in my hometown paper in the past month. As someone who chose to stop drinking in April, I feel buoyed by the fact that there are others who are curious about living this way. At the same time, I feel as thought I’ve caught the latest fad, like Whole 30 or mom jeans.

In April I was working with the concept of “awake” in my classes, asking my students to be fully awake to their experiences – not to push them down, deny them, numb them. To meet anything that came up in their bodies, mind and spirits as a gift – a ground – in which to find a path to calming the fluctuations of the mind.

Meanwhile, each weekend, I drank alcohol. Monday morning classes were hard. By Wednesday, I felt better, slept better, had more energy because I didn’t drink during the week (and that was hard!) But then I systematically dismantled this sense of well-being with each glass at Happy Hour on Friday, cocktails on Saturday, and glasses of wine with Sunday dinner. It was a pattern of behavior it took me quite some time to recognize and then even longer to stop.

Each sober curious person has a story about how well they feel when they finally stop drinking alcohol. Mine is this: When my diagnosis came, I received my news with the equanimity that comes from being awake. I’m already practicing letting go and being honest and these practices are really handy in  the face of challenge. I am comforted that my intuition had already started me on a path of healing.

To prepare for healing through art-making post-surgery, I have been practicing with watercolors, something I’ve never quite liked to do. (Kind of like those nemesis poses we hate to do, but those are the ones we need so badly.) With watercolors, you have to plan for the light before you start. A good practice for healing — find the light then work with it as your focus.

When I saw this picture by Tom McCorkle in the in the Food Section of The Washington Post on Wednesday, I wanted to paint it because of the light.  I didn’t want to drink it.

All is well.