Creative Process

Negative Space

When I learned to draw, one of the techniques I found so helpful to capturing reality was “negative space, ” paying close attention to and drawing the space around an object, rather than the object itself. It helps particularly with complicated objects and with linear perspective.

Hasn’t this past year been a communal exercise in negative space? We traced the space around the objects that we thought defined us and in that space we found the dimensionality of what we once took for granted and a perspective that was so hard to capture.

As a yogi, when I hear “negative space,” I also think of the Sanskrit word, “dukha,” commonly translated as “suffering.” One understanding of the etymology of the Sanskrit can be traced back to the seed words of “duk,” meaning “bad,” and “kha,” meaning “space.” The origins of dukha as suffering refer to the imbalance in the axle of a wheel, which caused discomfort to a traveler. And isn’t that how we feel when we are suffering? In a bad space, bumping down life’s highway.

One of the prompts I offered to my Art and Yoga class at All Soul’s this past spring was to create a piece inspired by negative space. I wrote this piece for the class, but didn’t share it then, so I share it here. The painting above is an old one done years ago from the “In the Garden” series.

Negative Space

As I drove around the corner and was about to pass the elementary school, I saw a toddler trying to climb the curb on the opposite side of the street. There was too much space around this tiny person, dressed in a dirty pink fleece jacket. She was small enough that climbing the curb meant that she bent to touch the cement to lift her foot towards it.

I pulled the car over and unrolled my window. As I did, I could see an Audi rounding the corner and waved for caution.  The care stopped. I could see from my rearview mirror that the driver was going through the same thought process I was.

Opening the car door, and leaving it open, I asked, “Where is your Mommy, honey?” as I walked towards her. I looked around. No one on the ball field. No one on the sidewalk in front of the school either.

When I picked her up, she bared her little teeth at me in a halfway smile, or in looking up at my face she grimaced to focus, I couldn’t tell. She was young enough to wear diapers or pull ups. She pointed at me and then at the house beyond the curb.

“I’ll drive up the road to see if there are people looking for her,” the man in the Audi said to me as he drove slowly past us.

“Does your family live here?” I asked too brightly and too loudly. I knocked at the front door of house she had pointed to and waited. She slumped on my hip and rested her head on my shoulder. There was no sound in the house.

 The Audi circled back.

 “There’s not a soul anywhere.” The only sound was the car’s idle.

 “I guess we’ll have to call the police,” I said.

Then: movement at the furthest corner of the ball field, in the woods beyond the school building. A woman ran towards us, her hands outstretched, her long blond hair electric behind her. I began waving, pointing to the child at my chest. As she got close, I could hear her urgent sounds as she ran low to the ground, unaware of the mechanics of her body’s propulsion, so single minded in her focus.

“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” she breathed.

“I found her as I was driving up.”

“Oh my God, oh my God. There. Oh my God! Thank you. Thank you.  My lead teacher is there…” she looked to the school. There was still the emptiness of the ball field. No one.

“She was where?! Oh my God. She…we! She’s part of the school. I’m day care. Special ed. I don’t know how. We have an outdoor classroom. She was gone.”

The woman didn’t look strong enough to handle adrenaline pumping in her slight frame. I was thankful she wore a mask, not because of the coronavirus, but because her fear and her guilt would have been too vivid and sorrowful to witness on this beautiful spring morning.

The man in the Audi drove off, waving at us, his calm smile incongruous with the flames of panic that continued to engulf the teacher.

“Thank you. Thank you. I hate to think…” the teacher said as she took the little girl from me. She clutched the child to her chest as she ran back to the school without looking back.

Later someone suggested that I should have followed up with the police anyway. But having worked at an elementary school for a brief time, I knew the teacher would have to file an incident report with the school and notify the little girl’s family. The negative space this child had created on an early spring morning would leave a permanent scar.

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.

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.