Creative Process

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.

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.