Sunday, September 27, 2009
During a discussion about preparing for the High Holidays at my synagogue recently I made the vow to experience the season in relationship to the feminine, and especially mother, aspect of God. We had been discussing the nature of the holidays and I shared that I found the services performative in the extreme and frankly resented the idea that someone else, a religious professional, needed to do my praying for me. Our new rabbi, Max Weiss, in response to my comment said that the holidays are really ABOUT the religious professionals. The form harkens back to temple days when the priest did engage in the rituals on behalf of the community and these days of awe offered the priest an opportunity to demonstrate his humility to the community as well as to God, to petition that the community not be punished for his lapses, and to ask for forgiveness for any ways in which he failed the community. Put into this context I was able to feel more kindly to what I experience as a dissonant yearly charade of obeisance to God in the aspect I have spent a great deal of my life deconstructing: the harsh judge, the capricious, angry, jealous patriarch. Because I believe our words and actions create our reality I feel strongly about not wanting to add to the strength of an image of God that I find deforming of human potential to do good, be happy and love one another. I make every effort to operate from compassion and not from fear, which is the underlying message of the High Holiday God sealing in his big book who will live and who will die.
As we were wrapping up our discussion of “Hineni,” which in our synagogue is recited dramatically by the cantor as she makes her way from the back of the hall to the bima, I asked the question, “What would this prayer mean if we experienced God as mother?” One of my fellow discussants said emphatically, “It would be completely unnecessary!” Her remark, like the rabbi’s, helped me see why my negative reaction to the services is so strong. The aspect of the Divine with whom I cultivate a relationship is speaking the words on the first page of the prayer book from Exodus Rabbah 19.4 “The Holy One does not reject a single creature. Rather, all are acceptable to God. The gates are open at all times, and all who wish may enter.” I grew up in the Roman Catholic faith and my mother died when I was quite young so I believe I took in the harshness of the patriarchal God who, I was told, ‘took those to himself who he most loved.” My character was formed by my loss and the deviant sentiment offered as comfort to a child whose mother suffers horribly and then dies. My conversion to Judaism was sparked by the need to argue with God, to object, to protest. I had no doubt of the existence of the Creative Source from which all things flow, that was obvious to me as a child. What I gained in Judaism is the understanding of the covenantal relationship in which God manifests through the words and acts of humans, not from some cloudy place in the sky.
My practice as a child was to leave my body whenever possible, theoretically because it was both the near occasion of sin and something that needed to be cast off before one can join the Divine. Really it was because it is in the body that we experience pain, both physical and emotional. The pain of my loss overwhelmed me and revealed the flaws in the God I had been taught. I lived deeply in my imagination and while I benefited from learning to dwell there, something also was lost. Without being fully embodied I lost the capacity for empathy, the capacity for relationship.
Judaism doesn’t perfectly teach its adherents to live fully embodied lives but the emphasis on our actions, on tzedakah as well as prayer, that avodah means both work and worship, and, especially the making of space for dissent as a practice of faith, all these allow the body to be present. My choice, because it is a choice, is to embody the ethic of care that calls for truth but with compassion, justice informed by generosity and worship that is alive, joyful and embodied. If this is the God we live, this is the God who manifests. This is God, the Mother, with whom life can be messy, imperfect, where food is prayer and touch is prayer and sitting under a tree and watching the light on the leaves is prayer where praise for Her every manifestation is the prayer that enlivens Her and us. My teshuvah is then a return to conscious awareness of deep gratitude for all that is, especially the body through which I experience all that is.
I will join my community tonight for kol nidre with more understanding and empathy for our religious professionals. Tomorrow, I will fast from food in order to come closer to appreciating the miracle of nourishment when I resume eating at sundown with friends. But I will spend the day with my feet on the earth, my eyes to the sky watching the sun filter through the leaves. I will spend time with my Mother and pray to learn how to manifest Her in the coming year in joy, for the highest good, embodied. For God, the Mother, not only are the gates open but so are Her arms, ready to enfold us in joy for our simply being.
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
I recently completed a White Belt Intensive, the first stage of training in the dance/movement technique called Nia. This seven-day experience was astonishing and continues to unfold learning that is really quite profound and made me want to dedicate myself to reflecting deeply, so I will be sharing what comes up both to chronicle it for myself and to deepen my learning as a potential teacher. Go on the Nia website to learn more about the technique, classes in your area and trainings.
So far I have been concentrating on free dance, giving myself permission to move my body and experiment with intensity, ease and most of all, the #1 Nia principle: Joy of Movement. Every time I’ve put on a CD and danced to the music I get a great workout and end up feeling balanced, relaxed and centered. Yesterday, I planned to step it up a bit, and dance along with the instructional DVD where Debbie Rosas, Nia co-founder, leads a class in the routine she choreographed to the CD Sanjana. I have danced to this routine in classes and in the training but this was my first major effort to actually learn the choreographed moves. I knew I would be sacrificing the ease and pleasure of moving freely however I wanted for the challenge of learning a routine. I stumbled through trying to watch Debbie on the screen, stay in touch with my own body and remember to breathe. As usual, the actual steps, though simple, proved daunting. When taking movement direction I can usually either move my upper body with ease with a stationery base or do a step awkwardly and flail around with my arms. During the training I found that by imprinting on the instructors (the fabulous Winalee Zeeb and Caroline Kohles) and shutting off my thinking mind I did a little better. The support of the movement of my fellow students also allowed me to take a ride on that energy which enhanced my performance a bit. I should mention that the atmosphere of love and non-judgment prevails in Nia and that is crucial to the work.
I was doing poorly with the steps but able to stay in a no-judging state, after all, this was the first time I concentrated on dancing using the DVD. Following the class on the DVD, Debbie teaches a break down of all the moves for each song in the routine, giving the reason for each move while demonstrating. I did okay following the first few songs, even getting some insight into why I trip myself on the jazz square arggh! Then she says: “The next song deals with rhythm,” and before I knew what hit me, I was in tears. I was back in Our Lady of Lourdes Grammar School in West Orange, N.J. in a gym class in maybe the 4th or 5th grade. By that time I had become adept at leaving my body for long forays into my imagination. School was pretty boring but more than that, my mom was sick with cancer and I had lost faith not only in God; but in the corporeal world as well. That left the imagination as my daily destination of choice.
While I was great at leaving the body, I wasn’t always great at returning to it, especially in situations that aroused anxiety. Gym class was never a favorite of mine but by this time, terror about sweating, becoming smelly, wearing a bra, and being looked at by others, was magnified by the gym teacher, a towering ex-marine. Now, why the hell is an ex-marine teaching phys ed in a Catholic Grammar school, you might ask? I can only guess things hadn’t worked out too well for him in his life and that, plus basic training in the post WWII era Marines didn’t exactly teach him love, tolerance, non-judgment or insight into the emotions of a girl on the verge of puberty. He bellowed and yelled, sarcastically accused me of not competing and finally made me run alone in a relay race so as not to penalize my team for such an out of it runner. My memory is that I was awkward and slow and probably seemed to be willfully so since I was tall and thin and had no visible defects to give me an excuse. I hated this guy with a passion but using my trusty imagination, I could exit the premises leaving behind my body to fend for itself, pretty much bereft of mind and spirit. I know from other experiences with more compassionate teachers that my behavior mystified them; I seemed to be physically present and seemed calm as could be but the essential part of my being, that part with feelings, the part that could be hurt, was literally in another dimension.
So yesterday, forty-six years later, I stumbled on the emotions and the tears that were never felt or shed. In the safety of my living room, with only the video witness of Debbie Rosas, I am reminded that the body holds all and for as long as necessary. In college when I began therapy for the first time I brought a drawing to my therapist that expressed my felt reality: I roughly outlined a figure and inside it were a number of corked glass bottles that held feelings like the ones from gym class. By that time, there were hundreds of bottles, carefully corked and sorted by my soul, or my guardian angel or whatever higher part of self is charged with such duties. As therapy progressed, I drew those bottles breaking and the figure unable to walk or move for fear of being cut up alive from the inside by the shards of broken glass, IF I MOVED. I spent countless therapy sessions simply sitting and crying, never able to utter a word as the waves of the past simply washed over me on their way out of body to join, finally, the ocean of all human grief. Later, as the sharp edges wore away, the fragments became like sand in an oyster and gave birth to paintings, poems and books and afforded me the dignity of transformation through art and expression.
Why was this memory triggered by hearing the words: “this next song deals with rhythm?” More on that in the next post.
Thursday, August 6, 2009
Johanna and I were at the end of the field as Steve started the tractor and made a second pass down the row to turn up any last potatoes. He was pleased with the size and quantity of the spuds and we had all congratulated him on the good yield, due, he said, to the cover crop of peas that had been plowed under to fertilize the soil. John, Jeff and Francisco followed close behind the green tractor intent on the task at hand with white plastic buckets to hold the harvest. As the blade bit into the soil and cleaved a furrow something shot up into the air, thrown by the force of the metal pushing through the clods of earth. The men kept on moving forward. Johanna and I, our mouths agape, watched as a squealing grey field mouse catapulted through the air. But what the hell was that? A slender pink form was trailing the back of the mouse; at first I thought it was the guts, ripped out by the tractor blade. I blinked and stared and then realized the pink mass was a live creature. The mouse was giving birth at the very moment she’d been ripped from her nest. She landed on the ground and ran off with the half-born baby hanging out of her body. At our feet another new- born mouse, pink and mewing lay near the remnants of the nest. Johanna picked it up and it rooted about in the palm of her hand seeking a teat. Perfect, hairless, pink and doomed. We yelled to the guys but they were engrossed in their work and couldn’t hear us over the tractor noise. We both realized they probably weren’t going to be so…so… what were we feeling?
I’m not sure about Johanna but in a few seconds I cycled through feeling stunned, freaked out, helpless and awed. Then words and thoughts cascaded through my mind: ‘don’t be so sentimental,’ ‘that’s nature,’ ‘it’s the way of the world’, ‘that’s how it goes,’ but there was more that I couldn’t access in the moment. An incongruous word, “Darfur” floated up and I said it out loud and then immediately apologized. But Johanna said: “Yeah, somehow to these creatures we’re like that. Who knows how much else we kill with digging, but that’s agriculture…” I felt her mirroring the multiple voices in my own head. We did that thing that women friends do, we affirmed some common emotional experience in a shorthand of words that might seem excessive to someone overhearing. Johanna is no airy-fairy California “Dharma-squito” intent on saving the life of every ant that crosses the kitchen counter and neither am I. We both felt we had witnessed something profound and complicated, something that would require more attention. As I write this I am aware of a peculiar yet familiar sensation, a heaviness and itchiness in my breasts. It’s the way I felt twenty-six years ago when I was a nursing mother and stepped out for a break from child care to do a few errands. I was in a store and heard someone else’s baby cry. My milk let down and soaked through the front of my shirt even though my own baby was safe at home with her dad.
I admit, I wept for that mouse, stunned that the common thread of motherhood stitched me to her so intensely that my body cried out against her loss. The mind can run the gamut from a Cassandra-like drama equating an unfortunate mouse with a child bayoneted by janjaweed warriors in a far off place to a stern and philosophical farmer’s voice that says creatures die every day, hour and minute by the hand of man or a thousand other ways. Just a fact, Mam deal with it, no one and nothing gets out alive. Yet I am grateful to be reminded that the body flows toward feeling, toward caring, toward empathy. We shut these capacities off at our collective peril. The body suffers and by suffering deepens our connection to life. I am deeply grateful to the mouse.
- ► 2007 (10)