Thursday, February 11, 2016

Addiction Can Be Pretty

Ok, so I have an addiction.  What of it?

This is what happens during the heartbeat/blink of an eye moment during our yoga therapy training when we are given a break from our studies.  I dashed to Craft South to soak up the beauty of Anna Maria Horner's fabrics.  You can't just walk away empty-handed, right?  Plus, the hedgehog knitting needle sizer is a gift for Lucy.  For myself, nothing.  Well, almost nothing.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Give A Little, Get A Little?

Available as part of The Sweetest Little Thing auction to benefit Struts & Faucet Artist-Run Centre.
Every Tuesday (almost) since September, I have been going to the Manhattan Detention Complex to teach a yoga class to inmates there.  Specifically, those in the Transgender Unit, which is a new concept in the prison world.  The unit was created as a way of allowing transgender inmates to do their time more safely.  As you can imagine, they are at risk for and targets of all sorts of violence.  Each week, there are a dozen or so people in the unit.  Some stay for months or longer as they await sentencing and transfer to a prison facility.  Some with shorter sentences spend their whole time there.  Sometimes there are men who are openly gay there as well, as they also suffer from an increased risk of violence among the rest of the population.

Teaching yoga in jail (they call this place jail and the upstate facilities, prison) is very challenging.  One of the most challenging parts is simply getting in.  About 50% of the time, we don't get in.  Sometimes the whole building is on lockdown and no one is getting in or out.  Other times, there is no one available to escort us up to the unit.  Either way, we arrive and leave without teaching.  Getting up to the unit is another challenge as one never knows what one will encounter in the hallways or elevators.  Search teams with dogs.  "Sitting on a body" as they call it - restraining an inmate who was acting up.  Or just blatant stares at my body.  It's all happened.

Then there is the unit itself, which is all cement and metal and wired glass.  Not cozy.  It is very loud between the television, which is always on, and shouting inmates and corrections officers.  Leading a meditation while "The Price is Right" is blaring in the background is a very interesting challenge in staying focused.  Sometimes, midway through a class, there will be a call for medication or social workers and everyone will just get up and leave.  I don't blame them - it is just how things go.  Jail isn't meant to be a nice place and it decidedly isn't.

Everything I have just described feels manageable to me.  I get it - yoga in jail is considered a luxury and we are not a priority.  If things were soft and comforting, it would not be part of a penal system.  Now, I have some strong opinions about the system and what it actually does to people in it - not to mention the glaring, unavoidable fact that I have only seen a total of four white inmates in the whole time I have been going in there, at a facility housing 800 men (and a dozen or so transgender women).  So, there are plenty of systemic issues to debate about the current state of so-called justice in this country.  But I am talking about teaching yoga.

The truth is, the inmates just aren't that into it.  When we manage to get up there to teach, often only one or two will be interested or available to participate.  More than the lockdowns and the lewd stares, this is what is most challenging.  My heart and my intention are totally directed towards offering this potentially very healing practice to a population that could really use it...but what if they don't want it?  Then what?  I have been tossing this question around in my head for a couple of months.  I suspect most of the ladies in this unit have had very difficult lives, full of abuse and disappointment (to say the least).  Am I going to be one more person who gives up on them?  Isn't there a huge lesson being offered just by showing up?

And yet...

And yet, it is hard to keep coming back, going through everything it takes to get up there to teach, and feel like no one gives a damn. What then?  I have often said that it isn't my responsibility to know how the gift is received.  My responsibility is to offer the gift.  This is where the rubber meets the road, I guess.

And yet?

Friday, January 29, 2016

The Music City

Is he bragging or is it a cry for help?

Once again, it is time to drive for 16 hours and get myself to Nashville!  We are on Module 4 of our three-year, six module yoga therapy training.  I have today to recover from said drive and gather my strength for the upcoming nine days.  

It is intense and wonderful but there is not a lot of down time.  So, I am using today to stock up on food for quick suppers and do a few self-care things so that I can be alert - bright eyed and bushy-tailed - for tomorrow morning when it all begins at 7 am sharp.  One of my favourite rituals is going to the Whole Foods in Nashville and treating myself to something that I would never buy in New York - fancy soap or something.  

Today, I decided that I also would try a hot yoga class that was nearby and sounded fun.  I have never done hot yoga before.  Some people love it!  Note to self: never, ever take hot yoga again.  It possibly explains why I was about double the age of anyone else in the room.  People my age and older are supposed to have some sort of wisdom and there is nothing wise about hot yoga.  It was a hell realm.

My yoga mentor is fond of saying things like, "Patañjali’s Yogasūtra explains how the experiences we have shape who we are and influence how we conduct ourselves in our lives."  

Point taken.


Monday, January 25, 2016

Find Your Grace

In which we fattened her up! (March? 2015)
Dear friend and Dharma sister, Angela Mujaku Senjin Caponigro died very early yesterday morning.  She was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer a little over a year ago.  Her healing became her final project, which she took up wholeheartedly and single-mindedly.

Her first project was dance.  She came to it later in life (as compared to most dancers).  But with that single-minded focus that was her hallmark, she achieved a high level of success.  Here she is performing Tympani, as part of Laura Dean Dance & Music.

(She is the one with the very long hair.) (Enjoy that early 80s PBS vibe!)

Her next big project was to take up kundalini yoga and convert Sikhism.  She studied, lived and taught in that community for decades.  Then she found Zen.  When I met her, she was a postulant doing a period of discernment to discover if she wanted to ordain as a monastic.  She did ordain and eventually became a senior monastic in the Mountains and Rivers Order.

I saw Senjin around the Monastery.  She fascinated me - it was clear that she had "a story" but she had a very regal, almost intimidating, demeanor so I mostly kept my distance.  The first time we really came into contact was when she was appointed to train me to be the altar usher for a sesshin.  It is a service position that prepares the altar for each service during the day - preparing and lighting incense and generally making sure everything is ready and in the right place.  There are a lot of details to remember in this position and, as it is often assigned pretty early in one's training, the components don't always make sense because the flow of the service isn't so clear yet.  At least that was my experience.

Senjin broke the altar usher duties into three dances - first you stand here and make these movements, then you move over here and make these movements, then back to here for the final movements.  It actually made a lot of sense and was really helpful to have it broken down like that.  But the thing that I remember most was that she noticed I had a slightly horrified look on my face as the list of things to do got longer and longer and it was clear that I was getting a little uptight about making mistakes.  She kind of stepped back and said, "Look, I know it sounds like a lot but the main thing is to find your grace.  The rest will follow."

I have kept those three words in my head ever since.  When I am in a situation that feels overwhelming, and not just at the Monastery, I call them up.  It is remarkable just how helpful they are.  I thought of them many times during this year of illness, especially when things got rough.  I'd think, "C'mon Senj, find your grace!"

Although she fought and fought and fought, in the end, she did find her grace.

Thank you my love-love, my Senjilina.  Thank you for everything.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Let Me Count The Ways

This blog has never been about one thing and one thing only.  I get a little envious of people who can contain their thoughts so that they relate mainly to one subject.  Art, yoga, Zen, kids,'s all too interesting to me to pick just one.

Someone recently asked me, "What could you eliminate in your life?  What feels like extra?" as a way of helping me feel a little less overwhelmed (it's been a rough two weeks between oral surgeries and sick friends and difficult teenagers).  I honestly could not see what I could eliminate - it all feels very vital and alive.

I thought perhaps I just need to schedule better and use my time more efficiently.  Like, not just schedule things for a day but get down to the real nitty gritty - hour by hour.  It's not really my style but I am willing to try.  Of course, I immediately cracked a tooth and dealing with all that threw any schedule out the window.

Now that my mouth is mostly healed, I can face this question again:

Hour by hour, what are you choosing to do?

Saturday, January 09, 2016

What Does Caring Look Like?

For over a year, a group of women, including myself, have been caring for a friend who has Stage 4 cancer.  The surgeon who removed part of her intestines when she was first diagnosed said she was about two days away from dying when she came into the hospital that first time.  Now it is over a year later and she went from being totally bed ridden to being back up and about, taking yoga classes, riding her bike, and feeling the love and care from the group of us.  This has been, perhaps, the most healing thing of all, as her life has not been an easy one and basking in unconditional love has been a rare occurrence within it.  (As an aside, I think it is pretty rare for most of us, so c'mon people!  Get out there and love unconditionally!  The world needs more of this, pronto!)

Since Thanksgiving, she has been on a steady decline and things seem to be deteriorating more quickly now.  The will power and inner strength that made her such a survivor in her troubled life - and in the last year of illness - are what are tripping her up now.  All but bedridden again, she speaks of regaining her strength and getting back on track.  In other words, she is in denial about what is happening.  Not complete denial - there have been moments when she lets drop a sentence or two, or even just a look sometimes, that reveals that she knows perfectly well what is going on.  In her moments of "once I get my legs moving again..." she also is convinced that things will be just as they were before she got sick.  Both are real and true for her.

So, what is compassion now?  How do we care for her in the way that best respects who and where she is in her life?  Should we travel along with her in her delusion about the future?  Or be more honest about what we see happening?  Neither is easy.

Among our group - "goddesses" she calls us - there are some who fall more strongly in the former camp.  They see no reason to do anything other than exactly what she asks.  Why would you steal away someone's hope?  I admit that I have trouble with this stance.  Sometimes hope robs us of exactly what we need to do and causes us a lot of suffering.

This is what writer and activist, Derrick Jensen, says about hope, or more specifically, giving up hope,
A wonderful thing happens when you give up on hope, which is that you realize you never needed it in the first place. You realize that giving up on hope didn’t kill you. It didn’t even make you less effective. In fact it made you more effective, because you ceased relying on someone or something else to solve your problems—you ceased hoping your problems would somehow get solved through the magical assistance of God, the Great Mother, the Sierra Club, valiant tree-sitters, brave salmon, or even the Earth itself—and you just began doing whatever it takes to solve those problems yourself. . . 
He is talking about the environment here, but I think you could apply it elsewhere in life. Or to life itself.  If my friend gave up her hope of staying alive for however long she hopes to remain alive, then she (and by extension, all of us) could focus on what her life is like right now.  We could take steps to make her more comfortable, steps that require that she admit that her time left on this planet is almost up.  Does that sound cold?  I hope not because it comes from a place deep longing to help her suffer less.

I often find myself asking, "what is the goal here?" when the next thing happens - she goes into the hospital or has another chemo treatment.  It doesn't feel like the goal is her comfort as these actions seem to cause more discomfort and pain.  And they create a greater distance from the reality of what is actually happening.  But it is what she wants to do.  This has been challenge of being part of her care.  Can I give up what I want, even when I see that it would be more helpful, less painful, and just offer her what she wants?  And is this really the best thing?  The best care?

There are no easy answers.

Here is a beautiful talk about death and dying.  May we all find our grace as we face that reality, whenever it may be.

Friday, January 08, 2016

Now We Can Begin

It has been my tradition to set some yoga āsana goals for myself at the beginning of each new year.  When I reflected on what I wanted to work on this year, I realized that I no longer have yoga āsana goals.  I love my primary series and there are still a couple of āsana that elude me but I no longer feel an imperative to "master" them.  Some days, they are like butter.  Some days, just setting out my mat is the biggest accomplishment.  Perhaps my goal is to allow this goal-less yoga to continue onward without fretting or anxiety or setting myself in competition with anyone, including myself.  You could say that I finally made it Square One, or Yoga Stura 1.1:  atha yogānuśasanam.  Now we begin the study of yoga.

I love that word: atha.  Many people zip right past it to get to the bigger words and the bigger meanings but I like to linger there.  It means "now" but it means now as in, after everything that has come before and you realize that there is something missing in your understanding, now, we can begin the study of yoga.  For some of us, it takes 50 years to get to Now.

Let's see how it goes!

BTW, I will be teaching a drop-in, ongoing chanting workshop at Abhyasa Yoga Center in Williamsburg, Brooklyn on Sundays from 7:45 - 8:45 p.m.  Pay what you wish.  We will learn some basics about chanting and how to integrate it into our practice.  Chanting is subtle and powerful - the mystery of how it works on us is exactly why we do it.  We will move and breathe and chant while we move and breathe.  Sound scary?  Sound like it is not for you?  If you answer yes, then this is exactly the class for you!  Remember:  atha!

Monday, January 04, 2016

It's That Simple

Winter sunlight feels so lovely!
At the sesshin between Christmas and New Year's, we stay up an hour later each evening so that by New Year's Eve, we stay up to midnight to ring in the new year with a ceremony.  It is a most beautiful thing.  We also continue to rise at the same time each morning, which for me was 3:15 am.  This is a little less beautiful as the week goes on.  Our teacher encouraged us to look deeply within when we found our energy faltering, assuring us that we had what what we needed if we could allow it to come forward, pointing out how powerful it can be to learn firsthand just how much strength we have inside of each of us.

Sometimes I fell asleep anyway.

The thing about being that sleep deprived is that, when you really hit that edge, it is much easier to see and let go of all those ideas about oneself that take so much damn energy to prop up.  For myself, I have so much resistance to, well, everything.  It's like I am dragging an old tire (or 12) behind me everywhere I go.  If I can snip the ties to just one of them, I find myself enlivened and energized even on 4 hours of sleep.  This is a good thing to remember when I am not in the depths of sesshin but rather at the end of a long, busy day and realize that I still have laundry to fold and dishes to wash.

This sesshin, I spent some time paying particular attention to the one inside of me that needs to be special, whether it is from being exemplary in what I do or the most clever in what I say or write, or the most helpful or useful.  It's a pretty big motivating factor in my life, this need to be special or stand out in some way.  (See post below!  Funny how these things come up just before sesshin and lead to all sorts of things happening once we sit down and be quiet.)  Often, it results in things that are good - I aim to do my best and I try to serve others and generally get stuff done well.  But that little extra that I tack on - the need for it be seen and praised - that isn't so helpful.  Certainly it causes me pain when that kind of acknowledgment doesn't happen.  And sometimes it just gets so damn complicated.  A simple act of giving suddenly has all sorts of strings attached.  Yuck.  It makes me feel icky to think about how this is so, but that's part of staying up for 20 hours a day to meditate - you have to stick with that icky feeling and get it know it really well so you can remember it for the next time.  Or maybe even before the next time.

Part of the New Year's ceremony we do includes making an incense offering and setting an intention for the new year - everyone walks up to the incense box and does it (silently) in front of the whole community.  So, you aren't declaring it out loud but still, there are witnesses!  Among my resolutions to be more organized and disciplined, to do the right thing by my children, and to paint Finn's bedroom, is an intention to let my actions be (more) simple and unadorned, maybe a little less icky. Let's see how it goes.

Happy New Year!  I don't really have a sense of who is still reading this beyond a couple of people but I send my best wishes out to any and all!  May 2016 be simple and unadorned and a little less icky for you too!

Saturday, December 26, 2015

To Be Ordinary Is Very Special

We are all special.
A few days before Christmas, I had an attack of TMJ.  I forget what those letters stand for (look it up, if you must) but what it means is that I slept with my jaw clenched and woke up in severe pain on the right side of my face.  My usual techniques for dealing with pain (something that I don't often experience) didn't work.  Instead of scurrying about my business, I wanted to curl up and weep with the hopelessness of it all.  And I would have except that my face hurt too much.

I think it was the fact that I sent an angry text to my son from bed at 3 AM reading, "You MUST do ALL the dishes and clean up the kitchen!!!" that put me over the edge.  Since returning from Italy, he has taken to making himself pasta in the small hours of the morning and leaving the kitchen a mess, which I then discover only a couple of hours later.  This does not make me happy.  In fact, it causes me to send angry texts from bed and then clench my jaw so tightly that I spend the next week downing ibuprofen like they are peanuts.

But the good news is that my jaw is softening up.  The pain is under control and lessening each day.  I should be able to enter Rohatsu sesshin without the added thrill of severe facial pain in the mix.  But the whole experience was a bit of a wake-up call.  I didn't even know that I had reached my stressed out tipping point.  When I finally did some accounting for myself, the list of things that were worthy of jaw clenching was actually pretty high.  As someone who spends a ton of time bearing witness to my thoughts and actions, it is almost embarrassing that I was so unaware of what was really going on.  But there you go! wish and hope for you - and for myself - in the coming new year is that you - and me - allow ourselves enough space and time to really know what is enough.  And then allow it to Be Enough.  Because we are enough!


Monday, December 14, 2015

For One Thing:

Sparkly alpaca.
...and for another thing:

The Raspberry couch.

Monday, December 07, 2015

The Road Not Taken

Not going to Italy, what did we do?

Part of my deal to myself was to use my time not in Italy as wisely as I could.  This means that I have been working steadily on my Staycation DIY Project - Living Room Update.

The couch is currently being re-upholstered so we are sitting on pillows on the floor (the cats love it!).

Where's the couch to?

The curtains are finished and up, which is glorious.

I think I bought this fabric more than 15 years ago.  I guess some projects have a longer incubation period than others (ahem).

I painted the walls a new, more mature and sophisticated colour that matches these new and sophisticated curtains.  I am very excited for the return of the couch, which also will be a new and sophisticated colour.  Or maybe not.  I chose "Raspberry" cotton velvet for the couch.  Oh yes I did!  No pictures yet as we are still waiting for its return.

Next up, a new rug for the floor.

Not raspberry
Also made a couple of batches of soap that will go into gift bags for people who come to the Zen Mountain Monastery Dana Dinner  (December 18th) - a community holiday dinner for people who live around Mt. Tremper, NY, and who might not otherwise have the means for a big holiday spread.  If this describes you, then please go!  A nicer group of eager elves, you will not find.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

And Then, What Really Happened

Buon Giorno!  Or, as we like to say in Sunnyside, hello!

Wait?  What?

The week before leaving for Rome, I was up at the Monastery in a week-long, silent meditation intensive retreat.  It is a wonderful thing and I highly recommend it to all but it did add a certain level of stress in terms of being ready to leave for nine days in Italy about 24 hours after getting back home.  Indeed, as I sat in silence for those many hours, my mind would turn towards this trip and it would say "No."  While my fears around flying came into the picture, the No wasn't totally about being afraid.  It was more a longing to stay put (for once).

I am pretty sure that when the idea of wandering around Rome seems like a burden and chore, then it might be a sign that the timing is off.  I mean, it feels almost like a crime against humanity to say that you don't want to spend nine days in Italy.  Who says that?

Apparently I do.  Each day, I would do a little check-in with myself:  how does it feel to imagine going?  How does it feel to imagine not going?  Then, when I got home, I checked in with Lucy, who said, "I knew I didn't need to pack!"  Old Mom is very obvious, I guess.  I checked in with Finn, who just said that he needed more money if I wasn't going to be around to pay for everything.  Ever practical, that guy.

Finn will be coming home for a spell very soon, so I will be seeing his long and lanky self in, well, about nine days time.  Now, I can actually be ready!  And finish the living room curtains.  And paint the walls.  And get the couch re-upholstered.  Also: grocery shopping.  And get the two art projects that returned from their various locations organized and put away instead of filling the above-mentioned living room.

I know that all that I just mentioned could have waited for nine days with no dire consequences but it occurred to me, as I sat in my stillness and silence, that my body was giving my a very clear message about what it needs.  Usually, I might notice that message and overrule it.  I mean, we gotta do stuff, right?  That's how we prove our worthiness to occupy this little patch of real estate that we currently occupy on the planet.  Right?  I had the very radical thought that I might be worthy of occupying my little patch of real estate under my feet without running my body into the ground and even without making everyone around me happy or impressed or anything at all.  What if I just listened instead and  did the thing that was alternately easier and more difficult and stayed home?

Finn plans to return to Italy after getting a job and saving up some money so he can mix up WWOOFing with other travel.  So, we considered this a postponement not a cancellation.  Of course, who knows what will happen in the meantime - he is in a pivotal time of his life - but I trust that Rome will be there.  It is the Eternal City, after all.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Holding onto the Bars

Yesterday, I went to see an exhibition of paintings, drawings and etching by Giorgio Morandi at David Zwirner Gallery in Chelsea.  It was so beautiful that I actually got a little teary-eyed.  The paintings just shimmer with their subtle colour changes and simplicity.  They are both confident and humble.  Pure joy, really.

As a bonus (as if we needed one!), we discovered that there were two other shows at David Zwirner (the guys owns almost a city block of gallery space): one of paintings and drawings by Bridget Riley and one of sculpture by Donald Judd.  Three home runs, if you will excuse the sports metaphor on an artist blog.

I went to see these shows with my art school pal, Patrick Glover, who is, himself, an amazing painter and someone who it is great fun to talk about art with, although we were pretty silent in the Morandi show.  It is beyond words - you just have to feel it.

Patrick had arrived on the block where the Zwirner real estate empire resides before me and had looked into a gallery across the street.  He didn't have a very high opinion of the work on view there - photoshopped landscapes that were manipulated, enlarged and then painted over - but he invited me to go look just in case he had missed something or sold them short.  To be honest, I already knew what I thought even before we got inside - the paintings visible through the window from the street told me all I needed to know.  But, we went in and looked more closely.

In a good story about redemption, we would have looked more closely and discovered their hidden beauty and realized how our short-sighted, knee-jerk reaction was causing us to miss out on so much of the nuances and beauty available to us in life.  But it didn't happen that way.  The more I looked, the snarkier I became, first in my mind and then, out loud.  I became irritated by what I perceived to be the fatuous attitude of the work - sickly sweet colours, the worst kind of cleverness in the technique, and meaningless content.  I began to imagine this guy at parties, surrounded by glad-handers and being praised for his talent.  And him smugly accepting this praise as his due.  Indeed, I had a full picture of him, his life, even his clothes and the inevitable beard.

It must be nice to know so much from so little, right?

This is what struck me as I hissed sarcastic comments to Patrick and we sniggered in our own version of smug superiority - a feeling that was so familiar that it actually felt physically warm.  And it felt old and worn out.  I realized that I had not had this kind of snarky conversation in a long time, where I ripped apart someone's art with my words and my superior attitude.  While it felt so, so comfortable - oh yes, I know this place so well! - it also felt kinda yucky.  I thought about how reluctant we (I) are (am) to let go of the bars of the jail cell of our own making.  I might be working very hard and very deliberately to let go of the many ways that I confine myself and make myself smaller, not to mention hurt people and cause suffering, but...can I just keep a bar or two of my cage?  You know, for comfort's sake?

That's what it felt like - like I was carrying around one of my old bars of my jail cell.  Pretty heavy and totally useless.  Maybe I can loosen my grip on them now.  And may I wish that guy - beard or no beard - my congratulations on his exhibition in that gallery across the street from David Zwirner.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Prima di Roma

You know how you can be thinking something and thinking that something for a long time and it gets all fixed in your head and you start to believe your idea of this particular reality and you believe it so thoroughly that it seems impossible that anyone else would not also believe it and then you actually say that thing out loud and almost instantaneously everything changes so that your very fixed idea about this thing is so woefully out of date that it is remarkable that anyone, let alone yourself, ever believed such a thing?  You know?

Well, that's sort of what happened when I wrote that post about losing my fire around making art.  Whatever process that happened around writing about what I had been thinking for months opened things up and - wait?  Was that a spark of something creative that I felt burning inside?  I went to my studio and sorted through the work I made at the Saltonstall Foundation residency and, you know, it didn't totally suck.  In fact, there are some solid ideas there worth pursuing.  Note to self: go to studio more often.

The thing that signaled most clearly that a shift was happening in my entrenched "I am the worst artist ever" energy is that I was noodling around on Newfoundland real estate websites (hey - some people collect stamps, ok?) and I found a listing for a former high school in a wee town way up at the tip of the Northern Peninsula, St. Lunaire-Griget.  And I wanted to buy it and make something BIG.  The back story about this is that, fourteen years ago when we were looking to buy a house in Newfoundland, we came across a former school building in a wee town on White Bay.  Like this one, it is available for a crazy low price.  At that point, I was married to someone who thinks very, very practically and he entertained me and my fantasy for a brief - very brief - period of time before listing off all the ways that buying a huge building in a tiny, remote community was a bad idea.  So we ended up with our (now, my) lovely house in Gillams instead.

Clearly, it was a wise decision....and yet.  The "what ifs" have haunted me ever since.

So, what would you do with a 25,000 sq.ft. building in a town of 600 where it snows in June on a regular basis?

Maybe going to Rome later this month will actually help to dampen the fire!