Category Archives: Art & Life

A Visit to Who We Used To Be

img_2724While visiting relatives in Boston this past weekend we toured the Presidential Library of John R. Kennedy, our 35th president. This experience confirmed an important truth I learned from two of my African American girl friends, from their culture – Sankofa. It means sometimes it’s necessary to go back in order to go forward. For my sister and I, reliving the inspiring political conversations that took place before we were old enough to vote, proved to be a balm to our troubled souls.

The goal of the library with its 5 million pages of personal, congressional, and presidential papers, 500,000 photographs and 12,000 reels of sound recording, is to promote greater understanding of American politics, the process of governing, and the importance of public service.

In the 60s politics wasn’t a dirty word as it has become in present time. It’s been difficult to watch lately, as people believe a candidate when he declares what he alone will accomplish. This widespread gullibility demonstrates profound ignorance of the process of governing in a democracy. Let’s hear it for amping up high school civics classes. But It’s that last goal – “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” that ignited our hearts. It took us back to a day when serving one’s country and the greater good were what we young people aspired to.

The sections on the initiations of space travel to the moon, the establishment of the Peace Corps, the nuclear test ban treaty, the civil rights legislation – left us in awe of all that was accomplished in three short years. Of what’s possible when our country is united behind an articulate, inspiring servant leader.

President Kennedy had his own version of Sankofa when he said, “We celebrate the past to awaken the future.” As this past election process has been teaching us, when we do not stay true to the wisdom of our better angels, our collective demons take over our public and private lives.

What’s a patriotic citizen to do? I was especially inspired by Kennedy’s response when asked by the press if he was enjoying serving as president. He said that he agreed with the ancient Greek definition of happiness, which was “the full use of your powers along lines of excellence.” My sister and I decided we needed to revisit more historical  that inspire us to do that.

The Cost of Our Current Conveniences

kinzua-damHere just before Thanksgiving, a national holiday that encourages gratitude for the gifts of plenty most citizens enjoy, I’m reminded of the First Peoples who lived here before European refugees, settlers, and immigrants arrived.

This past fall representatives of over 300 tribes have been gathering in prayerful demonstrations in North Dakota at Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Their aim is to prevent an oil pipeline from crossing their land, threatening their water and the sanctity of their sacred lands. My grade school images of the first Thanksgiving where white and native peoples supposedly sat down together did not foretell the environmental racism that still continues 300 years since.  

All this and the fact that I now have a granddaughter who is Native American has caused me to look closely at where I stand and what I am willing to stand up for. The following piece is the result of what these experiences are making of me.

Floods No More

“Aren’t you afraid of flooding?” people ask

when they visit our home on the Allegheny River.

Floods can be monsters claiming everything you own and hold dear.

But our safety is insured by the Kinzua dam constructed upriver in 1965 on

Seneca tribal lands. 10,000 acres were flooded including ancestral burial grounds.

This broke the 1794 Canandaigua Treaty, signed by President George Washington.

The lake behind the dam is known as Lake Perfidy (treachery and betrayal).

Unaware of this cost, from the edge of our newly expanded deck

I’m convinced we have the best backyard in all of Pittsburgh.

That’s White Privilege.

 

Hard Times Demand Playful Dancing

rich-laverne-lynnTwo days after the election I awoke with muscle aches and a hint of a sinus infection I thought I was finished with. But my overwhelming sensation? A savoring, after-glow from the play-based ritual my improv troupe, Wing & A Prayer Pittsburgh Players and I created last night.

We gather for rehearsal most Thursday nights and our practice is to play with “what’s up?” Two days after the unexpected seismic election it wasn’t hard to find the theme strongly on our hearts and minds.

Using dance, song, story, and stillness, (the birthright practices of our ancestors, wherever they came from), we created a safe container and ways to express ourselves as individuals and as a group.

Here’s how it works –

  • Warm up together physically in order to get in our bodies and to create a sense of a group body. Especially necessary after highly charged experiences that may have shut down our breathing or caused us to exit our bodies.
  • Use an InterPlay improv form or “game” that allows us to hear from each person as they express in words and movements- “what’s up?” for them.
  • Play with a partner to mine our stories about the over-arching topic, elections and U.S politics. In the form, “I could tell about….” we take turns naming memories or images that come to mind.
  • Select forms that allow people’s stories to exist side-by-side, creating for the observer a sense of the larger group story.
  • Using shape and stillness, we dance on behalf of people not in the room who are particularly affected by this election. (Immigrants, Muslims, people of color, disappointed young women and old women who will not live to see a woman president.)  
  • Create a song to lift our spirits to a hopeful future – Last night the line we sang and played with was, “The farther back we pull the bow string, the farther goes the arrow.”

As Mr. Rogers reminded us, “Play is the work of children.” I’m fortunate to have adults in my life willing to join me in connecting with our child within. That’s where our fears, disappointments, dreams, and creative energy reside. Play turns out to be a secret path to accessing what we need to move forward, individually and collectively, into a joy-filled future, no matter the circumstances.

Let Me Read It To You

My then 20s something daughter said it best. “The main problem for my mother is that she has always been ahead of her time.” She supported this assertion with the statement that her mother had used what was then called “natural childbirth” when she was born. She added that her friends, who were just beginning to learn that taking drugs during labor might not be advisable, couldn’t believe her mother had acted on that so many years before.

Perhaps creative people have always had this problem but in the present era’s ubiquitous focus on branding, the timing and seeming appropriateness of an idea or project seems to have become even more critical. Being seen as a trendsetter is of value, but it’s not advisable to get too far ahead of where most of the herd are grazing. So recently I’ve been paying special attention not only to what’s emerging in my creative consciousness, but also to what’s happening in the larger culture, hoping for some possible connections during my lifetime.

Here’s the way my creative process works. Like most people, I get a lot of ideas, but every now and then, one idea won’t leave me alone. It continues to emerge and reemerge in spite of my efforts to question the advisability of acting upon it. Take for example the idea of writing a book. I wrote a book that I started with a co-author in 1985 and my version was finally published with me as the sole author in 1992. The process was so grueling that I told myself I would never write another book.

The idea to write another book came to me sometime in 2006, but it had to keep competing with the part of me that had taken that vow of “never writing another book.” I’m happy to say that the process of writing the second book was much more grace-filled and enjoyable than the first, but it did take, just as the first book had taken, seven years to become a reality. So perhaps our reticence to act on our inspirations exists to protect us from all the years of work that will be required to go from idea to reality.

Closet StudioSo here I am again, about to act on one of my ideas, to “ground my vision in reality, “as Anna Halrpin would say. Almost from the beginning of working on my second book I thought about the idea of creating an audio book version where I would read to my “readers”, making the book available for people to listen in their cars, or on their mp3 players while they worked out in their gym or garden. In the ensuing years, this idea has grown into a passionate desire.

Since Warrior Mother was published by She Writes Press in 2013, I’ve been Performing the Book, around the country and internationally, reading passages from the book while improvisational InterPlay performers respond with stories from their own lives. This idea, conceived as a way to get the word out about my book, has been most satisfying for me, and I believe for the participants who have performed or witnessed it.

All this practice in reading sections of my book out loud has given me the confidence to hire a sound engineer to help me create a sound studio in my closet and read and record the entire book for an Audio version of Warrior Mother.

Those inner voices of reticence and dissent have been making quite a ruckus lately as I prepare to act on what is now a burning desire. But all that became silenced this morning when I read Wyatt Mason’s article, Audio Books Read By the Author in the New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/17/magazine/letter-of-recommendation-audiobooks-read-by-the-author.html?_r=0

Mason begins by extolling the virtues of poets reading their own work but then he says, “I would extend Rilke’s idea beyond poetry to prose. Because in prose, the author’s voice is even more essential to making the text not only intelligible but also meaningful.”

As I enter my sound chamber/closet to begin production of my audio book tomorrow, I take this as encouragement from the universe that this project will be both timely and relevant, and serve the purposes for which I intend it. Stay Tuned.

Las Vegas Happened To Me Twice

Last week Rich and I got up at 4 am to make a direct flight to Las Vegas, one of my least favorite destinations. If you don’t count stops at the Vegas airport on the way to somewhere else, I’d only been to Vegas twice before. In 1992, my in-laws took the family there to help celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. I remember the kids sneaking onto the casino floor with Grandma Pearl hoping to learn how to be as lucky as she was at playing the slot machines. 

My initial time in Las Vegas was half a century ago in the glory days of the Rat Pack, when I wasn’t old enough to drink legally. I lived in Vegas for eight weeks while working as a dancer in the Tony Martin and Peggy Lee Shows, at the now defunct Desert Inn.  The pull of working in Vegas for New York dancers like me was the enormous salaries they paid. I don’t remember the amount, but if you watched expenses and brought a good portion of your salary back to New York you could live on it for six months. This meant you could avoid taking odd jobs that interfered with staying fit as a dancer and being available for frequent auditioning. In order to accomplish this end, refraining from gambling was critical as was economizing on living expenses.

It was winter, the rainy season, which meant sunbathing, swimming, golf and tennis were not frequent activities. For us, the highlight of most weeks was the other shows we were able to catch on our night off, and the dance classes we took from whatever choreographer’s’ assistant happened to be in town.

The glamour of the place, then as now, did not extend much beyond the footlights. Though we wore elaborate beaded costumes and glued on false eyelashes to perform, my roommate and I grocery shopped after we got off work at 2 am, cooked and ate all our meals in our motel-style apartment, and to further economize, we rented a sewing machine and made the evening clothes we were required to wear in order to come on to the property.

Weird Las VegasThe weirdness of the place is still intact. We encountered people clearly under the influence of something, forgetting how to walk or talk properly, but the dress code has changed dramatically. Locals and tourists alike dress in what I would describe as “grungy casual,’ jeans, sweats, and workout clothes. I noticed this especially because all the women, from waitresses to chambermaids, to teenagers on the street, proudly sported elaborate eye makeup and glued on eyelashes.

Students on the campus dress like students everywhere, though a hundred or so wore black tee shirts with the letters TEAM on their backs. I came to appreciate their dedication and effort as the purpose of my return trip to Vegas was to present a talk, “When Death Threatens, Life REALLY Matters.” at the TEDx UNLV event. It was fittingly titled, “Living in the Extreme.” Who says the universe doesn’t have an outlandish sense of humor?IMG_1888

Why Dance?

performing the book sheila twirling1Nearly 25 years ago now, I branded myself a “dancing social worker.” I wanted to connect my two careers, that of a professional dancer and my social work career, which included time as a social work professor, a family therapist, and the director of a behavioral health care clinic. I believe now that I also wanted to lay claim to the power of remaining a person who dances, no matter what career I might pursue.

In my personal life when I would tell people “I’m a dancing social worker,” the frequent response I’d get would be an appreciative laugh. It seemed to me that people recognized that I was owning a more important truth than any of us could articulate at the time.

Scientific documentation for the value of my decision to “just keep dancing,” is now available. Neuroscientists, through brain imaging methods, have documented that dance “bulks up the brain,” sparking new brain cells and their connections. According to Judith Lynne Hanna, PhD, the author of Dancing to Learn: The Brain’s Cognition, Emotion, and Movement, dancing stimulates the release of the brain-derived protein neurotropic factor that promotes the growth, maintenance, and plasticity of neurons necessary for learning and memory. Plus, dancing makes some neurons nimble so that they readily wire into the neural network, improving memory and different kinds of learning.

performing the book sheila twirling5What this means is that dance activity promotes cognitive development by increasing the plasticity of the brain of the mover. At this time of near epidemic cognitive impairment diagnoses in older people, it’s important to note that these advantages continue throughout life. Some sports, martial arts, and exercise regimes, may offer some of these brain enhancing results as well, but they must be as totally physically involving and varied as participating in a variety of dance forms is for the person who continually and consistently continues dancing.

 

Getting Back On The Horse

magnetIt’s nearly 5 months since my fall and it feels important to notice how far I’ve come. I can raise my left arm into the air almost as high as the right one. When my left hand is behind me, I can raise it slightly above my waist. There was a time when I couldn’t even get it behind me enough to try working towards this position. I’m moving through the world with more confidence, no longer afraid of falling when I venture out. I’ve been doing InterPlay movements more freely when I teach and when I practice alone. The next milestone will be going back to my Zumba dance class, something I have not felt ready to do until now.

Looking back over the past few months, I got some inspiration from one of the poems I wrote 20 years ago for my first book Stillpoint, which was on self-care. At that time I was visiting my son Kevin who was on the gymnastics team of his university. During the particular meet I was able to witness, each member of the team, when it was their turn, fell off their apparatus and was unable to complete their routine. I was struck by the dejection and disappointment in their body language as they exited the space.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 28:  John Orozco of the United States of America competes in the pommel horse in the Artistic Gymnastics Men's Team qualification on Day 1 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at North Greenwich Arena on July 28, 2012 in London, England.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Trained as a dance, I was used to the practice of covering a mistake, or at least not reacting to it with a grimace, or some body language that in theatre would be labeled “braking character.” As a dancer in the chorus I was trained to not react to a mistake or misstep but to proceed as though that was the way the routine was suppose to go. I imagined that if I had been the gymnasts’ coach I would have tacked the following note to their dressing room door –

Hey Team

Falling is not a giant zap from the gods

meant to embarrass, humiliate, or hurt you, but,

falling is one of the things that happens

in the process of “going for it,”

as you move too close to your growing edge.

It is a sign that you have made an error

and you need to;

BREATHE…….as in keep breathing

LAUGH……… as in keep releasing

GET UP…   as in keep moving

LAUGH………as in keep enjoying

and get back on the horse,

ring, barre, or floor!

SMILE…………as you uncover, discover,

recover, the lessons of each particular fall.

Momentum

physical-therapy“How long will it take,” I asked, “to heal my broken shoulder.” Everyone I spoke to, the doctor, the nurse, the physical therapist, all responded in the same vague, hesitant manner. Looking off into the distance they each said some version of “three, four months. Maybe six.” Someone who had actually had a shoulder injury said, “It was a year until I was totally back to where I was.”

Looking back now that I’ve made it to four months, and that I’m not where I want to be yet, I see that this unpredictability has made it hard to plan my future and to have realistic expectations of myself. Last week I traveled to California with my husband and I did very well. Moving swiftly through the airports and eyeing the folks in wheel chairs gave me a clear comparison of how far I’ve come since my first flight only a few days after my injury. On vacation I wasn’t able to continue my daily physical therapy exercises as I’d been doing at home, but I was active in ways I’m not in my daily life. Hiking on uneven terrain offered my biggest challenge but it’s hard to say how I would have done with two good shoulders.

Today I found out that Medicare has decided I’ve healed well enough because they are ending their reimbursements for my physical therapy sessions and my secondary insurance will cut off when Medicare does. I’m remembering this bazaar system from when my daughter was a physical therapist. At least a dozen years ago, Medicare established an arbitrary cap on the reimbursements it will make for a patient for Physical Therapy in a single calendar year. There is no accounting for where the patient is in their recovery, with the possibility of customization for patients who have experienced a heart attack or a stroke. Corinne was convinced that no one who knew anything about physical therapy and how it works was on the committee that wrote those guidelines. I am surprised that they haven’t been modified by now.

Routine is the foundation of momentum so I will need to establish a new pattern of actions to continue moving towards my full recovery. I don’t like the disruption but I am grateful that I have the resources to get the help I need. I realize that others in my situation are not as fortunate. As a feminist I know that the personal is also political, so when given the opportunity I’ll join my voice to that of the Physical Therapists and patients who have been trying for years to change this self-defeating system.

Our Lady of the Broken Wings

“You’re not as you were,” the doctor tells me as he shows me the x-ray of my shoulder. The picture has little meaning since I’m not totally clear on what the shoulder bones are suppose to look like. It’s three months since my fall, and after he directs me to push against his hands and reach up overhead he declares, “you are at 80 percent.”

IMG_1511I agree with his assessment but let him know I will not be satisfied until I have regained what was for me, a full range of motion. He’s careful to make no promises. He tells me to make an appointment in three months and continue physical therapy. If I am not satisfied with my recovery by then he will do an MRI and see whether there is any surgery that would help. If I’m satisfied with where I’m at that time, I can cancel the appointment.

Standing in the examination room with my husband as my witness I am grateful for yesterday’s conversation with Susan, a dancer friend from Chicago, about her own recovery from a shoulder injury. “I’m at 100 per cent. I’ve gotten it all back,” she says as she moves her left arm in a gigantic circle overhead and reaches behind her. She looks straight into my eyes when she says, “I wanted you to know that. It’s possible,” and then she tells me how she did it. Physical therapy twice a week, 20 minutes of exercise three times a day, and Reiki sessions weekly to deeply relax the muscles that are constricting the movement. In other words, it takes work but it’s doable.

At my favorite dress shop yesterday Helen, a woman who claims to be older than me though she won’t say how much, lifts her arm upwards to show me her range of motion. Her shoulder injury was more than five years ago and her arm is about like mine is now, but she’s satisfied. Somebody else can reach the items on the top shelf. In other words, it’s not only what you’re used to, but also what you’re planning to do in your future life. I’m still a member of the “going for the gusto club” though I realize it takes more effort than it used to.

Another dancer friend and mentor Cynthia, had a shoulder injury a couple of months before mine, (her right, my left). She’s nearly back to a complete range of motion and her recovery program included all of the above along with her spiritual practice of making art with whatever comes into her life. We’ve commiserated about our “broken wings” and when I saw her at InterPlay’s national conference she gifted me an art piece she created out of found objects. It’s a shrine to honor our brokenness – individual and collective, to call on the energies of renewal and restoration, and to remember our bones, and other body parts need lots of love, commitment and a caring community in order to heal. 

The Pain of More Than Halfway There

Neck-pain-generalAfter ten weeks and the twice-weekly Physical Therapy sessions and daily exercises, I am no longer managing with only one hand. The injured arm still needs strengthening but that’s starting to happen, so being able to drive seems to be in my near future. Monday I get on a plane to Chicago on my way to Racine WI where I will chair the national board for Body Wisdom, the organization that oversees InterPlay. It will feel good to be in a useful role and in community again after so much alone time this summer but getting there feels more than a little daunting.

Several weeks ago the woman who cleans my house and who had broken her wrist several years ago, told me, “It hurts more later on, when it’s healing.” I did not want to hear that and I was hoping that my experience wouldn’t be the same as hers in that regard. But she was right. For me, it’s not just that the shoulder and arm are healing, it’s that I’m challenging them everyday, trying to unfreeze that shoulder, stretch the muscles and strengthen them to regain my range of motion. Every gain brings new discomforts.    

20050622-9562-painYesterday as I was getting emails about taking a train from the airport to a particular stop in Chicago to meet up with someone who would be driving to Racine, I got in a pretty cranky mood. “Nobody’s getting that I only have a hand and a half to lug my suitcase,” I’m thinking, “although a hand and a half is better than only one.” The low-grade pain running down my arm was a big part of the problem and the ice pack I put on after my exercises had not helped to any great extent. Reflecting on it later I am amazed at the people whose every action in life is accompanied by a certain level of pain. The next cranky person I meet, I’m going to take this possibility into consideration and be in awe of their heroism.